“The Gambler” holds the jack-of-all-trades card. Even the biggest Kenny Rogers fans will likely learn something new about the multi-talented icon as they walk through his exhibit at Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. Kenny Rogers: Through the Years, a biographical showcase that opened last week and runs through June 14th, 2015, includes memorabilia from the stage and screen, of course, but also puts the spotlight on the Texas native’s successes as an author, entrepreneur, humanitarian, photographer and — if he can get to a post office soon — athlete.
“I played tennis for 10 years, eight hours a day every day and developed a national ranking while I was on the road playing with Wimbledon champions,” the legend told Rolling Stone Country just days before his exhibit’s opening, making a mental to-do list to ship some last-minute items from his Georgia home. “I have tennis rackets that some of these guys have signed, and I want to put them in as well.”
Ten years of tennis playing, 56 years of hit-making, 100 million records sold, 21 Number One country songs, eight Academy of Country Music awards, six Country Music Association awards — his numbers are rivaled by few. Rogers scored his first record deal just out of high school with a pop group called the Scholars, and then went on to play with several other bands, including the New Christy Minstrels and the Bobby Doyle Trio, before branching out on his own. His songs you know by heart include “Lucille,” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” “Lady” and the treasured tune that also jump-started his acting career, “The Gambler,” which became a made-for-TV movie series with Rogers in the lead role.
Though the majority of his recording career has been as a solo act, collaborations are the Country Music Hall of Famer’s favorite topic of musical conversation. In addition to chart-scaling tracks with Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes and Lionel Richie, Rogers made entire albums of duets with the late Dottie West and recorded what is arguably the best-known country duet of all time, “Islands in the Stream,” with longtime pal Dolly Parton.
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“Some of the highlights of my life were the duets,” Rogers reflects. “I sing better on duets than I do by myself. It’s like running a 100-yard dash: You run as fast as you think you can, but you put someone alongside you who runs faster and you’re going to run faster… I never wanted to be a solo singer. I love singing harmony, and I love being with groups.”
Rolling Stone Country sat down with the incomparable entertainer, who celebrates his 76th birthday today, in a dressing room next to the Country Music Hall of Fame’s new CMA Theater, where he laughed about his flirtatious friendship with Parton and reflected on work with other famous friends, including Don Henley and Michael Jackson. Rogers also looks back on his potpourri of a career that’s given him enough memories to fill multiple museums.
Tennis player, photographer, upright bass player… and another little-known fact is that you once tried your hand at producing, as well.
I discovered Don Henley, and that was when I started producing was with him and a group called Shiloh…. It’s not like he was in the mud somewhere and I walked up, but I found his group and took them to L.A. and they lived with me for six months. Then he got a chance to go with the Eagles and he said, “I can’t do it unless you give me my publishing back.” I was just trying to help him so I said, “Sure, I’ll give it back to you.” I’m very proud of that. Producing is something that I used to be really good at but never great. I have learned since then that good producers bring in great musicians and sit back and listen, let them play and don’t tell them what to do.
What were your earliest musical aspirations?
My dad wasn’t in the business, but he played fiddle and all of his brothers and sisters played some instrument, so we used to get in the cab of a pick-up truck and ride up to Apple Springs, Texas, where all my aunts and uncles would get on the front porch and play music. I used to sing in the church choir and at school, but my interest actually started when I was 12 years old and went to see Ray Charles in concert. My mom wouldn’t let my sister go with her date unless she took me, so you know how that had to be. [Laughs] It was like an epiphany. People laughed at everything Ray said, they clapped for everything he sang. I thought, boy, who wouldn’t want to do that? I didn’t even know I could sing at the time. I just loved the honesty of his music.
What’s your favorite memory of your first band, the Scholars?
The Scholars… what a misnomer. We were all D students! But it was really a fun time. We heard that the guys in the bands got all the girls and that wasn’t true, but we used to go from school to school to sing at the sock hops. We did Doo-Wop stuff, copying all the R&B groups, Sam Cooke and all those guys, and I just loved it. I have always loved singing harmony, singing in groups. That’s what made that so special for me.
