Vinyl Stories Interview – Killing Us Softly with His Songs: A Conversation with Charles Fox

Composer and arranger Charles Fox has worked in the fields of jazz, classical, opera, ballet, film scores and pop music, but made his biggest cultural impact in the niche genre of writing television theme songs.

Television theme songs are amongst the most important music that makes up the soundtracks of our lives.  While they often seem to take a back seat to other types of genres in musical discussions, these three-minute jingles, which marked the openings of our favorite television shows, are amongst the most recognizable songs ever written.  They came into our homes each week, implanted their way into our subconscious and often joined us collectively as a culture.  But, most of all, a great theme song will last the test of time, even long after the show has gone off the air.  Highly memorable, the lyrics are more familiar than the most current Billboard hit:

“Love American Style, truer than the red, white and blue.  Love American Style, that’s me and you.”

“One-two-three-for-five-six-seven-eight!  Schiemiel! Schimazel! Hasenpfeffer Incorporated!”  

Love, exciting and new!  Come aboard, we’re expecting you!”

“Goodbye grey sky hello blue, ’cause nothing can hold me when I hold you. Feel so right can’t be wrong. Rockin’ and rollin’ all week long”

Roberta Flack – Killing Me Softly (1973). Written by Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel, “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” performed by Roberta Flack, would win the Grammy Award for “Song of the Year” in 1974.

If you are able to sing along to any of these lyrics, then the music of composer Charles Fox has been a part of your life.   Primarily known for his career as an arranger and composer for television and films, Charles Fox made his mark on the music world as possibly the most prolific writer of television theme songs in the history of the medium.  Throughout the sixties to the early nineties, Fox composed the theme music for such shows as Match Game, ABC’s Wild World of Sports, The Bugaloos, Love American Style, Happy Days, Laverne and Shirley, Wonder Woman, The Love Boat, Angie, and The Hogan Family.  However, while he has become the Mozart of the theme song, his long and illustrious career in music goes far beyond the television sets.  Fox has been the man behind the music for over a hundred films, including Barbarella; Goodbye, Columbus; Pufnstuf; Little Darlings; 9 to 5; Zapped!; Short Circuit; and Strange Brew.  Alongside lyricist Norman Gimbel he co-wrote Billboard hits for Jim Croce (“I Got a Name”) and Barry Manilow (“Ready to Take a Chance Again”), and  Roberta Flack’s 1974 Grammy winning hit, “Killing Me Softly with His Song.”  But Charles Fox’s career has gone far beyond pop hits and film and television soundtracks. He has been active in scoring opera and ballets, and remains a popular figure in Latin music.  Through all of his musical projects, Charles Fox’s music continues to enter people’s hearts and minds, becoming an important part of their lives.

Directed by filmmaker Danny Gold, “Killing Me Softly With His Songs” showcases Charles Fox’s musical journey through life in a sensitive and nostalgic documentary. The film will be available for streaming on April 2 via Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.

Now Charles Fox’s incredible musical journey is the subject of a brand new documentary, dropping on April 2nd on a multitude of streaming services. Titled Killing Me Softly With His Songs, the film is directed by filmmaker Danny Gold and is available to stream on Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.

A joyful and cohesive exploration of his life and career, Killing Me Softly with His Songs follows Charles Fox as he revisits the people who helped to shape his career and the places where his music was made.  From the streets of the Bronx to the music conservatories of Paris, to the Hollywood Hills and the concert halls of Cuba, Charles is joined by old friends and new collaborators including Paul Williams, Alain Boublil, Rita Wilson, Anne Sila, Common, Alexandre Desplat, Jason Alexander, Henry Winkler, Diane Warren, The Barenaked Ladies, A..J. Croce, and Nathan East to talk about the music that made him famous.  Filled with dynamic musical performances and pop culture nostalgia, the film is not only a loving tribute to Charles’ work, but also pushes his story to unexpected places.

I recently had the chance to talk with Charles Fox about the film, as well as spend some time having my own discussion with him about his music and the art of songwriting.  An intelligent and well-spoken gentleman, Charles indulged me by going down a few additional paths not covered in the film, while entertaining me with stories about songs that have become such an important part of my world.  A once in a lifetime chance to talk to a unique composer who helped craft the soundtrack of my own life, visiting with Charles Fox was a joy for me, both as a writer and a music lover.

