Few artists of the past 30 years have enjoyed the across-the-board recognizability of Kenny Rogers. His celebrity landed him on more television shows and magazine covers than any other singer of his day, and for a long time, you couldn’t punch a radio button without hearing his teddy-bear baritone. If he wasn’t singing on TV, he was hosting an awards show or schmoozing with some other superstar.
And it’s a long-lived success. More than a decade after his last Number One hit, Kenny Rogers remains an iconic star – his salt-and-pepper countenance as much an international calling card as Sinatra’s fedora, Presley’s pompadour or Jackson’s sequined glove.
Rogers’ place in music history books is assured. In the late 1970s he came to virtually define crossover, bringing the polarized worlds of country and pop music together with a series of singles and albums that expanded and defied the conventions of both.
Middle America was Mr. Rogers’ neighborhood. His unabashedly cityfied take on country music, via “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County” and a dozen others, calf-roped people in even the most urban corrals into thinking “Hey, this country stuff’s not so bad.” The women loved him, and the men thought he was a standup kind of guy. His persona was that of a nice, likeable fella who might have lived right up the street.
Critics couldn’t stand him, and the Country Music Association never gave him the coveted Entertainer of the Year award, but Rogers’ fans were many, and vocal, and they cast their votes in the concert halls and in the record stores.
History doesn’t lie: Kenny Rogers was king of the hill during the “golden years” of disco, punk and new wave.
Between 1977 and ’82, Rogers sold $250,000,000 worth of records. He had 20 Number One country singles, hit the pop Top 10 six times, and one of his singles – “Lady,” written and produced by the decidedly non-Nashville Lionel Richie – topped the country, pop and R&B charts during the same week in 1980.
At his peak, he’d get on his private Lear jet, wherever he was, and leave a concert as the applause was just starting to die down; he then slept in his own bed, on his 1,200-acre farm in east Georgia, nearly every night.
People have been arguing for half a century about what constitutes “real” country music; when artists such as Kenny Rogers, Barbara Mandrell and Dolly Parton began to show up on the pop charts, the old harrumphing started up about diluting the music.
The dissing was loudest during the so-called Urban Cowboy craze of ’80 and ’81 – and some of that, frankly, was well-deserved (you picked a fine time to leave, Johnny Lee.)
Rogers survived Urban Cowboy and its attendant backlash because he was much more than a handsome gimmick with a catchy song. A lot has changed in country and pop since his salad days, but the majority of Rogers’ genre-jumping music from the era sounds just fine today. “The Gambler” has lost none of its dark and mysterious charm, and “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” could be the genetic parent of today’s super-selling “young country” ballads.
Rogers “went country” as part of a calculated career rejuvenation; he’d become world-famous as lead singer of the innovative pop/rock band the First Edition, itself a byproduct of his years as a jazz bassist (with the Bobby Doyle Trio) and folk harmony singer (with the New Christy Minstrels).
The success of the First Edition would’ve been enough for most people; indeed, most of the other members of that band left fulltime show business when it broke up.
But Kenny Rogers wanted more – a restless, ambitious man, he saw a way to re-invent himself another time, took a chance and, despite the odds stacked against him – would anyone take him seriously as a country singer? – succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest dreams. Including his own.
“I’m ambitious, but success is not what drives me,” he says. “Happiness drives me. I would’ve been content being a local musician, I think, playing my music as long as I could make my house payment and my car payment, and have a lifestyle I was happy with. I would’ve been happy with that.
“I wanted to be respected, and I think that requires ambition.”
Still, his relentless drive to succeed cost him four marriages, and obliterated more than one business relationship. It has not been an easy 59 years.
Kenny’s older brother Lelan offers a revealing glimpse at the hardest-working white man in show business: “Kenny has always been one that’s set himself above everybody else, in his own mind,” Lelan says. “I’m not gonna say that he’s ever felt that he was better than anybody else – he has always figured that he was more special than anyone else.”
Hard times in Houston
Floyd Rogers was a sharecropper from East Texas, the son of a sharecropper from East Texas, and when he couldn’t make a go of whatever he was working on, which was often, he and his wife, Lucille, would move back to his daddy’s farm in Apple Springs. The elder Mr. Rogers grew vegetables, and he was a pretty good hunter, so there was always meat on the table.
In 1932, Floyd decided to try his luck in Houston, the closest industrial city, where there were oil refineries, giant shipyards and all manner of gainful employment for a man with a strong back and reasonably capable hands. In the immediate post-Depression years, you took whatever work was available. “He was smart enough to realize he didn’t want his kids to be raised in the piney woods, as they were called,” says Kenny. “So he moved to Houston for his kids’ sake.”
Lucille and her two little ones, Lelan and Geraldine, hitched a ride with a neighbor, who was taking a truckload of chickens into Houston. Floyd, who had arrived earlier, settled them into a modest home. He drove a truck for the farmers’ market, he worked carpentry, he hauled ice. When World War II began, and Houston got the call to start turning out the big boats, he went to work in the shipyards.
The children came every 18 months or so; Kenneth Ray was the fourth born, the second son. He made his big entrance on August 21, 1938.
“We were on welfare most of my childhood,” Kenny says. “If not welfare, some type of federally supported system. And we lived in a federal housing project till I was about 12 or 13.”
Lucille Rogers worked as a practical nurse, and she’d take the little ones to the hospital with her. Three-year-old Kenny earned quarters by singing “You Are My Sunshine” to the patients.
Although they lived in low-class Houston Heights, Lucille made sure her family attended church regularly. The Rogers clan sometimes walked to Sunday services at the First Baptist Church of Houston.
Kenny’s older brother Lelan remembers seeing the local men wearing their silver hard hats to church, topping off their Sunday Best. “It was a sign you had a good job,” he says.
The Rogers’ were poor – Floyd’s income paid the modest rent, and bought groceries, but there was little left for anything else. Despite Daddy’s almost constant drinking, they were a close family.
Says Kenny: “He was an alcoholic most of his life, but he had the greatest sense of humor of anybody that I’ve ever met. The more you get to know him, and to look at the times, the more you can understand why there were so many alcoholics at that period.
“Because life was pretty depressing, coming out of the Depression, and being an unskilled laborer. And I’ve really learned so much about him since he died, from my older brother, that I never knew about. It really made me have a lot more respect for him.”
Eventually, there were eight children (five boys, three girls) in the Rogers’ home in the projects, and Lelan, the eldest, was itching to get out. Even though he’d been too young to fight in the war, he carried the weight of the world on his shoulders – at 15, he already held down several jobs, and stayed out late every Saturday night to watch the movies (and ogle the strippers) at the Uptown Theatre. But he always had to come home to close, uncomfortable quarters and a bitter, suspicious family patriarch with a bottle close at hand.
Lelan was 16 when he moved out and married Hazel, his sweetheart (who, contrary to the popular opinion at the time, was not pregnant). They’re still together today, married 53 years.
Kenny was the first of the Rogers children to graduate high school, and his parents came to think of him as their great white hope – he might actually learn a trade and make some decent money. Lelan and Geraldine had both dropped out to help make ends meet at home.
At Jefferson Davis High School, though, Kenny began to develop his childhood interest in music. He put together his first band, a four-part harmony group called the Scholars. He and his buddies had figured out that singers, not football players, got the girls.
“I had a car,” Lelan recalls, “the only one, so I became their manager, which meant that I never made a dime. But I hauled all the equipment to the PTA meetings where they used to sing in talent contests. I kind of got a little bit of the bug then.” Lelan, a married man, was selling clothes by day, and oil supplies by night. Through his friendship with 17-year-old Houston DJ Larry Kane, he was able to ditch it all and get a job promoting and distributing records first for the local label Cue, then for Decca Records, where he specialized in rhythm ‘n’ blues music.
Lelan arranged for the Scholars to get a contract with Cue. “I don’t know that he really saw any talent in me as much as he saw a way to make a buck,” Kenny laughs.
The Scholars played the hits of the day, the pop, rhythm ‘n’ blues and especially vocal-harmony stuff that Kenny and his three bandmates enjoyed. Kenny sang the high parts, and played stand–up bass. “I took up the guitar in high school,” says Kenny, “and I ran into this kid that told me I should play bass. I asked him why, and he said there’s more demand for bad bass players than for bad guitar players.
“And he was absolutely right: He said look around, every group you see has a bass player, and not all of them have guitar players. It was a great piece of advice.”
Kenny wasn’t the Scholars’ lead singer – that distinction belonged to young Al Eisman – but Lelan remembers what happened at one local show, when his kid brother moved out front for his spotlight number, “Moonlight in Vermont.”
“All the little girls started screaming and carrying on,” he recalls. “It was just like Elvis. And my wife leaned over and said to me, ‘There’s your star.’ I said ‘That’s no star, it’s just my kid brother.’”
The Scholars cut a couple of singles that sold around Houston, and subsequently the ante was upped via a one-shot deal with Imperial Records.
After a long, hot drive, with Kenny’s bass strapped to the roof of the car, the Scholars recorded four sides in a Los Angeles studio, although only one single was released: “Beloved,” with a song called “Kangewah” on the B-side.
Improbaby, “Kangewah” had been composed by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons; the Scholars reasoned that she’d plug their record on her radio show and whammo, instant hit.
But Louella didn’t help them out, and Lelan, hustling for work, arranged for the group to tour armed forces bases in such unlikely spots as Greenland and Iceland.’
Some L.A. sharpie, however, had convinced Al Eisman that he was “the real star” in the group, and the impressionable young singer stayed on the west coast while the others humped it back to Houston.
So much for the Scholars.
