I did a lot of music stories when I was living in and around Houston in the 1980s. Some of the musicians I met, covered and befriended knew Kenny Rogers, a Houston native, when he was getting started in the early 1960s.
He wasn’t an exceptional performer, writer or player, they agreed — he was a huge international star at that point in his career while they were still playing bars and fairs around the area — but he was the smartest and most ambitious.
Memories of those discussions returned to me Saturday when I learned that Rogers had died of natural causes in his home. He was 81 and had been in declining health, forcing him to retire in 2017.
My friend Bert Wills, a brilliant singer, harp player and performer who derailed his own career time and again with his personal demons, both admired and envied Rogers. He made a decent living in local bars and festivals but never approached the meteoric success of his fellow Texan.
After Rogers left Houston, he rose to fame singing folk-rock songs with the group The First Edition, and they even had their own TV show.
“I never had a doubt in my mind,” Rogers said. “I knew that, with the right material, I could pop a hit.”
Indeed he did. He sang “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and other songs that kept the group on the charts.
He showed early on a willingness to cross genres, touching on country, pop and even psychedelia. “Just Dropped In” was used 30 years later by the Coen brothers for a trippy scene in “The Big Lebowski.”
Rogers said in his 2012 memoir “Luck or Something Like It” that he never felt constrained to one kind of sound.
“One of the strengths of my eclectic musical history, perhaps dating all the way back to that day as a child when I heard gospel music pouring out of the little church in Houston, is that I never felt hamstrung by one form, even if I had been successful with it. During the First Edition days, for instance, I was perfectly comfortable going from a drug-culture song, ‘Just Dropped In,’ to a country-tinged story song like ‘Ruby.’ Having been exposed to and well versed in all kinds of music before Nashville, I saw no reason to limit the range of songs I could do after getting there.”
The First Edition became old news by 1970, so he focused on record production. Rogers helped some young Texans get started, letting the band Shiloh live in his Southern California home and getting them a record deal.
That helped launch the career of the group’s drummer and singer, Don Henley. Henley is famous for his voice, songwriting and astute financial sense, and he is dismissive of many he met along the way, including music and move executive David Geffen.
But he still admires Rogers, he said in a 2017 interview.
“I have much more respect for Kenny Rogers, for getting me my first record deal, and getting me from a little town in Texas to Los Angeles, and putting me up at his house: he is a totally straight-ahead, honest good guy, and I owe him a great debt of gratitude,” Henley said.
In the mid-1970s, Kenny Rogers reinvented himself as a country balladeer and unlikely sex symbol and became a superstar. He was at the top of the music scene for more than a decade, and also made movies both for TV and the big screen.
The millions poured in. He married five times, gain and lost weight and his hair and signature beard grew white. He had facelifts that altered his appearance and drew wry jokes.
Still, Rogers kept moving forward.
His role as The Gambler in song on stage and film redefined him. Rogers acted many songs, telling them in story form.
His voice was never outstanding, as those Texas musicians used to tell me, but he used it very effectively.
From his first solo hit, “Lucille,” to the genre-crossing “Islands in the Stream” to hits with duo partners Dottie West and Dolly Parton, Kenny Rogers rode a long crest at the top.
In his final act, he became a touring performer, still packing in crowds. He did a show at the Corn Palace I was an editor at The Daily Republic, and I tried for an interview. But Rogers declined, I was told, since he wanted to spend time in The Badlands shooting photos.
In addition to all his other skills, he became a skilled shooter, publishing a pair of books of his celebrity portraits and pictures taken from stages around the world.
He also co-founded and lent his name to a chicken franchise, Kenny Rogers Roasters, which was lampooned on a “Seinfeld” episode. Kenny Rogers didn’t sit around and wait for success — he worked for it and made it happen.
His singing, acting and pleasant personality had allowed him to carve out a truly impressive career.
As those guys who knew him way back when told me, he was the smartest one of the bunch
You played a helluva hand, Gambler, and cashed out a winner.
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