In 1980, before he performed in front of 17,000 at sold-out Met Center in Bloomington, Rogers was backstage doing a press conference and then a series of one-on-one interviews to promote “Kenny Rogers as the Gambler,” a TV movie based on his smash song, with him as the star.
Rogers, who died Friday at age 81, was the biggest music star in America at that moment, but maybe the most normal, most down-to-earth, most realistic superstar I’ve ever met.
Asked to tape a 30-second spot for WCCO TV for the movie, he ad libbed a perfect 21-second spiel that an editor could fill out with video footage. A pro’s pro.
When he spoke to me, he told it like it is. He volunteered that he didn’t have the best voice or vocal range. “I’m not Barbra Streisand. You’d be disappointed to hear her sing out of tune,” said the voice behind a staggering $100 million worth of records sold in ‘77-’80. “But, then, I’m not Dr. Hook either. I never promised ‘em quality – just a good time.”
He’s not Al Pacino, either. “I’m not embarrassed by my performance,” he offered of “Kenny Rogers as the Gambler.” “I think it’s a good start.”
The movie was a calculated gamble. Because Rogers, as much a businessman as an entertainer, knows when to hold ‘em and when to fold ‘em.
“It’s easy to lay a foundation when you’re at a peak,” he told me, adding that a bad game plan is better than no plan at all. “When you have success in one area, you [have] validity in other fields. People will give me the benefit of the doubt; they know I’m not an actor. It won’t affect my record sales. It’s a low-risk, low-yield proposition.”
At the time, Rogers was preparing a concept album about a Texas cowboy, “Gideon,” that he hoped to take to Broadway. He’d take the lead and then turn the part over to someone else. He wanted to keep movin,’ to walk away when the deal is done. Broadway never happened.
“Once you become predictable, your time is limited. As long as you vacillate, nobody knows what’s next,” he continued without a hint of ambition. “I need those challenges. That way I won’t get bored.
“In this business, you can’t remain at the status quo. I equate this business to a mountain climber. Once you get up there, you can’t live on top. The average in this business is about three years. Look what happened to John Denver and Elton John. There are cycles you go through.
“I’m just one of maybe 300,000 entertainers. Thirty years from now, there is a possibility there will be room for me. But the probability? Well, I don’t know.”
By the time he ended his farewell tour in 2017, Rogers had sold 165 million records, amassed 21 No. 1 country tunes and 2 No. 1 pop songs, released 38 different hits collections, landed in Country Music Hall of Fame, starred in five “Gambler” movies for TV and picked up a lifetime achievement award from the Country Music Association in 2013, the year he released his final album of original material, “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”
He was still making friends well beyond that 30-year probability.