The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Roberta Flack’s “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Roberta Flack – “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face”

HIT #1: April 15, 1972

STAYED AT #1: 6 weeks

In the past 47 years, Clint Eastwood has directed 40 movies. Some of them are classics. Some of them are crap. The first of them was Play Misty For Me. It came out in 1972, and Clint Eastwood was already a 41-year-old movie star when he made it. Play Misty For Me is not a classic, but it’s definitely not crap, either. It’s a tense, effective psychological thriller about a spurned ex whose obsession turns deadly. (1972 was so long ago that this wasn’t a total cinematic cliché yet.) Eastwood plays a jazz DJ, the job that he probably would’ve loved to have if he hadn’t fallen into movie stardom. And in picking the music for his movie, Eastwood did a DJ’s work.

In soundtracking a dreamy, soft-focus love scene, Eastwood picked an obscure three-year-old album track, and then that track went on to become the biggest single of 1972. In the process, Roberta Flack, the woman who sang that song, became a star.

Flack’s version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was old by the time Eastwood exposed the world to it. But it was also an old song in 1969, when Flack recorded it. Ewan MacColl, a leftist British folkie (and Kirsty’s father) wrote the song in 1957. He was married to someone else, but he was desperately in love with Peggy Seeger, an American folk singer (and Pete’s half-sister). MacColl and Seeger had been having an affair, and he wrote the song for her. They ended up getting married in 1977 and staying married until MacColl died 12 years later.

Seeger recorded the first version of the song, but a lot of people recorded it. Roberta Flack knew it because the gospel-folk duo Joe & Eddie had covered it in 1963. Flack, a musical prodigy, had grown up mostly in Northern Virginia, and she’d started studying classical piano and voice at Howard University when she was 15. She graduated when she was 19, but she didn’t get her musical career going for a long time. For years, she worked as a schoolteacher, giving piano lessons on the side. Eventually, she got a gig accompanying opera singers on piano. During intermissions, she’d sing and play piano in the venues’ back rooms. A local restaurant owner loved her voice and wanted her to become a full-time singer. She said she’d only quit teaching if he’d hire her to sing three nights a week, so that’s what he did. Flack became a word-of-mouth sensation and eventually earned herself a recording contract.

Flack signed to Atlantic, and she recorded her 1969 debut First Take quickly, possibly in as little as 10 hours. The album is a total stunner, a florid and lovely jazz-folk meditation that includes Flack’s takes on songs like Leonard Cohen’s “Hey, That’s No Way To Say Goodbye” and a couple of tracks that her future duet partner Donny Hathaway had co-written. “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” is on there, too, and its splendor must’ve been obvious to anyone who’d bothered to listen to the thing. But First Take didn’t sell, and neither did Flack’s next two albums. One day, though, Eastwood heard “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” on the radio while he was driving in Los Angeles. He knew he had to have it for his movie.

Before Flack’s version, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” was a folk song. But Flack’s version isn’t really a folk song. It isn’t really a soul song or a jazz song, either. Flack wasn’t a soul singer in the ’60s sense. She’d played in churches as a kid, but she hadn’t come up through the gospel system, or through the chitlin’ circuit. Instead, she was classically trained, used to singing pop songs to opera fans. And so she turns the song into an elegant sprawl. Her version is more than twice as long as Seeger’s original. She forces you to sit with it, to consider what the song says.

Instrumentally, it’s a sparse song. Flack has bass and drums and guitar and strings behind her, but none of them do too much. She keeps her own piano spare, too. Flack’s band is mostly made up of seasoned jazz players who know how to stay out of her way. Ron Carter’s bass is a quiet heartbeat. Drummer Ray Lucas limits himself to tickling his cymbals every so often. Guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli plays delicate acoustic filigrees. Everyone just clears out of the lane and lets Flack go to work.

And she’s a wonder. Flack stretches her syllables out, letting her vibrato linger. She exhales the word face as a long breath. And she softly twirls the absolute devotion in MacColl’s words — “I thought the sun rose in your eyes / And the moon and the stars / Were the gifts you gave / To the dark, and the endless skies” — around in her mouth. It’s a warm reverie, a blissed-out daydream.

There are a lot of reasons to be pissed at Clint Eastwood. There’s the baffling chair speech at that one Republican National Convention. There’s the way he casually and affectionately throws around racial epithets in Gran Turino. There’s the way so much of the American fetish for cops can be traced to how cool Eastwood was in Dirty Harry. But Eastwood has been responsible for a lot of great things, too: Unforgiven, the Man With No Name trilogy, the best-ever version of squinty ice-blooded silence. And the next time you make fun of him, consider the idea that, without him, you probably would’ve never heard this song.

GRADE: 9/10

BONUS BEATS: The Flaming Lips and Erykah Badu recorded a psychedelic 10-minute version of “The First Time Every I Saw Your Face” in 2012. Then the Flaming Lips recorded a porny video for the song, in which Badu’s sister Nayrok got naked and squirmed around in fake blood. This led to a very entertaining online beef between Wayne Coyne and Badu, which did not make Coyne look good. Here’s their version of the song:

(Badu’s highest-charting song is 2000’s “Bag Lady.” It peaked at #6, and it’s a 10.)

THE NUMBER TWOS: Joe Tex’s raw and horny soul stomper “I Gotcha” peaked at #2 behind “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” It’s an 8.