The First Edition (later known as Kenny Rogers and The First Edition) was a rock band, stalwart members being Kenny Rogers (vocals & bass guitar), Mickey Jones (drums & percussion) Terry Williams (guitar & vocals). The band formed in 1967, with noted folk musician Mike Settle (guitar, vocals & main songwriter) and the operatically trained Thelma Camacho completing the lineup.
The First Edition signed with Reprise Records and recorded the pop-psychedelic single "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)". Within a year, the group was billed as "Kenny Rogers and the First Edition" and in the summer of 1969, they once again hit the charts with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love To Town" (US #6, UK#1).
For the next six years, the First Edition bounced between country, pop and mild psychedelia, enjoying world-wide success.
It was their follow-up (sung by Rogers), the proto metal-psychedelic single "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" that earned them their first brush with fame. The single, which had Glen Campbell playing the backwards guitar intro and Mike Deasy providing various psychedelic sounds, became a hit early in 1968, climbing to number five in the U.S. Though Campbell has been often been credited for the distinctive guitar solo, it was actually the work of Terry Williams. The groups next two single releases bombed, as did their second album. The early 1969 release, "But You Know I Love You",(composed by Settle) had a country-folk sound which broadened their fan base. According to Mickey Jones' book "That Would Be Me", Thelma was fired from the group in the spring of 1969 after missing too many gigs and rehearsals. Camacho was replaced by her roommate Mary Arnold an Iowa born singer who beat out Karen Carpenter for the job.
By the end of the 60's Rogers had long brown hair, an earring, and pink sunglasses. Known affectionately in retrospect as "Hippie Kenny", Rogers had a much smoother vocal style at the time. In the summer of 1969, they had another Top Ten hit, with "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town", which was a global smash. Mickey's drumming was part of the hook, but it was Kenny who made the song his own. At Kenny's current shows, the song is often clapped along to, or joked around with. However, telling the story of a crippled veteran was daring at the height of the Vietnam conflict. In order to release "Ruby" at the same time as the single "Once Again She's All Alone", the group renamed themselves "Kenny Rogers and The First Edition". When "Ruby" became the hit the name stuck. Terry later claimed this made him feel like one of Gladys Knight's Pips, but Kenny had sung the hits, and had the most identifiable voice.
The First Edition arguably reached their peak of their fame with "Something's Burning", a #11 hit in early 1970. A blatantly sexual song, it was slightly hindered chartwise by the controversy surrounding it. Regardless, Kenny's soft voice on verses and rock shouting on the chorus earned the group much acclaim. "Burning" opened with a sample of an actual heartbeat played backwards to replicate the songs rhythmic beat.
In the meantime, Terry Williams had begun to record some solo 45's. A number of folk rock songs met with little success, and he later switched to a more teen oriented bubble gum sound that he felt manager Ken Kragen forced him into. Williams' "I'm Gonna Sing You A Sad Song Susie" was part of the First Edition next LP "Tell It All Brother". The title track was a top 20 hit and dealt with love and brotherhood. It was the first of many songs Kenny would sing (i.e. his solo Coward Of The County) that had elements of sadism under a gentle surface. The line about mimicking a crippled man would not have flown had it not been sung with so much reverence. Released around right after the Kent State shootings, the audience gave the group a standing ovation the night it debuted live.
At the end of 1970 the First Edition had their seventh Top 40 hit with the Vassy penned "Heed The Call". Another song about the need for brotherhood, it was seen as an uptempo counterpart to the balladry of "Tell It All Brother". The next single, "Someone Who Cares", was from the "Fools" movie soundtrack. A lushly arranged ballad, it may have charted higher if it had been included in the group's concurrent top selling Greatest Hits LP. Though scoring high on the easy listening charts, "Someone Who Cares" failed to reach the pop top fifty. This ushered in a period where the First Edition were attempting to retool their image. In mid 1971 the First Edition released a gospel single called "Take My Hand", which only scraped into the bottom of the charts. Though "Spirit in the Sky", "Put Your Hand In The Hand" and "Jesus Is Just Alright" laid the foundation for "Jesus Rock", the First Edition now seemed to be jumping on trends instead of creating them.
