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Kenny Counts His Blessings

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You never count your money/ When you’re sittin’ at the table/ There’ll be time enough for countin’/ When the dealin’s done.

The Gambler

Only four years ago singer Kenny Rogers had time enough but nothing to count. All he had to show for nine years with his own pop-rock group, the First Edition, was a $65,000 debt. He was 37, three times divorced, living in a seedy San Fernando Valley apartment and “out of work and out of ideas. For five or six months I just sat around and thought,” Rogers recalls. What began to dawn on him was that “there’s a new hit rock group or singer every five minutes, but with country music, you have one hit and those people love you forever.”

To the Texas-bred Rogers, who had also tried jazz and folk, the answer was turning to his country roots and heading for Nashville. “Emotionally,” he says, “it was like coming home.” Financially it wasn’t bad either. He got that lifetime hit with Lucille, which went gold in 1977 and won a Grammy a year later. Since then Rogers’ releases have grossed $100 million and he has broken box office records all across the U.S. This year he hosted the televised Country Music Association Awards and won Male Vocalist of the Year. The Gambler, moreover, was both the CMA’s Song and LP of the Year. The album perched at No. 1 for six months (and near 3 million sales), staving off Waylon, Willie, Dolly, Crystal and Charlie Daniels. What dislodged it finally last month was Rogers’ own platinum followup, Kenny, and that’s been at the top ever since.

This year Rogers, 41, has played for some two million people–and not by bus. He and his tour band, Bloodline, travel in his 11-seat Jetstar and nine-seat Hawker Siddeley. His ebullient performances have made him a grizzly heartthrob to match Willie Nelson, and not even the stunning presence of his fourth wife, Marianne Gordon, 36, a Hee Haw star, deters ardent fans from flinging their lingerie onstage. “Sometimes at 3 a.m. there’ll be a knock on the door and some females giggling,” huffs Marianne. “No one seems to understand that he needs some sleep.”

Through it all, Rogers has remained remarkably earthbound. “I don’t think I have a wonderful voice,” he reckons modestly, if accurately, and he selflessly credits the success of his gruff baritone to “good people and good material.” (The Gambler, for example, was by a green songwriter, Don Schlitz, 27, who picked up his CMA award in a sweatshirt.)

Kenny also didn’t write but lives the story of his recent single hit, You Decorated My Life. He is using some of his yearly gross–it’s an astounding $13 million–to prop up the Southern California construction industry. He and Marianne are turning their recently acquired $2 million colonial in Bel Air into a $4 million Italian Renaissance mansion. On any given day an army of 50 to 100 carpenters, tilers and plumbers drives up in a convoy of pick-ups and work trucks. The renovated spread will have two kitchens, 13 bathrooms, six bedrooms, closets large enough to graze cattle, plus a servants’ wing.

To help fill the library and study, Kenny and Marianne dropped $1 million for antiques during a recent Manhattan buying spree. Kenny’s fleet of cars is an EPA atrocity–a yellow Rolls, a Jag XJ-6 and a Ferrari, among others–but his friends insist that such extravagance suits Marianne more than him. “When they came back from New York,” claims one friend, “Kenny looked slightly glazed.” Admits Rogers: “When I think of the things I have, it makes me a little uneasy. I don’t want people to think I’ve lost touch with reality.”

He was born “poor, real poor,” in Houston. His father was a carpenter, and Kenny and his seven siblings lived in a federal housing project that he calls “a tenement.” He adds, “I never knew I was poor until I fell in love with Colleen Mays in sixth grade. She always wore saddle shoes that looked brand-new. It just amazed me.” Kenny sang in glee club and the family’s church choir and was an A student until junior high. More social in ninth grade, Rogers learned that “you could make music your living.” With a guitar paid for by busboy tips, he formed the Scholars (“a misnomer–there wasn’t a C student in the bunch”). Kenny soloed on American Bandstand and the group cut several singles, including Kangewah, written by gossip columnist Louella Parsons. “We figured she’d plug our record in her column. It was a great idea but had no relationship to reality. We came home broke.”

Rogers was the first member of his family to finish high school, but after less than a year at a local junior college he quit to play jazz clubs with the Bobby Doyle Trio. Then he moved to folk-pop with the New Christy Minstrels in 1965. Eighteen months later he, Mike Settle, Terry Williams and Thelma Ca-macho split to form the First Edition and took off on a nine-year run that reaped four gold LPs, nine gold singles and a widely syndicated TV show, Rollin’ on the River. But in 1975 Kenny and Williams, the surviving charter members, closed the frayed books on the First Edition. “Neither of us was exactly raking it in,” Kenny remembers.

His personal life was no compensation. His first two marriages, to hometown sweethearts, lasted only four and one-half years total and produced a daughter, Carole Lynne, now 21. (She was adopted by her stepfather, and Rogers didn’t see her for years. But Carole plans on visiting him and Marianne soon. Rogers’ son from his 12-year third marriage, Kenny II, 14, lives in L.A. and stops by regularly.) “My music was my life,” Rogers reflects, “and it played a large part in my inability to sustain relationships. I learned some hard lessons.”

Rogers finally found emotional stability with Marianne, the daughter of a retired service station owner from Georgia. Kenny met her on the Hee Haw set in 1975, and they were married two years later in a ceremony attended by friends like the John Davidsons, the John Denvers and the Glen Campbells. Kenny had courted her, as it were, by learning her sport, tennis (“It only cost me $10,000”), and is now so hooked that he plays three hours a day at home or on the road and sponsors two young touring professionals. “People accuse me of hiring personnel for their backhands,” he jokes. Tennis and self-discipline also help keep his 6’1″ frame under 200. “My dad was an alcoholic, but my mother neither smoked nor drank,” he says. “Neither do I.” (He claims to have puffed but a single joint in his life. “I loved it,” he admits, “but I don’t want anything to do with druggies.”)

For all his talk of mellowness, Rogers still tours more than 200 days a year, has subbed for Johnny Carson and recently finished two TV specials, including last week’s Kenny Rogers and the American Cowboy on CBS. Marianne subordinates her career to his, commuting by jet to Nashville for her Hee Haw tapings. While spending most of the year on tour with Kenny, she never appears onstage, although she’s the gambler in the family in the off-hours poker and blackjack games. “I pay the guys with one hand,” he cracks, “and Marianne gets it back with the other.”

They are whispering about children someday–they are building a nursery in their house–but in the meantime are providing for friends and family with an Elvis-like largesse. Marianne recently gave away to girlfriends four of seven fur coats she bought, and Kenny has bought a new home in Crockett, Texas for his widowed mom, Lucille. (She was not the inspiration for Kenny’s hit song, which was about a fallen woman.) Rogers has also helped set up his younger brother Billy in business in Houston and purchased a Travelall van for Marianne’s parents.

“I’m enjoying my rise from the ashes,” he explains. “I just hope I can spread some of the happiness that’s been coming my way.” His wife takes a similar perspective. “For years Kenny struggled and his personal relationships suffered,” says Marianne. “I think he has come to realize what is really important to him. So he’s tried to backtrack a little and make up.”