Friday Night Forgotten Oldie: From psychedelic to country

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“I know that we all know that Kenny is in a better place than we are today and I’m pretty sure that he’s going to be talking to God sometime today… and he’s going to be asking him to spread some light on a bunch of this darkness. I loved Kenny with all my heart. My heart’s broken. A big ol’ chunk of it has gone with him today… You never know how much you love somebody until they’re gone. I’ve had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend… God bless you Kenny, fly high straight into the arms of God. To the rest of you, keep the faith..”
Dolly Parton

Kenny Rogers passed away last Friday evening at the age of 81, peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by family.In a career that spanned more than six decades, Rogers gave us chart-topping hits like “The Gambler,” “Lady,” “Islands In The Stream,” “Lucille,” “She Believes In Me,” and “Through the Years.” Rogers, with twenty-four number-one hits, was a Country Music Hall of Fame member, six-time CMA Awards winner, three-time GRAMMY® Award winner, recipient of the CMA Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, CMT Artist of a Lifetime Award honoree in 2015 and was voted the “Favorite Singer of All Time” in a joint poll by readers of both USA TODAY and People.I’ll get to the music, but first…I’m sure Rogers was a sweetheart of a guy. But I had a bad experience with him that I’ll never forget. Please follow along as I will connect the dots.

Back in the 90’s I moonlighted  working security backstage at the Main Stage of the WI State Fair.  I got hooked into the job when I had press credentials from my job at WTMJ and some of the backstage people whom I’d known for a long, long time asked if I would put on a bright yellow Security shirt and give them a hand.

I shared some backstage security memories in a  blog I wrote in 2007.

WAYNE NEWTON

Mr. Las Vegas came to the Fair about 7 or 8 years ago, complete with full orchestra and state of the art lighting, lasers, and Vegas-style stage show.

It was an extremely hot and humid night, and tickets sold barely numbered a thousand.

About an hour before the show I was backstage, keeping my eye on the dressing room trailers. Suddenly, out of the main dressing room walks Wayne Newton, about 15 feet away from me. The well-tanned, jet black-haired Newton was resplendent in evening tuxedo and bow tie. I was in a security baseball cap, bumble bee yellow shirt, black shorts and shoes, and sweating profusely.

I smiled at Newton and before I could say a word, he walked right up to me, extended his right hand and said, “Hello, I’m Wayne Newton.”

It wasn’t until later that I recalled how this particular moment reminded me of an interview done with one of Elvis’ back-up singers, the Jordanaires after Elvis had died. I believe it was Gordon Stoker who said that when Elvis had a recording session, he would walk into the studio and before getting started, he would make it a point to say hello to everyone, from the engineers to the janitor.

Bobby Vinton said the first time he met Elvis was in Las Vegas and Elvis introduced himself first to Vinton, Usually, its’ the other way around, with the lesser name addressing the bigger name first.

Being an Elvis fan, and knowing Elvis and Newton were very good friends, I was immediately impressed that Newton talked to a lowly security guard immediately after leaving his dressing room.

Newton and I, just the two of us, stood there and conversed for 15 minutes, just exactly about what I do not recall. But it was amazing to me how down to earth this guy was.

Newton went onstage in blistering heat before a crowd that could have been multiplied by ten and it still would not have been a full house, and he worked and worked for two hours and 45 minutes for that small audience. Certainly he could have shortened his show, but he did not.

After the show, an exhausted, drenched Newton was informed by other security that the Governor of Wisconsin, Tommy Thompson, was on the grounds and wanted to meet him. Waiting nearby was Newton’s private limo, ready to take him to the airport and his private jet.

Newton told security he would love to meet Governor Thompson.

Security then told Newton that Governor Thompson was elsewhere on the grounds participating in the Governor’s annual livestock auction and would be about another 30 minutes.

Without hesitation, Newton said, “I’ll wait.”

And he did.

The two celebrities enjoyed each other’s company before Newton finally did climb into his limo to drive to Mitchell International.

Now, I am not a huge fan, but I have always liked Wayne Newton. After seeing him at the Wisconsin State Fair, he will always be top-notch in my book.

KENNY ROGERS

The very next night after Wayne Newton, Kenny Rogers was the headliner.

When his huge tour bus pulled in, it stopped directly behind the stage. Part of our duties backstage includes organizing and overseeing the “meet and greets,” the impromptu photo opportunities for selected fans or fan club members or winners of radio contests to meet the stars. We were told by Rogers’ “people” that Rogers would come off the bus, immediately talk to the fans that we would line up, he would say hello and they would say hello, and after he’d pose for one photo, the fan was to walk away.

And that’s exactly what happened. When it was time to meet the fans, and as I recall there were only about ten at the most, finally Rogers emerged from the tour bus, and in robotic fashion said hello to each fan, signed an autograph, posed for a picture….NEXT!

Each fan encounter took no more than 15-20 seconds. When the line was done, in literally a few minutes, Rogers stormed right back into his bus until showtime.

Before the show, Rogers and his staff were told that Governor Thompson was going to be at the show with a group of people and wanted to meet Rogers afterwards. Rogers had agreed, but the plan was that as soon as Rogers walked offstage, the Governor and his entourage were to get backstage as quickly as possible to meet Rogers, who wanted to leave as soon as possible.

Knowing what Rogers wanted to do, we had Governor Thompson and his group leave their seats and come into the backstage area for the final few songs in order to save time. They were positioned along the side of the stage.

Rogers’ tour bus driver had lined up the bus so that Rogers could literally walk off the stage, down the steps, and right onto the bus. When Rogers ended the show, he climbed right into the bus, its motor running.

Around the corner comes Thompson in cowboy hat and jeans with his group, literally running to try to meet Rogers. Too late. He got there just in time to see Rogers get onto the bus, the door close, and the bus take off, exhaust flying in the direction of the Governor.

Contrast that to the way Wayne Newton handled himself the night before.

Rogers’ career got a big break in 1966 when he joined the New Christy Minstrels, famous for their hits “Green Green.” He didn’t stay long, leaving in 1967 to form “The First Edition.”

A 1968 single that cautioned about the use of LSD became Rogers’ first top ten hit, peaking at #5.

The studio recording of “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” has some interesting trivia. Rogers sang the lead vocal.  Glen Campbell played guitar. Hal Blaine plated drums, just as he did on another psychedelic song, “Good Vibrations.” Mickey Newbury wrote the lyrics (famous for “American Trilogy”). Mike Post produced the recording and would expand his portfolio with numerous TV themes.

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Mike Post didn’t actually care for Rogers, didn’t want him singing lead.

“What became the hit but the last thing in with the guy who I thought was the least talented. Shows what I know,” Post said.

BONUS

Rollin’ on the River (later shortened to Rollin) was a musical variety television program hosted by Kenny Rogers and the First Edition that was produced by CTV in Canada and was broadcast in syndication from 1971 to 1973.

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