Kenny Rogers has sold 120 million records in his long county music hall of fame career. Those sales are more when counting those produced with Thelma Camacho. Rogers is retiring after 60 years of performing when he finishes his Final World Tour this summer. One of those stops is in June at the Del Mar Fairgrounds, ten miles from where Camacho now makes custom jewelry in her store in San Diego’s Spanish Village District.
Camacho was 18-years-old in 1967 when she shared lead vocals with Rogers, Terry Williams and Mike Settle in The First Edition. Camacho was already a well polished performer who had no street savvy when compared to the well spoken, 28-year-old Rogers who was still maintaining a geeky stage image comprised of a suit, tie and traditional stand-up bass guitar.
Camacho remained with Kenny Rogers and The First Edition for its first two years and first three albums. She is credited with penning six songs and sang solo on five others. She bravely sang solo at the groups’s first TV appearance on the Smothers Brothers Show. Her image did not fit the “get high” lyrics of the era but she came in handy because of her professional style. Critics wrote that Camacho’s skill and appearance opened doors that would not have been opened for The First Edition without her.
Talking by phone from her shop in Studio 37 at Balboa Park, Camacho said she did not know that Rogers was on his farewell tour and did not know if she could attend his Del Mar date. Camacho said she has not talked with Rogers in 25 years. “I wouldn’t mind seeing him but I’m running a business, too. It just depends. I want him to know that I wish him the best. He is a talented person who had a knack of picking hit songs. I don’t know how that would play out if I went backstage to see him.” She was not able to visit Rogers in 2013 when he performed in Encinitas.
By the time Camacho joined The First Edition she had a impressive resume, but not one conducive of a rock star. At 15, she was getting curtain calls at the Starlight Theatre as the female lead in classics like “The King and I” and could sing to Strauss and Verdi. She sang opera’s in Italian at the Balboa Bowl and studied drama. She was Miss Teenage San Diego and was third runner up in the 1964 Miss Teenage America Pageant. When other 12-year-olds were baby sitting, Camacho was making money singing at weddings.
She does not remember a lot from that era and nearly all of her awards and keepsakes were lost while she and her husband (Robert Ivie) lived in Germany. “I do have articles that my mother kept.” Camacho said she no longer desires to perform and will probably never perform again. “Some people need that. I never did. I preferred to sing in the studio. What could be overwhelming was to perform in front of a sea of 60,000 people whose faces you could not see. Appearing on TV never bothered me.”
Camacho later signed with Casablanca Records in 1980 and produced a self-titled album. She recorded a catchy single entitled “I Came A Long Way To Be With You” but no information could be found about either. In 2013, Camacho told IECN that she still held some business interest in The First Edition brand.
She recalled taking a “left turn” away from singing opera because she wanted to sing “young people’s music.” Her mother was always her manager before she entered the big business of making records. “Kenny put a lot of pressure on us and I didn’t understand the politics involved. I just wanted to be pointed in the right direction and start singing. It was still a time when girls were patted on the head and told to be good little girls.” Before joining the First Edition, she was a member of the Young Americans, The Kids Next Door, and the New Christy Minstrels.
Camacho was considered one of the first classical singers to transition into pop music, making for an interesting mesh with Rogers since he was fusing jazz and folk to rock music. Rogers was perhaps able to successfully move on to country rock because he was born and raised in Texas. “Now there is a lot of classically trained rock singers. Not back then. If you can sing classically, you can sing any style,” said Camacho. She respected colleagues like Janis Joplin and Jim Hendrix, but The First Edition did not suit the Woodstock Pop Festival selection committee. “We were crossover artists.”
Camacho returned to her hometown of National City with the The First Edition in 1968. “My father was running for city council and we came to sing. It was a big show. Maybe 60,000 people. No. I was not nervous.” Her father, Joseph Camacho did win the election. Camacho said she is sometimes asked about her past and welcomes such conversation. “That was a long time ago and they were much different years.”