This is a story about friendship, serendipity, inspiration and self-reclamation. Oh, and one of the most famous songs of the past 40 years.
I first met Lori Lieberman in the early 1970s. I was hitchhiking in Europe, pack on my back, guitar in hand, and had been told to look up the Lieberman family. They had temporarily relocated to Geneva from Beverly Hills. I immediately connected with Lori, the middle of three daughters, who brought out her guitar so we could each sing something. Fortunately, I went first.
I was so taken by Lori's voice that I pledged not only to never warble in public again, but to help in any way possible when she returned to the States. Upon her return, we started writing songs together, but that moved off-stage when she was picked up by a composing duo in Los Angeles, Norman Gimbel and Charles Fox.
It was while they were preparing their first album, that I insisted Lori come with me one night to the Troubadour to hear Don McLean. (I'd seen him the previous night) When McLean sang "Empty Chairs," I noticed Lori grab a napkin and start writing on it. Later, as we drove home, we tried to decipher the tear-stained scribbles: "I felt like everyone was looking at me, like he was reading pages from my diary," were a few I recall. Thus was born "Killing Me Softly With His Song."
Lori's haunting and pristine version earned her fans, but was largely ignored. Then, one crucial listener brought the song back to life. That would be Roberta Flack, who happened to be on a plane and put in those plugs to listen to the airline's album selection of the month. You guessed it. By the time Flack disembarked, she called her managers and told them she had her next record. Her rhythm and blues-infused version in 1974 zoomed to number one, and won that year's Grammy.
Understandably, many of Flack's generation associate her with the song. But then in the late '90s, The Fugees recorded a pop-rock version of "Killing Me Softly" and a whole new generation fell in love. (I fully expect Kanye West to eventually do his own take: "You are f--? killing me with that rap....")
Don McLean is aware of his role in the story, and insists the listener that fateful night in West Hollywood deserves most the credit: "The only reason that I inspired "Killing Me Softy" is because Lori Lieberman is a sensitive poet and artist, who understood what I was trying to say in "Empty Chairs," he says. "Without her sensitivity and artistry, it would have been just another night at the Troubadour."
McLean says the song, in fact, was almost as important to him. "Lori Lieberman certainly didn't have to mention me, but in her generosity, she did, and that became part of my story. At that point in the '70s, I was at a low point and it gave me a lift to think what I was doing meant something to somebody."
I recall all this now because on November 8, Lori Lieberman will perform at Carnegie Hall's Zankel Theater. She has maintained a creative and self-dictated career as a singer-songwriter. This is a personal achievement, after finding the courage -- at a time when many young women were reduced to doing things we wish we hadn't -- to break from the original composing team who, she says, "mismanaged me professionally and personally." Gimbel and Fox, by the way, still claim "Killing Me Softly" was all their doing. I wish I had that napkin to prove them wrong.
She is obviously a mature woman now, but Lori Lieberman remains ever growing as an artist. And the voice is pretty much as I first heard it all those years ago -- and as she first listened to it herself. "I remember going into the bathroom at age 12, with guitar and tape recorder in hand and pushing 'play," she says. "I was sweating, praying it would sound like it did in my head. I remember thinking, 'thank God.'"
Carnegie Hall fans will, of course, wait anxiously to hear that song. She always tells the story of its genesis and singles out Don McLean, and me. Now, that's a friend.