We've all heard this hit song before, whether it be the Roberta Flack version, The Fugees version, or the original tune that was first recorded back in 1972. The melodic structure is smooth, the lyrics seem to take you to a place in your mind, and the vocals are sweet with a hint of sadness.
Roberta Flack's voice is classy, sweet, and elegant, with instrumentation that gives you a touch of elegance and dreaminess in this sad ballad. Lauren Hill brings a rich and soulful version to the mix with a hip-hop track that adds to the depth and emotion in the song.
But there's even more pain and emotion to unpack when you get the details of how the song was made.
To understand the meaning and the experience behind the lyrical tale, it's best to briefly get an overview of who wrote the song and how it was created. It's surprisingly a bit more straightforward than you would expect when it comes to the message behind it.
The story behind this hit song is packed with a ton of drama and hearsay that I was not prepared to hear about. It's a cowritten work that was mainly inspired by singer-songwriter Lori Lieberman, and fleshed out further by writers Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.
Lori Lieberman, a fresh new young face in the music industry that was signed under Capitol Records a la Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, happened to get some lyrical inspiration while watching another artist perform.
Lori was an audience member at a show featuring Don McLean at the Troubadour nightclub in Los Angeles with her friend Michele Willens. The experience touched her so much that she started to write down the lyrics on a napkin she had at the table she was seated.
Many people mistake the lyrics to this song to be a metaphor for a guy who is playing with a girl's emotions in a relationship. But the words of the song literally tell the story of how Lori felt when Don McLean was performing his song "Empty Chairs".
The song by Don is actually inspired by the famous Van Gogh painting "Empty Chair", so you can imagine the sorrow and depth reflected in the song he released in his project "American Pie" in 1971.
The entire album is a tribute to Don Mclean's troubled mind at that point in his life due to the loss of his father and the rockiness of his marriage.
Describing her reaction to his performance, Lori Lieberman said in an interview, "I didn't know who he was, but from the moment he walked on stage, I was spellbound. I felt as if he knew me, and his songs were about my life. I felt like he sang into my soul."
Lori was deeply affected by Don's lyrics, where the hook reads, "And I wonder if you know that I never understood, that although you said you'd go until you did, I never thought you would." She was obviously feeling a sense of loss in her life.
Because Don was a performer of the opposite sex and Lori was having an intense reaction to his performance, some assume that there is a romantic connection there as well, which I will talk more about later.
Lori Lieberman was denied a writing credit for her writing work when she released the song on her own album in 1972 and shortly after when the song was recorded and released by Roberta Flack in 1973.
Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel strangely tried to distance her even further from being connected to the writing process over the subsequent years of her career, even after she retired. Gimbel even went as far as McLean a lawsuit in 2008, demanding that McLean be removed as the inspiration for "Killing Me Softly".
In a 90s interview with The New York Times, Lieberman stated, "Gimbel and Fox had been very, very controlling. I felt like I was pushed on stage, and I was singing other people's material, although that material was based on my private diaries. I felt victimized for most of my early career."
Despite the backstabbing that was going on behind the scenes, both the Fugees and Roberta Flack versions were placed on the 2021 list of Rolling Stone's "500 Greatest Songs of All Time", showing the legacy of this profoundly written masterpiece.
Popular vocalists Luther Vandross and Frank Sinatra also performed versions of this track that add a unique perspective from the point of view of a man who is deeply affected by a performer singing about the loss on stage.
It's interesting to note that Luthor Vandross references a male performer, and Frank Sinatra mentions a female singer, suggesting that there could be a romantic link in this song between the performer and entertainer, although that is not confirmed by any performer.
Perhaps the reason that this song hits so hard is because of the fact that it can be misconstrued as a metaphor for a guy playing games with a girl that is romantically tied to him. There is a hint of intimate suggestion in the hook lyrics, "Strumming my pain with his fingers," which could also be hooking the listener in.
Is this something that was done intentionally by Lori Lieberman as she jotted down lyrics on her napkin while she was watching Don Mclean perform his emotional track "Empty Chairs"? She always alluded to being mesmerized by his lyrics in particular, so it may just be a coincidence.
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