Editor’s Note: A few years ago we ran a lovely piece by Elaine Stukane about the singer Lori Lieberman, who wrote the iconic song “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” but never received proper credit. We had no idea that another one of our writers, Michele Willens, was actually instrumental in the creation of the song. To mark the 50th Anniversary of the hit, we’re giving you Michele’s take.
None of us “forever youngers” ever imagined looking back 50 years. Sure, our parents did, as they extolled their music over ours, (uh, no), their “good” war over ours (agreed). But we can’t deny having survived five decades, and even use them as lessons while we hopefully continue to learn.
Those otherwise-blemished Oscars rubbed some of this in with its unnecessary tributes to an odd selection of old movies. In fact, the only one that made sense was the actual 50-year anniversary of “The Godfather.” But that mostly generated amazement at how old Coppola looked, and how neither De Niro nor Pacino even uttered a word. Liza Minnelli was named Best Actress that same year, but her well-meaning, if ill-conceived, appearance didn’t make any of us feel very happy about the aging thing.
So many events these days remind me of how quickly time has passed.
Certain revelations shock more than others. For example, Mary Badham—who played Scout in the film To Kill A Mockingbrd—is now playing the elderly, nasty neighbor in the touring theatrical version. She was my idol, and we were even pen pals for a while. Ouch.
So many events these days remind me of how quickly time has passed, which leads me to share an experience I had last week. I went to the Troubadour, the legendary club in Loss Angeles where Elton John was discovered and everyone who was anyone played, for a concert by one of my dearest friends. Singer Lori Lieberman performed there on April 12, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the birth of “Killing Me Softly With His Song.” FIFTY YEARS!
That Night at the Troubadour
In 1972, Lori and I went to the Troubadour as young women, which turned out to be one of the most pivotal nights of her life. I dragged her there to hear a singer named Don McLean. Lori resisted, but I had seen him the night before and truly thought she’d respond as I did. During a song called “Empty Chairs,” Lori grabbed a napkin and pen and started scribbling notes. (“He’s singing like he knows me, like he’s read my diary,” etc.) She gave the napkin to the two men writing her first album, Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox, and from that “Killing Me Softly” was born.
During a song called “Empty Chairs,” Lori grabbed a napkin and pen and started scribbling notes.
And it would have died there, as Lori’s album drew little attention. But Roberta Flack heard it on an airplane and when she landed, she called her producers, and said she had her next song. Grammys were won, The Fugees did their version a decade later, and I dare you to walk into any coffee shop or gym and not hear some version. Though never Lori’s original rendition, which is lilting and heartbreaking. When Lori appeared in New York a few years back, Flack invited her to meet and the two embraced.
Lori and I often joke that she knows what the first line of her obituary will be. I wonder if mine will be “the woman who brought the woman to the Troubadour.” In fact, we’ve both gone on to full lives of creativity, marriage, (a few for her, one for me), and motherhood. Her son, an established editor (current project being “Moon Knight”) is completing a documentary about how the song came to be.
During her program last week—in which she was accompanied by a string quartet—she made me stand and take a bow. Then she ended the show with a beautiful piano combination of “Empty Chairs” leading fluidly into “Killing Me Softly. And that was exactly how it happened.
Michele Willens’s recently released essay collection is called “From Mouseketeers to Menopause.”