Kenny Rogers just turned 80. For more than 50 years, he was a consistent hit maker and a popular concert draw, from the large arenas to the small clubs. He retired from performing recently, saying his mobility isn’t what it once was. At his farewell concert in Nashville last year he was accompanied by Dolly Parton. You’ll recall they made beautiful music together, like “Islands in the Stream.”
Recently I heard one of his songs on the radio, and then I read a wonderful story about him in a new book. “The Time of My Life” is by Bill Medley, the deep-voiced half of the Righteous Brothers (with tenor Bobby Hatfield). Back in 1964, they recorded the most-played song in the history of radio. “You’ve Lost That Lovin’ Feeling” sounds like no other song. Deejays wouldn’t play it when it came out, because when Bill sang those opening words, “You never close your eyes any more, when I kiss your lips…” they thought it was recorded on the wrong speed!
Eventually they figured it out, listeners loved it, and it sold millions. The Righteous Brothers became one of the hottest acts in the nation. They befriended this newcomer named Kenny Rogers, and helped him in the early days of his career.
A few years later, it was Kenny having all the hits, while the Righteous duo faded from the charts. In Bill’s book, he writes about falling on lean financial times, after making some poor investments. By this time, Kenny was pumping out gold records like “Lucille,” “Coward of the County,” and “The Gambler.” Bill asked Kenny for a $20,000 loan. “I promise to pay you back as soon as I can,” he said. Kenny pulled out his checkbook, and wrote him a check for $20,000. “This is not a loan, it’s a gift,” he said. Bill protested, but Kenny said in a non-boastful way, “Do you know how much money I’m making? You would do the same thing for me.” A few weeks later, Bill tried to pay him back. Kenny handed back the envelope. “What’s this?” he asked. Bill said, “I’m paying you back, you loaned me 20 grand.” Kenny repeated, “No I didn’t. I refuse to take this.” What a guy.
That reminded me of another first-hand report of Kenny’s kindness. In the 1960’s WFLI “Jet-Fli Spectacular” days of all-star concerts at Memorial Auditorium in Chattanooga, radio station manager Johnny Eagle recalled how difficult it was to get someone to open the show. They all wanted to be the headline act, and close the show. Johnny said, “Kenny Rogers made it easy for me. He was among the nicest stars. He even carried his own equipment. I’d go up to Kenny, kind of embarrassed, and ask him if he would be nice enough to open the show, and he’d say absolutely, whatever you need. He had more hits than anybody, but he didn’t act like it. It was no surprise to me that he went on to be more successful than any of them.”
Many years later, Kenny performed at Chattanooga’s UTC Arena, and the record promoter arranged for my wife Cindy and I to meet Kenny backstage. Cindy, by then a seasoned radio news reporter, started rehearsing the questions she would ask him. “What will your next record be?” “Tell us about your new baby boy.” “What do all those Grammy nominations mean to you?” She was prepared, as always.
After the show, we were escorted backstage, and there stood Kenny Rogers. Tall, trim, tanned and handsome in his white suit. We exchanged pleasantries, and he thanked me for playing his records on the radio. I nodded to Cindy, as if to say, “Your turn.” She was so taken aback by his good looks, she could not speak. A few words came out, but they were nonsensical, not in the right order. She was starstruck. Kenny smiled and said, “Well, it sure was nice to meet you.” Cindy turned three shades of red, and said, “Kerfuffle perdunkin,” or something like that. I’d never seen her speechless, before or since. (“I didn’t expect him to be so handsome,” she would say later.)
Kenny Rogers then walked away, sporting a big smile. It probably wasn’t the first time he’d made a pretty girl blush.
Happy 80th Kenny. Thank you for the music, and your kindness.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best stories. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org