“I used to sell office supplies in Houston,” Kenny reflects. “And I really loved my job. I was 19 years old. I was making a phenomenal amount of money, but I was only working three hours a day so I could make my music at night. And my boss found out about it and fired me – he wasn’t even giving me a salary, I was on commission, for God’s sake. And I explained that to him and he said well, it wasn’t good for morale. I was the highest paid salesman he had. He thought it was wrong that I only worked three hours – no telling how much I could make if I worked eight.
“And I said that was not what I wanted to do, I wanted to do music. And he said ‘Then perhaps you should go do that.’ He fired me. And that’s when music took away all my other options.”
Lelan took out a second mortgage on his house to pay for little brother’s first solo recording. Written by Ray Doggett, “That Crazy Feeling” was the very first release on Carlton Records, which would later provide a home for Jack Scott and Anita Bryant. The artist was listed as Kenneth Rogers.
Kenny was 19, and here he experienced his first flush of success, traveling to Philadelphia to perform “That Crazy Feeling” on American Bandstand. The single was a huge success around Houston.
Still, it never made the Billboard Top 40, and its followup on Carlton, “For You Alone,” fared even more poorly.
Meanwhile, Kenny’s girlfriend Janice turned up pregnant. “In those days, if that got out, they’d tar and feather you and run you out of town,” Lelan says.
One of Houston’s biggest radio program directors – of course, he was one of Lelan’s cronies – told him such bad press would, at the very least, kill the record. “He ought to marry the gal,” the man advised.
Kenny and Janice were wed on May 15, 1958, and their daughter Carole came along in September. Around that time, the Rogers brothers cooked up their own little label, Ken-Lee, and wound up in New Orleans, where Kenny cut a rendition of the Cajun classic “Jole Blon” with the intention of outselling the newly-released version by Buddy Holly’s bass player, Waylon Jennings. They loved the tune, and they thought Waylon’s record was a stinker. On their update, they used saxophone instead of accordion.
Unlike Waylon, however, Kenny wasn’t too good at phonetic French, and producer Cosmo Matanzas had to send out for “an authentic Cajun” to teach the Texas city boy the song, line by line, just off-mike.
Nothing happened with the Ken-Lee single – probably less than 1,000 were pressed, Lelan thinks – but Kenny was starting to feel at home in the recording studio.
At his real home, though, trouble was brewing. “Janice’s brother ran a convenience store – a weekly salary, and that was the name of the game in those days,” Lelan recalls. “Janice told him if you’re going to stay in the music business, I’m not going to stay with you. And he said goodbye. He didn’t mince words.”
They were divorced in April, 1960. Six months later, Kenny had a new wife – Jean – and a new position, as the standup bass player with the Bobby Doyle Trio.
A blind pianist with a velvety-smooth singing voice that reminded Kenny of Ray Charles, Bobby Doyle was something of a local hero in Houston. Drummer Don Russell rounded out the trio, which debuted at the tony Saxony Club and before long was playing everywhere in town.
The group specialized in light jazz and standards, and came to be known for its tight, three-part harmonies, in the style of the Four Lads and the Four Freshman, whom they all admired.
The trio was together, and busy, for nearly six years. “Bobby was blind, so he didn’t have a lot of other things to do,” Kenny laughs. “We used to tell him, ‘Jesus Christ, Bobby! Some of us have to cut our grass from time to time.’ Because he didn’t have to do that. All he wanted to do was rehearse.”
Rogers credits Doyle with a big part of his musical education. “He really created a great training ground for me, because I was just starting to play bass,” he says. “He allowed me to play a lot of hours a day, and taught me music. He introduced me to that whole era of music, of the ’30s and ’40s. Which there’s no question I would’ve totally missed otherwise.”
Kenny was becoming a showman and, as his brother recalls, discovering what worked and what didn’t. “Kenny’s personality always drew people, and especially girls,” says Lelan. “The women were just crazy about that boy. And he could con you out of anything with that personality.”
At one after-hours club, Kenny got chummy with the waiters and convinced them to peel a few steaks out of the refrigerator, wrap them up and leave them by the garbage cans for the Bobby Doyle Trio to pick up on their way out, after the gig. “We always ate good,” Lelan chuckles.
Working any sort of day job was out of the question. Kenny was a musician now. “He would work the cocktail hour from 5-7 at one hotel, and then he’d go to Paul’s Sidewalk Cafe and work from 8 till 12. Then he’d go over to the after hours place and he’d work over there across from the Shamrock Hotel, from 1 o’clock till 3, 4 in the morning. Him and the Bobby Doyle Trio, and anybody else he could get to sing with him.”
The trio was paired with the New Jersey-based Kirby Stone Four, a pop/jazz outfit that had put “Baubles, Bangles and Beads” into the Top 30 in ’58.
The two groups toured the country as a package, and the musicians got to be great friends. While vacationing at Stone’s home in New Jersey, Rogers learned about Stone’s passion for photography, and began to get the bug himself.
“Kirby became kind of a mentor for me,” Kenny says. “He’s the guy that sat me down at the Thunderbird Hotel in Las Vegas and said ‘You know, I can’t guarantee you’ll be a star. But I can guarantee that if you listen to me, and pay attention, and treat this like a business, that you will always make good money.’ He created an atmosphere of professionalism in me that I might not have had without him.”
In New York City, Doyle, Rogers and Russell cut an album for Columbia, In a Most Unusual Way, with Stone producing (they were billed as the Bobby Doyle Three). It did nothing to get their career into high gear.
After a failed one-shot single, “Don’t Feel Rained On,” on Houston’s Townhouse Records label, the Bobby Doyle Trio started to fall apart.
“I had already achieved everything there was to achieve in Houston,” Kenny explains. “In 1958 and ’59, we were making 700, 800 dollars a week, a 19-year-old kid. That’s a lot of money for that period and for that age.
“But we realized that it was starting to go down. There was another group who had been around before us, that were now working second-hand clubs … we just kinda saw the writing on the wall.”
Kenny’s personal life was changing, too – in October of ’63 he married for the third time, to Pennsylvania native Margo Anderson. Their son Kenny Rogers II was born May 24, 1964, and within the year Kenny had an entirely new gig.
A new kick
Kirby Stone’s group was managed by George Greif and Sid Garris, who in 1964 had spent $2,500,000 for controlling interest in the New Christy Minstrels, one of the hottest folk acts of the day.
The New Christy Minstrels weren’t exactly cutting-edge, like Dylan or Baez. The group was more like a franchise, and in fact several “versions” co-existed and toured the country (college campuses, mostly) at the same time. Christies were clean-cut, wholesome young men and women who interpreted the folk hits of the day, standards and show tunes (they were known in ’64 for an interpretation of “Chim Chim Cheree.”)
Greif and Garris purchased the group from founder Randy Sparks, who’d modeled the ensemble on The Christy Minstrels, one of America’s favorites in the years before the Civil War. That group, which consisted of white singers in blackface, was known for introducing the country to many of Stephen Foster’s songs.
The New Christy Minstrels scored a couple of Top 40 hits, with songs written by Sparks himself, but for the most part, it was an album act, and one that turned up Pepsodent-white on TV every other night. Good, clean entertainment was the one and only name of the game.
Barry (“Eve of Destruction”) McGuire had been a Christy, as had Gene Clark of the Byrds, and Larry Ramos of the Association.
Back in Houston, with his records getting him nowhere fast, Bobby Doyle took to drinking; Kenny Rogers and Don Russell had to legally disband the group amid much acrimony.
Kenny was part-owner of a supper club for about six months in 1965, and he sang harmony and played standup bass for a while in another light jazz group, the Lively Ones. He cut a solo single, “Here’s That Rainy Day,” for Mercury. Nothing flew. He was broker than broke.
Then he got a call from Kirby Stone.
“When the Christies kind of disbanded, and started looking for second-generation Christies, he called and asked if I’d be interested in doing it,” Rogers recalls. “Because I played upright bass and they were looking for a bass player.”
The “audition” was awful. “They interviewed me on the phone. I sang a song, and I’m standing in the hall of this hotel and I’m singing ‘Green, green …’ and I’m feeling goofy, because people are walking by and I’d say ‘Excuse me, I’m just auditioning for this job.’
“But it was really a great time in my life. You never do that stuff today. I’d at least have the privacy of my room.”
Rogers packed up his bass (and his wife and son, and Margo’s daughter Shannon) and moved to Los Angeles to be a New Christy Minstrel. Out of Houston at last.
He became good friends with Randy Sparks. “He operated the Back Porch Majority, they were kind of a training ground for the Christies,” Rogers said. “As Christies would quit, they would put somebody in from the Back Porch Majority.”
The worst part about the Christies, Rogers recalls, was that the touring groups weren’t used on the recordings. He didn’t sing a note on the New Kick! album, released during his tenure with the group.
Kim Carnes was a Christy; she and Kenny became fast pals. He also met Dave Ellingson, who would later become Carnes’ songwriting (and marital) partner. Another singer was Sue Pack, whom Rogers would introduce to his old crony from Houston, songwriter and entrepreneur Mickey Newbury. Kenny was Best Man at their wedding.
Two members of the group, Mike Settle and Terry Williams, had begun working out harmonies on Settle’s original tunes, and the other Christies got used to hearing them vocalizing together in the university locker rooms before the concerts.
Settle was the Christies’ musical director, and as such, he felt confident enough to approach Greif and Garris with an idea.
“We said we could maybe update the image with some new material,” remembers Terry Williams, who had already quit the Christies but in a show of solidarity with Settle went into the bosses’ office anyway. “And they just didn’t want to do it.
“Now, at the time, we didn’t want Kenny in the group. This was just Mike and I. Kenny was 27 or 28, and we thought he might’ve been a little bit old for it. So we asked Kin Vassey, who was with the Back Porch Majority, and he turned us down. So we ended up asking Kenny to join.”
The fourth member of the rebel faction was singer Thelma Camacho, a relatively new Christy. “During the day, we would rehearse the group, and at night they were up in Vegas with Henry Mancini,” says Williams. “And it wasn’t long after that we just faced it and broke away.”