“I’m very touched that there is a film about my life, to be honest with you. It’s not something I would have dreamed of.”

I spoke to Charles Fox via telephone on February 23, 2024.

Sam Tweedle:  Hello, Mr. Fox.

Charles Fox:  Hi.  Call me Charles.  How are you?

Sam:  I’m very well. Thank you for giving me some of your time and talking with me today.

Charles:  My pleasure. Looking forward to our chat.

Sam:  I got a chance to watch an advance copy of Killing Me Softly with His Songs and it is such a wonderful movie.   I’ve always had this idea of what I thought your career was, but the film opened up your life and music in a way I never expected.  Are you proud of the film?

Charles:  Oh, my God, I love the film.  When Danny Gold, who is a wonderful director, came to show me the film, my wife said to me, “What if we don’t like it?” Well, that was so far from my concerns. First of all, I’ve known Danny for a number of years, and the first time I was involved with him was for his film, 100 Voices, which he shot in Poland when I was there, and I was conducting the Polish National Opera Company. Then he did a movie called The Bronx, USA and Paul Williams and I wrote a song for the movie. So, I was fully confident that Danny was going to do a good job on this.  Anyway, he made a wonderful film. I’m very proud of it. I’m very touched that there is a film about my life, to be honest with you. It’s not something I would have dreamed of.

Sam:  I think the film highlights your life and your music in such an amazing way.  But as aware of your work as I am, there were side trips into things I didn’t know.  For instance, I wasn’t aware of your recent direction into classical music, opera and ballet.

Charles:  Actually, this coming Thursday, a ballet that I wrote for The Ballet Company fifteen years ago, Zorro, is being brought back in San Francisco and I’m just going to play for a week.  We’re going up to San Francisco to see it. I had another new ballet, A Song for Dead Warriors, premier in early September. 

Sam:  Now, although you started playing music at an early age, it seems that your career really developed from your love for Latin music.

Charles Fox and his Charanga – Just for Fun (1963). Charles Fox’s debut album, recorded after his return from studying music in France, has gained a cult following amongst Latin music enthusiasts.

Charles:  Yes.  I started my career playing Latin music, and I loved it. Then I got involved with the silver screen and the television songs. Then, fifty years later, I decided I wanted to make a new Latin record. I mentioned it to a friend of mine, who’s one of the great composers in Cuba, and he mentioned it to someone, and then I got a call from the Cuban Minister of Culture who asked me if I’d come to Cuba to do some concerts. Well, I decided to do that, and then Danny says, “Well, if you do that, I want to film it.”  So that’s how the idea for the film started.

Sam:  I’d like to talk about your first album, Just for Fun. I went and looked it up on Discogs to see if I could buy a copy for my own collection and found there are only two copies for sale on the site, and it is not cheap. It is a very expensive album.  I loved that your father paid for it to be recorded.  He obviously had a lot of belief in you as a musician to put up the money for that album to be made. 

Charles:  Yes, he did. I didn’t even know that he paid for it at first. It was kept from me so I wouldn’t be embarrassed.   But I started playing when I was pretty young, and I had my own band by the time  I was fifteen years old. We went away for the summer to play in a resort area in the Catskill Mountains, which many young entertainers used to do back then. It was a great training ground for some people. That summer, I discovered Latin music and I fell in love with it, and I just decided that’s what I wanted to do. My interests were also in classical music, opera, and in jazz, but I really loved Latin music so I started doing that. Soon afterwards, I went off to Paris for a few years to study with Nadia Boulanger, who you saw on the film.

Sam:  Yes.  There are some very touching moments in the film with you talking about her.  She sounds like she was an incredible woman.

In the early 1960’s Charles Fox went to Paris to study music with Nadia Boulanger: “She influenced my while life.”

Charles:  She influenced my whole life.  Well, when I came back to the US I needed to earn some money, so I started playing Latin music again and that’s when I started making records. I don’t speak Spanish. I never did. But I worked with a Spanish singer named Elliot Romero who was a lyricist who wrote the words, and we went into the studio and made this record which, unbeknownst to me, my father paid for.  A curious thing about that record is that fifty years later, I went online and typed in my name and I found that people around the world, in maybe twenty or thirty countries, were dancing to the music from Just For Fun. It was pretty extraordinary for me to find that out.   Even now, when I go online, I find people dancing to, and recording, my songs.  I don’t know how it happens but, through the magic of the internet, the world is connected more so now than ever, and I love that aspect.

