Kenny Rogers' secrets and regrets
On a cold winter's day I was phoned up by The Gambler; we were both too tired to sleep. So we took turns a starin' out the window at the darkness, till boredom overtook us and he began to speak. Vicki Anderson rolls the dice.
Kenny Rogers - singer, musician, songwriter, author, record company executive, fried chicken baron, photographer, producer, actor, and The Gambler.
The 73-year-old Houston, Texas-born country superstar is a ground-breaking recording artist who has carved a musical career that has lasted more than five decades, notching up more awards than you could shake a rhinestone-covered belt at - 42 - including three Grammys and a Lifetime Achievement Award.
One of the top 10 bestselling male artists of all time, his worldwide hit songs are almost too numerous to mention, including Coward of the County, Islands In The Stream, She Believes in Me, We've Got Tonight, You Decorated My Life, Reuben James, Lady, Lucille and Daytime Friends.
Remarkably, Rogers has had a record in the charts in each of the last six decades. He has recorded 24 No 1 songs and 12 No 1 albums, including his Greatest Hits album, which has sold more than 24 million copies worldwide. His smash hit, The Gambler, generated five movies in which he starred as the title role.
An avid photographer and writer, he has published four books and three photographic collections featuring American presidents, landscapes and celebrities.
He performs in Christchurch and Auckland next week alongside his Kiwi mate, John Rowles.
Rowles stepped up to attempt to fill the giant gap in the bill after Glen Campbell's tour cancellation, part of a series of farewell shows, because of a decline in his Alzheimers condition and fears that the long international flight would be detrimental to his health.
At the New Zealand shows, Kiwi group The Bourbon County Brothers will perform a tribute to Campbell.
Rogers and Rowles have known each other since the 1970s. Rogers once suggested that Rowles record a fun little song called Lucille, which later became the No. 1 hit that launched Rogers' solo career. The same thing happened a year later when Rowles turned down the opportunity to record She Believes in Me that also became a No. 1 crossover hit for Rogers.
Rogers acknowledges that it is fitting that Rowles should be the one to step in to help almost a lifetime later as Rowles is completing his own farewell tour.
"I'm excited about it. When I was with The First Edition we spent a lot of time in New Zealand. I'm looking forward to coming back."
He will combine the tour with one of his favourite hobbies, photography. It is what he does to relax, he says, before confessing that he is not looking forward to the journey here.
"Getting there is not as much fun as it used to be but once I get there there's no place I'd rather be. That 20-hour plane ride doesn't fascinate me any more. When you're young those things are part of the trip, part of the journey. The older you get they are just long flights."
The photographs he takes on this trip might just make it into his fourth book.
"Really, it is more capturing the lifestyle and the countryside. I do a lot of different types of photography.
"Someone told me once I am a great photographer. I said 'I'm a good photographer who goes to great places, that makes a big difference'."
Rogers was born in 1938, the fourth of seven children to mum, Lucille, a nurse, and father Edward, a carpenter.
In the 1950s he recorded with doo-wop group The Scholars, finding some success with their single Poor Little Doggie. After the group disbanded, billed as Kenneth Rogers he had a solo hit with That Crazy Feeling in 1958 before joining jazz group The Bobby Doyle Trio and gigging in clubs until the group split in 1965.
The next year he joined The New Christy Minstrels, singing and playing double bass.
A long-haired Rogers, sporting an earring at that point, and three members of the group left to form The First Edition, notching up hits on the pop and country charts including Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, Reuben James and Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).
Rogers is in the mood to reminisce. He is poised to release his autobiography Luck Or Something Like It in October. He credits his long career to luck and a knack of being in the right place at the right time.
"It's really an amazing thing when you think about my career and how it has developed.
"I've been in the right place so many times in order to keep going. I started out in jazz when I was 19 playing upright bass.
"I met a photographer on the road and he became my mentor and he got me a job with The New Christy Minstrels singing folk music. And then all the guys in The First Edition stepped out of the Minstrels. Then I went to Nashville and ran into Larry Butler and he produced Lucille. It's like I've been in the right place so many times and I think I am incredibly lucky."
He credits his career longevity to good advice he received early on in his career.
"I met this guy - Herbie Stone, you won't have heard of him but he was my mentor," Rogers explains.
"He told me very early on that this is a business and to treat it like a business. That's why it's called show business. 'If you don't do that you won't last very long', he said. That stuck with me more than anything and my ability to accept the fact that it's not a game, it's a business, and I treat it as such."
The only song he regrets turning down was Wind Beneath My Wings, a version recorded by Bette Midler became a worldwide hit in 1990 after appearing on the soundtrack to the film, Beaches.
"I heard it and something about it didn't sit right with me," he says, his spoken voice bearing the same cowboy- esque cadence as his singing one.
"I turned it down. Then I heard it when Bette did it and I went 'wow, can't believe I turned that down'."
His latest album, The Love Of God, is a gospel-infused album featuring 12 songs from the vocalist who first sang Amazing Grace in the church choir. Rogers has referred to this album as "one of the best things I've ever done".
"I've never been overtly religious but I've always been deeply spiritual so that album gave me a chance to sing songs that I really loved."
He has been married five times and has five children.
Many websites exist, one devoted solely to Rogers' plastic surgery problems, showing the singer's before and after-surgery photos and including discussions on whether he can still comfortably close his eyes.
He is reportedly unhappy with the latest surgery, done to remove some wrinkles around his eyes. I don't mention it.
At the age of 65 he became the proud father of identical twin boys and cites it as the biggest thing that has ever happened in his life.
"They just turned 8. They say that having kids at my age either makes you or breaks you.
"Right now, I'm leaning very heavily towards break. What I would give for some of their energy.
"What's great and what's amazing is, I know I'm going to miss this age when they become teenagers so I have to grab every moment.
"We buy two of everything, they break one and fight over the other one."
He has no regrets. He has never worked a day in his life and has no plans to slow down now. Rogers will record another album this year.
"It's what I really wanted to do with my life. My mom told me 'find a job you love and you'll never work a day in your life'. I tell young kids coming up 'if this is not your love and your calling, don't do it because you won't last. You'll get tired and exhausted'.
"If it's what you want to do then money shouldn't be the issue."
And somewhere in the darkness The Gambler, he broke even.
But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep.
Kenny Rogers and John Rowles at the CBS Canterbury Arena on Friday, August 10 and at Vector Arena in Auckland on August 12. Tickets are still available for both shows.
- The Press