‘Kenny Rogers really wails on the bass’
Williams’ mother was the longtime secretary of record producer Jimmy Bowen, who happened to be looking for “teen acts” to make hits with.
“We had a pretty viable product going in, but certainly it didn’t hurt that Mom was Jimmy’s secretary,” Williams remembers.
“Jimmy wasn’t the kingpin of music at this point – as a matter of fact, he was close to being let go from Reprise because of inactivity and no success until Dean Martin’s ‘Everybody Loves Somebody,’ and he began to make a comeback.”
Bowen signed the group to his Amos Productions, and secured them a deal with Reprise Records. To produce, he passed the job along to his just-hired assistant, Mike Post. Says Rogers: “We left the New Christy Minstrels on Friday, and on Monday we were in the recording studio. It was a major shortcut, to say the least.”
They called their group the First Edition, and wore black-and-white stage costumes for a “newspaper” motif.
The first thing Rogers did, to make himself appear “hip,” was grow a beard. “And I grew longer hair, and I put an earring in my ear, and I wore those damn pink sunglasses,” he laughs. “I was way behind my time.”
Says Terry Williams: “I taught Kenny how to play electric bass – at first, he played it straight up and down, like an upright. He’d never played bass horizontally before.”
And so, just as brother Lelan was rocking out in a Texas studio, producing the 13th Floor Elevators for the International Artists label, Kenny Rogers turned himself into a pop star.
The group’s debut album, The First Edition, was released on Reprise in December, 1967. It contained every one of the Mike Settle originals that they’d worked up, plus a Mickey Newbury song, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” A parody of the then-current “psychedelic” rage, it featured backwards guitar, and background vocals played through a revolving Leslie speaker. Kenny Rogers sang lead simply because he brought the song in; Newbury had sung it for him backstage at a Christies concert.
“‘Just Dropped in’ was such an avant-garde record at the time,” Rogers recalls. “We were the first people to use the backward guitar. Mike Post was really a creative guy.
“People thought we were the next coming, you know, of really wild music. In fact, we weren’t. We were jazz musicians, and certainly not druggies. It was hard for us to follow that song, because Mickey Newbury had not written it as that kind of record.
“When I asked Mickey if I could do the song, I was still with the New Christy Minstrels. And he said ‘Well, I can’t let you do it, because Sammy Davis Jr. has it on hold.’ I thought boy, I would’ve loved to have heard that record. It would have been worth it to have waited.”
“Just Dropped In” was the First Edition’s second single. The first, the Settle-written and sung “I Found a Reason,” had stiffed. “Just Dropped In” made Number 5 on the Billboard chart.
Ken Kragen became the First Edition’s manager after he saw them at the trendy L.A. folk club Ledbetter’s. Kragen, who’d been with the Smothers Brothers since their days doing their “Mom always liked you best” shtick in nightclubs, had snared the brothers a network television show in 1967 and thus became one of its producers. So Tommy Smothers wrote the liner notes to The First Edition:
Kenny Rogers really wails on the bass, and when you hear him sing ‘Condition’ you will have no doubts at all about what condition HIS condition is in.
The group performed several times on the siblings’ TV program, beginning in November, and debuted on the Tonight Show before Christmas. On Rowan & Martin’s Laugh–In, “Just Dropped In” was played over clips of the band members cavorting comically inside a taxidermy shop. The First Edition was featured in several TV commercials for Alcoa, which produced aluminum cans for soft drinks.
To follow “Just Dropped In,” Post planned to release a trippy song called “Charlie the Fer de Lance,” about a groovy, horn-playing snake. But it was relegated to the opening slot on The First Edition’s 2nd (the world’s loss). Another track was chosen for single release.
The name game
After The First Edition’s 2nd failed to produce any hit single at all, Bowen himself took over in the studio. With Rogers again on lead vocals, Settle’s country-tinged “But You Know I Love You” was a Top 20 hit in February ’69.
But after a very, very long dry spell, that just wasn’t enough. The next single had to be the one; everybody knew it, especially Bowen.
“The whole idea of the group was to put four people together that were each able to take care of an audience by themselves,” says Terry Williams. “Four performers, four lead singers. But it was pretty tough for the public to identify with four people. And it just so happened that Kenny sung lead on the songs that were probably the most commercial of the things that we did …”
From First Edition ’69, “Once Again She’s All Alone” was issued as a single. Settle wrote it, Rogers sang it: It was very similar to “But You Know I Love You.”
In the east, however, disc jockeys had discovered an album track called “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Kenny had first heard the lonely, loping country tune on a Roger Miller album; it had also been recorded by Glen Campbell and Waylon Jennings.
Mel Tillis composed “Ruby,” narrated by a lonely paraplegic veteran, with the Korean War in mind - that had been his era.
But Kenny Rogers’ gauzy reading of “Ruby” in 1969 came just as many in America were questioning the logic of the Vietnamese conflict, and rush-released as a single, it became something of an anthem (especially after it closed the Huntley-Brinkley Report one night, over news footage of that week’s carnage in Vietnam).
“Ruby” came out piggybacking “Once Again She’s All Alone.”
“The idea of changing the group’s name to Kenny Rogers & The First Edition had been discussed already,” Settle says, “because at that time in the business a lot of groups were beginning to change their names, putting the lead singer’s name first. Prime example was Diana Ross, etc.
“Since we had a single that was still active (it hadn’t died its glorious death yet) it was decided that the timing for the name change was perfect for the ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ single because, we reasoned, it wouldn’t necessarily compete or conflict with the other single.
“In any case we were going to make the name change at some point, and the ‘Ruby’ record was a good time to do it.”
The group’s impending fourth album was re-sequenced to include “Ruby” as its title song.
Says Rogers: “Jimmy Bowen had a theory that the public really needed someone they could identify with in order to like or dislike a group. And I had sung all of the hits.”
The other three members’ sole vocal contribution to the song was a little harmonizing on the words “Oh, Ruby.”
“I think there was a little hesitancy – and quite honestly the majority of the hesitancy came from me,” Rogers says. “Because I never needed it, never wanted it. It was always my theory that I never needed to be more than anybody else in the group. But I never wanted to be any less.
“Because one of the nice things about power, if you understand it, is that it’s OK to use it if you don’t abuse it. And I think that’s something I was very, very careful of.”
“Ruby” became the group’s career-making song; it reached No. 6 the week of the Fourth of July, 1969. They were now Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, and there was no going back.
“I don’t know,” says Rogers, “whether they attributed it to Jimmy Bowen’s ideology, or whether they just said ‘Oh, what’s the difference. We got a hit.’”
Says Terry Williams: “I’ll never forget going into the meeting and Kenny saying ‘You know, if the tables were turned, I’d leave the group.’ He had a real hard time with it, and I did too. Ken Kragen and all those people were saying (to me) ‘We realize how hard this will be for you, because you actually started the group.’
“As far as the stage thing was concerned, it was largely my deal. I was the performer, and set up most of the comedy things, and I realized that they were saying Kenny was very identifiable. He had a very identifiable style. And even at the young age of 19 years old, I could see that they were right – even if it meant me taking a gulp, and basically becoming an enigma at that point. Like a Pip, or a Four Season, or whatever. I knew that that was just around the corner.”
For personal reasons, Thelma Comacho left the group before “Ruby.” After a lengthy series of auditions – including one with a very young Karen Carpenter – her replacement was chosen: Mary Arnold, a virtual lookalike who had in fact been Comacho’s roommate and a friend of the band’s.
Mike Settle himself departed around the time “Reuben James” was entering the Top 20 in October (written by Alex Harvey, it’s a hip, “socially conscious” song, about a black sharecropper scorned by all the white folks in town … except for our Kenny, who sings the sympathetic lyrics). “Reuben” had the same gentle country shuffle as its predecessor, “Ruby.”
“We always liked to joke that we were a cross between country and rock,” Arnold says today. “We were a crock.”
Settle quit because the rigors of touring were taking a toll on his marriage. “It was either the group or divorce,” he says. “About six months before ‘Ruby’ came out, I had given notice to the group that I would be leaving within a year’s time. A year is a long time to agonize over family while being on the road.
“When ‘Ruby’ began to look like it would be a big hit, I came to the group and suggested that this was an ideal time for me to be replaced. At first they didn’t like the idea because they didn’t want promoters and club owners to have any reason not to book us.”
Cooler heads, however, prevailed. Ironically, Settle’s replacement was singer/songwriter Kin Vassey, who’d turned down the invitation to join back in ’67. “Kin was a really great addition to the group,” says Arnold. “He was real soulful, and added another type of voice that we really didn’t have. He was really good for the group.”
And drummer Mickey Jones, who wasn’t pictured on the album covers (he was always in the dark during TV appearances, too) was made a full–fledged member of Kenny Rogers & The First Edition.
In 1970, the group (Rogers, Williams, Vassey, Arnold and Jones) scored hits with the Mac Davis-penned “Something’s Burning” (No. 11) and Alex Harvey’s “Tell it All Brother” (No. 17). Both were all Kenny, all the time, and featured prominently his newly-minted vocal trademark: A throaty tremelo, making him seem strong and wordly-wise, yet vulnerable and sensitive at the same time. He also stopped smiling when he sang, giving him that ultra-cool “serious rock artist” look.
Still, says Arnold, “Looking back, I can’t imagine that it was hard for anyone. It was never that Kenny was the star of the group. He never made it like that; we all worked equally as hard together.”
The group’s last Top 40 hit, Vassey’s sunshine-and-grooviness “Heed the Call,” made Number 33 in November. Their one and only gold album, Greatest Hits, was released in March ’71, not long after they contributed two new songs to the soundtrack of the James Caan/Katherine Ross film Fools (Harvey’s “Someone Who Cares,” co-produced by Rogers and Bowen, grazed the Top 50).
