Houstonian Kenny Rogers Celebrates An Illustrious Career With His Farewell World Tour
Houstonian Kenny Rogers Celebrates An Illustrious Career With His Farewell World Tour The Gambler’s Last Deal
By Judy Latta Photos By Piper Ferguson
After a legendary career spanning more than 50 years, citing a desire to spend more time with his wife and children, country and pop music icon Kenny Rogers launched his farewell tour, aptly called The Gambler’s Last Deal.
For this series of concerts, which will take him around the globe including a stop in Houston, Rogers will perform many of his well-known hits as well as some of his lesser-known songs and will be joined onstage by a special guest, country musician Linda Davis. At each show he will reflect on his tremendous career, sharing vintage photos, never-before-seen video footage and personal stories about his life and the origins of his songs.
This tour caps off a career that has encompassed and meshed country, rock, pop, folk and even jazz music; and has yielded a multitude of smash hits, including, Lucille, Coward of the County, She Believes in Me, Islands in the Stream, We’ve Got Tonight and Lady. Over the years he collaborated with some of the top country and pop musicians of the past several decades, such as Dolly Parton, Dottie West, Sheena Easton, Ronnie Milsap and Lionel Richie.
All in all, Rogers is credited with 24 No. 1 hits and has sold more than 120 million albums worldwide, making him, according to the Recording Industry Association of America, one of the top male solo artists of all time. Over the years he has received many honors, including three Grammy Awards, 19 American Music Awards, the Country Music Awards’ Lifetime Achievement Award and many others. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
COMING OF AGE IN HOUSTON
But before the accolades and the platinum albums, Kenneth Donald Rogers was just a self-proclaimed hyperactive, girl-crazy youth growing up in the heart of H-town. Born the fourth child to Edward and Lucille Rogers in 1938 at the St. Joseph’s Infirmary in Houston, now St. Joseph Medical Center, he grew up with his seven brothers and sisters in the San Felipe Courts federal housing project in Houston’s Fourth Ward, now Allen Parkway Village. In his autobiography, Luck or Something Like It–A Memoir, Rogers wrote, “We were poor people, but living in the projects, we really didn’t know it because we were all in the same boat.” That was, of course, until the more affluent kids at Wharton Elementary School took note, he says, “and were quick to make fun.”
Kenneth Ray, as he was called by his family — particularly his mother when he was in trouble — was always musically inclined. When he was in elementary school, he entered the Foremost Dairy talent show, singing the show tune Lovesick Blues. He won first place, earning the grand prize of a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and the chance to meet Eddy Arnold, a well-known country star at the time. After this taste of success, literally and figuratively, he was hooked on performing.
By 1954 the Rogers clan had saved enough money to move out of San Felipe Courts to the Northside of Houston where Rogers enrolled at Jefferson Davis High School, now called Northside High of HISD. At Jefferson Davis, he sang with the glee club and in school performances. He bought himself a guitar from the H&H Music store with money he earned working as a busboy at the Rice Hotel and formed his first band, a doo-wop group called the Scholars. After a few local hits, the band broke up and he launched a solo career with the hit single That Crazy Feeling in 1957. The following year he graduated from high school, the first in his family to ever earn a diploma, married the first of his five wives, Janet Way, and had the first of his six children, Carole.
Following high school, he enrolled for a brief time at the University of Houston and began performing as a bass player with the jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Trio, even though he knew very little about jazz and had no experience playing the bass. Despite these shortcomings, this band had little trouble booking gigs at high profile local venues, such as the Houston Petroleum Club and a trendy hotspot called Showbiz. These gigs gave him opportunities to rub elbows with prominent Houstonians such as the mayor and famous entertainers such as Tony Bennett, Liza Minnelli and Lorne Greene.
In 1966, Rogers was invited to join the New Christy Minstrels folk group, and a year later he and a few other members of the group left and formed a folk-pop band, The First Edition. This new band pushed the limits of pop music at the time, merging folk, country, rock and even psychedelic rock. Before long, The First Edition was churning out hits and Rogers began to take a more prominent role with the band, which was eventually renamed Kenny Rogers and the New Edition.
EXPLODING ONTO THE NATIONAL SCENE
In 1977, after venturing out on his own once again, and finally making the decision to focus on his “first love,” country music, Rogers hit the big time with his Grammy Award-winning solo hit, Lucille, named Song of the Year and Single of the Year by the Academy of Country Music and Single of the Year by the Country Music Association. This smash hit catapulted Kenny Rogers onto the national music scene, and earned him headliner shows with enormous crowds. The world loved Lucille – everyone but his mom, Lucille, who was peeved. In his autobiography Rogers recounts that when his mother first heard the song, she called to chastise him for writing a song about a woman by that name who left her husband “with four hungry children and a crop in the field.” She exclaimed, “The very idea! What are people going to think when they hear you singing about your mother leaving her family to run off to some bar?” Rogers said that despite his assurances that the naming was “pure coincidence” and the song was not about her, she was not amused.
Rogers followed up that success with mega-hit The Gambler, described in his biography on kennyrogers.com as “a story song so vivid it not only delighted country and pop fans, it also became a TV movie, starring Rogers himself in the title role as Brady Hawkes.” The movie then became a television series, leading Rogers to his second career, acting. In addition to numerous television show appearances, he has acted on the big screen, off-Broadway and in commercials.
A MAN OF MANY TALENTS
In the 1980s and 1990s Rogers began exploring his talents outside of entertainment. During that time, he showed the world his artistic flair for photography after turning a lifetime hobby into yet another career. Subsequent to studying with some of the most influential photographers of the time, he published several photo books and photographed five American presidents, numerous celebrities and a diverse assortment of beautiful landscapes. In 2014, Rogers received an Honorary Masters of Photography from the Professional Photographers of America. The cover of his 2015 album, Once Again It’s Christmas, was adorned with a simple yet stunning photo he had taken in Yakima, Washington, entitled Red Tree.
Rogers has also written several short stories as well as his autobiography, which made the New York Times bestseller list. Additionally, he has dabbled as a businessman and entrepreneur, launching his own record label and production companies, as well as a chain of franchise restaurants.
In the midst of all his success Rogers has never forgotten his modest roots and has made sure to devote a portion of his time and fortune to philanthropy. In 1985, he sang with a host of other celebrities in the We Are the World music video, which raised millions of dollars for famine relief in Africa. The following year, he co-chaired the massive Hands Across America fundraiser to raise money and awareness to combat hunger, homelessness and poverty in the United States. He also has affiliations with organizations that serve the homeless and special needs kids.
THE RETURN TO HOUSTON
Kenny Rogers’ The Gambler’s Last Deal tour, with special guest Linda Davis, will pass through Houston with a concert at the Stafford Centre in Stafford on Friday, Oct. 28 at 8 p.m. For more information, visit kennyrogers.com