Music enthusiast FlourishAnyway introduces some fun competition into the songs that have been covered by many artists by ranking them.
When Love Changes Everything
An older friend of mine who had been a bachelor until middle age once told me that he marked his life in two parts: before meeting his wife and after. Her love had changed his life dramatically, for the better.
While not everyone has the experience of instant connection, the tender ballad,"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" salutes a lifelong love that is like a found treasure, an exquisite, incomparable gift that will last forever. Most of us know Roberta Flack's dazzling 1969 version, but the famous ditty neither started nor ended with her.
Whether in pop, rock, country, R&B, or the original folk genre, the song features a narrator who recalls how fortunate they are to have met the love of their lives. The experience has changed them.
Although sometimes this tune is shared by a mother to a child, more often it is addressed to a lover, either past or present. Depending on the singer and their adjustments to the lyrics, the song may acquire overtones of sweet nostalgia or take on darker, more heartrending notes of mourning. This is a piece that can be delivered at a merely unhurried pace or slow-as-molasses-in-January. Come along as we explore a range of treatments of this classic number in this edition of "Who Sang It Best?"
Who Wrote "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face"? Who Is the Original Singer?
In 1957, British folk singer-songwriter Ewan MacColl quickly dashed off this hauntingly poetic song about newfound love for his sweetheart and muse, fellow folk singer Peggy Seeger. MacColl frequently created left-wing political songs that included labor protest tunes and even "The Ballad of Stalin" (1951). Some say that "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" is the result of a friendly challege to write a nonpolitical song.
MacColl was married to someone else at the time and seeing the much-younger Seeger on the side (whom he later married). He wrote the song in about 30 minutes for a play that she was appearing in stateside. Then MacColl taught it to the young woman over the phone. At the time, the political folk singer was banned from the United States for being a Communist.
Seeger became the first to release the song in 1957. Her lilt-like folk original is under two-and-a half minutes. The Kingston Trio in 1962 and a small number of other artists also recorded the song to little fanfare. It was Roberta Flack, however, who blessed us with the definitive version in 1969.
"Who Sang It Best?": Here's How It Works
In the "Who Sang It Best?" series, we start with the classic version of popular songs that have been covered multiple times. Then we present a set of contenders, artists who have released cover versions in any genre. Some cover versions honor the original artist's style while others are reinterpretations.
Since the classic song version is typically considered "the standard," we don't include it in our overall rankings. Instead, we display it first for comparison, with up to 14 contenders presented next in ranked order. Vote on your preferences:
- Do you prefer the classic song or a cover version?
- And which of the cover versions do you prefer?
"The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Roberta Flack (1969)
R&B legend Roberta Flack referred to "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" as a perfect song in the sense that it is both moving and tells a story. The melancholy tune is about being overwhelmed by the wonder of newfound love. Flack recorded it for her 1969 debut album, First Take, recognized as one of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time" by Rolling Stone.
Like a buried gem, this marvelous ditty sat virtually undetected for several years until Clint Eastwood expressed interest in using it for a scene in the 1971 major motion picture, Play Misty for Me, his directorial debut. The singer initially believed her recording—at nearly four and a half minutes long—was too slow and insipid, and she wanted to re-record it. She'd more than doubled the length of the original folk song.
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To the contrary, Clint Eastwood was convinced that it was perfect as is. His instincts were spot on. The song subsequently held the top spot for six consecutive weeks, thereby becoming the biggest hit of 1972. It also won Grammy Awards for both Record of the Year and Song of the Year.
Flack's international hit demonstrates astounding control of her voice as she takes the listener through the roller coaster emotions of love. She is overwhelmed by the wonder of new love, and we travel with her through this melancholy song. Throughout the lyrics, her voice transitions from delicate ("the first time ...") to mysterious, then it takes on a more dejected air ("to the dark, endless skies ...", and becomes more stirring "so close to mine ... ."
Flack's narrator has experienced a surge of love and opened up her heart to remember the first meeting between she and a loved one who is no longer with her. Her interpretation is one of tender regret and mourning, as she misses them down to her bones. She ruminates over their loss. Flack recorded the song after returning home from Detroit to discover that her pet cat had been killed by a car. We can feel Flack's soft, slow vocals like the sweet, silky caress of a hand on one's face or kiss of gentle breeze. She is emotional without being maudlin. A splendid classic like this would be hard to beat.
Flack's song was played to the astronauts as wake-up music on their last day aboard Apollo 17, the most recent time humans have set foot on the moon. Her song likely represented a reference to the "face" of the moon below the spacecraft.
Roberta Flack's version may not have been earliest, but it's been the definitive standard, so we'll use hers as the comparison. Listen to her version and t4 contenders, then consider "Who Sang It Best?"
1. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by George Michael
A lonely piano kicks off this heartrending 1999 George Michael rendition. An entire minute shorter than Roberta Flack's classic, Michael's version is utterly unrushed and mesmerizing with a beautiful dreamlike and otherworldy quality. Processing of one's grief cannot be hurried.