Sam:  I loved in the film when you and the band do the updated version of the “Wonder Woman Theme” as a salsa, and when I listen to the original version now, I can’t help but hear the Latin influences in that song. 

Charles:  I think that my Cuban and Latin influence affected all my work.   Even in my ballet Zorro, which is an hour-long classical ballet, there’s one section that I call “Mambo,” where the dancers coming out of a movie theater, where they had just seen a Zorro movie, and they are all hyped up by it and they are dancing the Mambo, but in a very classical way. So, that’s how the Latin influence has stayed with me: the syncopation and the phrasing of things. 

Sam:  Of course, when people think of your career they often go directly to the TV theme songs. TV theme songs are such an important part of our cultural makeup. I mean, in a lot of ways it gives people a shared musical experience that extends through generations.  I’ve often described you as being the Mozart of TV theme music.  

Charles:  Oh my God. That’s a bit too much.

Various Artists – Fonzie Favorites (1976) and Cindy Williams and Penny Marshall – Laverne and Shirley Sing (1976). Both the theme to “Happy Days” and “Lavern and Shirley” (“Making Our Dreams Come True”) crossed over from the TV screens to radio and became Billboard hits.

Sam:  Well, perhaps, but I really feel when you take a look at the best-known TV theme songs of all time, you had an output greater than any other composer, with many of them becoming the most memorable theme songs of all time.  Now, in the 1960’s, theme songs were created as a way to tell the plot of the TV show you were going to watch.  But, in the 1970’s, that seemed to change.  There was an evolution where theme songs were sung by name performers and many crossed over to the Billboard charts, including some that you wrote. What was your philosophy of writing a TV theme song? 

Charles:  Well, the first thing is that I have a minute to a minute and a half to introduce the show to the audience. I always wanted it to be upbeat and fun. I wanted to tell the audience what the show is about – if it’s a period piece, if it’s a family show, if it’s warm, or its style, or substance or color. At the same time, I was always trying to make a hit record.  I thought that if I do it right maybe we can get a hit record out of it. Lo and behold, one thing turns into the other and I had a number of hits. “Happy Days” was the number one record in Europe in 1974.

Sam:  “Making Our Dreams Come True” from Laverne and Shirley was also a Billboard hit for Cyndi Grecco, and “Different Worlds” by Maureen McGovern from Angie got on Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts 

Charles:  Jack Jones once told me that he gets his biggest response when he sings the “Theme to Love Boat” to this day.  They still use the song to advertise Princess Cruises, and all the fog horns on their boats play the song  back and forth. It’s a big, ugly-sounding foghorn but it tickles me because they’re playing my song.  That’s probably a first for anyone, to have their song on a foghorn.

Maureen McGovern – Maureen McGovern (1979). This album featured Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s “Different Worlds” which was used as the theme song to the sitcom “Angie.” Although the TV series was short lived, the song charted on the Billboard Adult Contemporary chart.

Sam:  Out of all of your theme songs, my personal favorite really is “Different Worlds” from Angie.  I know that the show wasn’t a huge hit, and the song is not as memorable as many of your themes, but it’s just the one that I love the most.

Charles:  Thank you.  Maureen McGovern is an extraordinary singer. We are still good friends. But you never know if the show’s going to stay on or not.  I did a good theme for a show called A Family for Joe, which starred Robert Mitchum and was a nice warm drama, but they pulled it off after only six episodes. I wrote a lot of theme songs for projects that never even got made, including a “Potsie and Ralph Malph” theme for Gary Marshal.

Sam:  These days, the theme song seems to be something that has become a lost art.  For the most part, network TV has discarded the theme song completely, or made it minimal.  There are still some exceptions though.  Animated shows still do elaborate theme songs, and HBO loves their opening sequences, which are more about the art than the music.  But, otherwise, the theme song as a construct has disappeared.  Why do you think that is, or what are your feelings on it?