The Transitions album charted miserably and failed to put a single into the Top 100, although its laid-back country-rock grooves were certainly portents of things to come.
Rogers spent eight months of 1972, and tens of thousands of dollars of his own money, assembling what would be his group’s swan song for Reprise.
Concept albums like Jesus Christ Superstar were big business at the time, and Rogers and the others decided that was where they needed to go. Michael Murphey, a Texas-born songwriter pal whom they knew from the scene around Ledbetters, dreamed up a concept album based on true stories, dreams and fabrications of an 1890s silver-mining town in California, called Calico.
Murphey wrote the words, and collaborated with First Edition arranger Larry Cansler on the music, for 18 Old West-themed songs. Rogers produced The Ballad of Calico, a two–LP set released in March in an elaborate parchment sleeve complete with old-timey photos of the band members (and the composers) dressed in authentic Western garb. The expensive package included a large sepia booklet with each song’s lyrics reproduced in Murphey’s handwriting.
Despite its ambition, The Ballad of Calico was a huge, costly flop and became a depressingly familiar sight in cutout bins for years afterwards.
Rogers was down, but not out. “I think any time you do anything conceptual, that’s on the edge, it’s a risk,” he says. “And I think you have to look at it as part of a body of work.
“I think it’s a wonderful album, for what it was, for when it was. And I was so impressed with the songs Michael Murphey wrote.
“Sometimes when you lead, you stumble. And I think that’s expected. As you lead and as you stumble, you learn to look ahead of you a little bit more.
“But I’ve never been a follower; I just can’t do that.”
The Ballad of Calico was also a high–water mark for Terry Williams. “It was our last album for Reprise, and I believe Reprise knew that,” he recalls. “We’d been sniffing around and went over to MGM. But of the albums the First Edition did, that’s the only one I would pull out for people.
“It was a labor of love. We believed in it, we loved it. I don’t know that it was commercially very viable, but it’s my favorite thing that we ever did.”
Rogers: “There were high hopes that it would be revolutionary, and that it would do something wonderful. It wasn’t as big a success as some of the other albums, but there’s something satisfying about doing good product. And saying ’A lot of you don’t know about it, but those who do, love it.’”
Rogers, curiously, took few vocal leads on Calico, which may partially explain its failure. Or maybe the public just wasn’t able to connect with whimsical titles like “Madame de Lil and Diabolical Bill,” “Vachel Carlin’s Rubilator” or “Dorsey, the Mail-Carrying Dog.”
The First Edition was never a groundbreaking band, but as a singles group it more than held its own among other, lesser lights of the early ’70s. Certainly the TV appearances and live shows, which spotlighted each of the band members in segments both musical and comical – in the best showbiz tradition, they were famous for their skits – worked to their advantage.
Kragen got them a TV variety show, Rollin’ on the River, produced by the Californian TV group Winters/Rosen and a Canadian syndicator. Set in a “riverboat” format, each program included sketch comedy and musical segments; the group’s buddies Glen Campbell, Mac Davis and Kris Kristofferson were guests, along with such disparate artists as Bo Diddley, Helen Reddy and Badfinger.
The show became Rollin’ in its second year, after Creedence Clearwater Revival’s “Proud Mary” was removed as the title song.
Rollin’ rolled along for 52 one-hour episodes. By then, Kin Vassey was history and in his place were guitarist Jimmy Hassell and keyboard player Gene Lorenzo.
Concert bookings were drying up, too, and for its final year or so the First Edition played mostly state fairs (the prestige factor was low – although, Rogers recalls, the money was pretty good).
Rogers arranged a “million-dollar deal” with MGM Records to distribute the group’s own imprint label. Jolly Rogers Records released three Kenny Rogers & The First Edition albums in ’72 and ’73 before furling its sails altogether (Kenny’s brother Lelan, incidentally, was brought in as the label’s promotion chief). None charted.
“All groups are destined to failure somewhere,” Rogers says philosophically. “You create your own demise after a while.
“As members left, we just absorbed it. Terry and I took it over, and we just hired people to come in so we didn’t have to answer to so many people.”
It was 1974, and more than three years had elapsed since the First Edition’s last hit. Kenny and Terry were $65,000 in debt – money owed mostly to trusting friends, so they felt they had to go on. Bankruptcy was not an option.
“We were on our way to New Zealand, to do a tour that would’ve gained us that money,” recalls Rogers. “We had some guys that were employees, it was that simple. They didn’t have a vested interest.
“Jimmy Hassell and somebody else said ‘OK, we’ll go, but we want twice as much money.’ It was kind of like highway robbery to me. It was a matter of principle. I said never mind, I’ll stay here, I’ll do it myself. So we broke up over that.”
Williams was trying to get a solo career off the ground, and by the time of the ill-fated New Zealand trip, he had already sold his share of the First Edition to Kenny. “I never saw a demise of the group,” he says. “I never had any feeling that we were going down. I always had fun, to my closing night at the International Hotel, I loved every performance. I loved performing with the band.
“I don’t want to sound egotistical, but when I left it began to crumble. They didn’t replace me, and it was just never the same after that.” Williams says he saw some of the group’s last shows from the wings.
“I loved everybody, and I was having a ball. But I had been a Pip long enough. And Ken Kragen was pushing me as kind of a teen idol at the time, which wasn’t the direction I wanted to go, but I did feel as though I had a shot at being an artist.”
Unfortunately, that’s not what happened. “I didn’t realize that when I left the group I’d be completely unknown, but that’s just one of the things that happen when you’re that young.”
Says Ken Kragen: “The last year, maybe it was two years, was pretty bad. I remember the last performance, I think it was at Magic Mountain. It was truly depressing. Here was a group that had played to thousands and thousands of people … it wasn’t even the same group, there was no energy, everybody was going through the motions. You were playing an amusement park, which at that time was about as low as you could go.”
By then, Mary Arnold had met and fallen in love with singer/songwriter Roger Miller, who wanted her to record and perform with him (they were married in the mid ’70s). “It was just time,” Arnold remembers. “It was time for Kenny, too. We had been together a long time, and had a good run at it. It’s hard work when you’re gone like that, all the time. The last few shows we did, in Tahoe, were really sad. Because we really, genuinely, loved each other.”
Of course, it was Kenny Rogers who felt the loss most profoundly. It was his name up there, his voice on the hits, his reputation on the line. After Terry cut out, it was his group.
“In my heart, I cried when that group broke up, because I never wanted to be a solo artist,” he remembers. “I loved singing harmony. That was always what I thought I was best at.
“When you have success, and then you don’t have success, everybody has a tendency to want to look for someone else to blame. Terry wanted to go into acid rock, because that’s what he really loved. Mary didn’t know anything about country music and she really didn’t want to be in it.
“Now Kin Vassey was just a great country/rock artist, but everybody had their own ideas as to where we should go.”
The First Edition had been easing towards country-rock since “But You Know I Love You.” “Ruby” and “Reuben James” were delivered with a rural sound, and The Ballad of Calico was as much the Eagles’ Desperado as it was Jesus Christ Superstar. And the first Jolly Rogers album, Backroads, included “She Thinks I Still Care,” the old George Jones hit, and other country tunes.
“When the First Edition broke up, I went to Nashville, trying to figure out what I was going to do with my life,” Rogers recalls. “I went to this Fan Fair thing, and there were 8,000 people in this auditorium, and they said ‘Here’s Freddy Davis, who had a hit in 1956,’ and everybody went crazy. I though whoa, this is where I need to be. It was very eye-opening for me, as far as what country music really was. And of course, country music is my base, so it’s not like I had to pretend to be there.”
Already, the wheels were turning. “The thing I learned is that it’s a very stable market. It’s not like pop music, where you have a hit and you disappear, and no one cares.”
Like a Rhinestone Cowboy
In 1975, Larry Butler was heading up United Artists Records’ Nashville division. The Florida-born session pianist had produced Billie Jo Spears’ “Blanket on the Ground,” which had hit Number One in February, and was looking for new acts to record. A tip from a friend sent him to Montgomery, Ala., to see Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. The group was on its last legs, Butler was told: Kenny was probably going to go solo.
“I watched the audience reaction each time that Kenny would step up to the microphone and sing,” Butler remembers. “And it was unbelievable.”
He was able to sign Kenny to UA for a ridiculously small amount of money. “Nobody wanted to sign him. All the labels said he’s had a great career but that’s it, it’s over.
“But I called some of the key country radio stations – St. Louis, Atlanta, Dallas and Houston – and I said “If I sign Kenny Rogers, and I take him in and record him country, will you play him’? And it was unanimous. Every one of them said absolutely, Larry, every time he comes near country we play him – but when he gets off on that rocking stuff, man, we can’t play it.’”
Rogers told his new producer that he’d been thinking about trying country music – after all, he came from Texas – but he didn’t see himself cutting “Grand Ole Opry’ records. “He didn’t want anything with twin fiddles,” Butler says, “or too much steel guitar.”
Rogers and Kragen quickly got busy. “Our plan was to establish myself in country music and establish a base, so that we had an audience that would support us,” Rogers explains. “And to just generate enough money to pay my band and keep going until we got a record. That was the initial plan from where Ken and I started working.”
Initially, Kragen had his doubts. His fortunes dwindling, he’d gone to work with the legendary promoter Jerry Weintraub, who told him forget Rogers, he’s washed up. You got a bright future here, kid.
But Kragen played his hunch about Kenny. He left Weintraub, opened an office and immediately made up a list of things Kenny had to do in order to make a comfortable living.
And he started greasing the wheels.
“He fit the country stuff because he came out of Houston, and although he was interested in a lot of other kinds of music, country was something that he was comfortable with and familiar with,” Kragen says.
