The Search for a Decent Version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest”

Cat Stevens“The First Cut Is the Deepest” was a huge hit song for Rod Stewart in 1977. It reached #21 on the US charts but stayed at #1 for four weeks in the UK. But even if you haven’t heard that one, you must have heard some version of it. Singers love it. I’m pretty sure every pub band knows it.

But there’s something interesting about the song. It was brilliantly written by Cat Stevens (Steven Demetre Georgiou, Yusuf Islam) back in 1965. Yet I have yet to find a version that I really like.

PP Arnold

Before Stevens could release a version of the song, it was recorded by PP Arnold. In 1964, she became a background singer and dancer for the Ike & Tina Turner Revue. She was just 18 years old — already with two children. Two years later, she quit the band and went solo. She was in the UK at the time and her career has been focused there.

The following year, she released the first version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” Supposedly, she paid Stevens £30 for the song, but I doubt that means anything other than the right to record it first. Stevens would still get royalties.

The version is good. Arnold has a great voice. But the production leaves me cold. It’s produced by Mike Hurst who goes full Phil Spector Wall of Sound in the chorus. That’s especially true with the background vocals, that destroy the strength of Arnold’s voice.

Norma Fraser

That same year, reggae singer Norma Fraser released a version. Bob Marley asked her to join her band, but she remained solo even though she recorded with him, Peter Tosh, and just about everyone else in the reggae scene. She was part of the Studio One stable, which pretty much says it all.

Her version of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” is fine. But I’ve never found reggae to be able to milk all the emotion from a song. And that’s what I’m looking for in the song. It appears to be what most producers are looking for too — hence the common over-production of the song.

This is a simple version and, frankly, one of my favorites.

Cat Stevens

Cat Stevens didn’t manage to get the song out until the end of 1967 on his second album, New Masters. Like Arnold’s recording, this version is produced by Mike Hurst. And it’s better. the chorus isn’t overwhelming (although I could do without the strings, which become unbearable toward the end). The lead guitar is also annoying. And Cat Stevens just doesn’t have a very compelling voice at this point in his career.

Still, it’s listenable.

Love Affair

On Love Affair’s debut album, The Everlasting Love Affair, they recorded “The First Cut Is the Deepest.” It features a horn section in the chorus. I rather like it. It’s no wonder it didn’t become a hit. (Love Affair released a very good version of “Everlasting Love.”)

Keith Hampshire

The song has been recorded too many times to mention. But the next notable version was by Keith Hampshire in 1973. (It was recorded in 1971.) That was three years after Stevens conquered the world with Tea for the Tillerman. I love Hampshire’s voice, but I hate this version. It was produced by Bill Misener but is Phil Spector all the way. It’s worse than “The Long and Winding Road” — pretty much the gold standard in over-produced, sentimental trash.

I suppose it triumphs a bit just because of Hampshire’s voice. But even if Spector wasn’t a murderer, he belongs in jail.

Rod Stewart

This version has the advantage of being recorded in 1976 (released in 1977). This is after the British invasion and everyone trying to sound like Phil Spector. It’s still the time of the singer-songwriter, so the production of this song gets that treatment. So it’s not as annoying as most of the 1960s versions.

Just the same, it’s pretty anemic. Despite the swelling string section, the chorus always feels like a letdown. But Stewart was always chasing the current top-40 sound, so it isn’t surprising that this version of the song doesn’t hold up.

Papa Dee

I wasn’t aware of this version of the song. Papa Dee is a Swedish musician — kind of soul with some rap although he does straight reggae too. He’s really good. He doesn’t do the song quite the way I would prefer, but it works better than any other version I’ve heard.

Sheryl Crow

Sheryl Crow released a cover of “The First Cut Is the Deepest” because of course she did. It is a solidly inoffensive cover of the song. It’s basically just an update of the Rod Stewart version with predictable results (mega-hit). I don’t find it compelling. And really, Crow’s affected voice has not worn well.

Maybe It’s the Song

Maybe I’m wrong to think that “The First Cut Is the Deepest” is a great song. After all, some of the best musicians of the last 50 years have recorded it without my liking it. And I’ve heard tons of other versions and they are all derived from one of the above.

I see two problems with all the versions of the song. First is that with a line as great as “the first cut is the deepest,” I think it should have an edge. The second is that the chorus should attack. Most all the versions are too “nice” and they depend upon the production to make the chorus work.

Now I wonder if it isn’t that I just love that line. It deserves a more appropriate song, I’m afraid — Maybe written by Dee Dee Ramone or Iggy Pop or Nick Cave.