How a Don McLean Song (Maybe) Inspired “Killing Me Softly with His Song”

Roberta Flack had a number one song with “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in 1973. Two decades later, The Fugees brought the song to a new generation when they covered it on the album The Score (1996) with lead vocals by Lauryn Hill. A song being recorded two decades apart is not that unusual, but there are some other interesting aspects about the origins of “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”

One relatively unique feature of “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is that it is a song about a song.  But that underlying song is unnamed as the singer recounts hearing another singer that deeply affects her.

Another unique aspect of “Killing Me Softly with His Song” is that the story is somewhat true. It reportedly was inspired by another song by singer-songwriter Don McLean. But before we get to McLean’s song, below is Roberta Flack’s hit version of “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”

Songwriter Lori Lieberman

Although there is some debate about the origins of “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” the song was written by Charles Fox with lyrics by Norman Gimbel. Most agree, though, that Gimbel collaborated in some way with Lori Lieberman in writing the lyrics.

Lieberman maintains that many of the lyrics were inspired by her reaction to hearing Don McLean perform one of his songs. In “Killing Me Softly,” the singer recounts an unnamed man singing a revealing song: “I felt all flushed with fever / Embarrassed by the crowd / I felt he had found my letters / And read each one out loud.”

Strumming my pain with his fingers,
Singing my life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song,
Killing me softly with his song,
Telling my whole life with his words,
Killing me softly with his song

Lori Lieberman recorded “Killing Me Softly with His Song” in 1971. Subsequently, Roberta Flack heard Lieberman’s recording while flying between New York and Los Angeles. When Flack heard the song, she was so moved that she immediately wanted to record it herself.

Below, Lieberman performs “Killing Me Softly” on The Mike Douglas Show in 1973.

Don McLean’s “Empty Chairs”

What was the song that a singer sang as if knew the listener “in all my dark despair”? As Lieberman explains in the above video starting at around the 3:30 mark while actor Tony Curtis holds her guitar, “Killing Me Softly with His Song” was inspired by her reaction to hearing Don McLean’s song, “Empty Chairs.”

Lieberman first heard McLean singing “Empty Chairs” at the Troubadour in Los Angeles, and it affected her deeply. McClean’s song is about a person remembering a lover who left the singer alone.

And I wonder if you know,
That I never understood
That although you said you’d go,
Until you did, I never thought you would

Here is Don McLean performing “Empty Chairs.”

Lieberman states that after attending a Don McLean concert, she discussed her feelings in response to the singer’s performance of “Empty Chairs.”  She explained, ” I felt exposed – as though he were singing about me and my life.”

According to Lieberman, she then wrote a poem about her feelings and shared it with songwriter Norman Gimbel, who worked it into a song by making a variation on a title he already had, “Killing Me Softly with the Blues.” Gimbel and Lieberman discussed more about Lieberman’s experience and the lyrics.  Then, Gimbel went to the home of Charles Fox, who worked on the music for the song.

On Don McLean’s website, the man most famous for songs like “American Pie” and “Vincent” features a 1973 Daily News article about his connection to “Killing Me Softly with His Song.” McLean is quoted about being “amazed” and “humbled” when he learned that he had inspired “Killing Me Softly with his Song.”

Other Variations On the Story

One of the writers of “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” however, recalls the story behind the song a little differently.  Charles Fox, who also wrote a large number of popular TV theme songs with Norman Gimbel, explains that he and Norman Gimbel wrote “Killing Me Softly with His Song” for Lori Lieberman.

Gimbel had a book of possible song titles, and one was “Killing Me Softly with the Blues.”  Gimbel reportedly had seen the phrase in Julio Cortázar’s novel Hopscotch.

Fox liked the first part of the suggested title, but then they came up with “Killing Me Softly with His Song” as a better title.  From there, Norman came up with the rest of the lyrics and Fox provided the music.

When Fox and Gimbel played the song for Lieberman, according to Fox, Lieberman responded that the words reminded her of a Don McLean concert.  Thus, according to Fox, the Don McLean connection came after the song was written.

Gimbel’s version of the creation of the song seems somewhere in the middle between Fox and Lieberman.  While like Fox he has downplayed Lieberman’s role, in an April 5, 1973 Daily News story, Gimbel recalled that Lieberman told him about the experience she had at a Don McLean concert.  He explained, “I had a notion this might make a good song so the three of us discussed it. We talked it over several times, just as we did with the rest of the numbers we wrote for the album and we all felt it had possibilities.”

