I should never have given my brother my record collection before I left for Africa. It has taken me a lifetime to re-create that collection, and even so, some titles may never be replaced.
But before I get into this story, I first need to say one thing as a kind of disclaimer: my musical tastes are not based solely on the quality of the music. In fact, some of the tunes I like are downright awful.
For example, I have “Sugar, Sugar” by the Archies in my collection—possibly one of the worst songs ever—but it reminds me of an afternoon once pleasantly whiled away in a rustic beer bar at Nkhata Bay. The girl who ran the bar thought the Archies were ‘da shit,’ and she played that song over and over again until my friends and I nearly died of laughter. I like that crummy song and listen to it sometimes when I want to create a certain mood.
So perhaps you will judge this story with a little compassion and understanding as I go on and on… and on. Lovesick people deserve a special break.
I’ve been in love with Thelma ever since I heard her voice in 1968. Thelma is Thelma Comacho, a onetime pop music performer you’ve probably never heard of.
Thelma was a member of The New Christy Minstrels when fellow minstrel Kenny Rogers asked her to join a group he was forming with minstrels Mike Settle and Terry Williams. Kenny was disenchanted singing other people’s hits and opening for Vegas acts like Dinah Shore, so he decided to form his own group using the royalties he earned for having written a country song that Eddy Arnold made a hit. The new group was called “The First Edition.”
The First Edition was a vocal ensemble that performed a strange brew of country, Fifth-Dimension-type pop, and psychedelic music. The overall impression created by their earliest work is that the group hadn’t decided what it wanted to be when it grew up. Kenny Rogers performed vocals and bass guitar, Thelma performed vocals, and Mike Settle performed vocals and guitar, as did Terry Williams. Mickey Jones was their drummer and percussionist.
One night while performing at Ledbetter’s, a Los Angeles club owned by The New Christy Minstrels founder Randy Sparks, they were seen by Ken Kragen who worked as manager for the Smothers Brothers. Kragen signed them to a development deal. The First Edition signed to Frank Sinatra’s Reprise label, and then made its television debut on The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour in December 1967 with their “sound-of-the-times” pseudo-psychedelic “Just Dropped In to See What Condition My Condition Is In.” Two months later it was on its way to the #5 position on the charts. It was, as they say, a “monster breakthrough hit.”
This is the same song made popular with younger audiences more than a decade ago by the Coen Brothers’ comedy film, The Big Lebowski, starring Jeff Bridges in the lead role, as excerpted here:
Whenever young people hear that song, they always say: “Oh, The Big Lebowski.” And I always think, “No, Thelma Camacho.”
Now here’s the thing I want to say (and my apologies to Kenny, Mike, and Terry—and the Coen Brothers, too): it was Thelma’s voice that made that song a hit. Though Thelma sang background on “Just Dropped In,” her voice was like a lighthouse on a dark horizon. It was the hook that caught me then and holds me now.
Here are videos of the two sets performed on The First Edition’s second Smothers Brothers appearance in 1968. If you can see past all the standup collars, lace, matching ascots, and ridiculous sets, maybe you’ll see in Thelma’s performances those qualities which caught my ear and heart when I was a 20-year-old kid. And whether you like the music or not, you’ve gotta agree, Thelma was a beautiful girl.
Now here, for me, is where the story enters a realm I think of as “regrets of youth” and “what might have been.” Just when The First Edition had become an immensely successful act, Thelma left the group. Some versions of the story say she was fired for missing too many rehearsals—that doesn’t quite ring true. Some versions say she just quit to pursue a different path that would make her happier—which sounds just like every press release announcing every CEO’s golden parachute exit.
Watching these two Smothers Brothers sets, I think an argument could be made that the group had two lead singers: Kenny and Thelma, each of whom represented a musical fork in the road.
The First Edition hadn’t settled in on a narrow beam yet that would sustain its popularity; and given Kenny Rogers’ personality, one can imagine that egos played a part in the group’s changing chemistry. I haven’t been able to learn any details of what happened, but years later Kenny Rogers was quoted saying rather dismissively that Thelma had “just become a housewife” after she left, which was not necessarily an accurate characterization. It’s probably best to observe that she and Kenny never recorded any duets and just say that Thelma’s was the road not taken.
I lost interest in the group when Thelma left and it developed more of a country sound as “Kenny Rogers and The First Edition.” Apparently a lot of other people lost interest, too, because the group’s releases never got much traction on the country charts. It was not until nine years later, after The First Edition disbanded, that Kenny Rogers became a chart-busting country star with the 1977 release of “Lucille.”
It was only when Thelma was with the group that The First Edition achieved its big hits: “Just Dropped In” (#5), “But You Know I Love You” (#15), and “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (#6). After Thelma left, Karen Carpenter auditioned for her place and didn’t get it; Mary Arnold, one of Thelma’s former roommates, was given the job with Thelma’s blessings. Yet when Thelma left, something catalytic went with her.
In the 1980s Thelma pursued her musical career in Europe, but I don’t have the impression that her trajectory was what it might have been had she continued using The First Edition as a platform. Three years ago I tracked down a vinyl album of hers from those days, but I didn’t think the material showcased the stellar qualities and power of her voice. The best track from that album is today’s Groove of the Day.
Before she joined The New Christy Minstrels, Thelma had studied fashion design, and when she retired from music and returned from Europe in 1991, she started a costume and jewelry design business in La Jolla, California.
We traded a couple e-mails back around the time I went looking for her European album. When I checked yesterday, I was not able to find a phone number for her store, so I’m not able to report how or what she’s doing now. Everything I’ve shared here is ancient history.
A friend who was close to Charles Lindbergh told me Lindbergh used to say, “no matter what I do in my life, the old ladies still have me flying to Paris.” I guess Thelma might say the same thing about old fans like me.
Groove of the Day