ABC-TV’s Tuesday night line-up in 1979: “It used to be that if a network had a bit hit show, like for example Happy Days, when they did Laverne and Shirley they put it on right after Happy Days to take advantage that everyone was already sitting on their couches, and if you hit them with a new show, they’ll sit there and like it too.”  

Charles:  First of all, you’re so right about that. Now they barely give a songwriter or composer ten seconds to do a theme song. I think they’re afraid to lose their audience. They once used the theme song to draw in an audience, but now I think that they feel they’ll lose their audience if they play one.  That’s my personal opinion.  It used to be that if a network had a bit hit show, like for example Happy Days, when they did Laverne and Shirley they put it on right after Happy Days to take advantage that everyone was already sitting on their couches, and if you hit them with a new show, they’ll sit there and like it too.   That was kind of the thought. If your show followed a hit show, you’re in good shape. These days they seem to be afraid to give an audience a chance to get off the couch, so they just go on to the next show with the minimal amount of interruption. You know what? They are depriving a generation of people from attaching themselves to the memories of sitting around with their family and hearing a theme song. My idea was always to start the show with a theme that, if people would maybe go to the refrigerator and get some food or something, they’d hear the theme song and come running back because they didn’t want to miss the show.  I grew up like that.  I remember hearing the songs to I Love Lucy and Daniel Boone, and I associate those songs with my childhood and growing up.

Sam:  But I don’t think we often think about the TV theme songs, the importance that they deserve in regard to how they shape our culture, or our society as a collective.  In regard to music, we can talk about the importance or the influence of The Beatles or Elvis or Sinatra or Streisand, or even Gershwin or Beethoven.  But, as children, some of the first music we recognize and know are TV theme songs.  The fact that they are so recognized or well remembered that people from different countries and generations can often sing them word for word is astonishing.  They are a very interesting musical component to our society.

In 1977 Charles Fox and Paul Williams joined forces to write the theme to “Love Boat.” The song was originally performed by Jack Jones, and later rerecorded by Dionne Warwick. Today Princess Cruise’s uses the melody as the sound of their cruis lines’ fog horns: “It’s a big, ugly-sounding foghorn but it tickles me because they’re playing my song.  That’s probably a first for anyone, to have their song on a foghorn.”

Charles:  But even then, at times, the networks want us to update them or freshen them up.   For instance, after The Love Boat was on the air for ten years, Aaron Spelling called me and said, “Can we do something new for the opening, so we don’t feel like it’s the same thing as we’ve been doing?”  I asked him what he wanted, and he said, “Can you get a new singer?” So, I asked Dionne Warwick if she’d sing the theme and we used her version for the final two years.  They did the same for Happy Days, and we re-recorded it for the final seasons.  So, even with the familiarity of the song, they’d often  try to inject new life into it.

Sam:  Now, for a lot of your theme songs were performed by one of my favorite unknown vocal groups, The Ron Hicklin Singers, with vocalist John Bahler doing a lot of the lead vocals.  Did you work with them closely in production?

The Cowsills – All Time Hits (1970) including Charles Fox’s session for “Love American Style.” When asked by ABC-Tv to rerecord the theme for the second season, Charles Fox hired the Ron Hicklin singers, featuring John Bahler on lead vocals, for the new recording, beginning a long association with the group, who were featured on most of Fox’s recordings.

Charles:  I more than worked with them. I called them to do the sessions.  The first time I used them was for Love, American Style.  For the first season we had The Cowsills singing the theme.  They were a big hit band at the time, and they came out to California, and I recorded them.  But after a year Paramount called me and said that the Cowsills wanted too much money for us to continue using the song. And could I redo the theme with different singers?” I said sure, and I found the Ron Hicklin Singers.  I went on to use Ron Hicklin on a hundred different things.  By the way, there was a screening of the documentary a few months ago and Ron was there.  I hadn’t seen Ron in a long time, and when we had a Q & A afterwards, I pointed out Ron and said how he and his group was really due the credit for so many great songs.  

Sam:  Now, in the film, you talk about how early in your career you didn’t like pop or rock music.  This is interesting, considering that you wrote some really great pop songs in the 1970’s.  From some seriously delicious deep cuts for The Bugaloos to big hits for Barry Manilow and The Association and, of course, Roberta Flack.

