Tuesday, February 12, 2013

Kenny Rogers and the First Edition - Part 1 - Setting The Stage

Ten years before he would hit the pop charts with The First Edition and their psychedelic classic "Just Dropped In", Kenny Rogers had a regional hit on the Lynn Record Label called "That Crazy Feeling".   

Recorded as Kenneth Rogers, his first solo record became a local smash in the Houston area in 1958 and, after the much larger Carlton Records picked up the distribution of his single, he even landed a guest spot on "American Bandstand" at the ripe old age of 19. (Dick Clark always insisted that he had absolutely NO recollection ... or video tape ... of this event ... and it would become a major ribbing point between the two superstars over the years to come!)   

A few years earlier, Kenny had done some recording with a band called The Scholars and topped the local Houston chart with a little ditty called "The Poor Little Doggie" ... and, by 1960 he moved on as a member of The Bobby Doyle Trio, a jazz-combo for whom he would become the bass player. (He actually had to learn how to play the bass guitar in order to get into the group. By his own admission, Kenny wasn't even much of a guitar player at the time ... but he didn't play the bass guitar at all. In his new book "Luck Or Something Like It", Kenny says the best piece of advice Bobby Doyle ever gave him was "There's more demand for bad bass players than bad guitar players" ... so Kenny picked up the bass and, after a series of grueling rehearsals, learned to play jazz on it.)   

The Bobby Doyle Trio toured extensively and, in 1962, recorded an album and single that went pretty much unnoticed. They also became the semi-regular support-act for The Kirby Stone Four and these friendships would help Kenny later in his career. As the Doyle Trio began to split up in 1965, Rogers spent a brief time with The Lively Ones before he was recommended (by Kirby Stone, no less!) as a replacement singer / player for The New Christy Minstrels.   
When Stone heard that The Christys were recruiting a couple of new members, he told them that they would do well to consider Kenny Rogers. "He's a versatile singer and plays stand-up bass." One of the best known and successful folk groups around, The New Christy Minstrels had already helped to launch the careers of Barry McGuire ("Eve Of Destruction") and Gene Clark, who went on to join The Byrds. On Kirby Stone's recommendation, they decided to do exactly that ... and, in perhaps one of the most unusual auditions in history, Kenny Rogers won his spot in The New Christy Minstrels by singing to them over the pay phone in a busy hotel lobby of The Houstonaire Hotel!   

When Randy Sparks first formed The New Christy Minstrels back in 1962, the original concept was to have a revolving cycle of folk singers and musicians come through and perform as part of the band. Performing with as many as nine members at a time, the group sang upbeat tunes in unison with perfect harmony and spot vocal solos by the various members. Along the way, Mike Settle, Terry Williams, Thelma Camacho, Kenny Rogers, Barry McGuire and later, Kim Carnes, all made their way through The Minstrels Show. In fact, a couple of the founding members of The Association (including Mike Whalen, who actually replaced Barry McGuire in the band), spent some time there as well.  

Sparks eventually sold his interest in The New Christy Minstrels to a couple of music managers and, years later, opened Ledbetter's, the L.A. Club where The First Edition first honed their chops (filling in for The Back Porch Majority, who were out on tour at the time.) Mike Settle was a former member of The Cumberland Three with Gil Robbins and future-Kingston Trio member John Stewart ... and also performed in a duo with Mason Williams (yep, the "Classical Gas" guy, who would end up as the head comedy writer on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour" years later!Comedian Steve Martin was a staff comedy writer for The Smothers Brothers' television series, too ... and back in the day often opened for The First Edition as a stand-up comedian. All of these artists would eventually be managed by Ken Kragen ... and each helped to advance the others' careers along the way. (It's AMAZING how all this stuff ties together, isn't it?!?!?!) Before leaving The New Christy Minstrels to help launch The First Edition, Mike Settle also recorded a couple of solo albums and had one of his songs ("Settle Down" ... get it) recorded by Peter, Paul and Mary.  

Kenny had hoped that The New Christy Minstrels would also start to record some of Mike Settle's songs ... but they were so engrained in their standard folk song repertoire that it soon became obvious that this was never going to happen. As such, Rogers, Settle, Terry Williams and Thelma Camacho became disenchanted ... and started to put their own group together. (Quite honestly, Mike Settle, who, as the chief songwriter was going to head up this new outfit, wasn't sure that Kenny Rogers fit the bill ... he looked a little too straight and had a jazz background for God's sake!But Kenny wanted in ... and once they heard him sing lead on a couple of songs, they, too, were convinced. To prove his commitment, Rogers grew out his hair (and a beard), added an earring (and rose-tinted glasses) and soon looked the part of a 1968 hippie! (It's kind of funny to watch the tapes of some of these performances now and see Kenny Rogers with dark hair! His '80's country image is SO etched in our minds, it's the ONLY way we're able to perceive him! Of course it's even harder to picture him with his newly-sculpted face ... but that's a different story all together!)  

Mike Settle and Kenny Rogers weren't the only First Edition members with interesting musical backgrounds. Thelma Camacho had sung with the San Diego Opera ... and, as such, had become bored singing background "ooo's" and "ahhh's" with The Minstrels. Terry Williams' father was a member of The Tommy Dorsey Orchestra (he was their first-chair trombonist) and his mother, Bonnie Lou Williams, sang with the orchestra! Despite these musical genes, Terry was probably the biggest "rocker" in the bunch. 

The only original member of The First Edition NOT to come from The New Christy Minstrels was drummer Mickey Jones. Mickey was the last to join (when The First Edition realized that, in order to perform, they needed a drummer!) ... and they found a good one. Jones played in Trini Lopez's back-up band for nearly eight years (that's him on the famous "Live From PJ's" album) ... and later did live sessions with Johnny Rivers (who captured a lot of the "live" Trini Lopez sound on his earliest Imperial hits) as well as other artists as diverse as Ann-Margret and Bob Dylan! (That's Mickey drumming on Dylan's landmark "Live At The Royal Albert Hall" concert in 1966.) He was recruited by new manager Ken Fritz, who, along with Ken Kragen, managed The Smothers Brothers and remembered how, according to Jones, "Trini and I would practically blow The Smothers Brothers off the stage when we opened for them." The timing was right ... since Dylan was off the road (this was right after his motorcycle accident), Jones was available and interested. (Ironically, when The First Edition ultimately folded in 1975, he and Rogers were the only two original members left!) Once The First Edition split up, Mickey Jones left the music business to pursue an acting career ... and he didn't fare too badly there either, landing roles in "Total Recall" with Arnold Schwarzenegger, "Tin Cup" with Kevin Costner, "National Lampoon's Summer Vacation" with Chevy Chase and also had recurring roles on both "The Dukes Of Hazzard" and "Home Improvement" on television. (Not too shabby!!!)