Do you remember the first time you ever signed an autograph?
I had a record called “That Crazy Feeling” when I was 20 years old or so. I did American Bandstand with it and a local television show called the Larry Kane Show. As I am going out Larry says, “You know you can’t call yourself Kenneth Rogers.” I said, “That’s my name! What would you call me?” “Kenny Rogers,” he said. I said, “Oh no, please don’t do that.” So before I do the song he says, “Please welcome Kenny Rogers,” and all the girls started clapping and screaming and I thought, “I could live with that.” After that show some little girl asked me for an autograph. What’s really interesting is that I used to have a beautiful signature because I took calligraphy and architectural drawing in school. But now, I swear you could get prescription drugs with my signature.
How about your first big splurge after you started making money?
That’s a long list! I bought a big boat. I could never get my toys on the same side of the country I lived on, because the best place for a boat is Miami, but I lived in L.A., so now I have to have an airplane. I had about four or five different airplanes. I have had huge houses all my life because I’m an interior decorator, too. A lot of people don’t know that I had an interior decorating company. I buy these houses that are in trouble, fix them up and sell them. Wanda and I have been married 17 years and have lived in 10 houses. She’s become a packing expert!
You’re one of the more fashionable men in country music. There are so many great stage outfits in this exhibit. Do you have a favorite?
That white beaded jacket that I wore when Dolly and I worked together. Every night I do this new song we recorded called “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” and I look back at the film clips of us and think how much I loved that jacket. But the older you get, you’re allowed to try to look younger but you’re not allowed to try to look young. There is a finite difference. You look silly if you try to look young. So I don’t think I could wear that today.
You won your first Grammy for “Lucille.” Do you remember who you thanked in your acceptance speech?
Probably [producer] Larry Butler, because he was the start of it all. I had been hanging around town, and the record company didn’t want me because I was too old. I was between 35 and 40 and they’d say, “He’s too old for country music!” I was working for Steve Wynn at the Golden Nugget hotel in Las Vegas, and we released this song and it just exploded. Steve Wynn’s lounge seated about 600 people. I would work down there for a week then I would go do a 100,000 people show in giant arenas. Steve made me his talent coordinator at his place. He said, “We gotta fire somebody.” I said, “Who’s that?” He said, “You. Because you can go out and you can make [more money].” But I stayed there, working six shows a week to live up to my contract. He and I became really good friends after that. What a time in my life.
And you still sing “Lucille” in every show you do.
Somebody asked me, “Do you ever get tired of doing your hits?” and I said, “No, I don’t want to be the guy who walks out of there without them either.” There is something comforting about knowing that you have something to offer — even if it’s one hit at the end of the show. I am very blessed with that and I love doing those hits. I try to do very little new music, because the audience has to work really hard when you do a new song. They have to think, “Do I like the song? Do I like the way he does it? Do I agree with what it says?” Whereas if you do a hit, it’s like, “OK, I can relax and enjoy this song.”
In 1978, you released Making It With Music: Kenny Rogers’ Guide to the Music Business. Do you still live by the advice given in that book?
That was a funny book. It was sound advice but it just wasn’t based on personal experience at that time. There was a group called the Kirby Stone Four — they were light jazz and they would take Broadway songs and make them little jazz songs. Kirby was kind of my mentor. He told me, “Kenny, it’s not all wet towels and naked women,” and I thought damn, that’s disappointing. But the idea was it’s a business, and if you treat it like a business you have the chance to be successful. If you don’t, you stand no chance. That’s basically what the book said.
Another book, Luck or Something Like It, revealed a lot of ups and downs, including fodder about your five marriages and even about relationships that made tabloid headlines. Have you always been an open book on personal matters?
