Its author was a communist folk singer who wrote it for his future wife. When it became a hit 15 years later, he was not entirely pleased. Justine Picardie continues our series
LIKE MOST people, I didn't hear 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' until 1972, 15 years after it was written, when Roberta Flack had a worldwide hit with her version of the song. I was 11, and I had never fallen in love with anyone - not even David Essex or Marc Bolan - but I thought it was a tremendous record. It had a sort of theatrical understatement - like a stage whisper - and the words seemed like pure poetry to me. There was a beginning ('The first time ever I saw your face / I thought the sun rose in your eyes / and the moon and stars were the gift you gave / to the dark and empty skies, my love'); there was a middle ('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 a very exciting end ('The first time ever I lay with you / and felt your heart beat over mine / I thought our joy would fill the earth / and last 'til the end of time, my love'). And that was it. Three verses, no chorus, but it told you everything you'd ever wanted to know about love and sex and yearning.
Yet were it not for Clint Eastwood, the song would never have been a hit. Roberta Flack, a former night-club singer and classically trained pianist, had recorded it on an album for Atlantic Records in 1969, but no one had taken very much notice until 1972, when Clint included 'The First Time Ever' in his soundtrack for Play Misty for Me. This is a very scary film about a maniacal woman who becomes obsessed with a disc jockey, played by Eastwood. Luckily, 'The First Time Ever' is not used as a signature tune for the crazy lady, but as a pastoral soundtrack for the scene in which Clint frolics in the woods with his own true love.
Lots of people saw the film and liked the song, so Atlantic put it out again, and it became the best-selling single of the year. The man who wrote the song, Ewan MacColl, won a Grammy for it, and an Ivor Novello award, and made a lot of money. All of which was quite pleasing for him, of course, but also a bit embarrassing, because he was a communist folk singer living in Beckenham, a working- class hero who didn't approve of pop music or Hollywood or showbusiness.
MacColl had written 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face' in 1957 for Peggy Seeger, an American folk singer who was to become his third wife. There are two different versions of the story of its origins. MacColl, who died four years ago, used to say that he had sung it down the telephone to Peggy, who was on tour at the time in America. He had been forced to stay behind in England because the US authorities believed he was too dangerous a subversive to be given a visa, and he claimed to have composed it off-the-cuff when Peggy said she needed a two-and-a-half- minute song to fill a gap in her show.
I am inclined to believe Peggy Seeger's account, however, for MacColl was a wonderful story-teller who occasionally reinvented his own history. She had met MacColl in 1956; she was 20, he was 40 and married - for the second time - with a young son. They started an affair, and at the beginning of 1957 Seeger returned to her father's house in California. 'Things were so confused between me and Ewan that I went home,' she says. 'He used to send me tapes with him talking on them, and one of them had him singing 'The First Time Ever' on it . . . The intensity of it quite frightened me.'
She returned to London six months later. By 1959 Ewan had left his wife for Peggy, and she started including the song in their concerts together. But Ewan never sang it again. 'Maybe he felt self-conscious,' says Peggy. 'He didn't like baring his emotions on stage. He felt they were nobody else's business, and of no interest to anyone else. But I think he liked to hear those
sentiments in my mouth . . . When I first started singing it, I felt almost stripped naked on stage.'
It took a few years before other people recorded the song. In 1965 the Kingston Trio did a sanitised version ('The first time ever I held you near . . .'), with jolly three-part harmonies, befitting their role as the acceptable face of the American folk revival. They wore matching stripy shirts and had short hair and smiled a lot. They were followed by the Brothers Four, who were very like the Kingston Trio except that they had one more clean-cut white boy in the group, and replaced that tricky line in the third verse with 'The first time ever I held you close'.
Then there were the Smothers Brothers, Tom and Dick - 'The Wonderful Brothers Smothers', according to their album notes. They included the song on their 1966 album, Play It Straight, on which they avoided doing the comedy routines that had made them popular. The album cover shows them looking self- conscious in suits and black ties and polished shoes, as if they are on their way to a job interview. They are studiously ignoring a white chicken pecking grain on the ground next to them. Dick sings the song, complete with a pseudo-harpsichord backing. It is really rather awful, but at least he includes the line 'The first time ever I lay with you', delivering it with a manful determination.
The song soon became a smooth standard for the more commercial end of the American folk market (although almost everyone who did it left out the traditional folk grace notes of the original). Harry Belafonte included it on a 1967 album, Belafonte on Campus, complete with a background chorus of male crooners. And Peter, Paul and Mary did it in a swirly, girly, breathy sort of way.
Apart from fans of Peggy Seeger's version, no one in England seemed to take very much notice of 'The First Time Ever' during the Sixties, although the Scottish folk musician Bert Jansch did a lively instrumental version in 1966, on an album called Jack Orion. In his autobiography, Journeyman, Ewan MacColl wrote that the Sixties covers 'made singularly little impression on me . . . I had lots of other things on my mind, not least of which was the need to make a living'. He had four children to support by then, and the royalties from the song were 'a pittance, not enough for luxuries like food'.
By 1972, when Roberta Flack had her massive hit with his song, 'I was in my mid-fifties and had lived hand to mouth for almost all of my life . . . I had survived without making compromises.' Suddenly, everything changed. It wasn't that he had gone out on the cabaret circuit singing his song, but it seemed as if everyone else had. Val Doonican did it, Englebert Humperdinck did, too; and so did the Geoff Love Singers and Mantovani and the London Symphony Orchestra (The Best of Classic Rock). It was crooned in Las Vegas and Atlantic City and Scunthorpe and Wolverhampton and . . . everywhere. That song was everywhere. Elvis did it. Elvis] He released it as a single in 1972, and on the cover wore a white sequined jump suit with a big flappy collar. He doesn't sing the bit about sex; he just repeats 'The first time ever I kissed your mouth', and ends with a big flourish of brass and swelling strings and drums.
In the same year, there were three albums on Columbia alone entitled The First Time Ever (I Saw Your Face). It's unclear why the brackets crept in, or what they signify. Johnny Mathis made one of these albums, and Vikki Carr did another, and so did Peter Nero, with an instrumental piano version. Andy Williams introduced a slight variation by calling it 'The First Time (Ever I Saw Your Face)' on his 1972 album for Columbia. Other than that, they're all the same. Big strings, big hair, big collars, big voices.
Ewan MacColl was appalled. He hated them all. 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 histrionic travesties: bludgeoning, and completely lacking in grace.
He didn't like the Temptations' attempt at it, either (on a 1972 Tamla Motown album, All Directions); or Isaac Hayes's version in 1973 (Live at the Sahara Tahoe). They were too long, too overproduced, too melodramatic.
After the early Seventies, things went a bit quiet, though the song remained a cabaret standard. Julian Lloyd Webber did a predictable neo-classical version; the Irish folk singer Christy Moore covered it in 1980. It turned up in an Oil of Ulay advertisement, and there was an ill- fated dance version in 1990 by Joanna Law.
But it is still a wonderful song. It has survived all the treacle applied to it, all the false sentiment. Peggy Seeger has not sung it since Ewan MacColl died. But I still hear it as his love song for her, a ballad written by a man who was happier singing about politics than his own passion, yet who quietly adored her for more than 30 years.
To hear 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face', tune in to Virgin 1215 between 9.30 and 10am today, when Graham Dene will play the version by Roberta Flack. Virgin is on 1215 kHz medium wave (AM).
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