Kenny Rogers, My Friend (but ONE Night Was a Comedian’s Nightmare!)

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For more than five years, the last song of the night was the same.   When the familiar three chords of the intro began, then repeated, I headed for the bus.  Unless Dolly was with us.  Because when she was, Dolly always came back out to do the finale with him. 

The vast majority of the time, the Oak Ridge Boys were a part of this tour and so, without a female partner, the big man sang his biggest duet hit by himself.  Through the years, I did watch him perform that last song with Dottie West and once, with Sheena Easton.  But Dolly was IT.  He knew it.  We knew it.  The audience knew it.

If she was with us, I always stayed to watch them together.  Kenny and Dolly…magic every time.  “Islands in the stream.  That is what we are.  No one in between.  How can we be wrong?”  The arena would go nuts.

The first tour I ever did with Kenny was across Canada—all hockey arenas.  We moved west to east, night after night.  The only date on the tour of which I was not to be a part was during the third week, in Quebec.  There, CK Spurlock—the promoter—had booked a French speaking comedian.  So, I had the night off.  I thought.

Without anything else to do and already feeling like a part of the family, I went to the arena anyway.  I thought it might be fun to watch a comedian in a different language.  Ronnie Milsap was on those dates and so, about 6pm—two hours until showtime—Kenny, Ronnie, their band members and I ate the catered dinner backstage.  I kept watching for someone who looked like a French comedian, but never spotted him.

At about 7:15, we were still around the table.  I had remarked to Kenny that it was odd to be here with the evening about to begin and not be nervous at all.  He laughed and patted me on the back.  “Well, good,” he said.  “Just enjoy yourself.”  I planned to.  It was exciting.  No nerves at all.  And I would be watching the number one tour in the world as a guest.

At 7:40, I was in one of the massive arena hallways talking with Gene Roy, the road manager, and Joyce Milsap, Ronnie’s wife, when CK and Kenny came around a corner.  Kenny was a little behind CK whose expression was uncharacteristically grim.  Kenny, however, had his arms crossed and kept rubbing his beard and mouth with a hand.  As they approached, I could tell that both men were looking at me.

As CK began to talk and Kenny continued to rub his mouth—several times turning completely around to do so—I suddenly realized that Kenny was engaged in a desperate attempt not to laugh.  I turned back to CK.  What was he saying?

“Hoss, we need you to go on stage…”  He looked at his watch.  “…in 17 minutes.”

“What?” I asked in astonishment.  Was this a joke?  Kenny had his arms crossed, facing away from me with his shoulders bouncing up and down.  “What about the French guy?”

CK shook his head.  “We don’t know, but he hasn’t called and he isn’t here.  So, you’re up to bat.”

If a gargoyle had grabbed me from the sky, there would have been no greater horror than I felt at that moment.  I have no idea how much my jaw had dropped or how far back into their sockets my eyes might’ve rolled, but when Kenny turned around, he took one look at me and collapsed onto the floor.  I am telling you, the man was laughing so hard, he could not catch his breath.  And I was terrified.

Now the promoter was beginning to smile.  “CK,” I begged, “you guys don’t want me to do this—”

“I do,” Kenny interrupted from the floor and pealed into another laughing fit.

“Wait, wait, wait now…” I pleaded.

CK checked his watch.  “14 minutes,” he said.  Now, he was laughing.

“But you guys…,” I said with my last attempt at reason, “I’m a comedian.  All I do is talk.  There are fifteen thousand people out there and none of them speak English!”

From the floor, I heard Kenny squeak out, “I know.  It’s gonna be great.”  And he collapsed again.

I ran for a dressing room without any clothes to change into.  It was too late anyway, but I had to be alone for a moment.  I wanted to pray that God would be with me.  Also, knowing the Lord is everywhere, I asked that while He was with me, would He please take a moment to push the French comedian in front of a train? 

Minutes later, having traded my T-shirt for Glenn Grabski’s button-down, I looked down the runway, waiting to be introduced.  Glenn, the tour accountant, stood beside me, probably thinking that if I had a heart attack, he would get his shirt back.

