Some people remember it as the theme song to film Billy Jack, while others know it as a summer campfire song. But “One Tin Soldier,” one of the most potent counterculture anthems to come out of the 1960’s, made its debut with a folk-rock band from Western Canada called The Original Caste. Over the years, “One Tin Soldier” has taken a life of its own, eventually becoming far more remembered than the band that originally introduced it to the world.
The Original Caste found its roots in Calgary, Alberta when singer/songwriter Bruce Innes, along with Graham Bruce and Bliss Mackie formed a folk trio called The North Country Singers in 1965. Around 1966, Innes met and fell in love with singer Dixie Lee Stone, who was a regular performer on a regional Alberta TV program called “Calgary Safety Roundup.” Adding Stone to the group, the new singer gave the group a much richer vocal power. Finding moderate success, the group made their move to Vancouver, British Columbia around 1967, and added drummer Peter Brown to the group. By this time, the group had shifted its sound from the more traditional folk sound, to embracing the electrical folk style of The Byrds and Donavan. So once they hit Vancouver, they changed their name from the less rural sounding North Country Singers to the more “hipper” sounding The Original Caste.
With Innes as the primary song writer of the group, The Original Caste became a popular act, appearing in coffee shops and resorts in British Columbia and down into the American West Coast. However, the band got their big break when they attracted the attention of producers Dennis Lambert and Brian Potter. Lambert and Potter were starting up a brand-new record label, Talent Associates, In Los Angeles and they signed The Original Caste as one of their first acts.
The Original Caste headed out to LA to record their debut album, but although armed with Bruce Innes’ original compositions, Lambert and Potter had something of their own for the band. A prolific songwriter in his own right, Lambert had worked with artists like Jerry Butler, Freddie and the Dreamers and Jerry Lee Lewis in the past, and with Potter wrote a pair of new songs which would be The Original Caste’s first two singles – “Mr. Monday” and “One Tin Soldier.”
So, who were Lambert and Potter? Well, Dennis Lambert started writing and performing songs as a teenager, and was signed to Capitol Records in 1960. But while his singing career didn’t take off, Lambert became a super star behind the scenes as a writer and producer. Leaving Capitol Records in 1965, Lambert hooked up with Mercury Records where producers Quincy Jones and Don Costas took him under their wing. Soon he gained a name for himself as one of the rising stars in the company.
But the first leg of his career was cut short when Lambert was drafted, and soon he was out of the comfort of the recording studio and on his way to Viet Nam. After his tour of duty was over, Lambert planned to go back to the US and get back into production, but during a stop in London he met Brian Potter. A songwriter from Essex, Potter was still struggling in London clubs, but Lambert liked his music and the pair struck up a friendship and began to write together.
Lambert and Potter would go on to write a number of hit songs for big groups, but their first major success was “One Tin Soldier.” A parable about the dangers of greed and aggression and the value of love and peace, “One Tin Soldier” contained just the right amount of biting cynicism that could come from a song writer just returning from the Viet Nam War. The compelling story about the conflict between the aggressive “valley people” and the peaceful “mountain people,” “One Tin Soldier” tells of the massacre that ensues as the valley people storm the hill for the rumored treasure that the mountain people are believed to possess. But once they slaughter all of the mountain people, they discover all that the treasure contained was the message “peace on Earth.” As the Viet Nam War became more unpopular in the US, “One Tin Soldier” was the anti-war anthem that the counterculture was looking for.
Eventually it was decided that Lambert and Potter would return to America together, to start their own recording label, and with Lambert’s experience and connections, they headed out looking for new acts and stumbled upon The Original Caste. Future acts that they would produce would include Seals and Croft, The Four Tops, Glen Campbell, Player, Dusty Springfield, The 5th Dimension and Richard Harris. But the timing was right for The Original Caste to introduce “One Tin Soldier” to the world. In 1969 they released it as their first single, and used it for the title of their debut LP.
However, the song still had a way to go in becoming the anthem it was to be, at least in the US anyway. On the American Billboard charts “One Tin Soldier” only peaked at #34, but the song went right to the top of the charts in Canada and Japan. Their follow up release, Lambert and Potter’s “Mr. Monday” was also a big hit in Canada and Japan but didn’t do a thing in America. It was estimated that, in total, copies of “One Tin Soldier” and “Mr. Monday” sold over three million copies in international sales but were considered flops in the US.
After doing tours through Canada and Japan, the Original Caste broke up in 1972 after producing only one album. However, Bell Records wasn’t done with them and released two volumes of live albums from the Japanese tour and a “Greatest Hits” album (hopefully more than just two tracks long). Innes and Stone, now married, retooled themselves as a country duo and released another album under the Original Caste in 1974, but it found little interest.
The Original Caste may have made only one album, but due to CRTC mandates, “One Tin Soldier” and “Mr. Monday” would become staples on Canadian radio , making sure that the group didn’t fall into total obscurity. Worth looking up as well is their recording of another Lambert and Potter composition, “Leaving it All Behind,” which, despite never being a hit, was covered by the 4 King Cousins in the King Family special “The King Family Go to San Francisco.” It’s probably my favorite of all their recordings and deserved to be a hit.
But, while the Original Caste had a short life, “One Tin Soldier” had more life to live, and in 1971, the song would rise once again, brighter and more powerful than before.
For the continuation of the history of “One Tin Soldier’s,” , read our Vinyl Story “Billy Jack Original Motion Picture Soundtrack (1971) and Coven – Coven (1971).