The Gambler got dealt Aces and Eights, the Dead Man’s Hand, and he folded.
Kenny Rogers – 8/21/38 – 3/20/2020
Kenneth Ray Rogers was the fourth of eight children, born poor, in Houston, Texas. He was the first of his family to graduate from high school. He was the only one that leaned toward music as a hobby, let alone a career.
Rogers attributed Ray Charles as the biggest influence in his musical career. When Rogers was 12, his school sent him to a Ray Charles concert. The first time he never saw a live music performance and the first time he ever heard Ray Charles. He decided that whatever he did in life, music would be a part of it.
Most of us in those years discovered ‘our music’. It was a radical movement that did not sit well with parents and older generations. It was the biggest step to identifying teenagers as an influencing force and consumer bloc. And Texas Kenny Rogers took an independent fork in music from his elders just as Texas Buddy Holly did.
Rogers started a do-wop group in high school that had a mild hit and appeared on American Bandstand. He then became stand-up bass in a jazz trio. Joined a folk group, The New Christie Minstrels, as bass player and singer. Following the break up of the Minstrels, he joined with some of them to form The First Edition, which quickly became Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. Followed by just Kenny Rogers.
Although Rogers musical roots were Country, he didn’t think of Country music as a road to travel until after the success of Ruby Don’t Take Your Guns to Town. He opted for the middle of the road, mellow country. His choice was influenced by Don Williams; and in turn Rogers influenced Garth Brooks, both as a musician and as an entrepreneur. Rogers had a few hits and a few honors with his style; but he also had rough times.
His skill with both bass guitar and stand-up bass got him work as Nashville studio musician. At a low point in his career, he performed in a small casino in downtown Las Vegas. Little did he know that before long he would be headlining in the big casinos on the Strip; and he would be a main attraction in the Branson, Missouri music scene, and have some of the most popular tours ever.
In 1978 his world exploded. He heard a song, The Gambler, on a Bobby Bare album and even though it never took off for Bare and several others, including Johnny Cash, whose version came out after Rogers, Rogers not only covered it, he had it lead off in his sixth album, which also included his hit, She Believes In Me. The Gambler cemented Rogers as the first big country/pop crossover artist, and gained him fans not only in both genres, but also all over the globe. His fans were ‘legion’ and very devoted. His career hard times were over.
In an interview in Billboard, Rogers said, ‘I’ve always been too pop for country and too country for pop
What ever niche he made for himself, it worked. He was the first country singer to sell out big arenas. He lent his name to a fried chicken franchise, later to slot machines in casinos, he recorded an CD that was only sold in Cracker Barrels along with other of his CD’s. And he branched off to starring in and producing TV movies, starting with The Gambler. He wrote a memoir and a novel. He developed into an excellent photographer. He also tried different approaches in his singing career.
Kenny Rogers recorded duets with pure country singers, Dottie West, later, Dolly Parton and others. He seldom ventured from his middle of the country road, but he did in a few instances. He made a jazz/standards album. Just one. He broke the Country limits and collaborated with artists like Lionel Richie and Barry Gibbs. He was the prime mover behind 1985’s charity song, We Are The World, with 45 musicians of the entire music spectrum.
And he combined his biggest musical influence, Ray Charles, for many memorable duets.
Since I only worked him in the old Met Hockey Arena, and not a smaller venue, I never had a chance to know him like I did with other performers; and I confess the strict way he controlled his tour shows left a bad taste in my mouth. I just felt he owned his audience more than he gave them.
Rogers performed in the center of the arena, a ‘show-in-the round’ and had audience on all four sides. His set was a square doughnut with the performer working on the four sides of the stage and the band and some hands down in the pit in the middle. Clever concept.
He had two opening acts rather than the customary one. The first act was a lesser known country singer or group. For instance, he used Larry Gatlin of the Gatlin Brothers on one tour. In Roger’s big hit The Coward of the County, the villains were named the Gatlin Brothers. Rogers just sang what somebody else wrote, but Rogers had deep pockets, and the Gatlins sued. They dropped their lawsuit against him shortly after he hired Larry as a front act. It gave Larry Gatlin’s career a boost when he used him as an opener. Heck, Gatlin made it all the way to be a commentator on Fox news.
The second act was always a change of pace. For instance, Susan Anton. This particular show I had Harley, an older shop stagehand, recently divorced, never really worked a lot of live performances, as Anton’s mic- cable pager. At the end of the intermission house lights went out, a roadie, leading the way with a flashlight, ran Anton the stage and made certain she was standing on her glo-tape mark. The spots then opened up on Susan Anton.