“But what groomed Kenny as much as anything was going to Vegas, going to the Golden Nugget Hotel. Steve Wynn made Kenny feel like a star. He gave him a suite, he gave him a Rolls to drive. He treated him like he was as big as anybody on the strip.
“We went into this little 300-seat lounge, that if you looked at under any other circumstance you’d think was pretty dismal.
“On my side, and Steve helped a lot, I worked to create a lot of excitement around the show, a lot of talk in town.
“So out of that, Kenny gained enormous confidence. Just in the couple of weeks he was there, in that first engagement, you could see this transformation in him. From someone who told me that the first night he went onstage solo, his feet were grabbing the carpet.”
In Nashville, Kenny hooked up with Bloodline, a three-man group that knew all the old First Edition stuff. They backed him sufficiently and could put the harmonies in the right places.
He and Larry Butler began pouring over songs. Kenny’s first solo album, Love Lifted Me, was an amalgam of styles, including straight-ahead country, schmaltz balladry and even pop-gospel (says Butler: “You can see I was really searching to find him a groove.”). The album pandered to its intended audience with a medley of “Abraham, Martin and John” and “Precious Memories.” It sent two singles midway into the country Top 40 and didn’t impress anybody.
To pick up a few bucks before the album’s release, Kenny made a TV commercial in ‘75, advertising a “Quick Pickin,’ Fun Strummin’” easy guitar course. And during an appearance on Hee Haw, he met Marianne Gordon, one of the cornfield’s buxom beauties, and took up with her. Margo and the kids having decided to stay in Los Angeles.
Floyd Rogers, Kenny’s father, passed away in 1975, just before his son hit as a solo artist.
The Kenny Rogers album was released in September ‘76, and unlike its predecessor, it had a streamlined, laid-back sound, with Rogers’ masculine vocals recorded hot, breathy and intimate, as if he were whispering in the listener’s ear.
To women, it was pillow talk; men liked it because it wasn’t sappy or sentimental. There was something very no-nonsense about Kenny’s deep–dish delivery of “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got),” the LP’s first single, chosen by Butler because its narrative (a jealous lover threatens Laura with a pistol as he sings to her) was reminiscent of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
Kenny Rogers is a cleanly-produced, lyrically strong pop/country record that would not only become the touchstone for one of the most successful careers in the genre, it would light the way for a generation of crossover artists to come.
It all started because Larry Butler knew what to do with the voice. “Kenny put everything he had into it in the first couple of takes,” Butler says. “After that, he felt it was redundant. And a lot of Kenny’s vocals were live vocals on the sessions.”
“Laura” reached a respectable No. 19, and then it was time for Butler’s ace in the hole. “Kenny wasn’t sure about ‘Lucille,’” Butler says. “He thought maybe it was too country, or not really appropriate for him.” According to Butler, “Lucille” was the last song recorded for the album, and done, vocals and all, in one take.
“Kenny sent me 17 songs that he had recorded with Larry Butler in Nashville,” Kragen recalls. “I was sitting there with these promotion guys, and when we got to ‘Lucille,’ we started rolling around on the floor laughing. And I said this is either the biggest hit, or the biggest stiff, I’ve ever heard in my life. But if it’s a hit, it’s a really big hit.”
Written by Hal Bynum and Roger Bowling, “Lucille” became the blueprint for 10 years of Kenny Rogers signature songs. It’s slightly racy, but ultimately all-American, catchy and fun and could’ve happened to just about anyone. The narrator is sitting at a bar, flirting with a woman who’s apparently just given up on her marriage:
When the drinks finally hit her, she said I’m no quitter, but I’ve finally quit living on dreams.
The woman’s pea-picker husband comes into the bar, stares them down. Kenny thinks he’s gonna get killed. But the man is shaking, and all he manages to say is
You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. With four hungry children, and a crop in the field.
“Lucille” made a great jukebox singalong – it was easy to remember, it was funny and tragic at the same time, and it had a moral: In the end, the singer (Kenny) takes Lucille to a motel for some quick pickin’ and fun strummin,’ but he can’t perform because in his mind he hears
You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille. With four hungry children, and a crop in the field.
“I knew it was gonna be a hit, Larry Butler and I both,” Rogers says. “We remember the story differently. He remembers me not liking it, and I don’t … but whatever’s real is real. But I remember both of us looking at each other – and I think we both really, truly felt this was gonna be a major country record. I don’t think either one of us ever dreamed it would be what it ended up being.”
It ended up being one of the biggest hits of 1977, spending two weeks at the top of the country chart in January and reaching No. 5, pop. It earned a gold single and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association.
Kenny and Marianne Gordon married in Los Angeles on Oct. 1, 1977, in a celebrity-studded ceremony. They made a beautiful couple.
The View from the Top
After “Lucille,” it would be gravy for a long, long time.
Rogers and Kragen’s game plan – their wish list, really – didn’t just include hit records. Since his days in the New Christy Minstrels, Kenny had been training as an entertainer.
“We sat down and made out a ladder: If I could be on the Tonight Show – Johnny really liked me and made me feel so very comfortable when I was on there – the theory was that if I could do it once as a solo artist within the year, that hopefully I could host it within the second year.
“And if I could host it the second year, then we wanted to do a movie. So we kind of had this graduated thing of establishing prestige in the community by association with other majors.”
Kenny Rogers guested with Johnny Carson in that first year, and in March of ‘77 – with “Lucille” high on the charts – he hosted the program.
“It worked, that’s the pure and simple,” he says. “When I did the show, I really geared my concept to reach for punchlines, to think of something clever to say, or humorous to say, so he would see that I was able to do that. When he started taking his vacations, I was one of the first guest hosts.
“I think I looked more comfortable than I felt. But it was one of those things, I knew I had to do it, and I’ve always been a person who likes to challenge myself, so I figured I would just get out there and the worst that would happen was that I would only do it once. But it was still a prestige thing to do.”
Eventually, he came to guest–host the Tonight Show 10 times. Says Kragen: “I asked Bill McEuen, who was Steve Martin’s then-manager, what the biggest factor was in Steve’s success, and he always said the Tonight Show.
“Kenny, who was very funny and was capable of actually hosting the show, was able to create that celebrity to go along with the musical success. It really played a pivotal role.”
It’s a long way from Tonight Show schmooze to cultural icon, but by mid 1977 Rogers was making solid progress. His concerts began to sell out with regularity – they were good, clean family shows, attended not just by fantasizing housewives but by husbands, sons, daughters and grandparents. Everybody had a favorite song.
Of his next 20 singles, only one or two would not top the country chart; most would be pop hits, too. He would come to define crossover, a term used for country music artists who made records with a pop audience in mind.
Rogers’ hair and beard, both neatly trimmed, took on their distinctively rugged salt-and-pepper look. He was soon to become one of the most easily recognized people on the planet.
“I think my sound is very identifiable,” Rogers says. “And I think it’s one of those things that if you like it, I’m really consistent with it, and if you don’t like it, you’re never gonna like it.
“But it’s always been my theory that I’ve never been a particularly good singer. But I’ve always, I think, had a great ear for great songs. And my theory is if you have a great song, you’ve got to screw it up. If you start with ‘Lucille,’ then you’ve got to do it as a polka for it not to be a hit. It’s gonna be a hit by whoever does it.”
The iron having been struck, Rogers and Butler began looking for ways to follow up “Lucille.” The uptempo “Daytime Friends,” which used that old country favorite, adultery, as its subject matter, hit No. 1 in August of ‘77. The next single was “Sweet Music Man,” which Rogers had written specifically for Playboy model-turned country singer Barbi Benton.
Butler didn’t care much for “Sweet Music Man” – he told Rogers that people might think he was gay when he sang it – but Kenny wouldn’t be dissuaded (although the two did concoct an intro that put the song’s gender in the proper perspective). “Sweet Music Man” never got above No. 3.
In February ‘78 Rogers won the Best Country Male Grammy for “Lucille” and released Ten Years of Gold, collecting his first couple of solo singles and re-recordings (produced by Butler) of six First Edition Hits.
Then came “Love or Something Like It,” another uptempo, poppy single, and another one he’d written himself. Although it topped the chart, its cheap witticisms about hitting on inebriated women sounded like an attempt at doing a Jimmy Buffett, who’d just had his first big hits. It was a side alley he would never again explore.
That year, the book Making it In Music appeared, written by Rogers with journalist Len Epland. It’s ostensibly a how-to tome for aspiring stars (no doubt he contracted to do it around the time of the guitar-instruction commercials) but the best part of it was Rogers’ recollections of his days with the First Edition. And the pictures were pretty neat, too.
In the middle of the Love or Something Like It album, Rogers began a collaboration with singer Dottie West. “Larry Butler was producing her at the same time he was producing me,” Rogers recalls. “Her session was supposed to have been over at 9 o’clock at night, and mine was to start at 10. I got there early, and she was running late.
“He asked if she could go ahead and finish this vocal, because she was so close to having it, and I said absolutely. And it was the song ‘Every Time Two Fools Collide.’ She did her vocal, and she came in and we were talking, and I said “Boy, I’d love to sing something with you sometime,’ and she said “Well, go out there and try this one.’
“So I went out and sang the second verse – and fortunately, she had kind of a low voice, so we were singing in the same key – and it was just wonderful from the minute we started. And that started a long and very successful relationship between me and her.”
Says Butler: “I told Kenny, “It might be a little high for you,’ and he said “Let me have a shot at it.’
“There’s a note that he hits, and he put his thumbs in the beltloops of his jeans and literally yanked on his pants to hit that note. But he hit it.”
“Every Time Two Fools Collide” became the first of three joint chart-toppers for Rogers and West, who also issued two bestselling albums together.