The Bugaloos – The Bugaloos (1970). Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel wrote all of the songs used on “The Bugaloos” for Sid and Marty Kroft. The pair also produced the music for the original “Pufnstuf” film as well as music used in “Lidsville.”

Charles:  Yes.  I didn’t care for pop music or rock and roll when I was growing up. I really didn’t. I was looking for the Latin records and, honestly, I started composition orchestration in high school, then privately with the same teachers after high school for a year before I went to Paris.  My orchestration teacher told me that if I wanted to learn to write for an orchestra to go and stand close to an orchestra when they are playing and watch the strings and the way they play the bow, and watch the flutes and clarinets and make a mental note of what the sound is together with the oboe or bassoon.  If I got to the Metropolitan Opera House early enough, for two dollars, I could stand right behind the double bases.  I’d be hanging on that railing, looking over and watching and listening and learning. So, along the way, I got to love opera, and opera—That was my interest.  So, while most people my age were buying rock n’ roll records, this is what I used to do every week.  When it came to pop music, I didn’t care for it. So, when I got the offer to do “Happy Days,” I actually had to go back and buy a bunch of records to find out what they were doing musically in the 1950’s because I didn’t even know.  It came back to a kind of a simple formula.  Either the songs were written in a 1-6-2-5 chord progression, or a blues chord progression.  Many of Elvis’ songs were like that. So, when we did “Happy Days,” I have to confess, I used the 1-2-6-5 chord progression. We wanted it to sound like a leftover 1950’s hit that turned out to be a new hit. But I actually had to study the music from the 50’s to be able to write it.  But, you know, I often have to do that as a composer.  My first ballet for the San Francisco Ballet Company, A Song for Dead Warriors, is based on the life and death of a real life Native American, named Richard Oakes.  He was the leader of the Indians that took over Alcatraz Island in the 60’s.   I had to deeply immerse myself into the indigenous culture and  the music of the Native Americans to the point where I was ready to write my own music being fully influenced by what I had discovered.

Sam:  Well, I want to take it back to you talking about being at the Met watching the orchestra. The other day I was listening to the music that you wrote for The Bugaloos.  Now I know it was just some pop music for a kids show, but there are some really great deep cuts there and, now that I think about it, you make full use of orchestral instruments, like flutes and strings. Same goes for the music from Barbarella, which, by the way, was my personal gateway in putting your name to all this music.  I discovered that soundtrack as a teenager and it became a favorite.  I think that “An Angel is Love” is a real banger. 

Charles Fox and the Bob Crewe Generation Orchestra – Barbarella Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1968). Charles Fox’s earliest foray into songwriting happened when he teamed up with Bob Crewe on the soundtrack to the cult sci-fi favorite featuring Jane Fonda.

Charles:  Bob Crewe was great singing that song. Bob Crewe had a lot to do with me becoming a songwriter,  Honestly, I had no great interest in becoming a songwriter. I was interested in writing in long form compositions, which I was trained to do, and I was interested in being an arranger and earning money to keep myself and my family going.  Then I had the opportunity to do an album with Bob Crewe, who was one of the leading producers of his time.  He discovered The Four Seasons and had millions of hits for other artists on his own label.  He was a giant, and he gave me a great opportunity. He said to me, “I’m looking to do an album that combines all the things that you do. Latin, pop, classical, and jazz.” He just gave me carte blanche to do that, which is almost unheard of, and he said, “Take whatever you like, from the classics, and do whatever you like with them.” So, I did and from that we did this album called “In Classic Form” with a great pianist named Bhen Lanzarone. Shortly after that Bob got the offer to do the music for Barbarella. It was directed by Roger Vadim, who was married to Jane Fonda at the time.  Well, they asked Bob to do the score, but he wasn’t a composer. He was basically a lyricist.   So, Bob called me and said, “I want you to do the music for Barbarella, and we’ll write the songs together,” and, just like that, I became a songwriter.   Well, in the opening of the movie, as I’m sure you remember, Jane Fonda is doing a strip tease in space in this anti-gravity sequence, and she’s getting ready for an intergalactic voyage, which she had to be naked for. Well, they played our theme for Barbarella over it, but then they needed Jane to be able to hum the song.  They ended up flying me out to France to teach Jane how to hum it!  I went out there and spent the weekend with Jane and Vadim in a little farmhouse in France.

