Keith Hagan of SKH Music is a veteran music publicist who worked with Kenny Rogers for 15 years (the two are pictured above). Below, Hagan shares some memories of Rogers, who passed away Friday at the age of 81.
They say you should never meet your heroes, but apparently “they” never met Kenny Rogers. I had the great fortune and pleasure of working with the legendary singer as his publicist since 2005.
He sold more albums and had more radio hits than anyone could realistically count. He was the first artist to bring country music to stadiums. He had success in film, television and even onstage with his Christmas musical; he published books of his photography and an autobiography, among many, many other professional accomplishments — but even with all of his success, he was truly one of the nicest human beings you could ever hope to know.
Through the years (see what I did there?), I witnessed countless celebrities who encountered him at television tapings, award shows and other events — and stop dead in their tracks in awe and admiration.
When Stephen Colbert entered the backstage room where Kenny was waiting before an interview about his 2012 autobiography, “Luck or Something Like It,” he walked in without saying a word and simply began singing a deep album cut from Kenny’s 1960s band, the First Edition (I wish I could remember which song).
“Mr. Rogers, it is such an honor to meet you,” Colbert remarked, before launching into memories of how often his family listened to those early albums while he was growing up. Kenny was not only gracious and flattered that Colbert knew his work so well — he finished singing the song with him.
The Roots, led by walking musical encyclopedia Questlove, were super excited when Kenny agreed to perform his first major hit, the psychedelic-era song “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” which enjoyed a second life when it was featured in a dream sequence of the Coen Brothers’ 1998 film “The Big Lebowski.” Kenny, gamely joined in, even though, as he said with a laugh, “I haven’t sung that third verse in so long I don’t even remember the words!”
He had many, many celebrity friends, particularly Dolly Parton — I’ll never forget the sound of the two of them laughing together — and Lionel Richie, who he first met in 1979, and whose song “Lady” became a major hit for Kenny the following year. They reunited for a new version of the song on Richie’s 2012 album “Tuskegee,” and when Kenny played a headlining set at the Bonnaroo festival that year, Lionel joined him for a surprise appearance. Backstage, a Spin reporter asked me if he could interview the two of them together. I told him all he had to do was sit there with the two of them laughing it up, and the story would write itself.
Rogers: “I asked him to write me a song, and he said he didn’t really do that. So I told him it would sell 5 million copies, and well, that changed his mind.”
Richie: [Laughs] “I said I’d be right over. When I did show up it was so strange because I had never pitched a song before.”
Rogers: “He comes to me and says he tried to do this song with the Commodores. He starts playing ‘Lady,’ and I told him I couldn’t believe they turned that song down!”
Richie: “All I really played were the first few notes, and he just looks and tells me to finish it and meet him in the studio in a week.”
Rogers: “So we’re in the studio and I’m doing the first verse and I’m looking to…”
Richie: “Oh, I knew he was going to bring this up!”
Rogers: “I’m saying, ‘Where’s the second verse?’ Then someone tells me ‘Lionel’s in the bathroom writing it because he works best under pressure.’” [Laughter]
Richie: “Do you hear what he’s saying? Do you hear what he’s saying to the world? Well, it’s true!” (Read the full interview here.)
That same year, Kenny performed at England’s massive Glastonbury Festival, in its “Legends” slot. Backstage, he turned to me and said, “How’s it looking out there? Do you think there’s going to be a crowd?”
There was a sea of humanity, as far as the eye could see, waiting for him to take the stage.
He was an avid photographer and compiled some of his pictures into a 1987 book called “Your Friends and Mine: A Collection of 80 Photographs” that featured his shots of Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor, Ray Charles, Miles Davis, and many others, including then-President Ronald Reagan. He once recalled to me the day he went to the White House to photograph Reagan. As he was setting up, he turned to the Secret Service agents in the room and said, “Now, this is where I’d like to shoot the president.”
The agents quickly reminded Kenny to be careful with his choice of words.
But as popular as he became, he was always a country artist first: It truly meant the world to him when the Country Music Hall of Fame finally inducted him, as did the many awards he received from the CMAs, ACMs and CMT. He said many times, “Country music tells you where you are when you start, takes you on a journey and leaves you off with an emotion at the end.”
In 2011, a star-studded concert special was released called “Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years” (an A&E “Biography” documentary on him is premiering next month). During a brief interview we did for the press materials to accompany it, he said, “When this was first proposed to me as a 50-year celebration, something about that sounded final and I didn’t want that, so I suggested we call it ‘The First 50 Years,’” he recalled.
“I will tell you this,” he concluded. “The ‘First 50 Years’ TV show is gonna be awesome. But the next 50 years TV show is gonna be a bitch.”
It’s been an honor, sir…