BRIAN BRENNAN: BRIEF ENCOUNTERS
Kenny Rogers was having a musical-identity crisis at age 39 when I spoke with him in 1977 before a club gig in Calgary. At that point his beard was already turning salt-and-pepper and the wrinkles were starting to show around his eyes. He was still wearing the Beatles suit of his rock years, not the cowboy clothes that later defined his look as a country-pop superstar.
He told me he had started his career as a rockabilly singer in his native Texas and then switched to middle-of-the road pop. That brought him a minor hit in 1958 with “That Crazy Feeling,” a number he described to me as “the song nobody remembers.” He had performed it with his high-school buddies on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand show, but they didn’t have a follow-up record so the band broke up. At age 19, Rogers was already a musical has-been.
With his pop career stalled, Rogers switched to playing jazz with a group called The Bobby Doyle Three. Rogers sang and played bass, an instrument he had never tried before. “I’ll teach you,” said group leader Doyle. “There’s more demand for bad bass players than bad guitarists.” The group did well in the clubs, but its records stiffed. After it disbanded in 1965, Rogers joined The New Christy Minstrels, a folk group that had reached the top of the American charts with “Green Green” in 1963 but was now moving more in the direction of novelty tunes and comedy.
Rogers stayed with the Minstrels for a year and, with no more hits in the offing, left the group in 1967 with three fellow Minstrels to form The First Edition, a pop-country combo that gave him his first taste of sustained success. With this band he racked up a string of hits including the psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” “Reuben James,” and the biggest hit of all, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” which reached #1 in 1969.
Rogers spent nine years with The First Edition, then left to go solo. (“No hard feelings; it just didn’t excite us anymore.”) While contemplating his next move, he made a TV ad for folk-guitar lessons. So where did he plan to take his career next? “I’m not sure,” he told me. “I guess I’m too old to be a rock singer. I don’t like to be typecast, but I guess you could say I’m getting back to my roots.” He had known bad times and had known good, and was prepared for both. “If you enjoy the highs and prepare for the lows, then you will survive.” It was a familiar refrain.
His roots were in country. Rogers had been raised on the music of Hank Williams and Little Jimmy Dickens. “Come here, I want you to listen to something,” he said to me, beckoning me to follow him backstage into the green room. Without any accompaniment, Rogers started to sing in his familiar hoarse, whiskey-and-cigarettes voice: “In a bar in Toledo, across from the depot, on a barstool she took off her ring …” “This is going to be my next single,” he said. “I think it’s going to be a big one.” He knew he didn’t have a good voice, but he had a commercial sound with a grating rasp that he called “an identifiable gimmick.” “I never promised them quality, I just promised them hit songs,” he said.
Rogers was absolutely right about this song he sang for me backstage. He had an ear for the hit tunes. The song was a she-done-me-wrong country waltz called “Lucille.” Released a few months after I talked to him, it reached #1 on the pop and country charts in a dozen countries and brought Rogers a slew of awards including best single record and best male vocalist in the 1978 Academy of Country Music Awards.
After that came “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County,” “Lady,” and a series of successful duet collaborations with the likes of Dottie West, Kim Carnes and Dolly Parton. Country-style music that made the pop charts as well. He never looked back. When last in the news, in 2012, the 74-year-old Rogers was following a familiar path for successful singers in the Internet age: suing a record company for unpaid royalties on digital downloads.
Copyright © Brian Brennan 2015
Brian Brennan, an Irish journalist living in Canada, is a founding feature writer with Facts and Opinions and a contributor to Arts dispatches and the Loose Leaf salon. His profile of Calgary Mayor Naheed Nenshi, the first original feature in the journal’s inaugural issue, won Runner-up, Best Feature Article, in the 2014 Professional Writers Association of Canada Awards. Brennan was educated at University College Dublin, Vancouver’s Langara College, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, and the National Critics Institute in Waterford, Connecticut.
Visit him at his website, www.brianbrennan.ca
Brian Brennan also plays jazz piano, for fun and profit.
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