Five Good Covers presents five cross-genre reinterpretations of an oft-covered song.
But you probably knew that. Pat yourself on the back, then try this bonus question: Did you know Roberta Flack’s hit was a cover too?
The original version was performed and co-written (though she didn’t get credit) by Lori Lieberman, who I interviewed for my recent book on cover songs. She said her experience at a Don McLean concert inspired the song. After he left the stage, she scribbled a poem with many of the lyrics on a cocktail napkin. Professional songwriters Charles Fox (music) and Norman Gimbel (lyrics) then fleshed out her words into a proper song.
“I was really naive,” she told me about not getting a co-writing credit. “I had just come to L.A. from Switzerland where I grew up. I was shy and in this very dramatic relationship with Gimbel. I was so thrilled to have my first record deal that I gave [the songwriting credit] away unknowingly. I didn’t fight for anything. I didn’t even know that was an option.”
Lieberman isn’t bitter about the fact that Flack or the Fugees had bigger hits than she did though, and says she likes both versions. “I came from a real folk era – James Taylor and suspenders and no makeup,” she says. “My song… just didn’t have any of the flash and flair and choral affects that [Flack] had. She made it something I never would have thought of and I applaud her. Without her it would have just been another folk song.”
There’s a whole lot more to the story, from Flack discovering the song from an in-flight magazine to the Fugees unsuccessfully petitions to writers to let them change the lyrics, which would have made theirs a very different song. (And – self-promotion alert – you can read the whole thing in my book). But we’re going to celebrate the core greatness of the song by highlighting five killer covers other than the big Flack and Fugees’ hits you already know.
Swingle II – Killing Me Softly
Who knew an a cappella group could have so much drama? The Parisian vocal group The Swingle Singers debuted in the 1960s with a Bach covers album, winning the fifth-ever Grammy for “Best New Artist” in 1964 (next year’s winner: the Beatles). They say the “Best New Artist” Grammy is cursed though, and it must have been for them. Within a decade, interpersonal drama caused the group’s dissolution and founder Ward Swingle (real name) formed the uncreatively christened Swingle II. Their second album under the new name moved away from the classical cannon with this tender cover. Still, it finds a middle ground between Lieberman, Flack (her version was only a year old), and Renaissance music.
Hampton Hawes – Killing Me Softly
There are a million instrumental jazz covers of this song, and mostly land somewhere between Kenny G and the elevator. Pianist Hampton Hawes’s is different. He recorded this cover with his trio for his final album, released in 1978 shortly after his death. “Killing Me Softly” becomes a slightly morbid title when performed by the recently deceased, but his playing is full of life.
Omara Portuondo – Killing Me Softly
Singer Omara Portuondo translated the lyrics for a 2006 Cuban covers compilation. Even more impressive though is her musical translation, bringing in elements of her native bolero while keeping the song’s recognizable core. The tune works as more than a cross-cultural novelty; the melody sits comfortably in an entirely new context. The rare “Killing Me Softly” you could conceivably dance to.
Linda Imperial – Killing Me Softly
Well, I suppose Linda Imperial would want you to dance to this one too. Dancing is sort of its whole reason for existence. And I go back and forth on it. A disco cover of “Killing Me Softly” may seem somewhat inappropriate, but after listening to so many tender and emotive versions, I started to appreciate the irreverence. Linda Imperial belts it like she’s singing “I Will Survive” karaoke, and it’s a refreshingly different way to approach a song that can sometimes become saccharine.
PitchBlak Brass Band – Killing Me Softly
Though this cover was performed at an Atlanta house concert, it sounds like a marching band second-lining down a New Orleans street. Uptempo covers of this song always sound odd at first, but this one invites everyone in to the party. The Fugees first adding a hip-hop beat probably seemed outrageous to Flack purists too, but now it’s cannon. This version – fun, full of joy and swagger – should be too.