Tell it all brother: Why you should dig the groovy music of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition

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Learn all about the First Edition, a psychedelic country rock band fronted by Kenny Rogers a full decade before he assumed his middle of the road “Gambler” persona, from official group historian Mike Eder. In the accompanying still Hippie Kenny and the gang are all accounted for in some groovy threads in late 1969. Presenting the Spanish single 45 sleeve for “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” b/w “Reuben James.” Clockwise from top are bass guitarist-lead vocalist Rogers, drummer Mickey Jones, rhythm guitarist Kin Vassy, chanteuse Mary Arnold Miller, and lead guitarist Terry Williams. Image Credit: 45Cat user Bsf1975 / Warner Music Group

The First Edition, fronted by Kenny Rogers a full decade before he drifted towards mainstream country mega stardom, was a genre-bending band responsible for seven Top 40 hits, including “Just Dropped In [To See What Condition My Condition Was In]”, “But You Know I Love You,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Reuben James,” “Something’s Burning,” and “Tell It All Brother.”

Featuring co-commander Terry Williams on lead guitar, since deceased Bob Dylan drummer Mickey Jones, Mike Settle on rhythm guitar — replaced by Kin Vassy and later Jimmy Hassell — Thelma Camacho on vocals-tambourine — succeeded by Mary Arnold Miller — piano virtuoso Gene Lorenzo, and Rogers on bass, the group was certainly difficult to categorize during their eight-year sojourn.

The band was adept at delivering contemporary pop with socially conscious messages, hard rock, folk, ballads, or country at the drop of a hat. There were multiple lead singers, and the band composed and performed much of its own material. And who could forget the psychedelic image of “Hippie Kenny” — resplendent with long hair, bushy brown beard streaked with gray, groovy clothes, pink sunglasses and earring.

A record deal with Frank Sinatra’s hip Reprise Records signaled a band at the forefront of the late ’60s rock movement. “Just Dropped In”, written by the underrated Mickey Newbury, made the group a household name. Though sometimes seen as a parody of a drug song, it actually was about Newbury’s strange psychedelic experience. It hit the Billboard Top Five in March 1968.

Did the band recognize the song’s commercial appeal? In a brief interview with Williams, the lead guitarist admitted, “We knew it was special but never thought about the iconic hit it would become. Our debut album had several potential singles, including ‘I Found a Reason’, which enjoyed some regional success. The second single off the album was ‘Just Dropped In.’ Our arrangement, plus the creative production of Mike Post who turned Glen Campbell’s guitar around up front and put the background voices through a Leslie speaker, made the production as unique as the song.”

The hits kept on coming as the group showcased their songwriting, production, and musicianship on many seminal recordings like Ballad of Calico. The First Edition also landed a variety television series. Rollin’ on the River spotlighted such legendary artists as Rick Nelson, B.B. King, B.J. Thomas, Al Green, and Tina Turner.

Declining sales, new musical trends and creative differences eventually undermined the band in late 1975. Within a year, Rogers had his first number one solo single, the narrative-driven “Lucille.” Jones continued to hone his acting skills, finding a huge audience in the ’90s on Tim Allen’s family sitcom Home Improvement. Arnold married genius country songwriter Roger Miller and toured with his stage show. Vassy and Williams appeared on multiple Rogers’ albums, while the latter also operated Rogers’ Lion Share Recording Studio in the ‘80s.

It is debatable whether Rogers would have become a chart-topping solo artist had he not honed his musical technique as a member of the First Edition. Despite eventually billing Rogers up front, the First Edition was a bona fide democracy which relied on the sum of its parts.

The band’s legacy isn’t given much respect. They continue to be unjustly passed over for inclusion into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Fans wishing to track down First Edition music have to filter through countless public domain releases. For streaming purposes, only select greatest hits can be found, and those are mistakenly located under Rogers’ name. Incidentally, the First Edition minus Rogers held rehearsals at Williams’ Nashville residence in the early twenty-tens.