It was a collaboration made in heaven – for West, it gave a fading career a commercial shot in the arm. And for Rogers, well, it meant a certain craved credibility with the country audience. Their joint tours (usually with the Oak Ridge Boys) began to sell out. “Dottie and I did a concert in Pontiac Stadium in Michigan, for 80,000 people,” Rogers says. “And I thought then: There’s something good about this business.”
“Kenny was an incredible singer, and Dottie was an incredible singer,” observes Butler. “But you put the two of them out in the studio face to face on the same mike, or two mics facing each other, and they’d perform for each other. And they both sang better than they’ve ever done before.
“Dottie was a great singer, but when she sang with Kenny Rogers standing there looking at her, she reached down and got it all.”
He began work on his sixth solo album with little idea it would take him even higher up the mountain. “Larry and I would start with a box full of a hundred cassettes,” recalls Rogers. “And there may be five songs on each cassette. We would play a song, and it was either yes, no or maybe. We would go through the whole box: Yes, no or maybe. Then we’d throw away all the no’s, go through the maybe’s. Yes or no. Then we would end up with all the yes’s.
“Then we’d go through the yes’s and go yes, no. So you end up grading on the curve, albeit, but you end up with the best of what’s available at that time. And ‘The Gambler’ was in that first yes category the moment we heard it. The minute they started singing that hook, I knew that was a special song.”
Singer/songwriter Don Schlitz had issued a single of “The Gambler” in the spring, and Larry Butler just loved it. It was a story-song, with the narrator recalling a lonely train ride, shared with a professional gambler whose wizened advice applied to life as well as cards:
You got to know when to hold ‘em/Know when to fold ‘em/Know when to walk away/know when to run.
Oh, man, what a great hook, thought Butler. And when Schlitz’s record stiffed, he brought “The Gambler” to Kenny.
“Both of us, I think, had a very commercial ear,” says Rogers. “Commercial meaning we knew I could bring something additional to the table. As opposed to just singing a song. And something we thought the audience could either relate to, or enjoy singing.
“There’s really a single ingredient to every hit song you find. And that is: familiarity. Now, there’s two ways you can get familiarity: You can start off with a song you can sing the second time you hear it, which is what we chose to do. You take a song like ‘Lucille,’ I defy you not to sing it the second time through. That’s how you get a hit song.
“The other one is if you’re an artist who’s strong enough that you get enough hot rotation, airplay, that people become familiar with it quick enough before it dies off.
“Familiarity is the key to success.”
Kenny Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler” blazed up the charts to No. 1, sold more copies than “Lucille” and, most importantly, gave him his most important signature song.
“I think I’ve had songs that were bigger in sales,” he says, “but none that were bigger in identity for me. I go to Korea and people say ‘Oooh, the gambler.’ And it’s really sweet. It’s really cute.
“I think those are career-making songs.” Within 18 months, The Gambler TV movie aired on CBS. Produced by Ken Kragen, it starred Rogers as heart-of-gold gamblin’ man Brady Hawkes. It was the highest-rated TV movie up to that time, and it spawned four sequels through the early ‘90s.
Things got bigger and better in ‘79, as Rogers collected a handful of statuettes at the People’s Choice and American Music Awards (an event he’d repeat for several years running) and received a star on the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
He had three more huge hits that year: “She Believes in Me,” “Coward of the County” and “You Decorated My Life.”
Larry Butler claims the record in Nashville for keeping a song “on hold”: Nearly two years with the romantic ballad “You Decorated My Life.” Rogers despised it, saying it was sentimental fluff, but Butler kept at it and finally got the ascending superstar to cut it.
“He always cared about the product,” recalls Butler. “He’d fight with Kragen to allow me that time, and when he came in he would not let anything interrupt or disturb us. It was a real joy to work with him, because he and I had made a deal when we first started: we’d both be honest with each other. You know the old deal about leaving ego outside the door, that’s what we did.
“If either one of us felt strongly about something, we’d fight for it. And we had some heated discussions about certain songs – he’d said “LB, I tell you what. If it means that much to you, man, let’s do it.’”
Top of the pops
Rogers was selling more records than Nashville had ever heard of, 10 million albums here, 15 million albums there. He was a favorite People magazine cover boy, and Rolling Stone named him top country vocalist.
“Every time we’d reach out with one of those ‘She Believes in Me’ or whatever,” explains Butler, “we’d come right back with a ‘Coward of the County’ or ‘The Gambler.’ We’d come back with one of those straight ahead country tunes, not overproduced, not overdone, that maintained his country audience. We never pissed ‘em off. They went with us when we stretched out a little bit, and then they went back to them when we got back into the pocket.”
Rogers: “You have to remember that something like 80 percent of all country records are bought by women. That’s why it’s hard for a woman to have a career in country music – men, historically, don’t buy country records, women do.
“The people who were buying the records were showing up, and they happened to be women. And the guys wouldn’t mind bringing their girls, because they knew I was going to be doing songs that they liked, too. So I think that’s what really helped my career.”
“In that late ‘70s, early ‘80s period, country music flowed over into the mainstream,” Ken Kragen says, “but it’s a chicken and egg question. Did Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and some of the others who crossed, cause it? Or did they ride the wave? I think it’s a bit of both.”
In 1980, after the multi-platinum Kenny album, United Artists Records was purchased by Capitol/EMI and became Liberty Records.
Now that he was the biggest-selling artist in country music (and one of the top concert draws), Rogers decided to push the envelope a bit farther. After one more album with Butler, a cowboy-concept album called Gideon (written entirely by his New Christy Minstrel pals Kim Carnes and Dave Ellingson), Rogers went after something new.
“My whole influence has always been Ray Charles,” Rogers explains. “Somehow or other, Ray Charles factors into everything I do. I heard his Born to Lose album, and I realized that this was an innovative process. He was singing R&B to country tracks.
“Country music is the white man’s rhythm ‘n’ blues. And I wanted to do something that was equally as innovative. I wanted to sing country to R&B tracks.
“I kept listening to ‘Three Times a Lady’ and ‘Still,’ those Commodores songs, and I thought now, here’s a guy that really has his handle on country music – which is really R&B.”
The Commodores’ songwriter and frontman was Alabama-born Lionel Richie, and his big ballads were at that time changing the former dance band’s fortunes. Richie was a hit machine.
“I went to Berry Gordy, who’s a friend of mine, and I said “Are there any reasons you think Lionel Richie wouldn’t want to work with me?” And he said “Gosh, I don’t know. Let me find out.’”
Not long after, in a Las Vegas hotel ballroom, Richie and Rogers met at the grand piano, and Rogers asked the hotter-than-hot singer/songwriter if he had any new tunes. “He said “I don’t really know where to start. Let me play you this, and tell me if you like it.’ And he sang “Lady …,’ and hummed the first line of melody. I said “Oh, I love that!’
“And he said “OK, I’ll go home and finish it.’ That’s all he had was “Lady …’ We hit it off as friends immediately. It was a wonderful experience working with him, because he came from a whole different place, but there were a lot of common denominators that we had.”
Produced by Richie, Rogers’ single of “Lady” spent six weeks at No. One on the pop charts. Simultaneously, it sat on top of the country, adult contemporary and R&B charts.
Another smash. Rogers was making it look easy. “Lady” was included on a new Greatest Hits album that went multi-platinum not long after its release. The album spent an astonishing 181 weeks on the Billboard album survey.
Except for one or two tunes down the road, Larry Butler never worked with Kenny Rogers again. “Knowing him as well as I do, I understood what was going on in his creative mind,” says Butler, who won a Grammy as Producer of the Year in 1979. “He was thinking “OK, we’ve done this, now I’m ready to branch out and do something else.’”
Know when to hold ‘em
Rogers left Larry Butler because “He kept bringing me the same songs, and it was just boring to me. And I still contend that the single secret to any successful person is knowing when to move, when to say “I’ve ridden this horse as long as I can.’”
Picked to win was Lionel Richie, and Rogers persuaded the “Lady” killer to produce his next album. Would his considerable country music audience accept it? “It was a gamble, but I knew I could get away with it to some extent,” Rogers explains. “I think I had to do it – if you look at the album before it, the songs were just like the songs on the album before that. There was nothing fresh about it. I didn’t know how to go forward and stay in the same niche.
“My whole theory has been: It’s not how many people you please, it’s how few you offend. I thought if what I was doing with Lionel was not offensive to the country audience, I still had a market there – and maybe I would pick up a different market in the process.”
The Share Your Love album generated another country chart-topper, “I Don’t Need You,” and “Blaze of Glory,” “Share Your Love With Me” and “Through the Years” went Top Ten.
On the pop charts, where “Lady” had reigned supreme, none of the singles approached the top.
Share Your Love fulfilled Rogers’ dream of doing an “R&B country” album – although Richie didn’t write all the songs, they bore his unmistakable stamp. Rogers’ singing was grittier, more blues-based, and there were grooves, backbeats and black gospel choruses. The big, middle-of-the-road ballads – his bread and butter, after all – were virtual carbon copies of Richie’s Commodores hits. And of “Lady.”
There were some concessions to country music, none of them especially profound, and on one song Rogers went as far afield as possible – he shared his vocals on “Goin’ Back to Alabama” with Richie and Michael Jackson. Gladys Knight & the Pips also sang on the album.
Meanwhile, the money machine chugged along as if things were still the same. “Coward of the County” became a TV movie, Rogers brought home another armload of American Music Awards, and his first Christmas album went platinum right alongside Share Your Love.
Rogers’ 1982 project was Six Pack, the only feature film he ever made. It’s a sort of Bad News Bears at the race track, with Kenny as a kind-hearted driver who becomes foster parent to six orphaned carjackers.
In the end, of course, the kids help him win the big race and the bad guy is thwarted.
Although the theme song “Love Will Turn You Around” made No. 1, and the album of the same name was a success, Six Pack was a box office stiff.
