MMMMMM, that little smile. You can't help but notice it. Kenny Rogers starts smiling it toward the end of concert after concert, 250 of them this year, one of them here at the Capital Centre where 19,393 people -- screaming teens, old men slapping liver-spotted hands together, everybody -- seem to be trying to physically smash the stage with cheering as Kenny deals out a finale of his hits "You Decorated My Life," "She Believes In Me," "Coward of the County," "The Gambler," "Lucille," country-style music that busts the pop charts as well.
"You picked a fi-i-ine time to leave me, Lucille," he sings with that grate he calls "an identifiable gimmick." Not a drop of sweat out here in Landover! Business as usual! Kenny Rogers ambles around the stage and the little old smile is blossoming, the sly, gilded-lily shrug of anybody who's been pleasantly surprises at winning anything from a war to a free game on a pinball machine, a smile that almost seems to embarass him, a 41-year-old guy with a gray beard and a paunch and a blue cowboy suit.
Strange. He is the first to admit he doesn't have much of a voice an what's more his face bears none of the fret and wonder most of us acquire from slamming through all the potholes in the highway of life. Maybe the 19,369 have all busted a few axles prior to driving here tonight -- women in floor-length tulle gowns, bikers with homemade tattoos . . . but not Kenny Rogers, the man who may be the biggest music draw in America. No suffering, here: not for art, not for money.
He likes to boast the he's never in 22 years worked for less than scale. And as for art, he once recorded songs written by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons, in hopes of publicity. When his career with The First Edition petered out in 1975 after four gold LPs and nine singles, he made a TV ad for folk-guitar lessons. Then he switched from soft-rock to country music, and before anybody'd had a chance to even ask questions, he was sneaking disco and Jimmy Buffet-style numbers onto his platinum record "Kenny."
He likes to say: "I never promised 'em quality, I just promised 'em hit songs."
He got double-platinum sales (two million copies) out of "The Gambler." Plus five gold albums, guest-host shots on Johnny Carson, two TV specials and a TV movie scheduled for Tuesday night: "Kenny Rogers as The Gambler." Plus a Grammy, awards from the Country Music Association, the Academy of Country Music, and who knows what all -- except that he figures it'll work out to be about $18 million for Kenny Rogers this year.
And the little smile, just now in the Capital Centre in that wind-tunnel howl of cheering, as if he's amazed at this success, but he's used to being amazed, he's just so damn pleased .
He closes with "Lucille." He walks off, an easy amble down the steps from the stage. It's a perfunctory gesture because the encore has already been planned. It's "Ruby," from his old days with the First Edition, and then he's gone for real.
There's a blue Chevrolet Caprice waiting to spirit him away. Not a limousine. People spot limousines. The Kenny Rogers organization stays on top of details like that -- they even have a Kenny Rogers look-alike on staff who'll sign autographs if the crowd gets too close. But two bodyguards make sure that doesn't happen. It takes them 33 seconds to get him from stage to Caprice, tonight, and the audience is left applauding nobody but themselves. Know When to Hold 'Em
Says Kenny Rogers, leaning back in a rust-velour seat of his 10 passenger Lockheed Jetstar (not to be confused with his seven-seat Hawker-Siddeley): I don't ever have depressions."
"Never. I haven't been depressed in my life. If you cut the tops off the highs you go through in this business, you don't have to go through the lows. I guess I miss something. A lot of performers, if they're not at their peak at all times, it doesn't work.Me, I walk around and sing my songs. I don't promise anything. I feel my only responsibility is that when people leave, they say they've enjoyed that."
A happy man! He sits there looking like a teddy bear holding four aces.
"This whole operation is so well organized," he says. "It is slick." He savors the consonants: sssllliicckkkk.
"From day one, it's unbelievable, the amount of material that's sent out to every city we're performing in, calling the record company to make sure there's stock in the stores. Then a month ahead, two men go in to check on the records and the ticket sales." And C. K. Spurlock, the tour's promoter (he also doubles as the Kenny Rogers look-alike), is getting daily reports on airplay of Kenny's records, on how the weather is affecting ticket sales, on media reaction he elicits by calling radio stations and newspapers under a false name and asking what kind of acts are big in that area.
