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Kenny Rogers Remembers His Days as a Teenage Guitarist

After a career that saw him sell more than 120 million albums worldwide, Kenny Rogers plans to call it quits after an upcoming farewell tour. Yet the country crooner’s first time in Variety came decades before he made his name as a solo performer, back in 1956, when he was but a mere teenage guitarist in a Texas rock band called the Scholars.

How did the Scholars first come together?

Look, guys get into bands to find the girls. We can kid ourselves all we want, but it’s never about money at that age. It’s about playing all the sock hops and the high schools and getting to meet the girls. And then all of a sudden someone pays you, and you go, ‘Wow, we’d never planned on this.’ And so you start on your journey to make more the next time, and then more the time after that, and to do that, you’re forced to improve your act. So it slowly becomes a business.

How much did you get to tour? 

Mostly just around Texas, a lot of Air Force bases. We did a lot of stuff in Dallas, maybe (as far as) San Antonio.

At that age, who were you looking to emulate?

We were doing stuff like the Platters at the beginning. Growing up, the things I listened to, thanks to my mother, were people like Johnny Cash and Merle Haggard. But as we got into performing, we started looking at groups like the Four Freshmen. I never personally wanted to sing by myself — I always loved doing harmony, and I would’ve been happy to stay with a group for the rest of my life. But groups always fall apart, that’s just part of the dynamic.

You were a backing musician for years in your early days; when did you start getting out front?

After the Scholars, I immediately joined a jazz group called the Bobby Doyle Three. And Bobby was a blind guy, so I just put myself out front, because (laughs) … No, no. I met him, and he said, “I’d love for you to come play bass in my jazz group.” And I said, “I don’t even play bass, I play guitar.” And he said, “Yeah, but there’s a lot more of a demand for bad bass players than bad guitar players.” And he was right. So he put me on the upright bass and taught me how to play. I mostly did great, except I could just never remember where b-flat was. It used to drive him crazy — he was a real purist.

I was between 20 or 22 years old when I joined, and we worked eight hours a day. We’d do a cocktail job until 7:30, then a dance job from 8 to 12, and then an after-hours job from 12:30 to 3 in the morning. And eventually we got so good that people like Tony Bennett used to come in and sing with us at night. In our group, we all spoke to the crowd, and that’s how you really get out front, because when you speak, the spotlight comes to you. Fortunately I ran the lights with my feet, so I could put the light on me anytime I wanted it. You learn these little tricks.

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