He vowed never to do it again. “We thought the power that I had at television, I would have at feature films,” he says. “And it’s just not true.
“I was making a lot of money then, and with movies, the thing we learned was people would say “You’re going to start in June and finish in August,’ and then they’d call you in May and say “We can’t start until August.’ In the meantime, I’ve blocked out June and August, and now I’ve got to block out two more months. And I don’t make any more money. We just felt it was way too uncontrollable for us.
“Now, TV movies that we produced ourselves, we could totally control the time frame on. If necessary, we knew that I could work weekends, or weekdays here and there, and still keep a cash flow coming in.”
He was living in high cotton – sellout shows, TV appearances, platinum albums, Lear jets. After one more big hit, a cover of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” with chanteuse du jour Sheena Easton, he felt he could do just about anything.
And that’s when the other shoe began to show signs of dropping.
His contract with Liberty was up after the We’ve Got Tonight album, and negotiations began with other majors. At first, it looked like Columbia Records’ Walter Yetnikoff was going to land the big fish for $10 to $15 million.
Ken Kragen, in fact, thought this was a done deal when he and his wife set off on an African vacation – a gift from Kenny – in late 1982. But Kenny, who was handling much of the negotiating himself, took a last-minute offer from Bob Summer, president of RCA Records. He was to be paid $20 million for six albums, at that time the biggest deal in music business history. “We’re going to move mountains,” Summer told his new artist.
Richie, whose post-Commodores career was heating up at that point, declined to produce Rogers’ RCA debut. Barry Gibb, fresh off his Guilty success with Barbara Streisand, was Rogers’ next choice. The Eyes That See in the Dark album appeared in September 1983.
“Barry Gibb had written some things I’d thought were really country-based songs, with Bee Gees harmony,” he explains. “And the Bee Gees sang background on all the stuff I did.
“It was hard for me because Barry writes very melody-specific songs. I think it’s a great album, but there’s very little of me in there. I sound like a deep-throated Bee Gee. And that’s not necessarily bad, just me tempering my sound to their sound, as opposed to him producing me to get the most out of me.”
Gibb’s perky, poppy “Islands in the Stream,” a duet by Rogers and Dolly Parton, was another smash hit -No. 1 country and pop – and the RCA era appeared to be off to a great start. Eyes That See in the Dark sold four million copies.
Not long after the album’s release, however, Bob Summer was fired from RCA. Rogers: “The new guy moves in, and I literally went into his office and said ‘Tell me what my future is here, now that Bob’s gone.’ He said “Well you’ve got a lot of money per album coming your way – if it were me I’d take it and go home.
“He said “But I can’t let you be successful. Because if I make you successful, it makes Bob Summer look good. And people are going to ask why they let him go if he made a good deal.’”
Translation: Don’t expect any promotion help from your label.
Scratching his head, Rogers went back to work. There was another Gambler TV movie, and a Christmas album with Dolly Parton, and 20 Greatest Hits, the first in a series of reissues and re-packagings from his old label.
Leaving a company where you’d been ably supported for years, Rogers believes, was probably not such a great idea. “When you’re in business, you negotiate for the better deal,” he says. “I don’t think I realized there could be a downside.” In retrospect, he calls the move to RCA a “huge mistake.” But he couldn’t ignore the money they waved at him.
Next out of the gate at RCA was “What About Me,” a middle-of-the-road ballad performed with both Kim Carnes (they’d duetted on “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” from Gideon, four years before) and R&B balladeer James Ingram.
“What About Me?” was the first warning sign that something was terribly wrong. Although the “trio” made the pop Top 20, their song bombed at country radio.
Hade he gone too far?
Know when to fold ‘em
He was to hit the jackpot two or three more times at country, but by 1987, Kenny Rogers had had his last Number One. He never came near the pop charts again.
“I think I had gotten too far away from my core base, which was country,” Rogers says. “You have to have a core group of people who follow you and defend you at all times. And the minute you offend those groups, they’re not easy to get back.
“At one time, if you had a country record you could be there forever. That was what attracted me to it.
“I think I made some strategic mistakes based on my own musical comfort level – and at that same time, country music was going much more country, so I was much farther out of the pocket.”
Ken Kragen: “On pop radio, country artists fell out of favor. The fad was fairly short–lived. The whole Urban Cowboy craze became one of these year-long crazes that burned itself out, basically. Radio stopped playing those artists that had crossed over from country, and Kenny was one of them. We started finding it harder and harder to get radio play.
“And country radio shifted at that point back to traditional stuff – Randy Travis was coming up – so we were left an artist without a country, so to speak.”
Rogers wasn’t idle in the mid ‘80s, by any means – his Heart of the Matter album was produced by George Martin, he participated in the We Are the World and Hands Across America projects (both instigated by Ken Kragen) and he published two books of photographs, Kenny Rogers’ America and Your Friends and Mine.
A 1988 move to Reprise Records (ironically, the original home of the First Edition) produced five albums but no substantial hits.
“Planet Texas was a great record,” Rogers explains. “And every radio station we went to said they loved it, but they couldn’t play it. It was about space cowboys coming to this world. It was a great-sounding record, but it didn’t sound anything where country radio was.” Radio stations told him that audiences wanted to hear Randy Travis, Ricky Van Shelton and George Strait
Planet Texas just didn’t fit in, thank you very much.
“I learned that you have to stay within a pocket. There’s a time to base and a time to expand, and you have to be successful at the base level before you can expand. I think I tried to go somewhere without any support. Because pop music is not a base – that changes from year to year.”
According to Ken Kragen, the writing on the wall was hard to read for a while. “Nothing has ever really scared us,” he says. “We’ve always taken it as a challenge. We were still on a roll in so many ways.
“Remember, we were making Gambler movies and other movies, doing TV specials, we had all kinds of things going. I don’t think we ever really felt the slowdown till the end of the ‘80s. We just had too much momentum, Kenny was too big. He was sort of the Garth Brooks of that period.”
By 1991, when Brooks began to dominate country music (also at the same time Billboard charts began using SoundScan to more accurately report what people were buying), Kenny Rogers was starting to look like someone from another era. Along with an entire generation of country artists including George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings, he found there was no room for him on “young country”- oriented radio.
And the biggest irony of all: Because his music was so pop, such a textbook definition of crossover music, it rarely qualified as “classic country.” In a strange, almost Faustian twist, the heretofore King of Country all but disappeared by from the airwaves.
“Not everybody’s roots go back to Hank Locklin and Hank Williams,” Kenny says. “There are people whose roots go back to Alabama. That’s as far back as they go.
“The problem is that country music is no longer an art form. It’s a business now. Radio is dictating country music. If they don’t play it, you don’t hear it, you don’t have a choice. It’s really one-dimensional.”
As he recording career cooled, Kenny began to concentrate on his investments – including a state-of-the-art theater in Branson, Mo. and other real estate holdings, and on his philanthropy.
Since 1982, when he and Marianne had organized and hosted the World Hunger Media Awards at the United Nations, Kenny had been giving large sums of money to various social-improvement causes.
In 1990, he was honored by the Horatio Alger Association of Distinguished Americans, as someone who’d been born into poverty and, when he made his fortune, unselfishly helped others in need.
According to Lelan, Kenny once told him: “When you’re trying to climb to the top, you cannot have any weights on your ankle. But when you get to the top, you can turn around, stick your hand out, and try to help somebody else up.”
Know when to walk away
In 1992, Rogers and former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown, a longtime friend, went into the restaurant business. Brown, who’d bought out Harland Sanders in the “60s and turned Kentucky Fried Chicken into a worldwide success story, wanted to do the same with a wood-roasted chicken recipe. And so Kenny Rogers Roasters was born.
To date, there are more than 300 restaurants in the United States and 20 foreign countries. As if it had always been part of the master plan with Ken Kragen, Rogers’ name and face are part of major thoroughfares in every town in America. Even if you can’t hear him on the radio, he’s unavoidable.
(Brown is no longer with the company, which at this writing is undergoing a major reorganization.)
Meanwhile, an album on Giant Records, If Only My Heart Had a Voice, was co–produced by Larry Butler and James Stroud. It was not a success, nor was its 1994 followup, Timepiece, on Atlantic.
Timepiece, ironically, might have been Rogers’ best record in a decade. Produced and arranged by David Foster, it was a collection of standards and romantic ballads from the ‘30s, ‘40s and ‘50s, a lot of the songs Bobby Doyle used to sing back in the old days in Houston – “In the Wee Small Hours of the Morning,” “My Funny Valentine,” “When I Fall in Love.” Lushly produced and unapologetically romantic, Timepiece revealed a warmer, more mature Kenny Rogers, country miles from the feckless, folksy crooner of “Lucille” and “The Gambler.” Rogers opened his theater, the Branson Belle, around the time of Timepiece, an album he was certain would win him newfound respect.
But Atlantic dumped the record like an orphan on a doorstep, and it starved.
After a quickie project, Vote For Love, done in conjunction with the TV network QVC, Rogers signed with Magnatone Records, a Nashville independent run by Jim Mazza, who’d been President of EMI/Liberty during the glory days.
But Magnatone, like the others, didn’t last long. After two albums, the Christmas package The Gift and the multi–format Across My Heart, Rogers was without a label again. “We really ran into a series of terrible luck,” says Ken Kragen, “where Kenny was making viable records for companies that weren’t viable.”
His concerts continued to sell out – but on the label front, Kragen says, they began to wonder if they were jinxed.
Know when to run
Labels, believes Rogers, “all look good going in. You have a honeymoon period going in, where everybody’s trying and they don’t know what the problems are. Then they go run against the wall and they go “We thought this was going to be easy. We’ll go work on somebody that’s easy.’
“It takes creative people who really care about the product and about the artist to make it work. And I think the only way you can be assured of that is you have to pay them yourself.”
