She sang ‘Killing Me Softly’ before Roberta Flack – now she just wants you to hear her story

Geoff Edgers

THE WASHINGTON POST – Lori Lieberman didn’t want to go out. The singer, who had just turned 20, was struggling with the complicated affair that she said had started with her 44-year-old married manager, Norman Gimbel. But that November night in 1971, a friend coaxed her into seeing Don McLean at the Troubadour club in Los Angeles. He had just released American Pie.

Sitting in the audience, Lieberman found herself struck by another McLean song, a heartbreaking ballad, Empty Chairs.

“As soon as he started singing, she pulled out a napkin and starting scribbling notes,” remembers the friend, Michele Willens.

“The rest is history.”

Lieberman said she later shared her experience – and her napkin poem – over the phone with Gimbel. As he said in multiple interviews during the 1970s, Gimbel already had a song title in his notebook that seemed to click with her feelings. He took the lyrics to Charles Fox, his piano-playing writing partner, and together they created a classic: Roberta Flack’s 1973 No 1 hit, Killing Me Softly With His Song.

Lori Lieberman says she didn’t mind when her first album came out and she got writing credit for just one of the 10 songs. “I was just so grateful that they had plucked this young, naive girl,” she says. “And honestly, I was completely overwhelmed.” PHOTO: THE WASHINGTON POST

In those days, Gimbel repeatedly talked of how the song emerged after he and Lieberman discussed the McLean concert.

“Her conversation fed me, inspired me, gave me some language and a choice of words,” Gimbel told the Asbury Park Press in a story published early in 1973.

Lieberman released her version of the song in 1972. It wasn’t a hit, but Flack heard it on an airplane and decided she wanted to cover it. Lieberman did not get a songwriting credit or a cut of the publishing that flowed to Fox and Gimbel after Flack’s Grammy-winning version or the 1996 Fugees redo that hit No 2. That didn’t bother her. She was content with her place in pop history as the song’s inspiration. But Sunday, as Flack received a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Grammys, Lieberman worried that she’s being cut out of that story.

That’s because Gimbel, who died in 2018 at 91, spent the final years of his life trying to discredit Lieberman, even threatening to sue McLean if he didn’t remove a reference to his connection to the song from his website. Fox, 79, has called Lieberman’s account “urban legend”. He declined multiple requests for comment for this story.

Now, Lieberman has decided the only way to counter her one time managers is to tell her story. She’s also getting support from Flack, who told The Washington Post via email that she cried when she heard of the conflict last year.

“I hope that Lori knows that I am forever grateful for her part in the writing of the song,” Flack wrote.

McLean has urged her to hire an attorney to fight to get a credit on the song. “They were not nice,” said McLean.

“You have a sensitive, lovely lady who never told a lie in her life, who writes poetry with feelings.” Lieberman, now 68, said she isn’t interested in going to court. She doesn’t want an official songwriting credit. She just wants to be recognised. She also said that revisiting her time with Gimbel and Fox is emotionally exhausting. “I have been called a liar,” said Lieberman. “And it feels terrible. It’s really for my own integrity and for the truth to come out.”

She was 19 and living in Los Angeles in 1971 when her pediatrician heard she wanted to be a musician and suggested she meet her neighbor, Gimbel, who had already written the words to Andy Williams’s 1956 hit Canadian Sunset and the English lyrics to The Girl From Ipanema. Lieberman loved the emerging wave of female singer-songwriters, including Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Laura Nyro.

But Fox, writing in his 2010 memoir, said that he and Gimbel had another idea: They wanted an arrangement similar to what Burt Bacharach and Hal David had with Dionne Warwick, producing and writing her songs.

They signed Lieberman to a five-year management and artist’s contract, during which she would pay them 20 per cent of her earnings. “We heard her and loved her sound,” Fox told the Wall Street Journal last year. “She had a beautiful alto voice. Norman and I started writing for her.”

The affair with Gimbel started right away, according to Lieberman. They kept it a secret in those early years. Gimbel’s first marriage would not end until 1973.

“And I would hide on the floorboard of his car as we drove through Beverly Hills and it was the craziest thing,” said Lieberman. “I came from a very chaotic home and my father had an affair for many years with his secretary, who he wound up marrying. And this is pretty much what I knew.”

During this time, Lieberman said she showed Gimbel her poetry books. They also talked for hours about her life.

“He wanted to know every single thing about me and all my past,” she said. There are some, like McLean, who have urged Lieberman to file a claim for a songwriting credit on Killing Me. But even if she wanted that recognition, it’s doubtful Lieberman would prevail in court, said music industry experts consulted by The Post.

Copyright law is complicated, but clear on this point: Influencing a song or serving as a muse is not writing a song. There are also limits on how much time can pass before a songwriting claim is made. In the case of Killing Me, Lieberman no longer has the napkin from the McLean show.

That doesn’t mean she didn’t play a significant role in the creation of Killing Me or other songs credited to her onetime managers in her catalogue. Joe Bennett, a professor at the Berklee College of Music who often serves as a forensic musicologist in songwriting disputes, reviewed a Lieberman poem she did save and the Fox and Gimbel song, Double Decker Jet Plane, that resulted after she said she shared it.

