This is the third round of a series where you the reader vote on the best version of a classic tune. This week, it’s pop classic, “Killing Me Softly”, which was first a hit in 1973 for Roberta Flack, revisited in 1996 by hip-hop/R&B collective the Fugees.

The song itself is one of my favourites of all time, with a sort of Astrud Gilberto lilt to it. I wonder if she ever covered it? I must find out. Anyway, the tune’s strength lies in the melody for me, and because of the open-endedness of the narrative. The scene is set with the narrator at a concert, hearing a tune which sets her off in some way, flushed with fever and embarassed by the crowd. Just what is it about what the guy is singing that is getting to the narrator anyway? What were in those letters of hers? Does it matter? Not really. But, the mystery of it makes it kind of sexy. Apparently, this was a true story based on a trip to a concert by, wait for it, “American Pie” singer Don McLean. I somehow doubt that “American Pie” caused feelings of embarrassment. It was probably another tune of his. But you never know.

Anyway, onto the contenders…

Roberta Flack

Roberta Flack Killing Me SoftlyThis is of course the breakthrough version and an enormous radio hit in 1973 for Flack from the album Killing Me Softly. Flack had a hit the year before with “Where is the Love?” with Donny Hathaway, and another one before that with the superlative “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”. But “Killing Me Softly” is the one which shot her voice into the stratosphere, creating as it did an instant classic that would be celebrated and butchered by club singers thereafter. Roberta Flack’s voice has a sort of aching quality to it, which really serves the material. She doesn’t over-sing this, although the temptation to do so might trip up someone of less interpretive skill. This is a story about quiet desperation, of inner turmoil, while trying to maintain composure. As such, Flack nails the tone of it exactly, with a seemingly effortless delivery. This is one of the sexiest vocals ever recorded.

The Fugees

The Fugees The ScoreIn 1996, The Fugees put out their album The Score to rightful acclaim. Part of the reason for this was this excellent take on the track in question. Singer Lauren Hill, with compatriots Wyclef Jean and Pras take on a Herculean task – bringing something new to this song without crapping all over it. The results are impressive, with Hill showing as much restraint vocally as this tune demands. As I said before; this is a song about being vulnerable, and not wanting others to catch wind of that vulnerability. In the age of over the top melisma which seems to dominate R&B singing since Whitney Houston and her followers established the standard, it would have been easy to let one’s ego get in the way. But, this version is ego free, with an obvious love for the source material by all concerned pretty evident. In terms of phrasing, Hill adds a few things of her own (I love the Jamaican patois she adds in there – “there he was this young bwoy…” ), but she plays it close to the original which makes for a pretty clean delivery that might have otherwise been too cluttered. And the addition of the beat is subtle enough not to get in the way of the voice.

So, which is it to be, good people? Roberta Flack? Or, the Fugees? Is there another version that trumps both of these?

Vote for your favourite now!

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5 thoughts on “Song rendition showdown: Killing Me Softly, Roberta Flack vs The Fugees

  1. The thing about this song, for me, is the lyrics. They tell a melancholy story and yet neither version here actually sets the scene for me to feel it in the way I remember it when Roberta Flack first recorded it.
    In this clip, Roberta sounds very much like a woman who has sung the song WAY too many times and simply wants to get it over with.
    In the other version, while the Fugees have added a newer, hipper dimension to the song, they are not feeling the lyrics either, just stylizing them.
    For me, neither wins.

    1. I remember this song as a kid in the seventies. Hated the new versions. And although roberta flacks versions ok, it just didn’t sound like what I remembered. Anyway, looked into it and turns out the singer was LLori Lieberman, not Roberta flack. The song was based on a poem she wrote.

  2. Roberta does it for me. As much as I like the Fugees version, Flack has a strong and stable voice that keeps the song from going over the top. The sweet and steady epiano and beat keep the song level, kind of like a “With or Without You” moderation – letting the words and emotion be the song rather than elaborate instrumentation.

    What about Roberta Flack vs. Gordon Lightfoot vs. Johnny Cash on “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face?”

  3. Thanks for voting, guys.

    Prissy – if I could have found a clip with the original version, you bet I’d have put it in there because I agree with you. Still, the clip that is there at least reveals something of the quality of her voice, if not the interpretation of a song she’d probably done to death as you rightly mention. But, based on what you said, I’m going to count your vote in favour of Roberta.

    Thanks again guys!

  4. Indeed, the first artist to redo the song Killing Me Softly in an interesting version, was the italian singer “Gianni Miele” on his CD “Dr. Black & Mr. White” (1991), long before The Fugees 🙂

    Gianni Miele plays and sings “Zouk” music, a modern french-caribbean music’s style.

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