In 1971 Don McLean’s performance of “Empty Chairs” at the Troubadour sparked an intense emotional experience that would quickly change the path of Lori Lieberman’s life. Lieberman connected so deeply with that performance that she began to write her feelings down on a tear-stained napkin.
After the show, Lieberman called her lover and lyricist/manager, Norman Gimbel to share her inspiration and the bud that was “Killing Me Softly with His Song” began to blossom. Gimbel, Lieberman, and Gimbel’s business partner, Charles Fox, then collaborated on the composition. In a 1973 interview with New York Daily News, Gimbel said: “She told us about this strong experience she had listening to McLean. I had a notion this might make a good song… We talked it over several times, just as we did for the rest of the numbers we wrote for this album and we all felt it had possibilities.” Lieberman’s poetic inspiration was shortly set to music by Fox but supported lyrically by Gimbel. It was Lieberman, however, that paid attention to the lyrical and structural integrity of her first-hand sentimental experience.
Soon after, Lieberman recorded “Killing Me Softly With His Song” on her self titled album for Capitol Records, but was given no credit as a writer, costing her both financial and musical recognition for one of her most well-known works. While recalling her initial relationship with the track, Lieberman explained: “I remember feeling about the song that it was good and I liked it. I don’t think I loved it at all. It almost embarrassed me because I didn’t want anybody to view me as a groupie who had gone to, you know, a concert. I just didn’t want to be seen like that.”
The song continued to gain popularity as it was later covered by Roberta Flack in 1973, earning her multiple Grammys, and the Fugees in 1996, topping the charts internationally. Still, Lieberman received little to no recognition for the track itself, finding her contributions discredited by Gimbel and Fox. Gimbel even went as far as to demand that Don McLean remove a reference to Lieberman’s participation in the song’s composition from his website.
Almost forty-seven years later, Lieberman’s relationship with her controversial song has changed immensely. She states: “As a young girl I was telling my story and that was a story of a young girl.” That story, now, can be something that Lieberman takes pride in. Its growing popularity and various artistic perspectives have allowed it to reach many different genres and, in turn, different audiences. Lieberman, though, still considers it to be hers: “When I hear the Fugees or Roberta Flack, I always think it’s like this little private secret that I have that, wow that’s me. You know? That’s me, that’s my story. No one here is this restaurant knows that this is mine… It’s like a little secret.” She also asserts the immense differences between her version and the various covers, highlighting Flack’s “brilliance” in her adaptation and stating: “I like that it has taken on all these different interpretations…I was a mother of three kids by then and suddenly, ya know, I was sort of like really popular in their eyes when the Fugees came out with it… MTV was on and they had the bubble that spoke about the original recording and then, ‘Mom that’s you!’ so that was, that was cool.”
Lieberman has recently reorchestrated her version of “Killing Me,” linking it to “Empty Chairs” as an ode to her original inspiration. Now, the song holds a new significance in Lieberman’s life: “I must have performed it thousands and thousands of times, but I never ever ever ever get tired of it. Ever…I sing it for the girl I was, but I also sing it for who I’ve become… there have been a lot of twists and turns, but the song is still something that I regard as a really big gift to me and I’m constantly surprised that it is something that people relate to so much.”
Lieberman just released her newest album, The Girl and the Cat, featuring her own adaptation of McLean’s “Empty Chairs.” She also plans to “Return to the Troubadour” in April to recount the experience behind her famed song.