*On this day in 1973, Roberta Flack’s beautifully-haunting masterpiece “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was named both Song and Record of the Year at the 15th Annual Grammy Awards.
The song’s history, however dates back 16 years earlier, when British singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl wrote it for his then-lover, singer Peggy Seeger. The two eventually married, but at the time the song was written, MacColl was married to English theatre director Joan Littlewood and seeing Seeger on the side.
Seeger’s version was the first, released in 1957.
During the 60s, the song was recorded by several other acts, including The Kingston Trio in 1962, Peter, Paul and Mary, The Brothers Four, Joe and Eddie, the Chad Mitchell Trio and Gordon Lightfoot.
Peter, Paul & Mary – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
According to MacColl’s daughter-in-law, Justine Picardie, he hated all of the cover versions of his song, and even” 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.”
Elvis Presley – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
The song would come to Flack’s attention in 1968 after hearing the “Joe & Eddie” version from the black folk duo’s 1963 album “Coast to Coast.”
Joe & Eddie – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Flack, a music teacher in DC at the time, taught the song to her glee club students at Benjamin Banneker High School, and would perform the song herself during her regular gigs at Mr. Henry’s night club on Pennsylvania Ave. in 1968. After she signed with Atlantic Records, Flack finally recorded the song in February 1969 for her debut album, “First Take.” The title was spot on, because the entire album of eight tracks took just 10 hours to record.
Her version had a much slower arrangement than the tempo set by Seeger and copied in the various covers. Flack said that while recording “The First Time…” she was thinking about the loss of her pet cat. Two days before the session, she returned to D.C. from her first out-of-town gig in Detroit to find that her cat had been run over.
Two years after the release of “First Take” in June 1969, Clint Eastwood was filming his directorial debut, “Play Misty For Me,” and asked Flack for permission to use “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” for the movie’s love scene between himself and Donna Mills. In a 2012 interview with The Daytona Beach News-Journal, Flack recounted the story of getting the call from Eastwood at her Alexandria, Virginia home. He’d heard her version on his car radio while driving down a Los Angeles Freeway. Flack recalled: “[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 for use of the song.] He said: ‘Anything else?’ And I said: ‘I want to do it over again. It’s too slow.’ He said: “No, its not.'”
Flack remembered that while recording “The First Time” for her album, her producer Joel Dorn suggested that she speed up the tempo to make it more commercial. Flack refused, which prompted Dorn to say, “Okay, you don’t care if it’s a hit or not?” Flack responded that she didn’t care. Flack would later say of Dorn, ” Of course he was right for three years, until Clint got it.”
Flack’s version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” which first surfaced on her debut album in 1969, didn’t become a sensation until the November 1971 release of “Play Misty for Me.” Atlantic Records decided to release the track as an official single in February 1972, with a minute trimmed off. The rest is history.
Roberta Flack – First Time Ever I Saw Your Face 1972
In 2015, Flack told The Daily Telegraph of her first hit single, “It’s a perfect song. Second only to ‘Amazing Grace,’ I think… It’s the kind of song that has two unique and distinct qualities: it tells a story and it has lyrics that mean something. …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. 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.”
The track stayed at No. 1 for six weeks on both the Billboard Hot 100 and Easy Listening charts in the spring of 1972, with a peak at No. 4 pm the R&B chart. The song was played as the wake-up music for astronauts aboard Apollo 17, on their final day in Lunar orbit (Friday, 12/15/1972) before returning to earth. Flack is the only solo artist to win the Grammy Award for Record of the Year on two consecutive years: “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” won at the 1973 Grammys and “Killing Me Softly with His Song” won at the 1974 Grammys.