Soul Retrospective: Roberta Flack’s ‘Killing Me Softly’

Roberta Flack’s rise was a quiet and potent one. Flack signed to Atlantic Records in 1969, and her first album, First Take, included the classic, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” The song was released as a single in early 1972 and became a #1 pop and R&B hit due to its renewed popularity by way of the 1971 film Play Misty For Me. Between 1970 and 1972, Flack released albums such as Quiet Fire, Chapter Two, and Roberta Flack and Donny Hathaway, which went gold.

Flack’s serene voice, classically trained piano playing, and intellectual presence made her a singular act and gave her an interesting niche. At her best, Flack straddled the line between a singer/songwriter’s presentation with true respect from the R&B audience. In short, Flack’s albums Roberta Flack 'Killing Me Softly'could stand alongside work from artists like Joni Mitchell and Aretha Franklin.

Killing Me Softly took 18 months to finish and of course during this era, the musical times moved quickly. Killing Me Softly was produced by Joel Dorn, who had produced Flack’s albums since her 1969 debut. At his best, Dorn was a producer who could exact quite a bit from singers and players, and was a true musician’s producer whose credits included other iconoclastic artists like Eddie Harris, Les McCann, and Herbie Mann.

Dorn and Flack’s work on Killing Me Softly seemed to be a more polished version of the work that came before, and was the logical next step.

The album’s first song and single, “Killing Me Softly With His Song,” was released in late January 1973 (the album finally appeared in August of the same year). Written by Norman Fox and Charles Gimbel, the song was originally done by Lori Lieberman, a singer/songwriter signed to Capitol Records, and was reportedly about seeing “American Pie” singer Don McLean in concert.

In Flack’s hands, the hit potential was apparent with the evocative production, gentle rhythm, and Flack’s hypnotic vocal. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” hit the pop and R&B charts at #1, and went gold by late 1973.

The rest of Killing Me Softly seemed to follow the same introspective, slightly sad path where the best of Flack’s work often resided. Like her other albums, Killing Me Softly displayed Flack’s gift of living the lyrics, and the album didn’t flinch. Flack covered Janis Ian’s “Jesse,” released as a single in November 1973, with cogency and restraint.

The poignant and stark “I’m the Girl” also fit the album’s sorrowful motif and hearkened back to Flack’s earlier and plaintive work.

While “Killing Me Softy With His Song” got the raves, it arguably wasn’t the prettiest song on the album. The beautiful “Conversation Love” probably captured Flack’s essence and intellect more than anything on the album. The song itself had poetic lyrics and they perfectly matched the dream-like production and arrangement. The lyrics to “Conversation Love” were printed on the original album’s cover and were dedicated to jazz artist Rahsaan Roland Kirk.

The album’s final song, Leonard Cohen’s “Suzanne,” musically and emotionally fit in with the like-minded songs on the album. Although the song can be tedious in the most brief versions due to the circuitous lyrics, Flack’s delicate reading and the arrangement made it very engrossing.

Killing Me Softly did veer a bit from its soft and reflective mood. The cutesy and old-timey “When You Smile” and Eugene McDaniels’ earthy “River” were the only uptempo tracks.

The musician credits on this effort are staggering and include jazz luminaries like Ron Carter, Grady Tate, and Eric Gale, and arrangers such as Deodato, Don Sebesky, and Ralph McDonald. Roberta Flack arranged all of the songs on Killing Me Softly and was noticeably credited on the back of the original album. This album also marked the end of Flack’s and Joel Dorn’s working relationship; Dorn left the label in 1974, and Flack began to work with a variety of producers as well as producing herself under the name Rubina Flake.

Killing Me Softly was nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year but lost out to Stevie Wonder’s Innervisions. “Killing Me Softly With His Song” won for Record of the Year, Best Pop Performance of the Year, Female, and Song of the Year.

In 1996, the Lauryn Hill-led hip-hop trio The Fugees covered ”Killing Me Softly” and scored a #1 pop hit.

Killing Me Softly went gold in 1974. In 1996, the album was certified double platinum.

—Jason Elias

Jason Elias is a pop culture historian and a music journalist.

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