SHUFFLER 0013: THERE AT MY COMMAND
Tuesday, September 9, 2014
Roberta Flack – “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” from First Take (1969 Atlantic Records)
This song is so absolutely enchanting I barely know where to begin.
Clint Eastwood seems a pretty odd place to start, so let’s do that. First Take was released, as noted above, in 1969, but thanks to Clint Eastwood’s inclusion of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1971’s Play Misty for Me, the song enjoyed newfound popularity. Atlantic Records, sensing an opportunity, shortened it up, rereleased it to radio as a single, and in 1973 it won Record of the Year at the Grammy Awards (a category reserved for singles). Flack would win again in 1974 for “Killing Me Softly with His Song,” proving once and for all what an incredible talent she is.
So that’s fascinating. But Roberta Flack is pretty fascinating all on her own. For starters, her middle name is Cleopatra, which is fairly unique. Moreover, she was a musical prodigy from a young age, earning a full music scholarship to Howard University at age fifteen, graduating at nineteen.
What I think is most interesting about Roberta Flack, however, especially as it relates to this song, is that she was not the first to perform it. It was written in 1957 by Ewan MacColl, a British songwriter (who also wrote, oddly enough, “Dirty Old Town”). It was covered by the Kingston Trio, Peter Paul and Mary, and Elvis, among others, with varying degrees of success, but Roberta Flack truly made it her own.
And sexy! She made it sexy! The instrumentation is a big part of that — lilting accoustic guitar, muted piano, just the right amount of cello, some expert jazz cymbal work, and of course Flack’s sensual voice. No wonder Eastwood used the song in a love scene. And that ending! The unexpected chord change that draws out the ending and makes us wait for resolution. It’s a thing of perfection. The easy comparison to Roberta Flack is to Lauryn Hill, who’s cover of “Killing Me Softly with His Song” as a Fugee continues to blow minds, but I hear shades of Jill Scott in “The First Time Every I Saw Your Face,” in the range and control that Flack has over her amazing voice.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t also mention MacColl’s absolutley no-holds-barred passionate lyrics, which help to make the song what it is. This is a song about being absolutelybonkers in love and not caring what anybody else thinks. So dim the lights, pour a couple glasses of the good red, turn up the hi-fi and enjoy.