Spurlock heads the crew of 59 people -- sound men, musicians, opening acts, drivers for the five buses, two semis and one straight truck, three caterers, two airline pilots, bodyguards, two guys who go around counting every seat in the house to make sure the count tallies with not only the ticket-sale manifest, but the ticket-stub drop at the box office. Plus a public-relations man who sets up a press conference with time built in for Kenny to do promo spots: "Hi, this is Kenny Rogers wishing you and yours a happy holiday season from everybody at staion WWWW."
The next day, Kenny's back on the Hetstar: a 45-minute hop to Norfolk for another day of tennis with guys in the band till it's time for his 58 minutes on stage, no more, no less. And again the smile of a life in which there are no flies whatsover in the ointment. Well, there are a few wings twitching: the recurring nightmare, for instance.
As he describes it in his quick tenor, he has this dream where his last band, the First Edition, breaks up (as it did in 1974) and he's trying to do a solo act, as he did, trying it out in a little club, the Exit/In, in Nashville. Anyhow: "In the dream, I do three or four songs, and then I realize I don't know any more. And people start leaving. It would be so upsetting to me, almost like I'd go offstage and cry this heart-wrenching cry because people were disapointed in me. See, that's why I overprepare."
Everything is taken care of. Everything.
Even a spare career, should he need it: It starts with the TV movie, on CBS Tuesday night at 9. Then there's a new album, "Gideon," but it's the spin-off into a movie or a Broadway show he's interested in. He knows, it only makes sense, that he can't stay hot forever as a singer. So he'll try acting. He doesn't much care about acting, but he's got to do something next, when the crowds stop smashing Elvis' attendance records to see him.
Which is to say failure: He's got that all planned too.
"There's two categories in life: One is possibility and the other is probability. It's possible that I'll be an exception and last 40 years at the top. It's more probable that I won't -- that in two years, my tenure at the top will be over. You have to deal with the reality. As long as I know what's real I can accept it."
Psychologists call this "prophylactic pessimism." You can predict the worst so that that whatever happens will be better. He doesn't care what it is.
"Somebody told me once, you shouldn't analyze your success too much because then you become a caricature of yourself, doing it again, instead of going with hit songs and not worrying."
Then again, he can do a cost-benefit analysis on buying everything from a used airliner to a used guitar. He's even written a how-to book called "Making It With Music." He may be the only man in the world who will spend $4 million on a house in Bel Air, and then worry about the resale value. Know When To Fold 'Em
He'd have all the right in the world to worry about money, being one of eight children of an alcoholic Houston carpenter, growing up in what he calls a tenement. But he denies being poor bothered him much, and claims over and over that money is only a way to gauge success: "The more money I'm making, the more things I know I'm doing right."
Even when he started out, playing jazz bass for the Bobby Doyle trio, he'd work two other gigs a day to pay for the Lincoln he liked to drive. As jazz lost hits appeal, he cashed in on the last of the folk music craze with soft-rock-psychedelic First Edition. Success: He's done whatever it's taken. He had a hit record, "Crazy Love," at 19, billing himself as Kenneth Rogers the First because there's been another hit by a singer named George Hamilton IV. With the First Edition, looking for a counterculture audience, he installed a ring in one ear.
Dial-a-style: I don't think it's necessary to live everything you sing," he says. "I admire people who are aesthetically oriented. I don't understand 'em because to me, how do you know you're great if nobody hears your songs?"
Happy, happy, happy. He's gone through three divorces, and he can't stop talking about how great his fourth wife is -- Marianne Gordon, a regular on TV's "Hee Haw."
The divorces, he says, "never made me unhappy. I think my problem is that I have always been so positive that negative things really disturb me. It's like Marianne says: I hate to get into discussions that aren't positive because I overreact. I refuse to argue, about anything, it's not worth it to me. You tell me what the problem is, I'll find a solution for it. But let's don't argue about it. My mother was always saying: 'Let's not talk about it right now in front of the kids.' So I was never exposed to loud noise, my mother and father fighting. I thought the whole world was like that."
And of course it is -- if you're Kenny Rogers, touching down at Norfolk in your Lockheed Jetstar, and the car is already waiting to take you to the indoor tennis courts.
He is asked about the gold pendants hanging from his neck.