I learned a long time ago that if you hide it, somebody’s going to find it. If you tell ’em, nobody cares. So that’s how I have always lived my life. If I do something and somebody asks me, then absolutely… that’s just the way I am. I find that it is easier to live with myself, and I don’t feel like I am going to do anything that I don’t want people to know about.
And you have had quick-witted responses over the years about any rumor that you and Dolly are more than just old friends.
And we never were! I’m telling you, we just flirted with each other and loved every minute of it. I couldn’t wait to get onstage with her, and I always felt she felt that way about me. I knew her husband, Carl, and she knew my wife at the time. We both respected that, but boy did we have fun. And honestly, had we gone farther we would have lost the chemistry. The fact that we didn’t allowed us to feel a little electricity without overusing it.
What’s one thing about Dolly that fans might not know?
She is one of the funniest people…. I hope she doesn’t mind that I say this, but Dolly has no filter. If it goes through her mind, it comes out her mouth. That’s what makes her so special. We were cutting this song, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” and it’s really our lives. We are in the middle of the song and she comes over and throws her arms around me and she says, “Kenny, I want you to know something: I could never sing at your funeral.” I went, “We are assuming I am going first…. is that what you’re saying?” We realized in the studio that day that it had been 30 years to the day since “Islands in the Stream” went Number One on the pop charts.
Dottie West was another frequent collaborator and close friend until her untimely death, 23 years ago.
I loved Dottie. One of my real goals in life is getting her in the Hall of Fame. She was an incredible girl who had some really bad luck, but a great singer. We did that song, “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” and it’s still one of my favorites.
I’ve started to put together a duets thing where I’ll have a screen that’s life-size, and it will roll out next to me on stage in a future tour. We’ll have a film of Dolly… I’ll sing my line, and she’ll sing hers on film. Then I’ll do it with Sheena Easton (on “We’ve Got Tonight”) and with Dottie West. I may do her on a screen over my head, because it will be a little more ethereal.
The exhibit also has a lot about your television and film career. But sadly, nothing about Seinfeld‘s Kenny Rogers Roasters episode!
[Laughs] And have you ever seen Reno 911? You have to go Google that! They were going to be my security force at a book signing at a mall. And they go around town and they take all the posters down, because less people show up if they do that and it will be less of a problem. I said, “You mean all those things we put up to get people to come? You know that reflects on me!” But it is hilarious stuff and at the end of the show I walked out of the book signing and there is a guy out there that goes, “Brady Hawkes!” That was my name in The Gambler movies. And he shoots me. So I’m lying on the floor saying, “Get me mall security!” There was no script, and it’s one of the funniest things I have ever seen!
A lot of your vintage cameras are on display, as well as portraits of celebrities ranging from Willie Nelson to Elizabeth Taylor — all taken for your photography book called Your Friends and Mine. Is there one photo from that collection that has a great story behind it?
Michael Jackson, that’s a great story. The sad thing about being really big celebrity like him is you lose the opportunity to communicate. I had met him before, he actually sang on a record I did with Lionel. I asked him to do it, and he was so quick to say yes. I said, “Michael, I will only keep you 15 minutes. I shoot two color and two black-and-white of everybody, and if we don’t get something you like then I just won’t put it in the book.” So he came down there and he brought Bubbles (his pet monkey) with him, and he was there eight hours. He wanted to talk. He didn’t have anybody he could do that with that didn’t need something from him.
Finish this sentence: Retirement is…
Close! [Laughs] I’ve got a bad knee and a bad shoulder. I tell everybody onstage, “I had my knee replaced, so if I look shaky up here… I don’t drink, so it’s my knee. If I should fall, don’t come get me because I have Life Alert.” I make fun of myself.
But I don’t know what I would do if I retired; that scares me. Wanda and I have talked about it. She says, “What are you going to do if you retire? Come home and sit on the couch and watch TV all day?” That’s all right maybe for a week. Getting there is not as fun as it used to be, but once I get there, there is no place I would rather be.