Harley had never heard of Susan Anton, actually I don’t think he ever heard of Kenny Rogers either; and when he saw her, standing on the stage above him, barely three feet away, he froze. Mouth-open froze. Then as she started to move along the stage, Harley did not move. He neither followed her with the mic-cable or released some from the coil in his hand. Just kept staring.
She reached the limit of her available cable and saw Harley just standing there. ‘Oh, I think I got a bite,’ she ad-libed. ‘Oooh,’ she squelled, imitating reeling in a catch, ‘And it is really a big fish.’
I quickly headed over to take over from Harley just as Susan bent down and whispered in his ear. Harley’s face turned four-alarm-fire red and he broke out of his trance and paged her cable like he suppose to.
Over the years I never brought up that frozen act to Harley, but I did ask him a few times what Susan Anton whispered in his ear. Each time, Harley got red-faced, but he never did tell me what she said to him.
As I said, the band was also in the pit. Nice people. Sharing. Both before the show and during intermission they passed around a coffee can. It was half filled with snow, coke, cocaine. I passed on it and so did the other local hands, I think, but it was a nice sharing gesture.
The opening acts came on stage in blackouts. Kenny Rogers appeared by magic. Since we didn’t have to sign a paper saying we would never reveal the secret of the trick, like David Copperfield demanded, I will tell you how it was done.
There was a large work box on casters that 2 roadies pushed into the pit during intermission and pushed out of the pit at house lights came up at show’s end. Only it wasn’t what it looked like. It was a Houdini box. It opened like a steamer trunk standing erect opens. Inside was a comfortable seat. Rogers got in it in his dressing room and later in the end of show black out. Nice effect and no chance of any fans on the main floor interfering.
Both front acts had a time limit as did the intermission. The part I disliked was the exact-to-the-second time limit on Roger’s set. At the end of each song the audience clapped loud and long, not realizing that they were cutting into the time Rogers actually sang.
He had 4 clocks in the pit so he could see the time no matter where he was on the stage. As the time came for the last song, he worked his way to the stairs leading to the pit. Once that minute hand reached the important twelve, Kenny Rogers stopped singing and the arena went black. Now I mean he stopped singing…He didn’t finish the song; hell, he didn’t finish the word of the song he was singing.
And that is the reason for my bias. Granted, the audience still got the average amount of time for the show, but they didn’t spend the big bucks for two opening acts; they paid to see Kenny, and not what amounted to a half a performance by him.
Black out! Silence! The fans break loose, waiting for an encore, clapping, a few with lit cigarette lighters. The house lights go up. The audience still waiting for an encore. Too busy to see the roadies push a ‘work box’ up the ramp to where a window tinted car sat before the garage door. When the car pulled out of the building, walk-out music came over the PA, and the hands began to work. No encore or closing words. Not even an Elvis-like message, Kenny Rogers has left the building.
No question his fans loved him though. His shows sold out. His CD sales are among the most of any single artist. They watched his TV movies, in spite of the reviews.
And Rogers was loved by those in the industry. He may not have been strictly Country but when he won his many awards in Country Music shows, and his induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, his peers gave him his due respect and honest applause. This sentiment crossed-over to include friends in all musical genres.
His touring band, Blood Line, remained with him all the years. They enjoyed working with him. He must have treated them well. I don’t know if the can of snow was a tip from Kenny, or just a sign he was paying them enough to be able to pop for it.
Rogers was loved by five different women enough that they married him, even if four divorced him. The last marriage lasted 22 years and ended with his death.
Every one who knew him said he was a plain, sensible, down-to-earth likable man, who never forgot his roots, recognized it was not only hard work and talent that got him his success, it was also luck. And fame can be fleeting.
In an interview he said: ‘I equate this business to a mountain climber. Once you get up there, you can’t live on the top.’
The list of worthy charities he supported is quite impressive. He was helping the homeless before it was popular. Parkinson’s Disease, Disaster Relief, and the list goes on and on.
You know, the more I write about the man, the more I begin to lose my bias against him. If his fans didn’t hold his short shows against him, who am I to complain. Not only did I not have to pay to see the show, I got paid for working it. His shows made myself, my family, and a great many other stagehands nice paychecks over many years.
There’s a great many of his songs that I enjoy, although I don’t have any of his work in my music library. And I can’t remember watching any of his movies. Never ate any of chicken from his franchise, but by his own admission, neither did he. Still in all…
I confess I changed my mind. I am convinced I would have liked him as a person. I really do.
Adios, Gambler. Adios.
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And Every hand’s a loser
And the best that you can hope for
is to die in your sleep’
STAY HEALTHY. The lives you save maybe the lives of those you love the most.