The Impact of “Killing Me Softly with His Song”

No matter how “Killing Me Softly with His Song” was created, that song touched many listeners.  While McLean’s song “Empty Chairs” deeply affected Lieberman, it was the later song “Killing Me Softly with His Song” that resonated with a larger audience.

Lieberman, who apparently was feeling heartbreak when she first heard McLean’s song, helped create a mysterious song indirectly about heartbreak that focused instead on her reaction to the power of music. And that mystery behind her song resonates with listeners today as it did in the 1970s and 1990s.

In 1973, “Killing Me Softly with His Song” won Record of the Year and Song of the Year at the Grammy Awards, where Roberta Flack also won Best Pop Vocal Performance by a Female. And Rolling Stone now lists Roberta Flack’s version as one of the top 500 songs of all time at #369. Lauryn Hill’s version is pretty cool too.

And that is the story behind the song.

Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Weird Al Summarizes “The Phantom Menace”

    If you are like me, you may be or have been re-watching all or some of the Star Wars movies to get ready for Star Wars: The Force Awakens (2015). Of course, everyone loves Star Wars (A New Hope) (1977), The Empire Strikes Back (1980), and Return of the Jedi (1983). And maybe you do not mind Attack of the Clones (2002) and Revenge of the Sith (2005). But what if you really do not want again to watch The Phantom Menace (1999), generally considered the worse of the lot?

    Fortunately, we have a solution from Weird Al Yankovic, who summarized Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace in his song “The Saga Begins,” which appeared on his 1999 album Running with Scissors. Set to the tune of Don McLean’s epic “American Pie,” Yankovic’s parody song presents the story from the point of view of Obi-Wan Kenobi.

    “The Saga Begins” is pretty funny in the way it rhymes all of the strange Star Wars locations like Boss Nass, Coruscant, Naboo, and Tatooine. More surprisingly, Yankovic does a really excellent job of covering the plot points. And of course there is that memorable “American Pie” tune that just makes us want to sing along.

    Oh my my, this here Anakin guy,
    Maybe Vader someday later, now he’s just a small fry;
    He left his home and kissed his mommy goodbye,
    Sayin’, “Soon I’m gonna be a Jedi, soon I’m gonna be a Jedi”

    Weird Al also made a cool video to go with the song. Maybe you do not want to watch The Phantom Menace because there is too much Jar Jar Binks or because that kid’s pod race goes on way too long. Maybe you just think the movie is irrelevant to the series or that the film is a “failure on every possible level.” Or maybe you loved the move. Either way, you probably will enjoy Weird Al Yankovic’s “The Saga Begins.”

    What is your favorite Star Wars film? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    The Ozone Layer and the Man Who Saved the Earth

    Aerosol Pollution

    On June 28, 1927, F. Sherwood Rowland was born in Delaware, Ohio. You may not recognize the name, but you should.  He helped save the earth.

    Rowland was a chemist at the University of California-Irvine several decades ago when he attended a talk on chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).  At the time, CFCs appeared as refrigerants, as propellants in aerosol cans, and in other uses.

    Rowland began thinking about the effects that CFCs might have in the atmosphere when they broke down. Eventually, his studies confirmed that CFCs did break down at high altitudes.  And the released chlorine atoms worked to destroy the ozone layer that protects the earth from ultraviolet radiation.

    He and a colleague, Mario Molina, published the results in the journal Nature in 1974. For a more technical explanation, here is a 2-minute video about the effects of CFCs.

    How Rowland’s Work Saved the World

    After Rowland published the findings, corporations attacked the study.  Some of Rowland’s colleagues shunned him. No chemistry department in the U.S. invited him to give a lecture for most of a decade after the article appeared.

    But eventually other scientists discovered that Rowland’s conclusions were accurate. Rowland worked to get CFCs banned, and the discovery in the mid-1980s of an ozone hole above the South Pole helped persuade politicians to act.

    In 1987, major industrial nations approved a global treaty phasing out CFCs called The Montreal Protocol on Substances that Deplete the Ozone Layer. The treaty went into effect in 1989.

    Songs Reflect Concern About the Ozone Layer

    At the time of the treaty and years afterwards, several songs invoked the growing concerns about the disappearing ozone layer. Public Enemy had one of the earliest songs mentioning the ozone layer, when they referenced it on “Public Enemy No. 1” on 1987’s Yo! Bum Rush the Show.

    Public Enemy also used the words a few years later on “Fear of a Black Planet” from the 1990 album of the same name: “I’m just a rhyme sayer/ Skins protected ‘gainst the ozone layers.”