Released in March of 1972, The Ballad of Calico was written by future star Michael Murphey and was a country rock opera about a late 1800s mining town. The songs were all based in fact and the sleeve and booklet of this 2 LP set had genuine and period styled photos depicting the era. The music was critically well received with all of the group (outside of Mickey) taking at least one lead. The song chosen for a single was "School Teacher", an acoustic rhythm and blues song with a lead by Kin. In retrospect it's easy to understand the probable reasons "School Teacher" didn't get past #91. Putting out a First Edition single where Kenny wasn't prominent was a gamble, plus with lyrics written to reflect the sexist views of the 19th century, it sounded odd outside of the LPs concept. "The Ballad Of Calico" has since picked up a large cult following, but back in 1972 it was all but ignored. Frustrated by the falling sales (the album hardly sold at all) Vassy began to let a drinking habit get out of control. According to Mickey Jones' book "That Would Be Me" Vassy was fired several months after the "Calico's" release following a drunken backstage confrontation with Terry Williams.
By the end of 1972, Gene Lorenzo and Jimmy Hassell joined the group. Gene was a keyboard player who had what would be referred to today as a huge (Super Mario Brothers) mustache. Jimmy was a hard rock singer similar to Vassy, and resembled a friend of Terry's actor Gary Busey. Both fit in well, without making the public impression of the original members. Around the time the new members hopped on board, Rogers formed his own label, Jolly Rogers (distributed by MGM, Rogers retained the name when he started his own publishing company as a solo artist) and the group left Reprise. Lorenzo has noted that a live LP that he considered terrific was scrapped during the change over. It captured the group playing at the prestigious Las Vegas Hilton lounge, something they did many times, usually when Elvis Presley was appearing in the showroom.
Their first Jolly Rogers release was a late 1972 country LP called Backroads. The third single from the album, a version of Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again" reached the lower regions of the country charts in mid 1973. Then came a soundtrack from "Rollin". Now in its second year, an album of live versions of the "Calico" songs and hits like "Ruby", "Reuben James" and "Just Dropped In" could have sold quite well bringing proven hits to the Jolly Rogers label at the same time. Instead they delivered a set of cover songs, of which Kenny's remake of "The Long and Winding Road" and Gene's reworking of Bach's "Joy" were most notable. The album didn't check the group's declining sales, and the TV show was soon canceled. The group increasingly played on the county fair circuit. This made the First Edition a lot of money, but they knew they were no longer current.
Although he made up for it by wilder dress and hair, Kenny was showing signs of middle age with weight gain and patches of grey in his beard. It was decided that a new image far away from their TV persona was required. "Monumental" tried to give them just this. Combining a wide variety of styles, it ranged from a Rogers written rocker about prostitute "Morgana Jones" (later rerecorded by Rogers for his album The Gambler in 1978), to the nostalgic "42nd Street". The later compared the New York of 1973 to the Broadway of the 1930s. As he would do on later hits such as "Coward of the County", Kenny cloaked some mature subject matter with a gentle delivery. The Dr. John inspired medley of "The Hoodooing Of Fannie DuBerry"(also rerecorded by Rogers for The Gambler) and "The Ritual", was the LPs centerpiece. Though in tune with other music of the day, "Monumental" was one of their biggest sales failures in the United States Of America, but in New Zealand it went gold. Kenny's rocking nursery rhyme "Lena Lookie" went to number one and the group embarked on three New Zealand tours over the next two years. A documentary of their first trip, in late 1973, was aired on a 1975 TV special "Rollin Through New Zealand".
As their domestic popularity continued to decline, Terry wanted to focus on the hard rockers that had done so well for them overseas. Kenny disagreed, wanting a more conservative agenda. Kenny admitted in his book, Making It With Music, that he perhaps shouldn't have complained about MGM's poor distribution on a radio show, but despite their mounting problems, New Zealand continued to consider the First Edition as superstars. The problem was that they had to go halfway around the world to benefit from their success, and travel expenses ate a big chunk out of their profits. As a thank you they put together an album called I'm Not Making My Music For Money especially for their New Zealand fans. An LP of this title was to have come out here, but MGM rejected it. Whether this was the same LP is unknown, but the record does show continued development. A mix of new songs and remakes, (probably because some songs were not available there), "Love Woman" is now a hard rock jam featuring Jimmy on lead. The ballads "Dirty Work" and "Daddy Was A Traveling Man" were a return to the more adult style of Terry's early work. Making Music For Money(another song rerecorded for The Gambler)is a song about art vs. commerce that Jimmy Buffett later covered.
