n 1971, Roberta Flack proved that she could be a hitmaker with "You've Got a Friend," her duet with Donny Hathaway. (It grazed the Top 30). In 1972, she proved that she could be a star, by cutting the Grammy-winning Record of the Year -- "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." A riveting love song, it became a number-one hit.
Later in the year, she had another million-seller, "Where Is the Love," again sung with Donny Hathaway. "My first two albums were gold, and they were selling worldwide," recalled Roberta. "They'd been on the charts fifty-some weeks by that time.
"I got on a flight from L.A. to New York, and on the plane was in-flight entertainment -- eight different channels of music you could listen to on a personal headset. I ran down the list of song titles on this one channel and got to 'Killing Me Softly with His Song.' I though, 'Hmm, that's different,' and instantly plugged in. I said, 'I'm gonna wait for that,' and sat back and waited for it to come on. And when I heard it, I freaked. I absolutely freaked. When I got to New York, I went to the hotel and called Quincy Jones. I said, 'Tell me how to find the guys who wrote this song -- Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel.'
"I got it from Charles Fox that they wrote the song, in its final form, based on the feelings of Lori Lieberman. At first, the tune was called 'Killing Me Softly with His Blues.' Similar, but not really the same song. Then Lori went and had the experience of seeing Don McLean perform at the Troubadour."
The song that moved Lori so much was "American Pie" (although other sources indicate that it was based on another McLean song, "Empty Chairs"). Fox and Gimbel completed their tune and then had Lori record it for Capitol Records. Although it did get "air play" in the sky, Lori's version fell flat on the charts on the ground below.
Roberta then went into the studio with producer Joel Dorn and arranger Eumir Deodato (himself to become famous within weeks, with the hit instrumental "2001"). They released "Killing Me Softly" in late January 1973, and within a month, it had been certified gold by the RIAA. The song rapidly climbed up the charts, taking just four weeks to reach number one, and it remained a good seller for more than a dozen more. "Killing Me Softly" also repeated Roberta's earlier Grammy feat by winning Record of the Year as well as Best Pop Vocal -- Female, and Song of the Year for composers Gimbel and Fox. In 1996, the song became a hit again when it was re-imagined as a hip-hop song by the Fugees.
Over fourteen months were spent crafting an album around, and named after, "Killing Me Softly with His Song." When it finally came out, it included a small follow-up hit, "Jesse." After that, Roberta "retired" for a while and studied record production, studio technique, and classical music. When she returned, it was with the album Feel Like Makin' Love. The title track from that album became a number-one million seller in the fall of 1974.
Roberta's next three years were spent, again, out of the spotlight. She came back in 1978 with her fifth gold single, "The Closer I Get to You" (another duet with Donny Hathaway). A few months later, there was one more small hit before the decade ended, "If Ever I See You Again."
"Hits are important," said Roberta, "because they mean that you are successful at what you're trying to do. A hit is a sign that people have accepted what you're trying to share with them. And the fact that you get paid for them at all is fantastic." Her hopes, though, for more hits with Donny Hathaway were dashed on January 13, 1979, when he was killed in a fall from his hotel window.
Roberta, however, vowed to march on. "Ten years from now, I expect to be alive," she said in the early eighties. "I expect to be healthy. I expect to be a mother. I expect to be everything that I want to be. It'll take all those things and more for me to be truly happy. I require a lot out of life."
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