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Throwback: 'The First Time'

This week in 1972: Roberta Flack is No. 1

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The first time ever British songwriter Ewan MacColl heard Roberta Flack sing "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" was the first time ever he liked a version by someone other than folk singer Peggy Seeger, the woman he wrote it for in 1957 (and later married).

Flack's slow, sensual rendition settled in at No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 this week in 1972 and became her breakthrough solo hit.

Before then it had been covered by folkies like the Kingston Trio, Gordon Lightfoot and Peter, Paul and Mary—and a non-folk singer named Elvis Presley.

"He hated all of [those recordings]," said the daughter-in-law of MacColl, who was 74 when he died in 1989. "He had a special section in his record collection for them, entitled 'The Chamber of Horrors.' He said that the Elvis version was like Romeo at the bottom of [London's] Post Office Tower singing up to Juliet. And the other versions, he thought, were travesties: bludgeoning, histrionic, and lacking in grace."

Flack, 33 at the time, got it oh so right, though it took a while to resonate with the public. She recorded "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" for her 1969 album, "First Take." But it didn't take off until Clint Eastwood chose the dreamy ballad to play over a love scene in the first movie he ever directed, 1971's "Play Misty for Me."

The subsequent single stayed on top of the chart for six weeks and won the Grammy awards for Record of the Year and Song of the Year, presented to MacColl.

Photo: Getty Images

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