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Charles Fox Remembers Collaborating With Norman Gimbel on ‘Happy Days’ Theme, ‘Killing Me Softly’

Norman Gimbel, who died Dec. 19, wrote the words for hit songs like “Killing Me Softly” as well as TV themes such as “Laverne & Shirley.” His collaborator of nearly five decades, Charles Fox, remembers working with the Oscar-winner. 

One of the great lyricists of the 20th century passed away on December 19 in Montecito, California.

Norman Gimbel was my songwriting partner and collaborator and friend for nearly 50 years. We wrote close to 200 songs together for motion pictures, TV, theater and records. Many of them found their way into people’s lives and hearts for which I’m eternally proud and grateful.

It was my great good fortune to meet Norman in 1970 and begin our work together. I had been hired to write the songs and score for Sid and Marty Krofft’s Universal motion picture “Pufnstuf,” and I needed a lyricist partner for the songs. Our mutual friend at BMI, Ron Anton, introduced Norman and me via the telephone when I was in New York and Norman was in Los Angeles. Ron said that he thought that we’d be good collaborators in songwriting. Boy was he right!

Norman had already been one of the most successful songwriters before I met him, having written the lyrics for many standards, including the great bossa novas with Antonio Carlos Jobim: “The Girl From Ipanema,” “So Nice” and “Meditation”; and with Michel Legrand he wrote the lyrics for the songs from the film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg”: “I Will Wait For You” and “Watch What Happens.” I was thrilled to begin working together with Norman.

Over the many years that we collaborated, almost always Norman gave me the lyrics first, which I then set to music. Sometimes he would give me just a title or a few lines of a lyric and we’d develop the song together, my music and his words. There was always a great trust and mutual respect and admiration for each other’s work in our collaboration. Norman had the extraordinary ability with his lyrics to capture the human condition with never an excessive word to describe a feeling or an action. His words were beautiful, sensitive, and always cut to the heart of the situation we were writing about or the artist we were writing for. His words were poetry that flowed as one would sing. His words inspired me, and the music flowed from them.

So many of Norman’s lyrics begin with a single line that conjures up the whole song that follows. Of the songs we wrote together, think of, “Like the pine trees lining the winding road, ‘I Got A Name,” “Strumming my pain with his fingers, singing my life with his words, ’Killing Me Softly With His Song,” “Sunday Monday ‘Happy Days.’”

And with Antonio Carlos Jobim he wrote, “Tall and tan and young and lovely, ‘The Girl From Ipanema’ goes walking.” With Michel Legrand, “If it takes forever ‘I Will Wait For You.’” His Oscar-winning song with David Shire, “’It Goes Like It Goes’ like the river flows” from the film “Norma Rae.” And it’s hard not to smile when you hear Dean Martin singing, “When marimba rhythms start to play, ‘SWAY’ with me, ‘SWAY’ with me.”

Norman’s words stay with you forever because they’re rooted in unique and beautiful expressions that are true to the human spirit.

I lost a dear friend and long time collaborator with Norman’s passing. Rest in peace my friend, the world will not forget your words.

–Charles Fox

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