“Killing Me Softly with His Song” by Roberta Flack
Love songs, as far as the music industry goes, are such that most of them are based on metaphors created by innumerable respective songwriters. But even then many, if not the majority, of such lyrics are ultimately redundant, as at the end of the day there seems to be only so many ways to say ‘I love you’. But Killing Me Softly is one of the best at taking a unique spin on what is, generally speaking, an age-old narrative. And that’s because the story featured therein is based on a specific premise.
That premise features Roberta Flack taking on the role of a fangirl, and the addressee being the musician whom she has a serious crush on. In fact it is such that she has even written him letters throughout time.
But of course if you’re one of a musician’s thousands or even millions of fans, it’s not like he’s going to know who you are personally. But here she is attending one of his shows, and in her perspective he’s playing as if he is addressing her letters directly through song. The vocalist feels as if the addressee is performing just for her and she is actually getting flustered accordingly.
Perhaps the simplest way to describe this sensation is as being twofold, i.e. being in love mixed with a strong sense of rapport. In the latter regard, that is to say that his words reflect her reality. And we would also go further to put forth that this is a distinctly female song, i.e. speaking to that unique type of fascination that girls tend to develop for their favorite “young boy” musician.
Metaphorical Interpretation of “Killing Me Softly With His Song”
But again, the lyrics can also be interpreted metaphorically. For instance, when the Fugees dropped their version of Killing Me Softly in 1996, music video and all, you get a different impression. In that version, you don’t get the impression that Lauryn Hill is actually singing about being in love with a musician per se, even though the lyrics remained unchanged.
And in its most general sense, on top of the aforementioned love and rapport the vocalist feels she shares with the addressee is also this sense of malleability. In other words, even though the addressee may not know it, it’s like he has complete control over her being.
And this doesn’t really seem to be about her being caught up in his looks or anything like that as it is her amazement at how much he understands her “life”. So it’s like he knows her intimately, even though he doesn’t know her personally. And as such “his song”, i.e. his music, is “killing (her) softly”.
All lyrics considered, what that analogy reads like is as if he is gradually breaking down her emotional barriers, one by one. And he is doing so via his music, even though he is not intentionally setting out to do so per se.
So going back to that whole fangirl theory, this is some deep stuff here, brethren. For what this piece is implying, macrocosmically, is that maybe when a young lady gets infatuated by a male singer, as many of them tend to do, what it is that’s really luring her is his music, not the superficial things we males tend to get caught up on, like looks or say twerking skills.
But then again, the lyrics of this song are credited to a male, not a female (although a female is said to have contributed). However, Killing Me Softly is still, undeniably, one of the most-unique love songs ever written. And if nothing else, it does apparently show that the female side of romance is a bit deeper than their male counterparts.
Writing of “Killing Me Softly with His Song”
This song was written by Norman Gimbel (1927-2018) and Charles Fox. The former served as the lyricist whereas the latter served as the instrumentalist. And the first vocalist they ever had recorded it, in 1971, was Lori Lieberman.
The composition of this song originated from a line from the English version of a novel entitled Hopscotch by Julio Cortázar (1941-1984) that Norman Gimble was gifted. And said line reads: “kill us softly with some blues”.
It is also widely believed that Lori Lieberman contributed to the composition of the lyrics of this song. However, be that as it may, she was/is not officially credited as an author.
Meanwhile Roberta Flack became cognizant of its existence after hearing the song on a plane flight. It immediately touched her, so she went about contacting Quincy Jones, who expeditiously facilitated her cover. And the producer of her version was Joel Dorn (1942-2007). Dorn also served the same role on another Roberta Flack hit, 1972’s “The First Time I Ever Saw Your Face“.
And an interesting bit of trivia is that the first time she actually rehearsed Killing Me Softly alongside her band was in Jamaica at Tuff Gong Studios. This recording facility was founded by Bob Marley (1945-1981).
The first time Roberta performed it live was while opening for another music legend, Marvin Gaye (1939-1984), in September of 1972. And the way the audience positively responded led to Gaye advising Flack to record the cover ASAP.
Roberta listened to Gaye’s advise and recorded it. Her version was officially released on 21 January 1973.
Achievements of “Killing Me Softly with His Song”
And Gaye was right, the single proved to be a major success. For instance, it not only topped the Billboard Hot 100 but also spent a solid 5 weeks straight holding down the spot.
In fact it was such a notable hit that when Billboard put together its Hot 100 ranking for the entire 60 years of the chart’s history in 2018, “Killing Me Softly with His Song” made the list. In 2012, Rolling Stone also placed it within the top 100 of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time” ranking.
Moreover this version of the tune resulted in three Grammy Awards for its participants. Norman Gimble and Charles Fox took home the Song of the Year trophy. Joel Dorn and Roberta Flack won the Record of the Year award. And Flack herself was awarded Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. This transpired in 1974, at the 16th Annual Grammy Awards. And right before the turn of the century the song was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame itself.
“Killing Me Softly with His Song” also topped music charts in Canada and Australia.
This is the title track, so to speak, of Roberta Flack’s fifth-studio album. More specifically said project is simply entitled Killing Me Softly and was put out by Atlantic Records. And it serves as the most-successful full-length in Flack’s catalog, in the sense that it is the only one which has been certified double-platinum by the RIAA.
In 1996 this song was covered by the hip-hop group Fugees, with Lauryn Hill holding down lead vocals to great success.
Alicia Keys, whom many consider to be an early-21st century version of Roberta Flack, covered this song during the 2019 (i.e. 61st Annual) Grammy Awards, which she hosted that year. This occurred on 10 February, which was also Flack’s 81st birthday. (She’s 84 years old as of the writing of this post.) And Keys also used the occasion to give Roberta a shoutout.