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 bouncy series themes, including the ones for the sitcoms Happy Days and Laverne and Shirley, died on Dec. 19 at his home in Montecito, Calif., near Santa Barbara. 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, the 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 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 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 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 Grammy Award for Song of the Year after Roberta Flack released the song 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 having been written “in collaboration with” Ms. Lieberman.
Norman Gimbel was born in Brooklyn, N.Y., on Nov. 16, 1927. His parents – Morris Gimbel, who was in the restaurant business, and Lottie (Nass) Gimbel – were Jewish immigrants from Austria.
Mr. Gimbel, who studied English at Baruch College and Columbia University, began his career working for music publisher David Blum and for Edwin H. Morris and Co.
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. In addition to his work on the Laverne and Shirley and Happy Days themes, he wrote themes for the 1970s series Wonder Woman and The Paper Chase.
He was inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1984.
Back in New York, he wrote lyrics for two Broadway musicals, Whoop-Up (1958) and The Conquering Hero (1967), working with composer Moose Charlap. The first show, set on an American Indian reservation, earned two Tony nominations, and the second, starring Tom Poston as a fake war hero, had a book by Larry Gelbart. Despite some positive reviews, both musicals flopped at the box office and closed early.
Both of Mr. Gimbel’s marriages, to fashion model Elinor Rowley and to Victoria Carver, a lawyer, ended in divorce. In addition to his son Tony, he leaves 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.”