Once upon a time, almost a lifetime ago, in early February 1977, a very young adult me, barely past adolescence, encountered Kenny Rogers in a lounge in the Golden Nugget. That casino was located way down on the seedy section of the Strip in Las Vegas; it’s long since been torn down. Back then, though, The Nugget offered good winnings for beginners at gambling, and I, admittedly, was a novice at those formalized games of chance.
I was the only person seated in the audience, in a rather uncomfortable chair in the front row. I’d grown weary of playing blackjack, and, taking a break from gambling, I wandered into this shabby, dimly lit room. Mr. Rogers was setting up his band which, at that time, consisted of drums, guitar, keyboard. No background singers yet. Kenny was not too far removed from his First Edition days; and I’d not been much of a fan of those overly-commercial faux-hippie vibes.
Mr. Rogers welcomed me, and asked if I’d like to hear a song he’d recorded, one that had just been released, almost that very week. I was agreeable, and listened to a very toned-down version of “Lucille.”
He sang from the heart, with the hand and facial gestures that would become a signature mark of his performing style. I said nothing after he’d finished, and I didn’t applaud. He sat down beside me and asked what I thought of the song.
Kenny was wearing those tinted glasses, and I don’t like speaking with someone whose eyes are concealed behind tinted glass. I cannot say that I made any eye contact with the down-and-out guy, but I did notice his eyes nervously dart back-and-forth behind those tinted glasses.
“It’ll be a big hit,” I opined.
He wanted to know why. I felt a bit bold and stated, “It’s the life story of my older brother.”
He quietly thanked me, and then I left the poorly lit room. Mr. Rogers might have been trying to pick me up, but I don’t think so. I’ve never gone for the billy-goat look, and Kenny was obviously perfecting that image in which my eyes showed zero interest. He was very genuinely interested in knowing if he was wasting his time on a composition that would take him in yet another musical direction; this one might be a detour without dollars.
I’d like to think that I affirmed for him this new avenue of aesthetic aspirations, as well as his canny sense of when to cash in on the ka-ching ditty about to become a capitalist gusher. Me, I was learning when to hold ‘em, when fold ‘em, when to walk away; I already knew when to run!
For almost thirty years, Kenny Rogers ruled the airwaves of a radio-universe that eventually turned into an abominable black hole, an abyss of acoustic awfulness.
Kenny Rogers eventually became extremely well-known for picking the most profitable tune-trend in the recording business, an apparatus that, historically-speaking, ate up talent whilst barbecue-ing the award-winning artist. I don’t know of any lyrics or melodic lines that Rogers wrote. His forte was finding the up-and-coming auditory fad and beating everyone else to the podium with it — unless, of course, he was duetting the future smash-hit with a gorgeous gal of country class and sass; or a pop princess, or a soul queen.
Whenever Kenny got demographed, it made sense, and it thus made money, more for the tunesmiths than for him; but he relished the limelight, the adulation, the ability to make music, and, uh, yes, romance, wherever he went. He came just short of being a ham and was, from my observations, gladly willing to share the stage with other talented singers. Had he been born a decade later, those ripe opportunities wouldn’t have come his way.
He was lucky, in that way, and he rode that fortuitous train for all it was worth. He became a savvy survivor, marketing his masculinity amongst the many sleazy, much younger, androgynous sell-outs; but he wasn’t a sell-out, merely a commodity that had proven itself and sold phenomenally during its hey-day. What amazed me, way back when, all the way to today, is his stellar ability, and willingness, to mold the utterances of his vocal cords to impeccably fit the song, regardless of the genre.
His was a tactile voice that was unique in itself, and unique during those disco-Carter malaise years of a misery index that got turned upside down by Ronald Reagan. By that era, Mr. Rogers was in the upswing of a long, somewhat lucrative trajectory. I daresay he, like other vinyl super-stars, sold records for the record company and pocketed only a small percentage of the profits. Even the redoubtable Eddie Rabbitt, who penned most of his songs, worked monetarily for the corporation, but performed artistically and emotionally for himself and for his fans, and died young.
The salad days for The Gambler were showing signs of wilting by the time his Bee-Gees phase arrived, toward the end of the Barry-Gibb line to synthesize an overly packaged sound to sell big-time in the USA.