    Neil Young has one of the most famous songs mentioning the ozone layer with “Rockin’ in the Free World” from 1989’s Freedom album (“Got Styrofoam boxes for the ozone layer”). In 1989 in “Sick of You” on his New York album, Lou Reed sang, “The ozone layer has no ozone anymore/ And you’re gonna leave me for the guy next door.”

    Dire Straits sang “Don’t talk to me about ozone layer” on “My Parties” from On Every Street (1991). On “Run Straight Down” from Traverse City (1991), Warren Zevon sang, “Fluorocarbons in the ozone layer/ First the water and the wildlife go.”

    Don McLean wrote about the ozone layer within around three years after the publication of Rowland’s initial study. In 1977, he released “Prime Time” on the album of the same name, singing, “The weather will be fair, forget the ozone layer.”

    In more recent years, artists continue to sing about the ozone layer. David Lee Roth mentioned it on “You’re Breathin’ It” (not available on YouTube) from Your Filthy Little Mouth (1994).

    Eminem claimed some credit for damaging the ozone layer in “Role Model” on 1999’s The Slim Shady LP, “I’m not a player just a ill-rhyme sayer/ That’ll spray an aerosol can up in the ozone layer.”

    The Cranberries took a more environmental approach in “Time is Ticking Out” from 2001’s Wake Up and Smell the Coffee.   In the song, they conclude, “Looks like we screwed up the ozone layer/ I wonder if the politicians care.”

    Remembering Sherwood Rowland and Others

    It is funny that I knew the names of all of these artists who mentioned the ozone layer, but I did not know the name of the people who saved it. I also do not know of any song that mentions Sherwood Rowland or Mario Molina by name.

    Rowland, who died on March 10, 2012, did receive the Nobel Prize in Chemistry in 1995 with Molina and Paul Crutzen of the Max Planck Institute in Germany. But they deserve much more, including our thanks and that we remember their work.

    Photo of aerosol pollution over Northern India and Bangladesh via public domain.

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    Don McLean Live at Glastonbury

    I recently discovered that YouTube features a number of full high quality performances from past Glastonbury Festivals in England. Some of the clips are of individual songs instead of full performances. There are some good ones of Paul Simon, Johnny Cash, Buddy Guy, The Gaslight Anthem, Neil Young, Jackson Browne, Regina Spektor and OK Go.

    For one that you might not expect, check out this 2011 performance by Don McLean, who of course performs “Vincent” and “American Pie.” Here is “Vincent.”

    And here is “American Pie.”

    To see Glastonbury performances from the other performers, head over to this YouTube link.

    What is or favorite YouTube concert? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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    Who Flipped a Coin With Ritchie Valens?: The Day the Music Died and the Coin Toss Controversy

    February 3 marks the anniversary of the day Buddy Holly, J.P. Richardson, and Ritchie Valens perished in a plane crash. You probably know the general outline of “the day the music died.” But you may not know the controversy surrounding the legendary coin flip connected to the tragedy.

    The Day the Music Died

    In early 1959, Buddy Holly, J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson, Ritchie Valens, and Dion and the Belmonts toured through the Midwest in what was called “The Winter Dance Party.” Also on the tour was Holly’s new back-up band replacing the Crickets: Tommy Allsup on guitar, Waylon Jennings on bass, and Carl Bunch on drums.

    Some of the performers were tired of traveling through the cold in an old bus that kept breaking down. The poor conditions led to drummer Bunch going to the hospital with frostbite. So Buddy Holly chartered a small plane for one of the upcoming trips on the tour.

    After their February 2, 1959 performance in Clear Lake, Iowa, three of the stars — Holly, Richardson, and Valens — boarded a three-passenger plane. The plane took off in the early morning hours of February 3 for Fargo, North Dakota but soon crashed in a snow storm.

    All three passengers were killed along with the pilot Roger Peterson. The young rock and roll music industry lost three of its brightest stars.

    The Competing Claims About a Coin Toss

    Although the story is familiar, there is still an ongoing question. Besides Holly, how did Richardson and Valens end up on the plane instead of the other headliner, Dion, or instead of other band members?

    Stories conflict about the events that night before the flight. Everyone agrees there was a coin toss. But survivors still debate who was the person who barely missed getting on a plane ride to their death, all due to the luck of a coin flip.

    Holly’s former band members tell one story. But Dion wrote in his book The Wanderer Talks Truth (2011) that the events “have been completely eclipsed by urban legends, cinematic retellings, gossip, and outright grandstanding.” (p. 41).

    Who is telling the truth? Let’s consider the different versions of the story.

