Kenny Rogers Knew When to Hold ’Em and When to Fold ’Em


He called me on a cell phone in the parking lot of a McDonald’s somewhere in Louisiana. It was 2011, and Kenny Rogers was advancing his Christmas show at Proctor’s Theatre in Schenectady. About two-thirds of the way through the interview, I told him I had a bone to pick with him about some of his songs. They’d forced me to share my wife of 17 years with him, and this had to stop. “Okay,” he said without missing a beat. “Give me one more year, and you can have her back.”

Kenny died last night, Friday, March 20th, of natural causes. A cynical man might say he got out just in time, and Lord knows I’ve often been cynical when it came to Kenny. Shelly loves to tell the story about the time I kept Mike Hochanadel company when he had to review Rogers at the Glens Falls Civic Center. Shelly’s punchline to the story is, “Donnie asks me to go see some Dead band (The Grateful Dead) and he leaves me home to go out with his friend to see my Kenny Rogers.”

When he played Proctor’s Theater, Shelly and I had our picture taken with her Kenny. She ordered prints and then framed the photo cutting me out of the picture. I deserved it because I once ran a story on him that referenced a National Enquirer front page headline saying that his use of steroids was causing him to grow breasts.

The older I got the more I learned to like my Kenny. Damn good thing ‘cause I’m now sequestered with Shelly in this coronavirus pandemic. Hell, I even watched all 123 hours of the latest Bachelor with Shelly as knucklehead Peter French kissed his way through relationships with two women, losing them both in the end on live TV in front of several million viewers and a mother who was not at all happy with her son.

But I digress. I really came to like and admire Kenny Rogers. Here’s a guy who grew up in the projects eating pinto beans and rice, but his mother took him to church three times a week and told him that he could never be anything more as an adult than what had been put into him as a child. She also told him, “Never be content to be there, but be happy where you are, or you’ll never be happy. If you’re always searching for happiness, you’re going to be a lost soul.”

“Success is a great aphrodisiac, and the loss of success is the great reality,” he told me from that bus in Louisiana. By 2011 he had enjoyed 24 number one hits and had been voted the favorite singer of all time in a joint USA Today and People magazine poll in 1986. “I’m still successful by anybody’s standards. Everybody said that I took country music pop, and they blamed me for that, but it brought a lot of people to country music that wouldn’t have listened to it otherwise,” said the then 73-year-old artist whose latest album The Love of God was available only at Cracker Barrel. It was the least commercial of any of his 65 albums and easily one of his best.

In that Christmas concert at Proctor’s Rogers tore down the barrier between the audience and the artist and made each one of us feel comfortable and a part of the show. Like Frank Sinatra and Tony Bennett, Rogers always chose great songs that reveal fundamental truths, sometimes ugly as in “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” and “The Coward of The County,” sometimes putting into words what most men cannot articulate to their “Lady,” and sometimes philosophically revealing as in “The Gambler.”

Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Rogers told me “The Gambler” was the most autobiographical song in his vast repertoire. It spawned the longest running miniseries in television history in which he played the lead role as a 19th century western gambler. “There’s no question that ‘The Gambler’ has put its stamp on me and a whole bunch of other people. Interestingly enough, I’m not really a gambler. Don Schultz who wrote it is not a gambler, either. He’s never gambled a day in his life. So, it’s really a song about life and how to live it, and when you break it down, it’s not about how to make money at gambling, it’s about how should I live my life.”

My Kenny gave me the secret about what he did for my wife and millions of other women. It’s in the songs! “(There are songs) “every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear.” Lionel Richie wrote one of those signature songs, “Lady:” I’ve waited for you so long/Lady, your love’s the only love I need and beside me is where I want you to be/’Cause, my love, there’s something I want you to know/You’re the love of my life/You’re my lady.

Kenny was a big part of my Shelly’s life, and he taught me some things about being a good husband.

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