Rogers could warble, whine, whisper, belt out, semi-serenade, and massage many a lyric. What he could not do was compose; and, as the music industry turned into demographed dreck after the year 2000, he slid down the cash-producing popularity pole from truly awesome and tremendous heights.
I ponder just how many decades any successfully commercial voice must try to put out a professional product. Two, three, four, five decades???
Kenny, however, had legions of people on his payroll, including ex-wives who had probably made him pay through that elegant nose for his peccadilloes and intrigues. For all I know, “Lucille” might have been the story of his life too.
By the synthetic 2000s, Rogers found himself out of favor. In 1999, he’d formed his own label, Dreamcatcher, but didn’t catch many dreams. He attempted to construct his own albums, filled with songs that went nowhere. He was enough of a proven commodity that he returned to record again with Capitol Records, fashioning full-force adult contemporary numbers. The problem for Rogers was that “adult contemporary” had become geriatric, mostly because “popular music” was being pitched to teens and pre-teens.
These weirdly younger recording “artists” sold “songs” manufactured for digital ears. They sorta, kinda, mighta composed their own sounds, but the art of singing, and the art of music, had slithered into an auditory oblivion that Rogers must have found surreal. This maestro of chameleon-hitmaking couldn’t find a medium into which he could mold his tenor/baritone instrument.
His 2006 album, After Dark, was very much in the dark, a far cry from his Eyes that See in the Dark of 1983.
Some of those young punks didn’t even legitimately sing. They lip-synced or let auto-tune do the vocalise for them. It was an horrific downhill slide for a guy who had re-worked, re-invented, and re-packaged himself for decades, only to find himself in the unenviable career position of so many other, more bona fide, classic country singers who had gone pop and were suddenly gone-gone-gone.
From his beginnings as a semi-permanent fill-in for the “New” Christy Minstrels (who fled the word “old” in their marquee name), Mr. Rogers had maintained a voice to suit just about any style of music, but the notes had always produced music, of some hybrid mode. His happy hybridization of the human instrument unknowingly led him down a path to nowhere-ville in a musical recording world that had shown sure signs of selling out its troubadours. Somehow, Mr. Rogers had risen above those bubbles about to burst until the country-pop bubble went bust by the 21st century.
Now there aren’t any bubbles at all, floating in the ether-sphere of digital melodies. The sound of music has been transformed into vintage commodities that outsell the current crops of MP3 crapola. Allmusic online is all-indie all the time, none of which I’ve ever heard, or want to. Toward the end of his life, Rogers was forced to ride that indie-caboose for a while, but his fantastic output of music currently rocks as it never did before!
The future bubbles of euphonic notes to float your melodic boat must find a welcoming sphere, an atmosphere, for those rhythms and harmonies of the human heart. A world without music is a world without beauty, and, most assuredly, without love. What the world needs now is love, sweet love, but also a middle-aged nightingale with graying hair and a manly voice that’s willing to wrap itself around each tone, hoping to make the listener sense the meanings within that timbre as it evokes future tales — from the tales of his times.
The genius of Kenny Rogers wasn’t so much in his nearly predictable approach to tailor his vocal folds to any sheet of music that came his way. It was his desire as a professional singer to tell a story through wondrous resonance, that resonated with the human spirit, heart, and soul. He worked to drain every drop of emotion from those penned verses. Sometime during that momentous year of 1977, Lucille became a big hit, and I smiled, knowing that Mr. Rogers was headed for a future he probably wasn’t ready for.
I too was headed for a future I probably wasn’t ready for. That’s the way life must come at you if it’s to be genuinely lived, appreciated, enjoyed. That’s the way you build those memories, souvenirs that, one day, can craft a tune and create the lyrics to forever fit the melody.
Today, I’m yearning for a future to supersede those tales from my times. I’m willing to try my luck at entirely new games of chance, whatever and wherever they may be. What happens in Vegas no longer stays in Vegas; maybe it never did. Vegas is a bore. Sales gimmicks and entertainment schticks in the U.S. are not what they used to be. Quite honestly, I must say they no longer exist in America.
I’m in search of . . . the undiscovered, truly unprecedented, inconceivable, unknown, unlikely, and unsung occasions to turn into yet-to-arrive tales of my time.