The stage was an elaborate circle.  This was different from performing “in the round”.  There was a walkway—eight or ten feet wide—that was shaped like a circle.  The bands, the sound people, were all down in the middle while the performer walked the circle.  There was even a track to which Ronnie Milsap’s piano was attached and as he played and sang, he moved slowly around the circle.

I had calmed a bit.  The arena—as usual—was packed.  Wherever we went for five years, my introduction was done by the most popular radio personality in the area.  This night was no different, but when my introduction began, the cold hand of impending doom ran its icy fingers up my back. 

“Oh my God…” I whispered, staring down at the stage.  I could not understand a word the guy was saying.  I looked at Glenn.  He smiled evilly and directed my  attention to a place across the arena.  There, standing in a wide alcove where he couldn’t be seen by the crowd, was the most popular entertainer on the planet with his entire band.

At this point in our story, it is important to explain why they were there.  Kenny had seen me several times and on a tour like this, when you’ve seen someone’s show, you use that time to relax or get ready for your own.  But there he was.  And I knew exactly why.  Kenny gave me an exaggerated “thumbs up”.

Entertainers can be a strange lot.  Especially odd is the secret most manage to keep concerning what actually entertains them.  I’ve found this to be true of almost every entertainer I have ever known:  They want to see the very best…or the very worst.  Either is fine.  Just don’t bore them. 

Entertainers want to hear Andrea Bocelli or the guy with a speech impediment who can’t carry a tune.  And I’m telling you, give most of them a choice, and Bocelli will get the boot.  Nothing—and I mean nothing—livens the sameness of life on the road like a good, dumpster-fire of a disaster.  And that is what Kenny Rogers was getting ready to see.  You could have sold the man a seat to his own concert for this.

As the emcee wound down his introduction, it sounded like this to me:  Vosha ve, noosha pare, cashoosha vedi martarahendo…ANDY ANDREWS!

I understood those last two words and Glenn gave me a push. I headed down the ramp to a wildly cheering crowd.  Yes, they clapped and yelled enthusiastically.  It was very kind.  It was also the last sound I heard from them for thirty minutes.   

That moment in time was the strangest thing I’ve ever experienced from stage.  In America, if a comedian doesn’t make the crowd laugh in the first 90 seconds, the polite people in the audience just ignore him and talk among themselves as if there is no one on stage.

Perhaps things have changed in Quebec, but then—that night—fifteen thousand people stared at me for half an hour and did not make a sound.  They were polite, did not talk among themselves, and clapped when I finally left the stage.

But here was the weird part:  there is a specific timing perfected by a comedian.   He also gets used to the timing of the audience’s response.  For a comedian who has honed his craft, that audience response is almost always the same and so, creates a comfort level for the performer; a flow that keeps it all on track. 

That night in Quebec, with every laugh line I delivered, I was greeted by silence…for about three seconds…followed by the sound of explosive laughter from an alcove holding a dozen people.  Kenny and the band would wait for my line to fail and when it inevitably did, they loved it.

Kenny and CK paid me double my normal amount that night.  CK called it “combat pay” and Kenny said, “Andy, you have got to come to Japan with us in the Fall.”

When you work with a person as much as I did with Kenny, you see who they really are.  Kenny Rogers was a great guy.  I have always appreciated how he treated people.  He was kind, generous, funny…all the things you’d want in a friend.  And he was my friend.

This morning, when I found out he was gone, my first thought was for Wanda, his wife, and their sons.  Then, I will admit, I thought about me.  For more than thirty years, Kenny was a presence in my life.  While we did not talk often, I always knew I could talk to him if I needed to.  And now I can’t.  Sorry, but it just makes me sad.

Remember this?  And somewhere in the darkness, the gambler he broke even.  But in his final words I found an ace that I could keep. 

Our friend will be missed but he will never be forgotten.  Kenny Rogers left aces we will always keep.


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