Kenny Rogers on Working With Dolly, Dottie and Mall Cops
“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.
“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!
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