Sounds of Soul
The song was written by Charles Fox with lyrics by Norman Gimbel, collaborating Lori Lieberman. Her input was at first disputed but ultimately accepted. Lieberman says it was based on a poem she wrote after a powerful emotional reaction she had to Don McLean’s song “Empty Chairs.” She discussed the idea with Gimbel, who wrote the words. He passed it along to Fox for the music. Lieberman recorded the song in 1971. Gimbel says that he was working with Argentinean-born composer Lalo Schifrin and they were devising a musical based on the Argentinian novel Hopscotch by Julio Cartàzar. In the book, the narrator is sitting at a bar listening to an American pianist friend “kill us softly with some blues.” Well, the musical never materialized. Don McLean was flattered and humbled by Lieberman’s account and backed her story. Fox and Gimbel eventually made a deal with her. The music business is a tough business.
Roberta Flack heard the song on an airline in-flight audio program, liked it, and got the music from Fox. She didn’t record it at first but performed it at a 1972 concert where she was opening for Marvin Gaye. She sang the song as an encore, and it had a tremendous reception. Flack recorded the song in 1972 and released it as a single in 1973 , backed with “Just Like a Woman.” It was also released on her 1973 album Killing Me Softly.
The song went to #1 on the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 and was #1 in Australia and Canada. It went to #2 on the U.S. R&B and Adult Contemporary Charts. It was #3 in The Netherlands, #4 in Norway, and #6 in the U.K. The record earned RIAA gold certification.
On the track, besides Flack on electric piano and vocals, were Ron Carter (bass), Hugh McCracken (guitar), and Ray Lucas (drums). Flack received the 1973 Grammy Award for Record of the Year and Best Pop Vocal Performance, Female. Gimbel and Fox won a Grammy for Song of the Year.