Mike Eder, author of Elvis Music FAQ: All That’s Left to Know About the King’s Recorded Works, is prepared to wage battle over his favorite band’s long-neglected status in ’60s pop rock. Having interviewed band members at length, Eder graciously shares the reason why he’s forever fascinated with the First Edition.

The Mike Eder / First Edition Interview

Kenny Rogers’ country fans seem to have no idea that he was once a member of the much more musically diverse First Edition. Why have they been nearly forgotten?

The band is the most neglected of what I consider the great groups in rock and roll, and it’s largely not their fault. They just never got picked up on by the so-called critics of the day in any proper fashion.

The First Edition aimed at all age groups and attempted a lot of different things. They were very early in combining a blend of rock, folk, country, and even a little jazz. Clearly their music was distinctly progressive, but being entertainers was a full part of who they were at a time when many of those “hipper than thou” considered that a crime.

Why they were so good comes down to musical quality and the way they blended their diverse talents. Harmonically, they were especially impressive, and it should be noted that a younger Kenny naturally had a greater harmonic range. They had the ideal career from a creative standpoint in that they were together long enough to create a body of work, but not together long enough to let it get stale.

Conversely, with a solo career as long as Kenny’s, not everything is going to be of the same quality. The commercial and creative success of the best of his solo output speaks for itself. Having said that, it might be fair to say that “Love Woman” may appeal to a different audience than “Through the Years.

Since Kenny has gained so many millions of fans, some of his material is not necessarily going to appeal to the same audience that would potentially like the First Edition. Thus they remain uninvestigated by audiences who I know would love their work.

Their records have not been reissued in their original form, and compilations that come out often don’t credit let alone pay them. Most of these reissues only credit Kenny, despite the fact that he didn’t sing lead on a third of the songs.

It hasn’t helped that much of their work has only been reissued on cheap public domain LP’s and CD’s, and it has been mistreated badly. The public domain releases totally make a mess of the First Edition’s artistic intent, and frankly butcher their work. Their post-1972 Calico material has never been reissued in any form or format, save for one song on a Kenny box set and a track used on a 1985 compilation.

When both Kin Vassy [rhythm guitar/vocals/songwriter] and replacement Jimmy Hassell passed away, there was very little coverage outside of perhaps a brief note in Billboard. The First Edition hasn’t had the accolades nor credit they deserve, and I feel too many people under 40 don’t consciously know who they are.

That said, when I have played people their music it goes over well in most cases, even with college age listeners. Especially when I mention “Just Dropped In [To See What Condition My Condition Was In]” being in The Big Lebowski [1998], then it clicks. Their music is heard and enjoyed, but usually not in a form that really showcases the group in any clear way.

The fact that the 13th Floor Elevators — produced by Lelan Rogers, Kenny’s brother — who were indeed cool, but much more obscure, get full reissues and a plethora of articles really says something to me about how much the First Edition get unjustly ignored.

What is the best way to introduce a newbie to the First Edition?

For someone with no knowledge or who might be misled stylistically by the adult contemporary direction Kenny eventually went in, I recommend reading a biographical article I did with the First Edition’s help on Wikipedia.

Then I would either show them video clips or play them their greatest hits. If they like those songs and wish to pursue it further, I would have them listen to their first self-titled LP [1967], First Edition ’69, Something’s Burning [1970], Ballad of Calico [1972], and Monumental [1973].

How would you gauge the group’s essential albums?

Their debut album is good because it gives you an idea of Mike Settle’s songwriting talent at its very best, all four of the original members get to sing strong leads, and it has a cool L.A. ’60s vibe to it. Thelma had an unusually passionate voice, and a very charismatic seductive presence. The early press was largely about her.

First Edition ’69 was the last LP with the original lineup, and it shows a musical progression. The members seem to have each found their niche, and the writing and playing is all top notch.

Something’s Burning shows the second phase of the band to its best advantage. Settle and Camacho had left by this point and were replaced by Kin Vassy and Mary Arnold.

