Like most people who were in their teens in 1996, I figured that this song was written by Lauryn Hill. Even though the Fugees’ version will always have a special place on my iPod, and even though I still find it hard not to chime in during the chorus with an enthusiastic “…One time!” I’ve come to realize that the original is the superior song.
Roberta Flack is an amazing person. She entered university at the age of 15 on a full music scholarship. She was teaching English and Music by age 19. In 1973 and ’74, she won consecutive Grammy Awards for Record of the Year, a feat that only U2 has been able to match. The second of those awards was for this song, and it was well-deserved.
What makes this a beautiful song:
1. The ghostly backup singers. Not sure if they recorded the vocals in a cave, or if they just put loads of reverb on it after the fact, but we’ve got the world’s most phantom-esque backup singers here, perfect for a song about unrequited love.
2. The bass. It took a few listens for me to notice, but at several moments in the song, the bassist is almost plucking the strings like you would on a normal guitar, playing chords rather than a single note at a time. Give a listen at the end of each chorus, and during the song’s final minute.
3. The bridge at 3:22. This was one of the highlights of the Fugees’ cover; I remember being at parties where conversations would stop at this point in the song while everyone joined forces in a massive singalong. Lauryn Hill definitely brought some flair to it, but I really like Flack’s more laid-back approach, especially when she hangs on to that note at 3:39.
Recommended listening activity:
Humming just quietly enough so that you’re the only one who notices.