    On a Behind the Music episode, “The Day the Music Died,” the producers presented the story that Buddy Holly planned for the airplane to the next stop on the tour for him and his two musicians, Waylon Jennings and Tommy Allsup. In the video, Waylon Jennings explains how he gave up his seat on the plane to the ailing Big Bopper (around 9:50). Jennings recounts that Holly had ribbed him about taking the bus. Jennings responded, jokingly, “I hope your ole plane crashes,” a retort that haunted him for years.

    In the same episode, guitarist Tommy Allsup recounts how when he went inside to make sure they did not leave anything behind, he ran into Ritchie Valens.  Then, Valens asked Allsup if he could take Allsup’s seat on the plane. Allsup then claims he flipped a coin, and Valens won the seat on the ill-fated plane.

    In other venues, Tommy Allsup repeated his version of the story of the coin toss that he lost to Ritchie Valens.

    Bob Hale, the emcee at the Surf Ballroom in Iowa for the last Winter Dance Party show before the plane crash, has a similar recollection. Hale remembers that Allsup suggested the coin flip. But Hale recalls that he was the one who flipped the coin for Allsup and Valens.  Hale remembers that Valens won by calling “heads.”

    Allsup, however, argues that Hale was not present at the coin flip. [February 2013 Update: See the comments section below for Mr. Hale’s comment on this post.][January 2017 Update: Tommy Allsup passed away on January 11, 2017.]

    Dion has yet another version of the events leading to the plane ride. According to Dion’s website:

    “Dion was, in fact, scheduled to fly in the fateful plane that went down. The headliners flipped a coin to see who was going to fly. The Big Bopper and Dion won the toss. Then he discovered that the flight would cost $36 — the exact amount of rent his parents paid monthly. He said, ‘I couldn’t bring myself to pay a full month’s rent on a short flight. So I said, ‘Ritchie, you go.’ He accepted and took my seat. Only the four of us knew who was getting on that plane when we left the dressing room that night. Of those four, I was the only one who survived beyond February 3, 1959.'”

    In his book The Wanderer Talks Truth, Dion explains that through the years he watched others (presumably Allsup who he never names) exaggerate their role.  Dion asserts that he only came forward to correct history when the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame contacted him about the conflicting stories.

    Filmmakers created a documentary about the tour that includes Dion’s memories. 2015 Update: The Winter Dance Party video interview with Dion has been completed and is posted below. Dion’s explanation of the coin toss involving Holly, Vallens, the Big Bopper, and him begins at around 42:20, although the entire video is worth watching for his memories of the tour.

    Allsup has threatened to “whip [Dion’s] ass for claiming he participated in the coin toss with Valens.  Sometimes Allsup’s anger about the dispute unnecessarily digresses to attacking Dion’s musical talents.

    Readers of this blog know I am a Dion fan, so I hate to believe that he is lying. And to a large extent, it has been curious that as the fourth headliner he is often excluded in discussions of the fated tour.

    Then again, one may give some weight to Ritchie Valens’s sister, Connie Valens Lemos. She sides with Tommy Allsup on the issue.

    The Movie Versions of the Coin Flip

    The two major films about two of the stars on the tour do not add any insight. The Buddy Holly Story (1978) avoided the issue altogether. That movie ends with Buddy Holly on stage in Clear Lake, Iowa on the fateful night, playing his hits and having fun on stage.

    At the end of The Buddy Holly Story, Ritchie Valens and The Big Bopper join Holly on stage for the final song, leaving us with a happy moment. As in many retellings of the story, the film does not mention the fourth headliner, Dion.

    The film about Ritchie Valens, La Bamba (1987), also excludes all mention of Dion. A scene of a marquee on the final tour does not even show Dion’s name.

    La Bamba takes some additional literary license with the events leading up to the flight. Regarding the coin toss, in the first mention of the planned flight, the Big Bopper tells Valens (Lou Diamond Phillips) that Holly reserved the plane for the headliners. This conversation in the film is consistent with Dion’s story.

    But later in the movie La Bamba, it shows the group standing next to the plane. There, Holly explains he is flipping a coin to decide whether Ritchie or “Tommy” gets to go. “Tommy” is also called “Allsup” in the scene, so the movie follows the Allsup-Valens coin toss story.  But La Bamba moves the private toss between the two men to one conducted by Holly on the airfield. Allsup has criticized the movie’s fictionalized version of the coin flip.

    What Really Happened?

    Is Allsup telling the truth? And did Dion’s imagination insert the singer deeper into the story of “the day the music died”? It is easy to imagine a toll on Dion from decades of hearing about the music dying when he survived.  For decades that tour headliner has been completely excluded from the legendary tale in many retellings.

