When his songs finally began to chart some forty years ago, there was one thing Kenny Rogers wanted to do first with his newly-earned riches. It was to make his boyhood dream come true, and buy a sprawling golf green, and line it with automated sprinklers.
The icing on the cake? To motor around the estate on his golf cart, gleefully bobbing and weaving between the spatter.
“I would literally drive that cart out, right into those sprinklers, and it was great fun,” mused the superstar singer. “If I had to pick one word, I’d say it was – let me think about it – satisfaction.”
Then the question became: how does one keep this up?
With the wisdom to know that the music industry notoriously takes its dips and dives, and careers can come as fast as they can go, Kenny Rogers decided he needed a fall-back plan or two.
The Gambler, therefore, placed his bets on a variety of business deals – and continues to this day.
Ventures have included some twenty high-end real estate developments and sales, a race-car brand, two food chain deals – and a high-tech Atlanta based theme park, Kennyland, in the planning stages.
Throughout the decades, experience and hard-knocks has taught him a few tough lessons about business – lessons he’s only too eager to share.
“I think what it really boils down to for newcomers - the best advice I can give you - is pay your taxes on time, put 20 per cent away, and then have some fun. Get involved in business in something you care about.”
Anyone who grew up in the 1970s or 1980s, chances are they could recite the entire chorus to The Gambler. It’s stuck an indelible mark in our collective psyches as much as Rogers has made an indelible mark on the music industry.
Few recall that he had a thriving career two decades before he played his hand with The Gambler.
Beginning in the 1950s with a doo-wop group, he slid effortlessly into psychedelic rock, and moved seamlessly into the world’s best-known country-pop crossover artist, with some sixty Top 40 singles as a solo act.
“I think that I’ve been really fortunate to have been around that long,” said the 78-year- old crooner. Some of that had to do with catchy tunes, but there were other factors along the way, including his first lesson in branding: have a catchy name.
Up until 1960, Kenneth Rogers – as he was called then – excitedly took up the opportunity of his first television appearance, on the Larry Kane show, otherwise known as “Houston’s American Bandstand”.
There was just one hitch.
“Larry said that I couldn’t call myself Kenneth on a record, because it wasn’t catchy enough. But I told him that was my name!” Rogers recalled.
“But then he introduced me as Kenny, and all the girls started screaming, and I thought I could live with that. So that’s how I got the name Kenny Rogers. Absolutely, for the girls – why you go into this business in the first place.
”Thousands of screaming girls later, in 1967 – the year the Beatles released their Magical Mystery Tour – Rogers’ next band, First Edition, began recording. Critics would laud how the group managed to successfully integrate a rock sound, with R&B, country and folk.
The band was also the first of many times to come Rogers would find a business hook, along side a musical hook. He shrewdly locked in a corporate deal with Alcoa (an aluminum producer), for First Edition’s first album’s liner insert, where they promoted a sweepstakes ad.
Meanwhile, they chalked up a string of hits on the pop and country charts, including Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In), Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, Reuben James, and Something's Burning.
Something was burning – yes, his career was on fire, particularly when he launched his solo act in 1976, with Love Lifted Me, after the band’s break-up.
Since that time he raked up no less than two dozen number one hits, including Islands in the Stream, The Gambler, Lady, Coward of the County and Lucille. His collaborative partnerships have included Dolly Parton, Don Henley (The Eagles), David Foster, Lionel Richie, the Bee Gees (and interestingly, he happened to have been close chums with Elvis Presley.)
Though Rogers is most associated both with The Gambler, and country music, these and other music paths (purposefully) helped him keep his style fresh, perhaps responsible for propelling him as the eighth highest grossing recording artist in the past sixty years.
“I wanted to accomplish more. So, I really studied the music business, and I realized there’s only two ways to compete: You can do what everybody else is doing and do it better - I didn’t like my chances - or you could do something nobody else was doing and you don’t invite comparison,”recalled the three time Grammy winner.
“So, I did something different, and I was lucky it was successful.”
Sure fire advice for the startup or entrepreneur: stand out uniquely among the pack.
It served him well: Even the mightiest of fans stumble over the names of all 64 albums –one for nearly every year he’s lived - and according to several sources, sales in excess of 120 million records.
“It’s hard for me to imagine, that’s a lot of records. So to hear that really kind of wakes me up a little bit,” said a gob-smacked Rogers.
With popularity, came merchandising opportunities. His “brand” carried enough weight for Tennessee-based Sprint car racing manufacturer to license Rogers’ name (and famous song) to a race car. During the eighties and nineties, Gambler Chassis Co. became one of the fastest, widel yused, and frequently winning cars in that industry.
Diversifying his portfolio, Rogers in 1981 purchased recording studios, including Lion Share,which Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones used to accommodate the groundbreaking 1985 star-studded famine-relief song We Are The World.
In 1991, he entered the fast food arena, opening franchise Kenny Rogers Roasters – a distinct twist on existing restaurant chicken fare.
“When you think back on it, it was one of the first fast-food health conscious places – you know,the grease stripped off the chicken – and so, it was really healthy. And the food combinations were wonderful. And I thought it had a good image to it. So, I didn’t mind being a part of that,”he noted, adding that he still maintains shares of the company.
In recent years, the Berjaya Group of Malaysia has taken the reins. Today, the chain boasts nearly 150 franchises throughout Malaysia, Philippines, China, Indonesia, Singapore, India, Bangladesh,Brunei, Cambodia, and Dubai.
(In 2008, he’d partner with another US food chain, Cracker Barrel, where his album 50 Years was exclusively available.)
Many might also know the Roasters restaurant name from being famously featured in the “The Chicken Roaster” episode of the hit sitcom Seinfeld.
“Oh, I thought it was hilarious,” he recalled of the show.
But it wasn’t the only time the two had appeared together. After Seinfeld ran its course, its television star had opened for the country star’s concerts. In true comedic fashion, Seinfeld had lost his way to the venue of opening night, missed the show entirely, and drove aimlessly looking for the next stop.
“Then he said he wanted to ride on my tour bus,” explained Rogers.
“I said ‘no – that’s not how this works.’ We played with him a little bit. We had to give him a little lesson in road seniority. But as usual, he was and is always, a great sport.
”There’s certainly no shortage of anecdotes to fill a tome with his six-decade long adventure, but the best ones, for him, are the ones that touch people’s souls.
“You know, you meet people all the time that tell you stories, like the couple who had been married 25 years, and the first song played when they met was Lady. And that coupled danced to Lady at their wedding,” he recalled fondly.
“Those are great stories.
”Assuredly, there’ll be time enough to count them all, when the dealing’s done."
Dave Gordon has penned more than a thousand articles, and more than five hundred editorials, on every topic imaginable. He writes regularly on domestic and international politics, current events, culture, relationship issues, and much more.
He has spent time in the newsrooms of the Toronto Sun, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, Baltimore Sun, National Post and eye Weekly.