Norman Gimbel, Famed Oscar- and Grammy-Winning Lyricist, Dies at 91
He wrote "Killing Me Softly With His Song" and "I Got a Name," hits for Roberta Flack and Jim Croce, respectively, words to "The Girl From Ipanema" and the theme to 'Happy Days.'
Norman Gimbel, the Oscar- and Grammy-winning lyricist whose career included Roberta Flack's "Killing Me Softly With His Song," Jim Croce's "I Got a Name" and the themes to Happy Days and Laverne & Shirley, has died. He was 91.
Gimbel died Dec. 19 at his longtime home in Montecito, Calif., son Tony Gimbel told The Hollywood Reporter.
The Brooklyn native shared his original song Academy Award with David Shire for "It Goes Like It Goes," performed by Jennifer Warnes for Norma Rae (1979), starring Sally Field in an Oscar-winning turn.
With music by his most frequent writing partner, Charles Fox, Gimbel wrote the lyrics to the wonderfully melancholy "Killing Me Softly With His Song," and Flack's version earned them the Grammy for Song of the Year in 1973. (The song, which spent five weeks at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 chart, was first recorded by Lori Lieberman a couple years earlier, and the Fugees' hip-hop cover version was a hit decades later.)
Gimbel and Fox also collaborated on Croce's "I Got a Name," released the day after the singer's death in a plane crash Sept. 20, 1973. The song served as the theme to The Last American Hero (1973), starring Jeff Bridges.
"I've always felt that lyric was among the very best from Norman's pen," Fox wrote in his 2010 biography, Killing Me Softly: My Life in Music. He noted that he and Gimbel had written more than 150 songs together over 30 years.
"Norman's lyrics have extraordinary beauty and sensitivity and understanding of the human condition," Fox wrote. "There's never a waste or [an] excessive word."
The duo also earned original song Oscar noms for writing "Richard's Window," performed by Olivia Newton-John for The Other Side of the Mountain (1975), and "Ready to Take a Chance Again," sung by Barry Manilow for Foul Play (1978).
Gimbel and Fox wrote the themes for the Garry Marshall comedies Happy Days (their names/credits are seen on the record that's placed on the jukebox turntable during the opening credits), Laverne & Shirley ("Making Our Dreams Come True") and Angie, as well as music for other shows including Paper Chase, Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and Wonder Woman.
In a 2004 interview for the website The Interviews: An Oral History of Television, Fox described how Gimbel came up with the idea for the Happy Days lyric:
"I remember Norman said maybe it should be kind of like a laundry list of ideas," he recalled. "So instead of, 'One o'clock, two o'clock, three o'clock, rock!,' he came up with, 'Monday, Tuesday, Happy Days! Wednesday, Thursday, Happy Days!' It was really an offshoot of [the Bill Haley hit]."
Gimbel also wrote the English lyrics for "The Girl From Ipanema," featuring Astrud Gilberto and Stan Getz, which won the Grammy for Record of the Year in 1965 and is one of the most recorded songs of all time.
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984.
Born in Brooklyn on Nov. 16, 1927, Gimbel attended Baruch College and Columbia University. Early on, he worked for music publishers David Blum and Edwin H. Morris and on the songs "Ricochet Romance" in 1953 (later a hit for Teresa Brewer) and "Canadian Sunset" (with music by jazz pianist Eddie Heywood), a No. 1 single for Andy Williams in 1956.
Gimbel worked alongside famed Broadway composer Frank Loesser (Guys and Dolls) for three years, then teamed with composer Morris "Moose" Charlap for the Broadway musicals Whoop-Up in 1958 and The Conquering Hero — starring Tom Poston and with a book by Larry Gelbart — in 1961.
Starting in 1963, Gimbel wrote English lyrics to music from such noted Brazilian composers as Antonio Carlos Jobim, Luiz Bonfa, Carlos Lyra and Baden Powell, including "So Nice" (Summer Samba), "Meditation," "How Insensitive" and "The Song of the Sabia."
He then came up with the English lyrics to Michel Legrand's music for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (1964), starring Catherine Deneuve.
Gimbel moved to Hollywood in 1967 and worked with composers like Lalo Schifrin, Elmer Bernstein, Bill Conti, Quincy Jones, Burt Bacharach and Nelly Gimbel, his daughter.
His songs were heard in dozens of films, including The Phantom Tollbooth (1970), Where's Poppa? (1970), A Troll in Central Park (1994) and Lady and the Tramp 2: Scamp's Adventure (2001).
He is survived by his children Tony, Nelly, Peter and Hannah. Tony has been working with his father for more than 25 years running Normans Music Publishing Co., now called Words West Llc.
In a Facebook post, Robert Folk, who wrote about 15 songs with Gimbel, called him "an incredible talent, brilliant in every way, and one who had successfully navigated every genre in popular music."
He added, "I remember one of countless moments with Norman so fondly, when after a playback via phone of a newly finished song for a prominent filmmaker, he said to me privately, 'Don't ever tell them how easy this work is for us, and how much fun we've had writing these songs, or else they'll never pay us all this money again!'…as he laughed out loud!"