    Or is Dion telling the truth, which would mean that Allsup and Waylon Jennings are wrong? And what about Hale’s version that he flipped the coin?

         Arguments Supporting Allsup’s Version

    Between Allsup and Dion, there is no way to way to be sure who is telling the truth. But some factors weigh in favor of Allsup. Since Holly arranged for the flight, it seems like he might first ask his friends and band-mates Allsup and Jennings.  This conclusion makes sense considering the band had lost drummer Carl Bunch for a while due to to frostbite.

    Also, Allsup’s wallet was found among the wreckage.  Allsup explains that  before the coin toss, he had planned to go on the flight. So he gave Holly his identification so Holly could pick up his mail waiting in Fargo. Still, even if Allsup had not planned to fly at some point, he could have given his wallet to Holly for the same reason.

    One strong argument for Allsup is that he consistently has told the same story since the crash. And most stories by other people are largely consistent with Allsup’s version of the coin flip. Bob Hale confirms that the coin flip involved Allsup and Valens, even though Allsup and Hale disagree about who actually flipped the coin. Jennings’ story also is more consistent with Allsup’s.

    Jennings’s story about Allsup seems truthful because he would have no motivation to make up a story that makes him look bad with his joking taunt about the plane crashing. Still, under Dion’s version, Jennings and Holly still could have had the exchange even if Jennings had not been one of the original passengers.

         Arguments Supporting Dion’s Version

    On the other hand, some reasons support Dion’s version of events. Holly might have asked the headliners first, expecting they most likely would be willing to have the money for the expensive flight.

    Also, according to Larrry Lehmer’s book, The Day the Music Died, Holly had asked Jennings to open for him in England but told Jennings that he was not going to tour in England with Allsup because he was going to get back together with his original Crickets. So maybe Allsup would not be the first person Holly would ask on the flight.

    There are other reasons why Holly might have first invited the headliners. For example, Valens and Richardson were both sick, so Holly might have asked them first, then included the other headliner, Dion.

    Waylon Jennings does remember that Dion was especially angry about the poor conditions of the bus that kept breaking down (Lehmer, p. 67). Thus, Holly might have thought that Dion would be the first to jump at the chance to fly. And Holly played drums for Dion for their last show, so they might have talked about the flight.

    Finally, there are questionable reports that Holly, Valens, and Richardson flew in a plane on some legs of the tour before the fateful trip. (Lehmer, p. 224) If true, it seems Holly was flying with the headliners, not his band members. If true, that practice would support the conclusion that Dion was invited on the final flight. On the other hand, many dispute the stories about other flights and even Dion does not remember any other flights.

    Trying to Put It All Together

    Larry Lehmer’s well-researched book is in the Allsup camp, recounting the version from Jennings and Allsup without mentioning the Dion controversy. Lehmer also quotes Carroll Anderson, the manager of the Surf lounge and the person who first contacted the pilot Roger Peterson, as saying that Holly said he wanted to get a flight for him and his band. (p. 95.)

    Maybe some combination of the stories is true. Maybe there was a coin toss among all of the men and Allsup and Dion both “lost” out on seats of the plane.

    Or maybe there were two coin tosses. Under both Allsup’s and Dion’s stories their coin tosses happened in different places at different times. Under this scenario, maybe Dion had a seat that he declined because of the cost.  Then later there could have been a coin flip between Valens and Allsup.

    Buddy Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, similarly has suggested some merging of the two stories.  But it is reported that Allsup also has attacked the character of Ms. Holly too.

    If that is not enough controversy for the day, some people claim that the plane crash itself should be re-investigated. Some go as far to say that foul play was involved in the crash. But we will leave those “mysteries” for another day.

    Of course, the only people who know how these passengers were selected are Tommy Allsup, Dion, and Ritchie Valens. Whatever happened, the survivors’ trauma of hearing the news of the crash probably affected memories. Thus, it is likely both Allsup and Dion actually remember the story in different ways.  Neither of the men is probably intentionally lying.

    So that leaves Ritchie Valens. But unfortunately he is no longer with us and buried in California. Richardson was buried in Beaumont, Texas, although his body was exhumed in 2007, underwent an autopsy, and reburied. Holly is buried in Lubbock, and the pilot Peterson is buried in Iowa.

    Ultimately, to paraphrase Don McLean’s “American Pie,” all of this arguing about the coin toss just may be keeping Satan laughing with delight. It may not matter who lost the coin toss that night, as those who won the toss and those who were on the plane constituted our great national loss.

    What do you think happened with the coin toss? Leave your two cents in the comments.

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