Wanting to give a solo career a shot, Terry left in the spring of 1975. Kenny was upset but agreed to it, succeeding in getting Kin to come back so they could fill their pending engagements. Though he was hired to stay permanently, the reunion with Vassy did not go well and he ended up playing only one night. This is the point where The First Edition agreed to split. Kenny later said that writing the song Sweet Music Man made him cut his hair and get rid of the earring. The song may have played a part in his new middle of the road image, but the change did not happen overnight. Mary Arnold sang Sweet Music Man on the First Edition's final gigs. The First Edition played their last show in the fall of 1975 at Harrah's in Reno.Sweet Music Man would later become a minor pop hit(#44)and a Top 10 Country hit(#7)when Kenny recorded it for Daytime Friends and released it as a single.Sweet Music Man was later covered by many artists, including Waylon Jennings, Dolly Parton and Reba McEntire.
Kenny signed a solo deal to United Artists in 1975. Searching for a new image, he developed a more middle of the road gravel voiced style. For the rest of the decade and beyond he had hit after hit. "Lucille" was the first of no less than 25 number 1 singles after he left the group. During his time with UA he topped the album charts for a grand total of 90 weeks and sold more records than anyone in country music. In 1983 his status as one of the world's top stars (of any musical genre) was confirmed when RCA signed him for an advance sum of US$20 million, for six albums. His amiable stage jokes and love of performing continue to this day.
Thelma did a few solo records in the sixties and seventies. Kenny has said she became a housewife. She is known as Thelma Camacho Ivie. She moved to Europe in the 1980s and lost contact with the rest of the group. Today, she lives in California and runs a jewelry store.
Mary married singer Roger Miller, after the two were introduced by Rogers, and now looks after his estate.
Kin died of lung cancer on June 23, 1994. He scored two top 40 hit singles as a country singer, but his solo career never really took off. He often worked with Kenny in the eighties and his trademark scream enlivens hits like "Blaze Of Glory". In 1980 he released the single Makes Me Wonder (If I Ever Said Goodbye); Kenny Rogers sang the backing vocals. The song was not a hit, but the following year Kenny recorded his own version of the song for his popular "Share Your Love" album, produced by Lionel Richie; Vassy sang the back up on Kenny's version. He also worked with Frank Zappa and Elvis Presley. Two years after he died, Martina McBride had a #1 hit with the Vassy penned Phones Are Ringing (All Over Town).
Gene performed for some years with country star Lee Greenwood, then some more years with Kathy Mattea. When Greenwood fired his band in 1987, Kenny asked Gene if he would like to join his stage band "Bloodline" until he found a new group. Lorenzo stayed for roughly six months. He is still listed as a working musician.
Terry had one easy listening hit in 1980 called "Blame It On The Night", but it was on a small label and today is harder to find than his less successful singles. He worked extensively with Kenny in the eighties and managed Kenny's successful Lion Share recording studios. Today Terry is mostly retired, on a huge farm in the Southeast. He still sings Christian music, and keeps his foot in the door of the music business. As far as new music, or possibly something "on the road", Never Say Never!
Mike opened for The First Edition on their 1973 trek to New Zealand. He wrote several songs for the group's solo records over the years. He is now a journalist, but continues to write music as well.
Mickey is the most visible member next to Kenny. Now focused more on acting, he has been in many films and T.V. shows over the years, including films such as Sling Blade and The Fighting Temptations. He also had a continuing role in Tim Allen's Home Improvement for two seasons.
In 1980, a compilation of some of the First Edition's greatest hits and album cuts, titled "Shine On", was issued in the United Kingdom; it sold fairly well but was overshadowed by The Kenny Rogers Singles Album, a Kenny Rogers solo greatest hits collection that, in addition to his solo hits, featured reworkings of the group's best known songs.
Currently there are many compilations of their work in print on various labels. Very few of their studio albums are in print on CD or vinyl.
The band scored a total of 12 hit singles and 8 hit albums on the Billboard charts.
This discography only contains official singles and albums issued between 1967 and 1976, the time period the group were active. Later releases, post-split compilations and bootleg releases are not included.
Singles-Chart positions shows are country first then Top 40.
Jolly Rogers (1972-1974)
The last two LP's were issued only in New Zealand.
John T. Shawcross and Michael Lieb, eds. "Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books": An Authoritative Text of the 1667 First Edition.(Book review)
Mar 22, 2009; John T. Shawcross and Michael Lieb, eds. "Paradise Lost: A Poem Written in Ten Books": An Authoritative Text of the 1667 First...