Even when the orchestra enters in, his voice remains hushed, serene, and understated, thereby allowing the message of love to remain the focus. Crestfallen, Michael expresses the pain of deep loss while also conveying comfort, like the gentle brush of angel wings or the care one would take to hold a baby bird with the slightest touch. This musical experience is surreal, ethereal, transcendent.
Perhaps what inspired such a thoughtful rendering of this song was Michael's personal experience. In 1993, he lost his boyfriend of two years, Anselmo Felepp, to an AIDS-related illness. Felepp was also his muse and his first love.
2. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Luke Evans
If you're looking for a version that is more triumphant than sad, then Welsh stage, film, and television actor Luke Evans satisfies with this magnificent 2019 pop rendition. Evans was a performer in London's West End theater productions including Rent and Miss Saigon before jumping to the big screen. There he starred in action and thriller movies, including Immortals (2011), Fast & Furious 6 (2013), and Peter Jackson's three-part adaptation of J. R. R. Tolkien's The Hobbit.
As he ponders the love of his life and relives the memory of first casting eyes upon them, Evans is reflective, grateful, and serious. He holds his notes to keen emotional effect as both the music and his voice surge dramatically before ending in peaceful resolution. The singer modifies Roberta Flack's "dark and the endless skies" line so that it becomes "dark and the empty sky."
Whereas other versions may dwell upon what they have lost, Evans emphasizes that this great love is stronger than anything and will eclipse time and all else. At just over four minutes, Evans' version is as full, round, and joyful as the song itself will permit. This is an emotionally stirring performance, suggesting that perhaps the narrator's loved one is actually still with them.
3. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Leona Lewis
Leona Lewis provides a noteworthy also-ran with her breathy, soaring vocals in this 2007 pop release. The added sex appeal leaves no doubt that she refers to a romantic partner. From the sad tone in her nearly four-and-a-half minute version, this person is no longer in her life. Regret and longing are conveyed by the manner in which the songstress dwells on verbal past tense.
Against a background of piano and a light, steady percussion beat, Lewis' typically luxurious voice sometimes trails off and becomes difficult to discern ("gifts you gave"). Her rendition varies marginally in wording from Roberta Flack's in that it uses "dark and the empty skies" and adds a few words regarding lasting love ("And last, and last, and last.") The R&B diva first rose to fame after winning the third series of The X Factor in 2006.
4. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Stereophonics
Don't discount this 4-minute 2004 alt-rock version just because you haven't heard of these guys. The Welsh rock band Stereophonics has never had a Top 40 hit in the US, but they have scored more than two dozen hits in the United Kingdom.
After unnecessarily counting "1-2-3" at the beginning (filler that I wish they had deleted from the actual release of the song) the band launches into this emotion-infused version. Against a swirling background of stringed instruments, the raspy vocals remind me of a young Rod Stewart. And I really love Rod Stewart.
The singer's heart is seared by pain and love as he climbs to a crescendo at the song's end. This is an admirable rendition of this tune. It isn't overproduced and certainly is worth a listen as one of the better versions.
5. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Celine Dion
You would have thought that this sentimental 1999 song was made precisely for Grammy Award-winning artist Celine Dion. The songstress makes an effort not to come off as sappy (her usual fare) although seriously, that Anne Geddes photo from her EP cover was overprecious.
Dion wasn't yet a mother when she released this ditty, but she imagined that the lyrics could represent the love between a mother and child. And while the cover of her EP might lead fans to believe that this version commemorates the birth of her first child, oldest son René-Charles actually wasn't born until 2001. Ultimately, the singer had three children.
Dion's middling version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" begins with her pristine voice. Like gossamer, it is delicate, as well as high and slow. You can detect her accent. In the background are stringed instruments, joined by the annoying percussion beat of clapping and/or cymbals that shouldn't be there. Surely she's not slapping or striking someone? No, but that's how ridiculously out-of-place they sound.
Dion's vocals climb from mere whispers to the heights of mid-atmosphere, then they flatten soberly, almost somberly. Although her version omits several lines from the end of Roberta Flack's classic version about joy filling the earth and lasting until the end of time, its slow pace makes the song last nearly as long, at over four minutes. Then what really caps it off for me is that faint snort that Dion gives at the very end right before, "Your face, your face, your face." For real.
6. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Johnny Mathis
A quavering voice signifies that Johnny Mathis is all wrapped up in his feelings in this stirring 1972 pop tune. To emphasize his adoration for his love interest, he adds a couple of "my love"s and repeats the line about loving until the end of time. Additionally, he deletes the last line, "Your face, your face, your face," in this moderate-tempo, three-and-a-half-minute ballad. Mathis' competently executed version is one of nostalgia for a partner who is still in his life.
7. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Josh Groban
In this 2020 version, adult contemporary artist Josh Groban begins his soft serenade with a piano accompaniment, then his floaty vocals drift about without much direction. He fails to fully connect with the melancholy song message of loss. While Groban certainly gets credit for clearly enunciating his words, he's just not feeling it. Where is the truly felt pain in his voice? Perhaps Groban hasn't had enough personal experiences to draw from.
8. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Aaron Neville (Featuring Linda Ronstadt)
Aaron Neville and Linda Ronstadt get points for creativity here, as I like the concept of a duet for this song. However, this leisurely 1997 R&B version is merely okayish.
This pair aims for high drama with lots of falsetto, and their vocals marry well in harmony. Unfortunately, there is nothing particularly remarkable about the love affair they depict and no projected sense of felt loss. They seem to be hitting their vocal marks on this slow jam with a steady beat. Both of them are far better singers than this version of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" would lead you to believe.
9. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Harry Connick Jr.
Jazz artist Harry Connick Jr. doesn't invest a lot of time, emotion, or use of his vocal range in this 2009 rendition of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face." His offering is cozy and effort-free with his vocals reminiscent of a man who has slept late on a weekend morning. Connick's version is fairly adequate at less than three-and-a-half-minutes long, and it omits the "Your face, your face, your face" line.
10. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Gordon Lightfoot
The Canadian singer races through this 1966 folk tune on his debut album in just over three minutes, giving us the shortest cover version we have here. You may notice that its melody sounds strikingly similar to the artist's easy listening hit, "If You Could Read My Mind" (1970).
Against a twinkling guitar, Lightfoot's commanding vocals ricochet and reverberate pleasingly over the high and low notes. Those quavering inflections are his touch, and you either love his creativity or you don't.
11. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Johnny Cash
Damn, is this ever somber. Released in 2002, the year before legendary country singer Johnny Cash died at 71 years old, this track features the legendary Nashville star at the end of his life. Cash is most certainly addressing a love song to his wife, June Carter Cash. They met backstage at the Grand Ole Opry in 1956 when he was married to his first wife. June died in 2003, just four months before he did. They were married 35 years.
Although the song is poignant if you know their tumultuous love affair of substance abuse, infidelity, and redemption, let's be brutally honest that The Man in Black doesn't so much sing this song as he "sing-speaks" it. Ok, so I said the quiet part out loud. At this point in his life, Johnny couldn't carry a tune in a bucket, but he could still say a song to music, and people would listen. Dark guitar strumming in the background is joined by church-like music. This adds additional gravity, as if we needed more weight. The effect is funereal.
Cash's version is just the right length at three-and-a-half minutes long. Any longer and it would drag us under. Lyrics-wise, he replaces Flack's "endless skies" with "empty skies" and drops the final line, "Your face, your face, your face." It is gratifying that Johnny and June are together now.
12. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Elvis Presley
When Elvis was good, he was phenomenal, but alas, here's overweight Elvis in his tight white jumpsuit emblazoned with rhinestones, speedily uh-uhing his way to the finish in this cringeworthy 1972 rendition. Let's just say that this wasn't the King at his peak.
At three minutes 45 seconds, you'd think the King of Rock and Roll has somewhere more important to be, the way he rushes through this tune, imparting little heartfelt emotion in his short journey. He snaps his fingers throughout this odd version, gives it a psychedelic-like treatment with the background music, and adds a rise and fall of way too many ah's and uh's.
Such verbal utterances replace entire lyrical passages from Robert Flack's classic, thus making Elvis' song more simplistic. Specifically, he omits Flack's stanza regarding laying with you. In so doing, Elvis sells out the purity of the song's meaning by repeating a line about command. This makes the song seem to be about control issues in a love relationship.
In addition, Elvis' rendition swaps out Flack's "laying with you" stanza and the "Your face, your face, your face" final stanza with the following:
Uh, uh, uh
Uh, uh, uh
Uh, uh, uh
That was there at my command, my love (ah, ah, uh)
That was there at my command (ah, ah, uh).
This love is not between equal status partners.
13. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by The Temptations
This low-key 1972 R&B number is like four-plus minutes of flat soda. From the intro, the song is understated, restrained, sleepy even. Short on emotion, The Temptatations' Richard Street provides the lead vocals, and it doesn't feel much like a group effort until the very last "your face" when the other group members finally chime in. Unfortunately, the high notes aren't just ineffectual (like that something that is just out of reach), they are awkwardly off-key. Yikes. This is not The Temptations' best work.
14. "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" by Peter, Paul & Mary
Oh, yuck. The fact that it was the Sixties is no excuse for this. Although this terrible 1965 folk version becomes somewhat more tolerable as it plods along, overall it's a real wrist-slitter, depressingly dull and dismal. Amidst the dual guitar accompaniment and barely noticeable harmony of her bandmates, Mary Travers' voice is almost ghoulish here.
This version was recorded years before Roberta Flack's international hit, and thankfully, it failed to gain significant traction. The version is about a minute shorter than Flack's, and its lyrics differ slightly. The Peter, Paul & Mary rendition mentions "empty skies" (like Seeger's original) whereas Flack's lyrics modify the line to reflect "endless skies."
Similarly, Flack changed the Peter, Paul & Mary lyrics, "The first time ever I held you near" to, "And the first time ever I lay with you." In the Peter, Paul & Mary line, "And I knew our joy would fill the world," Flack later swapped out the word "world" for "earth." These and other other such word changes among versions of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" are enough for some listeners to take notice.
© 2022 FlourishAnyway