Let’s get all torch-y, shall we? Although New York-based folk singer Margaret “Peggy” Seeger had a legendary half-brother (folk singer, Pete Seeger) she had become very well-known in her own right in 1955, when at the age of 20 she and her brother Mike recorded the 94 track “American Folk Songs for Children” which remains the best-selling collection of children’s songs ever.
But as was the case with her half-brother’s group, The Weavers, the progressive-minded Seeger ended up on the entertainment industry blacklist in that era of McCarthy and, accompanied by her banjo, soon embarked on a protracted performance tour of Europe. While in London she met and fell in love with English folk-singer, songwriter, actor, playwright (and father of Kirsty MacColl) Ewan MacColl and it was after her return to the States that today’s selection was written.
Back in New York in 1957, Seeger needed a love song for a production she was working on and placed a transatlantic telephone call to MacColl back in London, who reportedly wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in less than an hour and taught it to her over the phone that very same evening. Released as a single by the Kingston Trio in 1962, the song quickly became a folk/pop staple, covered by The Brothers Four; Peter, Paul and Mary; The Chad Mitchell Trio; Johnny Mathis, We Five, the Smothers Brothers and Engelbert Humperdinck among dozens of others.
MacColl professedly considered each of these versions to be “travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic and lacking in grace.” And when Elvis Presley recorded the song he claimed the resulting cover was “like Romeo at the bottom of the Post Office Tower (once the tallest building in London) singing up to Juliet.” However, according to Peggy Seeger, who married and remained with MacColl until his death in 1989, there was at least one singer who he thought caught the right voice.
Born in Black Mountain, North Carolina, Roberta Flack, so excelled at classical piano as a young girl that she entered Howard University on a full music scholarship at the age of 15. She later changed her major from piano to voice and after graduating at 19 taught junior high school in the Washington area for the next decade, while performing evenings at various DC nightspots until her “overnight” discovery when she was offered a record contract…after a three hour audition in which she played 42 songs.
Flack’s 1968 debut album, “First Take” was recorded in 10 hours and although she later had a minor hit with a cover of “Will You Love Me Tomorrow” none of her recordings seemed to strike a successful chord until… In 1972 Clint Eastwood, who was making his directorial debut with “Play Misty for Me”, paid $2,000 to use Track Number Six from “First Take” for his film.
Suddenly Roberta Flack’s hastily recorded version of Ewan MaColl’s hastily written song was an enormous hit, spending six consecutive weeks at the top of the Billboard Charts (it peaked at Number 14 in the UK) while pushing the four year-old record it came from to the top of the album charts. By the time it won the Grammy Award for Record of the Year in 1973, “First Take” had gone platinum and Roberta Flack was a star.
The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
The first time ever I saw your face
I thought the sun rose in your eyes
And the moon and the stars were the gifts you gave
To the dark and the end of the skies
And the first time ever I kissed your mouth
I felt the earth move in my hand
Like the trembling heart of a captive bird
That was there at my command, my love
And the first time ever I lay with you
I felt your heart so close to mine
And I knew our joy would fill the earth
And last, till the end of time, my love
The first time ever I saw your face