Lieberman’s poem, “Just when you get here you have to go… I don’t know, I don’t know, I don’t know.” Legacy lyric, “Seems that you just get here and it’s time to go… I don’t know, I don’t know.”

“They are very similar, conceptually and lyrically, and it’s certainly possible that Lori’s poem was the inspiration for the song lyric,” said Bennett. “However, it’s unlikely that there’s a copyright claim here, for a number of reasons, including that it would be very difficult to prove that the poem predates the song.”

Lieberman said she didn’t mind when her first album came out and she got writing credit for just one of the 10 songs.

“I was just so grateful that they had plucked this young, naive girl,” she said. “And honestly, I was completely overwhelmed.”

In those days, Gimbel didn’t want Lieberman to hide her connection to the creation of Killing Me. The shy performer said she was even given a script to help her explain the song’s origin, including her experience at the McLean show. She told this version to Mike Douglas on national television, and Gimbel confirmed it in multiple newspaper interviews.

“That was the story,” said Sean Derek, who worked as an assistant to Gimbel and Fox in the 1970s and has come out in support of Lieberman. “Norman and Charles would tell it all the time.”

Lieberman said that story shifted in 1997. That’s when, in a New York Times interview meant to promote an album, she referred to her former managers as “very, very controlling”. She hadn’t spoken to Gimbel in years by that point. But she had rekindled a friendship with Fox, and he had even attended one of her shows. They, too, would not speak after that interview.

The business relationship between Lieberman and her managers broke down in 1976.

Gimbel, she said, had become emotionally abusive, controlling and unfaithful. She broke up with him and asked to be let out of her contract. Lieberman had opened for Randy Newman and sang with Leonard Cohen, but only the second of her four albums had charted – at No 192. But Fox and Gimbel refused to sign off. They had their lawyers demand she reimburse them USD27,000 for, among other things, recording costs, hotel bills and making copies of sheet music, according to documents reviewed by The Post. If she left, she would also owe them a portion of her future earnings up to USD250,000.

“If they wanted to be nice guys, sure, I’ve been in situations that they’ve said, ‘We’ve failed; why don’t you get another deal’,” said attorney Frederic Ansis, who represented Lieberman at the time.

The demands by Fox and Gimbel were “onerous”, said Don Gorder, who chairs Berklee’s music business and management department and reviewed the documents from 1976. “It is certainly putting the fear in her that she’d be better off not being released from her contract.”

And Susan Hilderley, a veteran music attorney who teaches the UCLA School of Law’s Music Industry Clinic, said that Gimbel’s personal relationship with Lieberman added another dimension. She imagines that today, Fox and Gimbel would have been eager to let the singer walk.

Gimbel “would be thinking, ‘You know what, I have a good career, I have plenty of money, I don’t need the negative publicity that would come if she started talking’,” said Hilderley. At the time, Lieberman said nothing. She was living with her mother part time to save money, and Fox and Gimbel were thriving with the themes to Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley. Eventually, her contract expired, she stopped performing and started a family. She began to record again in the 1990s. She heard from Gimbel for the first time in years after releasing a song called Cup of Girl in 2011. It is a scathing take on Svengali culture. “Take your money, take your credit,” sings Lieberman. “Take your secrets along with it.”

Lieberman said the song prompted Gimbel to send a series of blistering emails, which she deleted. By then, Gimbel had already made it clear he wanted control over the story of Killing Me Softly. In 2008, he demanded McLean remove an online reference to the singer “being immortalised as the subject” of the song, telling McLean in an email to “STOP IT!” “I too have a worldwide reputation that equals if not surpasses that of your client,” Gimbel wrote to McLean’s attorney, Christian Horsnell. “(A)nd I find this conceit damaging to my reputation and to the song.”

Horsnell responded by attaching a copy of a 1973 New York Daily News article in which Gimbel talked of using Lieberman’s experience at the Troubadour as part of the songwriting process.

After the exchange with Gimbel, McLean said he got a phone call from Fox. “How did you get my phone number?” McLean said he asked, before bringing up Gimbel. “Your buddy called me about a month ago, and he’s a schmuck.”

The day Gimbel died, McLean posted a message on his Facebook page in which he called the dead writer “abusive and obnoxious” and, referring to Fox, said that “I don’t need any Love Boat theme song writer to enhance my reputation.” Gimbel’s son, Tony, who now runs the family’s publishing company, Words West, did not return phone calls or emails from The Post. Fox also declined to respond. His assistant, Will Collyer, responded in email that “Charles is unable to do an interview as he is completely immersed in finishing a new project”. He said Fox’s 2010 memoir, Killing Me Softly, My Life in Music, provides a “full personal account of his experiences in writing the song with Norman Gimbel and what the song meant to him”.

In the book, Fox does not mention McLean or the differing accounts of the song’s origin. Of Lieberman, he wrote, “I still have a special place in my heart for her.”

In April, Lieberman will perform a show with a string quartet billed as A Return to the Troubadour. When she’s onstage, she will tell the story of hearing McLean and how she helped Gimbel and Fox write one of pop music’s most enduring classics. “I’m not looking for credit, and I’m not looking for money,” she said. “I just want the truth of how the song was written to come out.”