Listen, Children, to a Story That Was Written Long Ago

One day last week I mentioned a mythical list of the most 70s things ever. Here’s another thing for that list: “One Tin Soldier.”

For a brief while, say from maybe 1968 until sometime in the early 70s, truly worthwhile art was Relevant. It spoke to legitimate concerns in the real world, sometimes matters of life and death, but if not that, then serious stuff like love and beauty. And in such a climate, “One Tin Soldier” was the inevitable outcome.

You know the story: The Mountain People have a treasure and the Valley People want it. The Mountain People are happy to share it, but that’s not enough for the greedy Valley People. So they attack and kill the Mountain People, but they find that the treasure is not the gold they were expecting: it’s the words “Peace on Earth.” The symbolism and the message are not exactly subtle, but were subtle enough to turn “One Tin Soldier” into a radio fixture for the first half of the 1970s.

It may surprise you that “One Tin Soldier” is not the work of hippie folksinger types picking away on the front porch at the granola farm. It was written by Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter, who wrote and/or produced some of the slickest records of the Top 40 era, including “Don’t Pull Your Love,” “Ain’t No Woman Like the One I’ve Got,” and the Tavares hit “It Only Takes a Minute,” as well as the Glen Campbell album Rhinestone Cowboy and the debut album by Player. (It’s a hallmark of professionalism to know your audience, and these guys could capture almost any one they wanted.)

“One Tin Soldier” first appeared in a recording by a Canadian group called the Original Caste. It came out in 1969 and was a sizable hit north of the border, while sneaking to #34 stateside. (In Houston, it was a #1 hit early in 1970.) In 1971, the song was chosen for the soundtrack of the movie Billy Jack (another monument to Relevance) and sung by a woman named Jinx Dawson, who insisted that it be credited to the group she was in, Coven. The movie version was a hit, too—#26 on the Hot 100 and #1 for at least five straight weeks in Kansas City during August and September 1971.  “One Tin Soldier” appeared again in 1972, in a country version this time, by Skeeter Davis. It was good enough to get her a Grammy nomination without becoming a big radio hit in the States, although it did huge business in Canada.

Next, Coven recut “One Tin Soldier” in a full-band version and released it as a single. It got a fair amount of airplay in the summer of 1973 and crept to #79 on the Hot 100, although it seems to have been particularly huge on the West Coast, hitting #1 in Los Angeles. This must have about the time Billy Jack got a second chance in theaters after its relatively disappointing initial release, but I haven’t been able to determine precisely when the movie came back out. The late ’73/early ’74 success of the original Jinx Dawson version of “One Tin Soldier” certainly had to do with the movie re-release. The song became a #1 hit on both WLS and WCFL in Chicago as the year turned, although it barely scraped back into the Hot 100 at that time, reaching #73.

All those middle-of-the-pack chart runs obscure just how popular “One Tin Soldier” was, and for how long. It was one of the most-requested songs on the radio for several years, a period coinciding approximately with the age of Relevance. But as the 70s wore on, as Watergate came down and we lost the Vietnam War, relevance went out of fashion and pop-music escapism took hold, a hold it has never relinquished in all the years since. Today, “One Tin Soldier” is clearly a relic of an age that’s gone and ain’t never coming back.

15 thoughts on “Listen, Children, to a Story That Was Written Long Ago

  1. Man! I didn’t need to click on any of the links. I haven’t thought about that song for a long time, but from the second sentence of your post, the tune has been rampaging through my head, and I think I still know all the words as well as the slam key changes. “Go ahead and hate your neighbor . . .” Good post!

  2. porky

    saw the 1967 movie “Born Losers” back in the 80’s and discovered it was the first appearance of the Billy Jack character. The gal in the white bikini and boots is about the only selling point of the flick.

    Lambert and Potter could seemingly do no wrong. I would add St. Louis native and former singer of Smith, Gayle McCormick’s “It’s a Crying Shame.” It peaked at #44 in ’71 but Peoria’s WIRL 1290 gave it lots of play.

  3. Before today, I hadn’t heard any version of “1TS” other than the first Coven recording. Whatever love Houston radio had for the Original Caste version dried up by the time I was old enough to comprehend what I was hearing over the airwaves. I’d like to see the Houston survey you referenced, and I’d also like to reintroduce this album to my library (and phooey on the guy who rated it half a star).

  4. I remember the first time I was able to look at the 1974 Billboard charts (in bound volumes at the Arlington Heights, Ill., public library in 1976 or so) and could not believe “One Tin Soldier” never hit the Top 40 then, let alone the Top 10. That song was so huge in Chicago that I couldn’t believe it wasn’t a hit everywhere else. Also, on your list of Lambert/Potter compositions, I know you listed “Ain’t No Woman,” but they also were the authors of the Four Tops’ “Keeper of the Castle,” one of my favorite 1970s artifacts. (That lead-in instrumentation just screams blaxploitation flick to me…)

  5. Yah Shure

    Thanks to Cancon, I’ve been spared the indignity of any further Coventry and welcome the Original Caste every time they pop up on CKOC. Jinx may have wound up with the bigger hit, but her choppy approach to the song had all the subtlety of a clear-cutting of the forest.

    Big fan of the Lambert-Potter sound from the beginning, including the three Country Store singles on T-A. How can one not love “To Love You”? And their “Days Of Icy Fingers” was a true Minnesota winter anthem, if only within the on-campus coverage of the student-run station.

    I special-ordered a copy of Lambert’s “Dream On” single in ’72 expressly to have the “Ashes To Ashes” B-side on a 45. A +1 on the King’s ‘Bags & Things’ endorsement. “Ashes,” “Somebody Found Her” and “So Little Time” still whisk me right back to those carefree campus days. Mr. half-a-star rater must still resent Lambert’s “We Built This City” pedigree. ‘Tis his loss.

  6. Yah Shure

    I forgot to acknowledge your great post, j.b. That sense of relevance doesn’t seem to come shining through whenever I hear “Payphone.”

  7. Oh, hearing the ’70s AT40 from ’74 today reminded me that Lambert and Potter were the producers behind the Righteous Brothers’ “Rock and Roll Heaven” (though not the writers; Alan O’Day of “Undercover Angel” fame was one). They did write the follow-up, though — another of my favorites from that year, the underrated “Give It to the People.” And the Four Tops’ awesome “One Chain (Don’t Make No Prison).”

  8. Steve E.

    “One Tin Soldier” by Coven did indeed hit No. 1 in SoCal in 1973, topping the KHJ Boss 30 for five weeks in June and July, but my memory is that the station played the 1971 original (which had peaked at No. 4 that time). I just don’t remember hearing that full-band version.

    1. J.A. Bartlett

      It’s possible. ARSA puts all of the listings for 1973 under the heading “different recording of song than the 1971/1974 charter,” but there’s no way to know for sure what any individual station in any individual market was actually playing. I defer to your memory.

  9. porky

    was doing my Billboard research via Google books and found an article from the June 23, 1973 issue (page 6) headlined: 3rd ‘Tin Soldier” Surge Looms; Laughlin Hints of TV Spot Push.

    Interesting article (I would link it but can’t zero in on the exact page. I can’t, but someone more savvy may be able to).

    Got Dennis Lambert’s solo LP on vinyl about a week ago and was let down. His “Dream On” is pretty weak, but the Righteous Bros version is tough to beat.

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