Norman Gimbel, 91, Grammy and Oscar-Winning Lyricist, Is Dead
By Anita Gates
Norman Gimbel, left, and Charles Fox with their Grammy Awards for best song, “Killing Me Softly,” in 1973. “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,” Mr. Fox said.CreditCharles Fox Archives
Norman Gimbel, left, and Charles Fox with their Grammy Awards for best song, “Killing Me Softly,” in 1973. “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,” Mr. Fox said.CreditCreditCharles Fox Archives
Norman Gimbel, the wildly versatile Brooklyn-born lyricist who won a Grammy Award for a blues hit, “Killing Me Softly With His Song”; an Oscar for a folk ballad, “It Goes Like It Goes” (from “Norma Rae”); and television immortality for the bouncy series themes to “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley,” died on Dec. 19 at his home in Montecito, Calif. He was 91.
The death was confirmed by his son Tony, managing partner of his father’s music publishing company, Words West.
Any attempt to categorize the elder Mr. Gimbel’s musical leanings would be complicated. He was famous for the English lyrics of “The Girl From Ipanema,” Antonio Carlos Jobim’s 1964 bossa nova hit originally written in Portuguese. He also wrote English lyrics for Michel Legrand’s music from Jacques Demy’s romantic 1964 French film “The Umbrellas of Cherbourg,” most notably “I Will Wait for You” (“Till you’re here beside me, till I’m touching you”) and for what became “I Will Follow Him,” a solid hit about teenage adoration sung by Little Peggy March (age 15) in 1963.
Among his early hits, “Sway” (“When marimba rhythms start to play”) was clearly Latin-accented, even when Dean Martin sang it, and “Canadian Sunset,” recorded by Andy Williams, became a jazz standard. “Ready to Take a Chance Again” (from “Foul Play,” 1978), which earned an Oscar nomination, was a wistfully hopeful love song. Jim Croce’s 1973 hit “I Got a Name” (“Movin’ me down the highway, rollin’ down the highway, movin’ ahead so life won’t pass me by”) was quintessential folk rock.
Mr. Gimbel worked with David Shire on “Norma Rae,” but his most frequent collaborator may have been Charles Fox.
“Killing Me Softly,” which brought Mr. Gimbel and Mr. Fox the song-of-the-year Grammy after Roberta Flack released it in 1973, had a conflict-ridden back story. Lori Lieberman, a California bistro singer, had recorded the song first (Mr. Fox and Mr. Gimbel were her producers and managers) and she said that the lyrics (among them, “I felt he found my letters and read each one out loud”) had been based on a poem she had written about attending an emotionally stirring Don McLean concert.
The song, which became a hit again with the Fugees’ hip-hop cover in the 1990s, is now sometimes listed as written “in collaboration with” Ms. Lieberman.
Norman Gimbel was born in Brooklyn on Nov. 16, 1927. His parents — Morris Gimbel, who was in the restaurant business, and Lottie (Nass) Gimbel — were Jewish immigrants from Austria.
Norman, who studied English at Baruch College and Columbia University, began his career working for the music publisher David Blum and for Edwin H. Morris & Company.
His first hit was “Ricochet,” written with Larry Coleman and Joe Darion and recorded by Teresa Brewer in 1953. The saucy, country-tinged pop song (“If you’re careless with your kisses, find another turtle dove”) rose to No. 2 on the charts.
Mr. Gimbel soon moved to Los Angeles, where he worked more widely in television and film, teaming up with Mr. Fox on the themes to the hit sitcoms “Laverne and Shirley” (“Schlemiel, schlimazle, Hassenpfeffer Incorporated”) and “Happy Days” (“Sunday, Monday, happy days”) and the 1970s series “Wonder Woman” and “The Paper Chase.”
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984.
Back in New York, Mr. Gimbel wrote lyrics for two Broadway musicals, “Whoop-Up” (1958) and “The Conquering Hero” (1961), working with the composer Moose Charlap. The first show, set on an American Indian reservation, earned two Tony nominations; the second, starring Tom Poston as a fake war hero, had a book by Larry Gelbart. Despite positive reviews, both musicals flopped at the box office and closed early.
Both of Mr. Gimbel’s marriages, to the fashion model Elinor Rowley and to Victoria Carver, a lawyer, ended in divorce. In addition to his son Tony, survivors include another son, Peter; two daughters, Nelly Gimbel and Hannah Gimbel Dal Pozzo; and four grandchildren.
Mr. Gimbel gave relatively few interviews. In a six-minute segment as a contestant (alongside Burt Bacharach and Jerry Leiber) on “Play Your Hunch,” an early Merv Griffin game show, he spoke only three words.
That verbal reticence, though, served him well professionally. “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,” Mr. Fox, the composer, said in a statement after his writing partner’s death.
He went on to praise Mr. Gimbel’s ability to conjure an entire song with its first line, and he offered examples: “Tall and tan and young and lovely.” “Strumming my pain with his fingers.” “If it takes forever, I will wait for you.”
Correction: January 1, 2019
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year the movie “Foul Play” was released. It was 1978, not 1998.
Correction: January 2, 2019
An earlier version of this obituary misstated the year of the Broadway musical “The Conquering Hero,” for which Mr. Gimbel wrote the lyrics and Moose Charlap wrote the music. It was 1961, not 1967.
A version of this article appears in print on Jan. 2, 2019, on Page B10 of the New York edition with the headline: Norman Gimbel, 91, Who Thrilled Softly With His Songs. Order Reprints | Today’s Paper | Subscribe