Kenny Rogers was one of the most popular artists of the late '70s and '80s, scoring worldwide smashes with "Islands In The Stream," "I Don't Need You," "The Gambler," "Lady," and "Buy Me A Rose."
But before he became middle-of-the-road and more country leaning, Rogers was in a genre-defying band called The First Edition. Formed in 1967 by Terry Williams, Mike Settle, Thelma Camacho, and Rogers (drummer Mickey Jones, later a well-known actor on Home Improvement, joined a few months later) the group was certainly difficult to categorize.
They were unequivocally adept at composing rock, contemporary pop with socially conscious messages, country, psychedelia, or folk at the drop of a hat.
Although "I Found A Reason," their debut single on Frank Sinatra's very own label (Reprise), failed to chart, it signaled a band at the forefront of the late '60s rock movement.
Their very next single made the group a household name. "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" was written by Mickey Newbury. An anti-drug song (depending on your perspective), it hit the top five on Billboard's Pop chart in March 1968.
As to whether the band knew if 'Just Dropped In' was always destined to be a single, Williams admitted in a brief interview with this writer that "we knew it was special. Our debut album had several potential singles but our arrangement on 'Just Dropped In,' plus the creative production of Mike Post who turned the guitar around up front [played by Glen Campbell] and put the background voices through a Leslie speaker, made the production as unique as the song.
So after 'I Found A Reason" enjoyed some regional success, our second single off the album was 'Just Dropped In.' I think we knew it could do well but never thought about the iconic hit it would become."
And the hits kept on coming during the next few years as the group showcased their songwriting and production skills, including "But You Know I Love You," "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town," "Reuben James," "Something's Burning," and "Tell It All Brother."
Settle and Camacho soon departed, replaced by Mary Arnold and Kin Vassy. The First Edition then got their own variety series on television, entitled Rollin' On The River (later shortened to just Rollin'). Rollin' spotlighted some of the best contemporary artists of the early '70s, including Rick Nelson, B.J. Thomas, Roger Miller, B.B. King, and Al Green.
So why is The First Edition largely neglected or forgotten by contemporary critics and younger generations? Author Mike Eder, who has personally been selected by the band to pen their story in an upcoming biography, offers an interesting perspective below in an all-new interview with this column.
The Mike Eder Interview, Part I
Many of Kenny’s fans probably have no idea he was once a member of The First Edition. Why has this band 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 Kenny’s voice was much more flexible then.
Maybe it's the simple fact that Kenny's solo output became spotty as time went by, and even his early solo albums have poor First Edition remakes on them. He really did go for a more MOR image and perhaps that has kept some rock fans away from The First Edition.
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 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 Kin Vassy [rhythm guitar/vocals/songwriter] and Jimmy Hassell [he replaced Vassy in 1972] died, 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 most people under 40 don't know who they are – a lot barely know who Kenny is anymore.
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 , then I get a response.
The fact that The 13th Floor Elevators (produced by Kenny's brother Lelan) 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 Editions get ignored.
For folks who only know of Kenny Rogers the solo country artist, what is the best way to introduce them to The First Edition?
For someone with no knowledge or who might be turned off 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 (1968), Something's Burning (1970), Ballad Of Calico (1972) andMonumental(1973).
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.
First Edition ’69 was the last LP with the original lineup [bassist/singer/songwriter Kenny Rogers, singer/songwriter/rhythm guitarist Mike Settle, singer/songwriter/tambourine Thelma Camacho, lead guitarist/singer/songwriter Terry Williams, and drummer Mickey Jones] , 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 [singer/tambourine].
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, Kin was a fantastic vocalist so the harmonies are especially sharp, 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 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.
Kin and Terry really get to shine as vocalists right alongside Kenny showing themselves to be equally as important and talented as he was. There's a reason why Kenny brought them back in the ‘80s to help bring some important direction in his solo career.
Monumental has Kin gone and singer/songwriter/guitarist Jimmy Hassell taking his place. 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.
Kenny later rerecorded much of this LP solo and it shows just how much he needed the band to add a sense of passion to the music, and vocally in the First Edition days he was a lot more flexible and intense.
The centerpiece of the record was a great Dr. John inspired medley, “The Hoodooin' of Miss Fanny DeBerry"/"The Ritual" (written by Alex Harvey), that is very dark and theatrical. Besides, it is funky as hell.
What were some of the group's best singles?
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, and it’s very commercial. 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 just 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) was 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 as although Mel Tillis wrote it about Korea, 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" still is 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 never found in his later solo work. 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.