“Killing Me Softly” by Roberta Flack (1973)
Release Date: August 1, 1973
Produced by Joel Dorn
Chart Positions: #3 (US), #40 (UK), #6 (Norway), #9 (Netherlands), #11 (Australia), #13 (Canada), #47 (Germany)
Certifications: 2xPlatinum (US), Gold (Canada)
Singles: “Killing Me Softly With His Song” (#1 US, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, #3 Holland, #4 Netherlands, Norway, #5 France, #6 UK, Brazil, #8 South Africa, #17 Belgium, #19 Austria, #30 Germany, #32 Switzerland), “Jesse” (#23 Canada, #24 Australia, #30 US)
Killing Me Softly reached US #3 and #2 on the US Soul chart. The Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) certified the album GOLD on August 27, 1973, and double platinum on January 30, 2006. It was nominated for a Grammy Award for Album of the Year, which it lost to Stevie Wonder's 1973 album Innervisions. The album's title track was released as a single and topped the Billboard Hot 100 and won the 1974 Grammy Award for Record of the Year.
“Killing Me Softly” is Roberta Flack’s fourth studio album (her fifth if you include the collaboration albums with Donny Hathaway). She spent 18 months recording the album with producer Joel Dorn. Dorn, a jazz and R&B producer, has produced albums for Max Roach, Herbie Mann, the Neville Brothers and others. Dorn and Flack took a less is more approach in producing an album full of soulful heartfelt tunes. They left out all the catchy pop hooks that were popular in the 70s and went for a straightforward smooth soulful sound that has paid off as time has past. The album is still as fresh and heart felt as it was in 1973.
The first single “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, became a huge hit single and received major airplay all over AM and FM radio being played on Top 40 Pop, Easy Listening, R&B and Jazz radio stations. Gimbel and Fox also wrote the theme songs to the TV shows Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Lori Lieberman was the first to record the song in late 1971, releasing it in early 1972. Helen Reddy has said she was sent the song, but "the demo sat on my turntable for months without being played because I didn't like the title." Roberta Flack first heard the song on an airline, when the Lieberman original was featured on the in-flight audio program. After scanning the listing of available audio selections, Flack would recall: "The title, of course, smacked me in the face. I immediately pulled out some scratch paper, made musical staves then played the song at least eight to ten times jotting down the melody that I heard. When I landed, I immediately called Quincy Jones at his house and asked him how to meet Charles Fox. Two days later I had the music." Shortly afterwards Flack rehearsed the song with her band in the Tuff Gong Studios in Kingston, Jamaica but did not then record it.
In September 1972, Flack was opening for Marvin Gaye at the Greek Theater; after performing her prepared encore song, Flack was advised by Gaye to sing an additional song. Flack – "I said well, I got this song I've been working on called "Killing Me Softly..." and he said "Do it, baby." And I did it and the audience went crazy, and he walked over to me and put his arm around me and said, "Baby, don't ever do that song again live until you record it." Released in January 1973, Flack's version spent a total of five non-consecutive weeks, more weeks than any other record in 1973 at #1. Billboard ranked it as the #3 song for 1973. Charles Fox suggested that Flack's version was more successful than Lieberman's because Flack's "version was faster and she gave it a strong backbeat that wasn't in the original." According to Flack: "My classical background made it possible for me to try a number of things with [the song's arrangement]. I changed parts of the chord structure and chose to end on a major chord. [The song] wasn't written that way." Flack plays electric piano on the track. Several well known jazz musicians performed on the song including bass is by Ron Carter, guitar by Hugh McCracken and drums by Ray Lucas. Flack won the 1973 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female, for the single, with Gimbel and Fox earning the Song of the Year Grammy. According to Lori Lieberman, who performed the original recording in 1972, the song was born of a poem she wrote after experiencing a strong reaction to the Don McLean song "Empty Chairs." She then related this information to Gimbel, who took her feelings and put them into words. Then Gimbel passed the words to Fox, who set them to music.
"Killing Me Softly"
The next single, the beautiful and somber, “Jesse” written by singer/songwriter Janis Ian. The song appeared on Ian’s 1974 album “Stars” of which its title track was inspired by Don McLean. Janis Ian began writing this song in the mid 1960s when she was around 14-15 years old. The song was going to be about a Vietnam vet coming home from the war. But then she thought that was too limiting. She ended up writing the song to have a more universal meaning, as the song could relate to anyone wondering when, or if, a loved one will return home. The song was a semi-hit reaching US #0, Australia #24 and Canada #23.
One of the album’s highlights is the upbeat and optimistic “When You Smile,” with Dixieland flavored guitars, banjo and horns the song has a universal groove that we don’t hear much from Flack. This would have made a great single. Written by jazz musician Ralph MacDonald, Roberta Flack was the first person to record the song. MacDonald also co-wrote “Where Is The Love” a Top 10 hit for Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway in 1972. MacDonald also co-wrote “Just The Two of Us” a song that has become a standard as released in 1981.
Roberta Flack (1973)