While Kenny was pretty much in the forefront for this release, there are a lot of well-chosen covers including a version of “Elvira” that comes 10 years before the Oak Ridge Boys made it a hit.

Kenny, Kin, and Terry wrote a few great songs, Vassy’s fantastic vocals sharpened the harmonies, and even Mike gave them a new song. It was their most successful LP and captures them at the height of their popularity, and they sound on top of the world.

Calico was a very special album that saw a studio return to more democracy within the band. It’s a country/rock concept LP done several years before Willie Nelson and the like popularized those type of releases.

All the songs are based on real people and events that happened in the silver mining town of Calico back in the late 1800’s. It stands as their greatest creative statement and most rewarding piece of work. The First Edition never sounded pretentious while doing serious material.

Mary does some great harmonies and sings a few leads acting out some of the more distinct female characters. Kin and Terry really get to shine as vocalists right alongside Kenny showing themselves to be as uniquely individual as he was. Every member blended well together but Kenny, Terry, and Kin developed this really cool blend. For proof outside Calico, listen to “Heed the Call” — a top 40 hit in 1970 — or Kenny’s 1981 track “Blaze of Glory.”

Monumental has Kin gone and singer/songwriter/guitarist Jimmy Hassell taking his place. Jimmy was a hard edged vocalist like Kin, but less country influenced and more funk oriented. Also added to the lineup by this point was Gene Lorenzo who was and is a brilliant piano player/keyboardist.

It has the hardest rock of their career, something Kenny and Terry were very adept at. It integrates the new members extremely well with Hassell’s “Something About Your Song” being a highlight.

The centerpiece of the record was a great Dr. John inspired medley written by Alex Harvey — “The Hoodooin’ of Miss Fannie DeBerry”/ “The Ritual” — that is very dark and theatrical. Besides, it is funky as hell.

Kenny later rerecorded much of this LP solo but added polish didn’t replace the spark captured in the original recordings. In retrospect it’s largely because he no longer came off as comfortable with the harder rock that seems so natural in the context of the group setting. They all brought out creative sides of each other that were lost after they broke up.

What were some of the group’s best singles during their formative years?

Most of their singles were very well chosen. It’s hard for me to choose but here are my 11 favorites. Their first 45 was “I Found a Reason” [1967], which was written and sung with a lot of fire by Mike Settle. The harmonies are terrific. “I Found a Reason” is very commercial and a great ’60s pop record.

“Just Dropped In” [1967] is intense acid rock with a very strong performance from Kenny on lead and Terry on guitar.

“But You Know I Love You” [1968] is a great Mike Settle love song that has not aged one day since it came out. Kenny and Mike sing the lead together, and it is the best mix of their folk roots and their current pop/rock sound.

“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” [1969] is a brilliant three minutes of country-tinged music. Mickey Jones’ drumming is amazing, and Terry’s guitar licks, Thelma and Mike’s harmonies, and Kenny’s nuanced, passionate lead, make for a fantastic listening experience. It also was quite timely. Mel Tillis wrote it about Korea, and it was brave and daring to come out with a record that sympathized with veterans returning from Vietnam. Because of the fact that it can be applied to any war, “Ruby” remains a very important song.

“Something’s Burning” [1970] is a sexy rock song with a lot of cool melodic shifts. It was quite a vocal challenge for Kenny and shows him holding the notes and singing with a clarity and power that arguably reflects the apex of his vocal career. It’s very tight and grabs your attention.

“Tell It All Brother” has some universal truths that are delivered without punches. It came out right around the time of the Kent State shootings [May 4, 1970] and when they premiered it that week, it got a standing ovation. The harmonies are terrific, the issue of how you really feel about your fellow man, and Kenny’s ability to deliver very harsh lyrics with a degree of compassion makes this one not only a classic of the period, but it resonates even more strongly today as none of these issues have gone away. The song was covered by obscure reggae artist Lascelles Perkins, bringing home just how wide ranging and applicable the First Edition’s music really was to all sorts of people and backgrounds.

