October 14, 2016

Interview: Kenny Rogers Reflects on Career, Crossover Success

Kenny Rogers

At the dawn of the ‘80s, as outlaws and urban cowboys staked their turf on either side of the country and pop fence, Kenny Rogers bridged the divide.

A mere four years since he first attained mainstream solo stardom with “Lucille”—and after a string of subsequent smashes like “The Gambler” and “She Believes in Me” continued his good fortune—the former First Edition singer achieved the highest pinnacle of his career, topping not only the country charts but, for the first time, the pop charts as well with “Lady.”

While he’d flirted with the pop charts before, with “Lady”—composed and produced by another proven hitmaker of the era, Lionel Richie—Rogers assumed the sort of stature otherwise reserved for music’s unmitigated superstars. Indeed, the rhapsodic ballad broadened his audience to an unprecedented degree, while at the same time heralding even more crossover collaborations to come, not only with Richie but also with likes of Barry Gibb (“Islands in the Stream”), James Ingram (“What About Me?”), and Richard Marx (“Crazy”), among others.

photo: Piper Ferguson
Now on the road for the final time, on a tour billed as The Gambler’s Last Deal, the 78-year-old music legend recently reflected on how his mainstream appeal—particularly how such crossover success hasn’t compromised his homegrown country music credentials—bears its roots in his earliest, most foundational experiences. In doing so, he reminisced on how his adolescent musical passion ultimately inspired one of the most celebrated careers in all of popular music.

“When I was in high school I played guitar,” Rogers explained during a conference call with select music journalists, “and I met this guy [Bobby Doyle] doing commercials in Houston who was blind and he was about my age and he said he wanted me to come play bass with his jazz group. I said, ‘Well, Bobby, I don’t play bass and I don’t play jazz … I’m a country singer and a country player.’ He said, ‘I’ll teach you how to play bass and trust me, there’s more demand for bad bass players than there are bad guitar players.’ I thought about every group I’d seen. They’d all had a bass player; they didn’t all have guitar players.”

Rogers was convinced, and the tutelage he received as a bassist began to serve him well in short order, manifesting in both practical and often surrealistically impractical moments. “We used to work across the street from the Shamrock Hotel in Houston,” Rogers recalled, “and people would come in—big names would come in to work there—and we had an after-hours job. They would come over after hours just to have a place to go. Tony Bennett used to come in and sing with us all the time. Every time he was in town he’d come across the street and sing with us and it was really something special.”

Beyond reaping the benefits that often come with knowing how to play a musical instrument, Rogers said the experience of performing live with Bennett and various other artists of the day in turn facilitated the eclectic—and successful—career that lay ahead. “When people came in you had to learn to play their type of music,” he said, “and we would do that. We had all kinds of people come in, and each one of them was kind of different. Al Hirt used to come in and play with us. So that was another direction we had to go. It was just a wonderful life.”