Sam:  A lot of your film music went on to be big hits for artists, but managed to maintain a bigger life beyond the movie.  This is true for “I Got a Name,” which was written for The Last American Hero, but became synonymous with Jim Croce.  One of the most emotional moments in the documentary is the collaboration between you and Jim’s son, A. J. Croce, where the two of you perform “I Got a Name.” I mean, that sequence just hit my heart so hard.  What was it like for you to live it? Had you met A. J. as an adult prior to filming that?  

Singer songwriter AJ Croce alongside his late father Jim Croce. Jim’s recording of Charles Fox and Norman Gimbel’s “I Got a Name” for the film “The Last American Hero” (1973) was on the Billboard charts when his airplane crashed on September 20, 1973. In the film “Killing Me Softly with His Songs,” AJ Croce and Charles Fox do an emotional performance of the song in one of the documentaries’ most emotional moments.

Charles:  No, I never met him before the day of the shoot.   Danny had asked him to meet with us, and he had responded and agreed to come over to my house.  The song “I Got a Name” was a very touching part of his life. That song was released just before Jim Croce’s plane crashed and went on to become a huge hit.  Jim Croce had three records in the top 100 at the same time as a result. A. J. was a young boy when his father died.  At one point his mother had called me after Jim had died and asked me if I would come to San Diego, where she lived, and look over Jim’s leftover songs.  Jim left a lot of songs unfinished when he had died, and she wanted to see if perhaps I could finish some of the songs that he hadn’t. I said, “I’m really honored that you asked me to do that.” She said to me, “Well, who else would I ask? The only other person who songs Jim sang was yours.  All of the other songs Jim sang were his own.” Well, it never happened because, unfortunately, their house burned down not long after and a lot of those things were lost in the fire.  It was one of those things that never came about.  But A. J. is a really talented composer, songwriter, and singer himself, who is getting his own acclaim.  He came to my house, we had a great time together, and we reminisced about his father. I could tell him things about his father that I experienced through my friendship with Jim. But then Danny said, “How about you two guys going out to the piano and sing “I Got a Name.”  Well, we went into my living room and we did that.  It is, indeed, a very touching moment.  A. J. has come back and we wrote a song together.  Recently, when he was on his own tour, he performed at the Troubadour and asked me to sit in on the piano with him, which I did. So, we have that, which is nice. He also saw the film.  He came with his mother, and they sat right in front of me at a screening at the Coronado film festival. At the moment where A. J. and I are playing, I could see his mother reach out and grab A. J,’s hands and have a good cry while watching that scene.  They are a beautiful family, and my heart is with them.

Norman Gimbel, Charles Fox and Roberta Flack receive the Song of the Year Grammy for “Killing Me Softly with His Song” from presenters Lily Tomlin and Isaac Hayes in 1974.

Sam:  Now the title of the documentary, obviously, is a reference to “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” which Roberta Flack won the Grammy in 1974 with.  Despite all the incredible ways you’ve touched so many areas of music, do you feel that song is the legacy one?

Charles:  I don’t think in terms of my legacy. I don’t think it serves us. I’m so appreciative that any of my music is out there, and that people still listen to and dance to the records I made years ago. I’m still creating music today, and I just hope to keep doing it.

“I don’t think in terms of my legacy. I don’t think it serves us. I’m so appreciative that any of my music is out there, and that people still listen to and dance to the records I made years ago. I’m still creating music today, and I just hope to keep doing it.”

Sam:  Well, I want you to know how much your music means to me, Charles.   As someone who studies the history of music, as well as culture, the opportunity to talk to you has been an absolute delight. But most of all, thank you so much for your life in music, because I know it has touched the lives of so many people and I appreciate, with all my heart, the music that you’ve put into the world.

Charles:  Thank you so much for those wonderful words, and I do appreciate that so very much. 

Killing Me Softly with His Songs premiers on April 2 on Apple TV, Prime Video, Vudu, Google Play, and YouTube.  For more information on Charles Fox visit his website at

Special thanks to Maddie Cutler from PRdept. and Harlan Boll from B. Harlan Boll Public Relations for arranging and facilitating this interview with Charles Fox.

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