“Heed the Call” [1970] is a Kin Vassy rocker similar in scope to “Tell It All Brother” but altogether different musically. The percussion is very sharp, Mary Arnold’s harmonies, Kin’s fantastic shout in the coda, and the groove Kenny hits on all come together to make another song that transcends yet typifies the era. Plus, there’s a nice gospel feel to it. This was covered by Maori artist Prince Tui Teka in New Zealand, and it has really cool tribal sounding percussion. Again, how far the First Edition’s music reached is incredible.

Post-1970, what were some of the First Edition’s most enduring singles?

“What Am I Gonna Do” [1971] was released as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition featuring Terry Williams. They tried that on stage for a while too, but as much as Terry deserved it, that’s an awfully long billing. The record should have by all means been a huge hit. His vocal swings wildly from intimate to intense, and it has plenty of harmonies layered on it that really give this ballad a rich full sound not unlike that of the Beach Boys circa 1971. It’s Terry’s calling card.

“School Teacher” [1972] is from the The Ballad of Calico and is sung by Kin Vassy. Kin’s voice is probably one of the best I’ve ever heard. Kenny said repeatedly that he didn’t know why Kin wasn’t a star. He certainly sounded like one whenever he took center stage. It’s a funky track with a great solo by Terry, and the only reason I think it may not have connected is that the 1800’s styled misogyny may have been misunderstood outside the concept of the LP as a whole.

“Lena Lookie” [1973] is a simple but catchy Kenny penned rocker that has a really great sound to it. The lyric is very pop, but the sound is strictly FM rock. It definitely hints at an exciting direction they could have gone in had this been a success in more than just New Zealand. It was a tremendous hit for them there, and their performance of it on The Midnight Special in July 1973 may show them at their very coolest.

“I’m Not Making My Music for Money” [1974] was their last single. It’s a quirky, jaunty track complete with a banjo, but it also rocks and has a great delivery from Kenny and some fine harmonies.

It is very ironic in how even in the late ’70s Kenny’s interviewers focused more on his wealth, possessions, and success, rather than his music. That Kenny was unjustly treated less as a musician and more as a celebrity later on speaks volumes about what happened and why the First Edition don’t get the recognition they well deserve.

I had no idea the group covered the Beach Boys.

Terry Williams loved the Beach Boys, knew them, and wanted to cover them on Rollin’, a television variety series hosted by the group. Show arranger and Calico co-writer Larry Cansler often came up with creative variations on a wide variety of different songs, and he helped put a Beach Boys’ medley together. It was based on Pet Sounds, which in 1971 did not have the status in the USA it does today. A cover from that Beach Boys’ era was anything but common then.

Another notable moment is the cover of “Disney Girls” Terry performed later that year. He considers it his favorite thing he ever did. The First Edition was always tremendous boosters of The Beach Boys at a time when it wasn’t cool.

In fact, today the First Edition hold up so well because they didn’t care about transient things that the underground seemed to demand of its favored stars. That they didn’t care about what was “cool” can now be seen to have benefited them creatively over and over again.

Has Kenny publicly expressed his feelings for the First Edition’s legacy?

Since I have never spoken to Kenny, I don’t know exactly how he feels. He talks positively about them in his autobiography, though Mickey noticed some details were wrong. In the twenty-tens Kenny has been performing more of their songs at his shows — “Just Dropped In,” “Ruby,” “Something’s Burning,” and occasionally “Reuben James.”

About a quarter of his 2006 documentary The Journey had the band featured in archival footage and new interviews. Kenny did invite them to his First 50 Years TV special in 2010 where they were just used in the background with other musicians and singers for one song. Sadly, the media took next to no notice.

How does the rest of the band view their cultural impact?

Terry Williams is the most selective as far as what he thought came up to standard, but loves the group as much as anything outside of his spiritual beliefs. The First Edition is still something that is a great part of who he is, and he loves the group almost like you would a child.

