The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face

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"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face by Roberta Flack US vinyl.png
Side A of the US single
Single by Roberta Flack
from the album First Take
B-side "Trade Winds"
ReleasedMarch 7, 1972 (1972-03-07)
RecordedFebruary 1969
Label Atlantic 2864
Songwriter(s) Ewan MacColl
Producer(s) Joel Dorn
Roberta Flack singles chronology
"Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow"
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
"Where Is the Love"

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is a 1957 folk song written by Scottish political singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger, who later became his wife. At the time, the couple were lovers, although MacColl was still married to his second wife, Jean Newlove. Seeger sang the song when the duo performed in folk clubs around Britain. During the 1960s, it was recorded by various folk singers and became a major international hit for Roberta Flack in 1972, winning Grammy Awards for Record of the Year [1] and Song of the Year. Billboard ranked it as the number one Hot 100 single of the year for 1972. [2]



There are two differing accounts of the origin of the song. MacColl said that he wrote the song for Seeger after she asked him to pen a song for a play she was in. He wrote the song and taught it to Seeger over the telephone. [3] Seeger said that MacColl, with whom she had begun an affair in 1957, used to send her tapes to listen to while they were apart and that the song was on one of them. [4]

Peggy Seeger has said that MacColl had been challenged to write a love song (given that his repertoire was largely political) and this song was his response.[ citation needed ]

The song entered the pop mainstream when it was released by the Kingston Trio on their 1962 hit album New Frontier and in subsequent years by other pop folk groups such as Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, Joe and Eddie, the Chad Mitchell Trio, and by Gordon Lightfoot on his debut album Lightfoot! (1966).

MacColl made no secret of the fact that he disliked all of the cover versions of the song. His daughter-in-law wrote: "He hated all of them. He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled 'The Chamber of Horrors'. He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace." [5]

Roberta Flack version

Roberta Flack on "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"
It's a perfect song. Second only to "Amazing Grace, I think... [6] "It's the kind of song that has two unique & distinct qualities: it tells a story, & it has lyrics that mean something....Because of [its meaningful lyrics] the [song] can be interpreted by a lot of people in a lot of different ways: the love of a mother for a child, for example, or [that of] two lovers." [7] "I wish more songs I had chosen had moved me the way that one did. I've loved [most] every song I've recorded, but that one was pretty special." [6]

The song was popularised by Roberta Flack in 1969 in a version that became a breakout hit for the singer.

Flack knew the song from the Joe & Eddie version which appeared on that folk duo's 1963 album Coast to Coast (as "The First Time"), Flack's friend singer Donal Leace having brought the track to Flack's attention. [8] Having taught the song to the young girls in the glee club at Banneker High School (Washington D.C.), Flack would regularly perform "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" in her set-list at the Pennsylvania Avenue club Mr Henry's where Flack was hired as resident singer in 1968. In February 1969 Flack would record the song for her debut album First Take , her rendition of which was much slower paced than Seeger's original, Flack's take running more than twice the two and a half minute length of Seeger's.[ citation needed ] Flack would recall that while she made her studio recording of "The First Time..." she felt the loss of her pet cat, Flack having two days earlier returned home to Washington D. C. from Detroit (where she had played her first non-local engagement) to find that her cat had been run over and died. [7] [9]

Flack's slow and sensual version was used by Clint Eastwood in his 1971 directorial film debut: Play Misty for Me to score a love scene featuring Eastwood and actress Donna Mills. Flack would recall how Eastwood, who had heard her version of "The First Time..." on his car radio while driving down the LA Freeway, [10] phoned out of the blue to her Alexandria (Virginia) home: (Roberta Flack quote:)"[Eastwood said:] 'I'd like to use your song in this movie...about a disc jockey [with] a lot of music in it. I'd use it in the only part of the movie where there's absolute love.' I said okay. We discussed the money.[Eastwood would pay $2000 to use Flack's "The First Time..."] He said: 'Anything else?' And I said: 'I want to do it over again. It's too slow.' He said: "No, it's not.'" [11]

Flack also recalled that, during the First Take sessions, her producer Joel Dorn had suggested re-recording "The First Time..." with a slightly speeded tempo and lyric edit to trim its running time, but Flack had not then been agreeable: (Roberta Flack quote:)"Joel said: 'Okay you don't care if it's a hit or not?' I said: 'No sir.' Of course he was right for three years, until [after] Clint got it." Flack's version of "The First Time..." exploded in popularity following the November 1971 release of Play Misty For Me. This persuaded Atlantic Records to issue the track as a single - trimmed by a minute - in February 1972: the track became a smash hit single in the United States, reaching No. 1 for six weeks on both the Billboard Hot 100 and easy listening charts in the spring of 1972, with a No. 4 R&B chart peak. [12] Reaching No. 14 on the UK Singles Chart, [13] Flack's "The First Time..." was No. 1 for three weeks on the singles chart in Canada's RPM magazine. [14]

"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was played as the wake-up music on flight day 9 to the astronauts aboard Apollo 17, on their last day in Lunar orbit (Friday, December 15, 1972) before returning to earth, thus ending the last human explorations of the Moon. The use of the song was most likely a reference to the "face" of the moon below the spacecraft. [15]

Chart history

Later uses

The American series Glee featured a cover version of the song in the episode “Yes/No”. It was sung by Santana Lopez (Naya Rivera), Mercedes Jones (Amber Riley), Tina Cohen-Chang (Jenna Ushkowitz), Rachel Berry (Lea Michelle).

In 2014, two films featured the song: Flack's version was heard twice in the superhero film X-Men: Days of Future Past , set largely in 1973, while a "cover" of it was performed by one of the protagonists in The Inbetweeners 2 for comic effect. [34]

Flack's version from First Take was used as the outro in episode 88 of the television series Mad Men in 2015; in 2016 the same version was featured in the finale episode of the HBO series The Night Of and played in the background of Episode 3 of the FX Cable TV Miniseries The People v. O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story .

A version by UNKLE is played over the closing credits of the 2014 film Shelter .

In November 2020, English singer-songwriter James Blake played a cover of the song on The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon. [35]

See also

Related Research Articles

Ewan MacColl Scottish singer

James Henry Miller, better known by his stage name Ewan MacColl, was a folk singer songwriter, folk song collector, labour activist and actor, born in England of Scottish parents. He is known as one of the integrators of the 1960s folk revival as well as writing such songs as "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" and "Dirty Old Town".

Roberta Flack American singer

Roberta Cleopatra Flack is an American singer. She is known for her No. 1 singles "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face", "Killing Me Softly with His Song", "Feel Like Makin' Love"; and "Where Is the Love" and "The Closer I Get to You", two of her many duets with Donny Hathaway.

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