Classic Hollywood: Composer Charles Fox
“Killing Me Softly With His Song.” “I Got a Name.” “Ready to Take a Chance Again.” The themes from “Love, American Style,” “Happy Days,” “Laverne & Shirley” and “The Love Boat.”
What do these songs have in common?
They all sprung from the melodic mind of Charles Fox, who for the last half-century has composed more than 100 motion picture and TV scores, ballets and classical works. The two-time Emmy Award winner, Grammy winner and two-time Oscar nominee recalls his successful career in his new autobiography, aptly titled “Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music,” which comes out next week. Fox will also be discussing his work and signing books Sept. 26 at the West Hollywood Book Fair and will be signing books and performing his songs at the “Cabaret at the Castle” at the Magic Castle on Sept. 28.
Now, 69, the soft-spoken Fox certainly isn’t resting on his laurels. He and frequent collaborator Hal David last week introduced “90210 Beverly Hills,” the official theme song of the city.
“The mayor asked us to write it,” says Fox, relaxing on a recent Saturday afternoon in his memorabilia, award-filled music studio at his Encino house.
Just last week in Gdansk, Poland, he conducted a new composition written to commemorate the 200th birthday of Chopin. “It was also the 30th anniversary of the Solidarity Movement,” Fox says. “We did the concert in the big square with 22,000 people standing shoulder to shoulder.”
He also penned the music and appears in the new documentary “100 Voices — A Journey Home,” playing on 500 screens around the country for one night only on Sept. 21, about the personal stories and musical performances of a group of Jewish cantors and Fox, who traveled last year to Poland, the birthplace of cantorial music.
Born in the Bronx, Fox got his first professional start playing at 15 in a band at a hotel in the Catskills. He attended and graduated from the High School of Music and Arts in New York City and then at 18 traveled to France to study for a few years at the American Conservatory in Fontainebleau with the famed Nadia Boulanger, the influential composer, conductor and teacher.
“So many people asked me about her,” he says. “She had an extraordinary ability to go into the heart and soul of each composer. She was very formal. I couldn’t go to her house without a suit and tie. A man without a necktie was naked.”
Fox collaborated with lyricist Norman Gimbel on his best-known hits including “I Got a Name” and “Killing Me Softly.”
“I Got a Name,” which was a big hit by the late Jim Croce, was written for the 1973 Jeff Bridges film “The Last American Hero.”
“We played the song for Jim Croce over the phone,” Fox says. “He said ‘I would like to do it’ because it brought him closer to his father who died at a young age before he was able to fulfill his own dreams.” (Sadly, Croce died in a small commercial plane crash 37 years ago before “I Got a Name” was even released.)
The same year Fox and Gimbel wrote “I Got a Name,” they scored a massive international hit with “Killing Me Softly,” recorded by Roberta Flack. It won three Grammys: song of the year, record of the year and female pop vocal. But Flack wasn’t the first to record the haunting ballad; Lori Lieberman first sang it in 1971.
“Norman Gimbel and I were looking to find a voice for our songs,” Fox explains. The two went to clubs to listen to young singers, then the best performed at Fox’s house. Both he and Gimbel were immediately sold on the clear-voiced Lieberman. They had recorded nine of their songs with her when Capitol Records called and told them they really wanted to release the album as soon as possible. But they needed another song. “Norman had a book with some titles and thoughts of lyrics and he had this title, ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song,’” says Fox.
“He wrote the lyric that day, called me at the end of the day and read me the lyric over the phone,” he says. “I wrote the music that night and the next day we got together with Lori and she loved it.”
Because she was a new artist, the album didn’t get a lot of promotion but received ample airplay as part of music programming on American Airlines, which is where Flack first heard it. She got in touch with Quincy Jones to find out how to connect with Fox. He said he soon got a call one day saying, “ ‘This is Roberta Flack. We haven’t met but I am going to record your song.’ ”
The song was a hit everywhere. And the song became another major hit in 1993 thanks to the Fugees’ recording. Notes Fox: “It brought a whole new generation to the song.”
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