Roberta Flack – The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face
Play Misty for Me remains an impressive movie and for many reasons. Aside from an impressive directorial debut, excellent performances from a fine cast and of course a gripping story which remains effective some 50 years on, there was also a song that remained integral to the movie, and arguably more memorable than the film’s title track. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face originally began life as a 1957 folk song written by British political singer/songwriter Ewan MacColl for Peggy Seeger. The track went on to be covered several times – but it will no doubt always be most associated with Roberta Flack’s haunting version used for the love scene during Play Misty for Me. The following is a brief history of how Flack’s version blossomed from a minor album track into a worldwide modern classic.
While Clint was filming his directorial debut, Play Misty for Me, he approached Flack and asked 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, it’s not.'”
Flack remembered that while recording “The First Time” for her album (First Take, 1969), 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.
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 on 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.
Below: The Love scene from Play Misty for Me