"I'm a country singer with a lot of other musical influences" – Kenny Rogers
Texas has long been recognized as a musical melting pot – a source of seminal blues and roots rock; acclaimed singer-songwriters, country greats and fiery punk bands; the world’s Tex-Mex Mecca. Any state that could give the world Buck Owens and Stevie Ray Vaughan, Roy Orbison and Van Cliburn is all right in my book.
It could be argued that no single Texas musician better personifies the state’s everything-goes attitude than Kenny Rogers, who turns 75 today. Sure, the Houston native has been encased in amber these past 30 years purveying a very successful brand of country-pop but the first 20 years of his career tells a markedly multi-genre story.
Hell, Kenny Rogers even played jazz.
Now, before you switch off the computer in disgust, bear with me. This story goes back to his time at the University of Houston and requires some set up.
Rogers kicked off his career in a rockabilly band, the Scholars, which scored a local hit or two and landed a shot on “American Bandstand.” His first real national exposure came through a mid-‘60s run with the folk-pop New Christy Minstrels; that was followed by the pop-rock-country of the First Edition. It was between his rockabilly and folk days that Rogers comprised one-third of the Bobby Doyle Three.
Now, it’s worth noting that the trio’s brand of vocal jazz is unlikely to be mistaken for Lambert, Hendricks and Ross. The group, however, did get signed to Columbia in 1962 and released a couple of albums before splitting.
Rogers remembered that chapter this way (with some serious aesthetic embellishment) in one interview: “My first 10 years in the music business, interestingly enough, I was in jazz. I played the upright bass in an avant-garde jazz group.” A CBS News profile contained this perspective:
Rogers says his childhood was "great."
"You know, when you're poor and you have a bunch of kids in your family, you don't know that everybody's not poor. I had holes in my jeans well before it was fashionable. We lived in the poorest part of town, went to school in the richest part of town, but I didn't even know until I was in the sixth grade that there was a difference."
When he did notice, he set out to do something about it, earning $900 a week with the Bobby Doyle jazz trio when he was just 19 years old. The only requirement, Doyle told him: he'd have to learn to play bass.
"I said, 'Well, I already play guitar', and he said, 'Yeah, but there's more demand for bad bass players than bad guitar players.'"
The group is long gone but Rogers has not forgotten. He included three of its tracks– “Don’t Feel Rained On,” “Fly Me to The Moon (In Other Words)” and “My Mammy” – on his career-spanning box set. More to the point, he clearly understands and appreciates the contribution that experience made to his musical makeup.
"We did some very technical musical things," Rogers said of those days. "The great thing about music is that once you do an art form -- once you're really involved in jazz or folk music -- you get to the point where you understand what makes it good."
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