The singer is probably, or improbably, the most valuable property and the one Midas amid the recession-ridden world of music.

By Sue Reilly and Kent Demaret
Updated December 01, 1980 12:00 PM

“He’s very charming and thoughtful,” says a friend. “But inside he’s driven.”

If that too, too solid flesh would melt, life insurance actuaries would sleep better. Kenny Rogers is probably, or improbably, the most valuable property and the one Midas amid the recession-ridden world of music. In the past three years he has sold $170 million worth of records. His new hit, Lady, is that exceedingly rare crossover single that has cracked country, pop and soul charts simultaneously. His concerts not only go SRO coast to coast, they break arena records. His first dramatic role, in The Gambler, based on his own ballad, was the highest-rated TV movie of last season. His annual income has been estimated at $15 million. But if he were like the heroes of so many of his songs, he’d have to be unhappy. With Kenny Rogers, at 42 that’s not so easy to say.

“I guess I’ve hurt some feelings along the way, ruined some relationships,” admits Rogers of the years in which the only thing he didn’t neglect was his ambition. “But now I feel totally in charge. I’m happy with my career, and I have a good marriage.” Indeed, his five-year union with beautiful Hee Haw honey Marianne Gordon, 37, almost exactly matches the years of his rise from the ashes of his last group, the First Edition, from a $97,000 debt that nearly led him to bankruptcy, and from his bitter third divorce.

Today Kenny and Marianne luxuriate in a $4 million L.A. mansion furnished with $1 million in antiques; own an island in Hawaii; drive his-and-her Rolls-Royces and a fleet of other cars; fly in a private jet plane (it seated 84 when owned by the president of Mexico, but now, refitted to plusher specs, accommodates only 26); and dress from wardrobes so large Kenny could furnish his upcoming line of Western clothing from his own closets. But the impoverished background that drove him to that acquisitiveness has to haunt him—just as he’s remorseful over the estrangement from his only son, Kenneth Ray Jr., 16. Now, sometimes tentatively, sometimes boldly, Kenny seems to be trying to set things right. One aspect is playing the character he most resembles: Santa Claus.

“We don’t run around handing out money. That’s ridiculous,” claims Rogers. “But both Marianne and I get a lot of pleasure in finding special gifts for our friends and family. Give a man a fish,” he says, repeating a favorite homily, “and he’ll eat for a day. But if you teach him to fish, he’s going to eat for life. We try to think of ways to do that.” For his widowed mother, Lucille, who helped support him and his seven siblings as a cleaning woman, Kenny bought a brick home in Crockett, Texas. He helped set up his brother Bill, 36, in a stationery store and sponsored a recording firm for brother Lelan, 52. The youngest of his brothers, Randy, 30, a Houston electric utility employee, mentions gifts like a 26-inch color TV and says, “I have nothing but admiration for Kenny, but it may be that his giving us presents is an apology. It may be a way of saying, ‘Hey, I’m really sorry I can’t spend more time with you.’ I keep reminding the others that there’ll be a day when we can be together again.” Randy adds, “I think I understand what a frantic world he lives in.”

Rogers’ strains with his children are harder to heal. After his divorce from his first wife, Janice, in 1960, he reportedly was granted only two hours’ weekly visitation with his daughter, Carole Lynne, now 22. Constantly on the road and scrambling as a singer, he drifted away and visited the girl once in 15 years. She was adopted by his ex-wife’s second husband. Attempting a reconciliation this past year, Kenny flew Carole and her mother in for a visit and a Hawaiian vacation.

A brief second marriage at 22 was childless. Then in 1963 Kenny wed third wife Margo Gladys Anderson, who had a daughter, Shannon, and bore him young Kenneth. The boy has a genius-level IQ and attends school in Palm Springs, where his mom has resettled. Dad has hardly seen him since 1975, and if he had one wish, Rogers says now, “I would wish desperately that my relationship with Kenny Jr. were better.”

The single-minded drive that has been Rogers’ blessing and curse was nourished in his own Houston youth. His late father, a carpenter and shipyard worker, had a drinking problem, and Kenny, the fourth child, grew up in a federal housing project and rented houses, singing in a glee club and the church choir. “I think we felt a little bit like outsiders,” remembers brother Randy. “We’d go to church in an old pickup truck and stoop down low in the seats because we didn’t want anybody to see us. I think all that boosts Kenny in thinking, ‘I just don’t want to go back. There’s nothing wrong with it, but I don’t want to go back.’ ”

Rogers began to escape at the time by playing the guitar—”Kenny never had a guitar lesson, he just picked it up,” his mother recalls. “On the weekends he was at one of the music stores, daylight until dark. He must have drove those people crazy, playing all the guitars they had down there. Oh, gee, him and Mickey Gilley [another stardom-bound neighborhood boy] used to come over to the house and Kenny would hammer on the guitar and Mickey on the piano. I thought they were going to run me out of the house.” The first member of the family to finish high school (and then two weeks of college), Kenny formed a group called the Scholars, later played jazz clubs with the Bobby Doyle Trio, then moved to folk-pop with the New Christy Minstrels in 1965. He next formed the First Edition, which had a gold LP and a syndicated TV show before its nine-year run ended in 1975. His breakthrough single, Lucille (like most of his material, it was not written by him and doesn’t refer to his mother), followed in 1977, but only after he had hit bottom again for two years.

That yo-yo career has been instructive and perhaps a salvation. “Unless you’re an Elvis or a Sinatra,” Kenny figures, “you can stay on top for maybe three years. I refuse to let all the fuss alter my lifestyle and enjoyment. I saw what happened to Elvis when he let himself get isolated,” he observes. The one worrisome thing about Rogers is his inability to slow down—he was on the road some 200 nights this year. The hopeful side is that he takes care of himself like almost no other touring artist. With his family history, he doesn’t drink or do drugs. “I did some carrying on and chasing in the good old days—I was good for at least eight minutes,” Rogers laughs. “Now I get up around 9, breakfast, pack up and go to the plane. At the next city I round up the band and we play a couple of hours of tennis. I shower, nap, have dinner, then do the show and go to bed. It’s exhausting work, but I’m not beaten up like some others.”

Marianne is often with him, but no longer constantly because adoring crowds make it almost impossible for them to even go out to dinner. “I guess my initial attraction to her was physical,” he says fondly, “but a relationship is built on shared experiences, and I love sharing my experiences with her.” She’s with him now on a four-week trip to the one part of the world he hasn’t conquered—China.

With everything so relatively solid, Kenny is mystified by the lingerie women fans fling at him and by his sudden sex symbol status. “It’s ridiculous,” he grins. “I’m a 42-year-old married man with a gray beard and a potbelly.” Of course, the audiences see not the driven old trouper but that Texas kid in the music store. As Rick Harper, his guitarist, puts it: “You look up onstage and you see this middle-aged guy singing all his greatest hits. But underneath you sense the little boy jumping up and down and hollering, ‘Goody, goody, goody!’ ” Grins Harper, “Kenny’s just having himself a helluva good time.”