And thus was born Dreamcatcher, Kenny Rogers’ custom independent label (not his first, of course: There was Ken-Lee in the ‘50s, and Jolly Rogers in the ‘70s). The record company is just one branch of Dreamcatcher Entertainment, which is being overseen by Kenny’s old pal Jim Mazza.
The first recording under the new umbrella was an urban version of “The Gambler” by rapper Coolio, which features Kenny on the “Know when to hold “em” choruses. Its release is still being negotiated.
The initial Dreamcatcher Records release, in early fall, is scheduled to be a set of original songs Rogers wrote and recorded for The Toy Shop, a holiday play in which he plans to appear off-Broadway later in 1998.
The Toy Shop was originally created for Rogers’ annual Christmas shows, which have been taking Yuletide residency in different U.S. cities for several years.
The new label, Rogers says, “gives me the independent control of my product, so that I don’t have to answer to somebody else. “I’ll have independent promotion, so I’ll know it’s getting worked. I know how to get placement in Tower Records and in some of the major places that without it, you die. The trick is to be in their face.”
Kragen, who also manages Travis Tritt and Trisha Yearwood, thinks Dreamcatcher will fly: When Kenny Rogers puts his mind to something, he can usually make it work. “He’s always been exactly what you see, that’s what you get,” Kragen enthuses. “In other words, the public persona of Kenny Rogers is the true person. And that’s a good, warm, nice, honest, decent individual. There’s no hidden agenda with Kenny Rogers, or hidden personality, or anything. And that’s why I’ve been with him for 30 years.
“I also think of him as an absolute, consummate entertainer. The way I look at him, he’s sort of the heir to Sinatra. I always told him: You hang on long enough, they make an icon out of you.”
In 1997, Rogers married Georgia native Wanda Miller, 28 years his junior, after a four-year courtship. At this writing, they’re in the process of selling the ranch outside Athens and moving to Atlanta.
In all, he’s sold more than 85 million records. Eleven of his albums are platinum, just about all the rest went gold, and he racked up three Grammys, 11 People’s Choice Awards and eight Academy of Country Music Awards.
But another run at the brass ring here at home, well, that would be nice. None other than USA Today once voted him Favorite Singer of All Time.
“I’ve always considered myself kind of a student of the game,” Rogers says, “and you’re only a good student if you pass. So it’s fun for me to find a way to do this.
“Truly, I think in my heart I can be bigger than I’ve ever been in a matter of time, because I’m very well organized and I think that’s a huge part of success.
“But if it doesn’t happen, it’s not the end of the world for me. I’ve got a lot of other things going on.”
Interviews with Kenny Rogers, Ken Kragen, Larry Butler, Lelan Rogers, Don Henley, Terry Williams, Mike Settle, Jim Mazza and Mary Arnold Miller were conducted March through May, 1998.
Many thanks: Laurel Altman, Cheryl Kagen, Steve Opdyke, Betsy McClendon, Cheryl Pawelski, Karl T. Nilsson, Kathy Leaver and Zanna.
The Greatest of the Greatest
Navigating the Kenny Rogers compilations
Like many artists who’ve enjoyed a good, long string of hits, Kenny Rogers has made lots and lots of albums, each packed with songs. Of course, as the years pass and the individual albums go out of print, the hits are recycled time and time again by whichever record company owns, or has leased, the master recordings. Before long, popular artists like Kenny Rogers are represented in the bins by little more than anthologies and repackages.
Thanks in part to Rogers’ tendency to re-record his old hits when he moved to a new label, a stroll through the CD racks can be kind of confusing. And since he spent his salad days with EMI, which owned and distributed both United Artists and Liberty, and is notorious for slicing, dicing and re-assembling its product, there are dozens of Kenny Rogers hits collections on the market with maddeningly similar titles, song selections and even cover art (material he recorded in the ’60s is likely to be offered up with that famous salt-and-pepper mug on the front, so buyer, beware).
Here’s all you need to know. The First Edition masters, originally licensed to Reprise in the ’60s and ’70s, are owned by Jimmy Bowen’s Amos Productions and now appear almost exclusively on MCA labels. MCA has packaged them a dozen different ways.
And except for the RCA Greatest Hits albums, the only solo Kenny anthologies worth looking at are on EMI labels: Liberty, CEMA, Capitol and EMI America.
Some of the titles listed here are out of print or just hard to find, but all have seen the light of day on compact disc (although Through the Years hasn’t been released yet). Stick with these for the best overview of Kenny Rogers’ recording career.
Ten Years of Gold (UA 835). Released in 1977, during Kenny’s first flush of post–First Edition success, this one collects the early solo hits, everything from “Love Lifted Me” to “Sweet Music Man.” It’s as if he wanted to cash in early, doubting, perhaps, that greater things were to come. So the first five tracks are re–recordings of the group’s best–known numbers – this “Ruby” isn’t bad, and the band’s Partridge Family-style backing vocals have been replaced with relatively unobtrusive harmonies. But “Just Dropped In” has been turned into Vegas camping, and “But You Know I Love You” gets a synthesizer arrangement so cheesy it could only have come from the ’70s. Just marking time.
Greatest Hits (Liberty 1072). A powderkeg when it came out in ’80, this album sold in the millions because it was the only elpee to include “Lady,” the genre-jumping smash hit single. Also exclusive here: “Love the World Away,” which Ken cut for Urban Cowboy, and “Long Arm of the Law,” another singalong story-song in the style of “Coward of the County,” “The Gambler” and “Lucille” (all included here, together for the first time). United Artists was now Liberty. After this, Larry Butler was out, and Lionel Richie – who’d delivered “Lady” – was in the producer’s chair. Briefly.
Twenty Greatest Hits (Liberty LV–51152). Here’s an interesting case. After Rogers had bolted for greener pastures at RCA, Liberty quite naturally expanded Greatest Hits to include all the biggies that had come out since. Twenty Greatest Hits appeared on LP in 1984, and as a single CD a few years later. Then came Twenty-five Greatest Hits (CDPB–7–46673 1/2), same cover, same masters, with five tunes tacked onto the end. On two CDs. Both versions are still available. The double set adds “Sweet Music Man,” but the other four songs are nothing to write home about, so the single disc remains the better deal.
Greatest Hits (RCA 8371–1–R). Historically, Rogers’ RCA period is considered his slackest, but this set puts the lie to that one. Listen up. Some of these songs, especially “I Prefer the Moonlight” and “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” (a duet with Ronnie Milsap) are nothing short of superb. Only the Randy Travis-led cavalry charge of New Traditionalists could have kept “Twenty Years Ago” from becoming a monster hit on the country charts of 1987 – it’s that powerful. Some of Kenny’s very best, although “Islands in the Stream” has not aged well.
20 Great Years (Reprise 26711). Ouch. Trying once again the sleight of hand that got his First Edition songs (licensed elsewhere) onto UA (refer to Ten Years of Gold), Kenny re-records everything to get ‘em on Reprise, his label in 1992. “Ruby” and “Something’s Burning” are trotted out for their third run-throughs, and all the old UA/Liberty hits, “The Gambler,” “Through the Years,” “Lady,” et al sound as if he took his road band into the studio and cut the lot of ‘em in an hour. Not the one to start your collection with.
A Decade of Hits (Reprise 46571) No re-recordings here: Starting with “Islands in the Stream,” Kenny owns the masters of everything he did (it was a stipulation of his contracts with RCA, Reprise and all who served him afterwards). Not a bad sampling of the later stuff, including the elusive “What About Me,” which went Top 15 pop in 1984 but only hit Number 70 on the country charts, plus the chart-toppers “Morning Desire” and “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine.” The RCA Greatest Hits is a better set, but this one (issued under a licensing agreement with KR in 1997) will probably be easier to find.
All–Time Greatest Hits (CEMA Special Markets CD3L–57670). It may be well nigh impossible to find this three-disc, 36-song collection (an educated guess says it was probably a limited edition TV offer), but it’s the most thorough solo Kenny package yet released. It’s got Twenty Greatest Hits in its entirety, plus some good stuff (“The Son of Hickory Holler’s Tramp”), some great stuff (“A Love Song”) and two killer Dottie West duets you won’t find on any of the other compilations.
All Time Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 (MCAD 22055). There’s a European CD package with 40 First Edition songs, but in the States, this one and its companion (Vol. II, 22056) are the most complete, and not too shabby. Along with Kenny’s big numbers, there are lots of lesser-known greats (Mike Settle’s “I Just Want to Give My Love to You,” for example) and, for the first and only time, a generous sampling of The Ballad of Calico. Not a bad bunch (1992).
Greatest Hits (Hip–O 40016). The newest collection of First Edition tracks, on an MCA subsidiary, is also one of the best (you’ll want to avoid all the ones with titles like The Early Years, Golden Hits and At Their Best). It’s a good companion to the MCA All Time Greatest discs because it adds Kin Vassey’s “Heed the Call,” the band’s last hit single, and “Someone Who Cares,” a Kenny-sung ballad from the motion picture soundtrack Fools. And a different track from Calico, the single “School Teacher” (1997).
Through the Years (Capitol/EMI). Originally scheduled for a late 1996 release, this 4-CD, 80-song monster will likely hit the stores by Christmas of 1998. It’s the motherlode, too, and includes material from all phases of Kenny’s career: The Scholars (“Poor Little Doggie”), Carlton solo (“That Crazy Feeling,” “For You Alone”), Ken–Lee (“Jole Blon”), his odd foray into orchestrated pop for one 1966 single (“Here’s That Rainy Day”), plus First Edition stuff and an entire disc of Number One hits, including RCA tracks. And three songs from the Bobby Doyle Trio album! Although the MCA sets offer a better selection of First Edition songs (there’s nothing here from Calico, for example), when it comes to solo Kenny, this will be the ultimate document.