In terms of impact on jazz, soul, and R&B music, few can hold a candle to what Roberta Flack has accomplished. Although she is now retired, Roberta's legendary music career gave way to five Billboard No. 1 singles, made her the first artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in two consecutive years, and secured the adoration of millions of fans worldwide.
On a new episode of American Masters on PBS, Roberta's life and career is being explored once again. Undoubtedly, the documentary will discuss her track "Killing Me Softly with His Song," but what exactly is the meaning behind the longtime hit? Let's take a look at what Roberta was attempting to convey on "Killing Me Softly with His Song," as well as its interesting origins.
What is the meaning of "Killing Me Softly with His Song?" It was actually written by Lori Lieberman about Don McLean.
Although Roberta Flack's version of the song has gone on to become ridiculously famous, "Killing Me Softly with His Song" was actually written and recorded by Lori Lieberman first. Per Wikipedia, a 20-year-old Lori went with a friend to see Don McLean perform in 1971. While Don performed "Empty Chairs," Lori was extremely moved. This is evident through lyrics like "Strumming my pain with his fingers / Singing my life with his words." So, she jotted down notes for her own song inspired by it.
Taking a look at lyrics like, "He sang as if he knew me / In all my dark despair / And then he looked right through me / As if I wasn't there" makes it pretty clear how profound Don's performance was to Lori.
Writer Norman Gimbel and composer Charles Fox, who were managing her career at the time, flushed out the lyrics from Lori's notes. Charles composed the melody, and thus "Killing Me Softly With His Song" was created. However, Lori never charted for the song after its release, despite creating it.
She may not be its original singer, but Roberta Flack made "Killing Me Softly with His Song" famous.
In 1972, Roberta was flying on an airplane when she heard "Killing Me Softly With His Song" playing. Like Lori listening to Don, Roberta fell in love with the track and made it her mission to make her own version of it. With the help of Quincy Jones, Roberta secured rights to record and perform her rendition of the song from Charles.
That same year, Roberta opened up for Marvin Gaye at the Los Angeles Greek Theatre. When asked to perform one more song, Roberta sung "Killing Me Softly With His Song" live for the first time. The audience went wild and Marvin compelled her to officially record the song.
By 1973, Roberta's version of "Killing Me Softly With His Song" was released and ended up reaching the highest position on the Billboard charts for five nonconsecutive weeks that year.
In 1996, the Fugees released their own version of the song — with Lauryn Hill on lead vocals — which went on to become an international hit.