In 1996, most young people who heard the Fugees’ version of “Killing Me Softly With His Song” simply thought it was an excellent jam - an expression of admiration and emotional connection Fugees singer Lauryn Hill had for a young man performing music that touched her. The song was set to a steady drum loop and sitar hook (courtesy of a sample of A Tribe Called Quest’s “Bonita Applebum”) and, in addition to Hill’s wonderful vocal, featured interjections from fellow Fugees Pras and Wyclef Jean.
And even though the song was bumping out of car speakers and boom boxes all summer in ‘96, it never hit the Billboard Hot 100 pop chart, because it was never released as a single in the U.S., as it was in other countries and territories, like the U.K., where it hit No. 1 on June 8 of that year.
Those young folks who thought “Killing Me Softly” was a Hill/Fugees original might have been surprised at the song’s rather lengthy history. It started in 1971, when singer Lori Liebman, as she tells it, went to see Don McLean (the guy who sang “American Pie”) play a club gig in Los Angeles, and was so bowled over by the experience, she composed a poem about it as it was happening. She shared her poem with Norman Gimbel, her manager and a songwriter who had been penning songs for her. Gimbel got together with his songwriting partner Charles Fox, and “Killing Me Softly With His Song” was born. Liebman’s version was released on her debut album.
Shortly after, Roberta Flack was on an American Airlines flight, listening to the airline’s in-flight music loop, which included Liebman’s song. “Parts of the song reminded me of my life,” Flack remembered, “of the pain that comes with loving someone deeply, of feeling moved by music, which is the universal language. More than anything, music makes us feel.”
Flack knew what she had to do. “I could feel the song and knew I could tell the song’s story my way,” she said. And she did just that, recording “Killing Me Softly” and releasing it in January 1973; the song hit No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spent 5 weeks at the top. It also won Flack a Grammy for Record of the Year in 1973 and won Gimbel and Fox Grammy hardware for Song of the Year.
The Fugees version (which was on their 1996 album The Score) made an impact on Flack when she heard it. “The Score came on us like a mighty wind, and I was totally blown away by the power of the group—their musicality, their political message, and their creativity,” she said in a 2016 interview. “They gave the song a new meaning and exposed it to a new generation.”