"This one's a lion someone gave me because I'm a Leo. And the other one Marianne gave me." It says "love," he says, standing in the cold wind on the steps leading down from the plane. "Actually, she didn't see the question mark when she bought it, we had to laugh over that." He holds it out to be seen: LOVE? Know When to Walk Away
"What'd you call, spades?"
"Whoop, there's the 2 for you, I figured he had one club and it . . ."
"Pumba . . ."
Outside, under the four-way screens in the Capital Centre, Dottie West is working her way through her act. Back in the dressing room, Kenny Rogers is playing Pumba with two guys in the band.
"It's a South American game, like Crazy Eights, except you gotta call Pumba when you're one card away from going out," Kenny is explaining to the woman who's come into the dressing room with an airplane salesman.
The airplane salesman is wearing a camel hair sportcoat and a brown turtleneck and a smile that doesn't go at all with eyes that are flexed and so hard they look lashless, what with Kenny Rogers sitting there in a red V-neck sweater making $18 million a year and talking now about buying a BAC 111. A BAC 111 seats 78 people. It sells for $3 million, $4 million, that's a lot of commission.
"Pumba," Kenny says. Which is to say he isn't talking about buying that airplane just now, he's playing cards. His pilot, Ross Guerrero, is talking about it, standing with the salesman next to the card table.
"That other plane will bring half a million . . ."
"But you can't get that Series 200 from USAir for 280," the salesman says.
"We're playing for $5 with a $2 buyback," Kenny says to the woman with the salesman.
"This airplane doesn't have but 13,000 hours on it," says the salesman.
"We can refit the other ourselves and get the big tanks for going to Europe," Guerrero is saying.
"Clubs!" Kenny shouts, slapping his card down, a great big smile lighting up his beard like a Christmas tree as he rolls back on the couch and claps his hands. He's won. He rolls back. He flashes a pointing finger and a hard face at the salesman:
"I tell you right now, your price is way off. Waaaaay off. I can probably buy that other plane for $2 million, refit it and be in it for 2.3. So make a deal with you . . ."
" . . . I'd have to go 2.5."
"kenny, the financing on the Jetstar, is that on a fixed rate?"
"Pass? Did you draw?" Kenny says, giving a big you're-damn-right nod to the salesman.
Somebody brings a stack of 10 frisbees and four tambourines to Kenny, who starts authgraphing them so he can toss them to the crowd.
"Dottie started late, so we'll hold the intermission 7 to 10 minutes," somebody suggests, but Kenny worries about souvenir program sales while he's explaining a rule to the saleman's woman. Meanwhile the salesman, his eyes going tired with hope, is talking about making the Jetstar loan assumable.
"How many minutes we got? Three? I better get my clothes on. Damn, I played that hand badly. Never play this game again. Three? I'll wear the brown suit. I had the 4 and the 7, see . . . I'm not gonna use my airplanes as leverage . . . Make it the blue suit . . ."
The salesman goes for the big pitch: "Would there by any way you could come over to the office tomorrow and we could talk about this?"
"See what you come up with and call me," Kenny says, patting bongo-drum hands on the card table.
The salesman wanders out. Kenny and his pilot swap glances, all of it having been a game of salesman-in-the-middle, the money only being a means of keeping score, to see if you're doing things right, if you're a success. Know When To Run
Kenny and the band members pay off their debts. Kenny drops a few $100 bills on the floor, taking his time picking them us. He's in his blue suit, now, with the satin western-style mantle across the shoulders. On the way out of the dressing room, he pauses to eat a quartered slice of a dill pickle. He is not what you'd call nervous. As he said, "When I'm on stage, I'm in the Bahamas, I'm working on my backhand."
After all: If you need to know if you're doing it right, you can always tell by the money you're making.
Just in case you need a quick fix, though, you can always walk out past the Instamatic freaks standing behind the rent-a-cops and stroll into a crowd of 19,396 at the Capital Centre and hear them yell at you in that great sheet-thunder roar that feels like it's driving a hole right through your head.
Think about how they love you, maybe most of all for the same success they've given you. Understand that the success will go, their love isn't true. Don't worry about what you're doing right, that's for them to figure out, a privilege they paid $12.50 a head for. And after a while, a little smile will come.