Every Wednesday, Douglas Wolk explores the people, places and coincidences that tie disparate musicians together.
The Flaming Lips’ album The Terror is out this week, marking almost exactly 30 years since the Oklahoman psychedelic juggernauts first played together. Their video for its song “Try to Explain” evokes the dreamy, glittery strangeness of their live performances, although its participants are unusually fully clothed for a Flaming Lips video.
The centerpiece of last year’s collection of collaborations The Flaming Lips and Heady Fwends wasn’t a Lips original, though: it was a cover of a half-century-old standard, “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,” sung by Erykah Badu and slowed down to a creepy/sexy crawl, with every drumbeat connecting in slow motion. The Badu/Lips recording got a video, but it’s one that Badu very publicly disowned — and anyway the full-length version is better.
The story of the song itself begins in 1956, when Ewan MacColl was one of the most prominent singers in the English folk music world, at a time when folk and leftist activism were intimately connected and the American government was terrified of Communism. When 21-year-old American folksinger Peggy Seeger (Pete Seeger’s half-sister) traveled to Europe, she met MacColl, and sparks flew. He was twice her age and married to Jean Newlove at the time, but they began an affair. MacColl wrote “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in 1957 for a play in which Seeger was appearing, and sang it to her over the telephone. Here’s her first recording of it, from that year.
But MacColl and his wife were still together (they finally divorced in the mid-’70s) — their daughter Kirsty MacColl, who had a notable pop career herself, was born in 1959. So, in order to stay with MacColl after her U.K. work permit expired, Seeger (platonically) married British folksinger Alex Campbell. (At the wedding, in January 1959, she was seven months pregnant with her and MacColl’s son Neill.) Seeger kept “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face” in her live act, and–especially given how incestuous the folk scene was at the time–it started to show up in other folk musicians’ recordings. Peter, Paul and Mary recorded their version in 1965:
The artist who put it on the map, though, is (maybe not entirely coincidentally) the one whose records are most often filed immediately next to the Flaming Lips’ in record stores. In 1969, jazz singer/pianist Les McCann arranged for a younger singer/pianist (who’d been playing with his group) to release her debut album, Les McCann Presents Roberta Flack: First Take. A quote from Flack: “I was so young and innocent in the entertainment business back then in the late 1960s.”) It was a collection of songs from the folk and gospel repertoires, as well as Gene McDaniel’s “Compared to What,” which became a hit for McCann a few years later; the group accompanying Flack included jazz guitarist Bucky Pizzarelli and bassist Ron Carter. And tucked away in the middle of its second side was a slow, dreamy version of “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” (The TV performance below is actually from 1972.)
Around the time that Flack’s third album came out, in late 1971, her version of “The First Time Ever” accompanied a romantic montage in the Clint Eastwood-directed movie Play Misty for Me; Eastwood supposedly paid $2,000 for the rights to use it. Flack’s recording turned into a surprise hit, and in the spring of 1972, it was a #1 pop hit for six weeks. It also became one of those songs that everybody suddenly recorded. The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face gave its title to 1972 albums by Johnny Mathis and (in the version below) Vikki Carr; even the funk ensemble the Jimmy Castor Bunch recorded it.
Elvis Presley had actually recorded his own version of “The First Time Ever” in 1971, before Play Misty for Me popularized it; it was released after Flack’s version became a hit, and stayed in his live repertoire for the rest of his life. (MacColl reportedly disliked Presley’s rendition.)
It’s also an endlessly adaptable song for any artist who wants to have a romantic moment; one of the loveliest versions is this 1974 reggae recording by Marcia Griffiths.
The Chi-Lites did a disco-ballad version (with a spoken introduction) in 1974…
…and Lauryn Hill has taken a few stabs at it on stage (the version below is from 2007).
Even Johnny Cash got in on the act, recording it on American IV: The Man Comes Around, the final album he released in his lifetime.
After the to-do over the Flaming Lips/Erykah Badu version’s video, the Lips re-recorded it with new vocals (and a new, not-suitable-for-work video) courtesy of Amanda Palmer.
Peggy Seeger and Ewan MacColl finally married in 1977, and stayed together for the last twelve years of MacColl’s life. Sometimes they performed “The First Time” together, as in this 1983 recording, but after that initial telephone performance, MacColl doesn’t appear to have ever sung it himself again.
Seeger still sings “The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face.” Last year, she recorded a new version with Broadcaster, an electronic producer who she notes is “a friend of my daughter Kitty.” Its video is very much like something the Flaming Lips might create, if a bit less naked.