Mike Settle really seems to be really getting back into what he did then. I think over the time I have known him these last 10 years, he has gained a real appreciation — not that he didn’t have pride before. He seems to possess a deeper awareness of how special the group was on all levels.

Like Terry, he was in on the ground level of their inception and though he left after a few years, his presence remained in their music. He continued to write for them a bit, and Kenny, Mickey, Kin, and Terry all recorded his songs in their solo careers and he helped produce Kin and Mickey as well.

Thelma Camacho had been away from the others since moving to Europe in the late eighties and performing under the name of Tess Ivie. She came back to California about fifteen years ago, runs a home jewelry shop, and is happy to be back in touch with them. She’s proud of most of what she did with them and has overall good feelings about her career as a solo artist later.

Mary Arnold was married to the brilliant country artist Roger Miller and was involved with touring with him. Since he passed away in 1992, she has done a fabulous job in keeping his legacy alive and making sure his career is treated with respect. She was inducted into the Iowa Rock Hall Of Fame in 2009. That really reinforced to her how interesting and successful her own time in the spotlight was.

Gene Lorenzo gets a lot of positivity out of that time in his life. He had a lot of fun playing with the group and touring the world with them, and he seems to value their friendships quite a bit. I haven’t been in contact with keyboardist John Hobbs yet, but that will hopefully change soon.

Mickey Jones and I addressed his legacy in detail, and he truly enjoyed the music he took a part in and that very much included the First Edition. Talking to him was almost like talking to another fan.

He loved to collect vintage records and films, not only because he had pride in his work, but also because he felt their catalog was of high quality. He took a lot of pleasure in playing the First Edition’s records and watching their footage.

I think they all enjoy that really, though Mickey was certainly the most unabashed fan. He knew they were good, and in his 2007 book, That Would Be Me: Rock & Roll Survivor To Hollywood Actor, he said if they hadn’t been one of the best groups he ever heard, he would have went into acting full time in 1967.

What originally prompted your appreciation for the First Edition?

I became a fan in 1981 of Kenny’s, and even at age five I wanted to hear everything an artist ever did. The First Edition stuff was hard to get but it was my favorite stuff he ever cut and still is.

I lost interest for awhile but saw a clip of them on TV in the late nineties and was stunned by how good it was. By this point I knew how to use the Internet and mail order for my vinyl buying, and I discovered just how great they were as I picked up their albums.

What led to me meeting the group is that an early draft version of my article for Wikipedia was brought to Terry’s attention. He liked that I focused on them as more than a footnote to Kenny’s later success.

Terry helped me rewrite it, and we have been great friends ever since. I now have met all who are still with us except Kenny, and they are all wonderful to me. At their 2011 reunion at Terry’s house we all agreed that a book should be done.

They have never in all these years had a proper book — save portions of Kenny and Mickey’s respective memoirs — or even an article strictly about them since they broke up. I have conducted extensive band interviews and logged innumerable hours of research.

But even after finishing my Elvis Presley book, Elvis Music FAQ, finding a publisher willing to tackle such a project has dampened my enthusiasm considerably. After much deliberation my First Edition book has been abandoned. Believe me — it was an agonizing decision.

The First Edition deserve to be in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame and have their entire catalog reissued on vinyl, CD, MP3, and streaming platforms. It is a very rewarding catalog with very little filler. They all had such talent. Mike Settle was a terrific songwriter, Kin Vassy had one of the best voices I have ever heard, and Mickey Jones was the drummer on Bob Dylan’s infamous 1966 tour. All of them knock me out.

© Jeremy Roberts, 2012, 2018. All rights reserved. To touch base, email jeremylr@windstream.net and mention which story led you my way. I appreciate it sincerely.

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Retro pop culture interviews & lovin’ someone fierce sustain this University of Georgia Master of Agricultural Leadership alum. Email: jeremylr@windstream.net

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