Kenny Rogers – They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To (1986)

Outlaw or corn ball? One of the highest selling country music performers in music histroy, time has not been kind to the legacy of Kenny Rogers.

There’s this scene from the second season of “Stranger Things” that always gets to me.  Johnathan and Will are having a brotherly heart to heart and Will is opening up about how the kids at school think he is a freak.  Johnathan is trying to say that freak are cool, and he asks “You’re right.  You’re a freak.  But who would you rather be friends with – Bowie or Kenny Rogers?”  Will says “Ugh” and after Johnathan tells him that nobody normal has ever done anything meaningful in this world, Will reasons “Well, some people like Kenny Rogers.” Suddenly, the boy’s mother’s goofy square peg boyfriend Bob appears in the doorway and says “I love Kenny Rogers” as Johnathan looks knowingly as Will as if his point is made.  So, to sum up, in today’s pop culture climate Bowie is cool, Kenny is not. 

Honestly, I don’t think this is a fair assessment because, well, very few people in pop culture are as cool as David Bowie.  Those are very big platform shoes to step in.  And you know what?  I love both David Bowie and Kenny Rogers and I’d want to be friends with them both. I actively collect both David Bowie and Kenny Rogers albums.  What does that say about me?

Kenny Rogers – Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits (1980). Avaiable now at every flea market and thrift store everywhere, approsimatly 13,000,000 copies of this album were sold, and debuted Kenny’s biggest hit of the 1980’s, “Lady” (written by his good friend Lionel Richie). Buy it next time you see one. You won’t regret it.

I just hate that the legacy of Kenny Rogers has been tarnished somehow to the point that he has become  remembered as some middle of the road pop-country corn ball.  The “Stranger Things” dialogue was penned by a script writer who hasn’t really took a deeper look at Kenny’s catalogue, and its an easy deep dive to go into because Kenny Rogers albums are easy to find. In fact, you can find copies of “Kenny Rogers’ Greatest Hits” in most thrift shop bins for a buck everywhere scattered amongst the James Last and Sing Along with Mitch castaways (honestly grab one next time you see one.  It’s a good value and a great listen).   And with Willie Nelson becoming a cultural icon, and Dolly Parton having a revival of popularity, when will Kenny Rogers finally find that cult following amongst music fans which he deserves?  Modern vinyl hipsters love a good outlaw like Johnny Cash or Waylon Jennings, but if you do a deep dive in Kenny’s catalogue you’ll find more songs about sex, death, drinking, infidelity, regret, revenge and redemption than you would expect from this country crooner.  Don’t forget that he was the one who fantasized about taking his gun and putting Ruby “in the ground,” knocked off the Gatlin Boys one by one and  just checked in to see what condition his condition was in.  Kenny Rogers was more than the Gambler.  He was the stoic gentleman outlaw of pop country.

During the 1980’s Willie Nelson, Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton were the holy trinity of country music. Today Dolly is considered a national treasure while Willie is a cultural icon with both artists being embraced by the current generation of record buyers. When will Kenny get the rediscovery and cult following he deserves?

I think the reason that Kenny is remembered as such a corn ball is because at the height of his career he was looking for more and more crossover success, and left the hard hitting country hits behind and started to dabble with more of a contemporary soft pop sound after having big hits with “Islands in the Stream” and “Lady.”  But the irony is, when Kenny was delving into this realm, he did probably the most cutting edge and unexpected move in his career.  Kenny Rogers recorded a song given to him by Prince.  The song was called “You’re My Love” and somehow nobody noticed.  What should have been a legendary moment in Kenny’s career giving him serious industry cred has become no more than an odd footnote in his discography.

Now I know it sounds like Prince and Kenny Rogers would seem like an unlikely pairing.  I mean, its ludicrous.  But is it?  “Lady” was written by Kenny’s good pal Lionel Richie, and “Islands in the Stream,” which he sang with Dolly Parton, was penned by Barry Gibb and was actually intended to be a solo song for Kenny.  Meanwhile, Kenny was doing collaborations with Sheena Easton and Kim Carnes.  Kenny was working with some of the biggest pop music icons of the era.  So, in 1986 as Kenny entered the studio to record his nineteenth studio album, “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To,” Kenny’s attention naturally turned toward Minneapolis because Prince was creating some of the most exciting music of the era.  Beyond his own string of hits, Prince was also writing hits for Morris Day and the Time, Vanity, The Bangles Sheena Easton, Stevie Nicks and Patti LaBelle.  With Kenny looking to evolve into the adult contemporary field, recording a Prince could be a career game changer.

In 1986 Kenny Rogers asked Prince if he could record one of his songs. Prince sent him “You’re My Love,” a left over song from his album “1999.”

To continue this story, lets go to Kenny Rogers in his own words.  In 2016, upon learning of Prince’s unexpected death, Kenny took to social media and paid tribute to The Artist by telling the story.  “I never had the privilege of knowing Prince, but I always wanted to,” Kenny wrote.  “Back in the ’80’s, I had contacted him through a mutual friend to ask if he would write me a song…and he did (“You’re My Love” from the album THEY DON’T MAKE THEM LIKE THEY USED TO). When he sent the song to me, if I remember right, it was him playing all of the instruments on it and he had his background vocals on it. Unfortunately on the finished record, somehow my producer didn’t end up using the music or vocals (the song was re-cut). It was such an incredible thing that Prince took the time to do that for me. He was a brilliant guy and a gifted musician with a lot of feelings, and you could tell his feelings went far deeper than what was written on his face.”

To put this moment of time in perspective, Kenny’s last hit on the Billboard charts was “What About Me,” a forgettable collaboration with Kim Carnes and Billy Dean.  Prince’s last big hit was “Raspberry Beret,” from his 1985 album “Around the World in a Day,” and he was working on a concept album called “Camille” (scheduled to finally see release in 2024 from Third Man Records) and was writing music for “Sign O’ the Times.”  Now to be clear, it seems that Prince didn’t write “You’re My Love” for Kenny Rogers as much as gifted it to him.  Prince experts write that “You’re My Love” was written by Prince in 1982 and was a discarded track from “1999.”  But upon sending it to Kenny Rogers, he requested that it be released as being written by “Johnny Coco.”  This wasn’t an unusual request for Prince, who often put pen names on songs he wrote for other artists, so Prince’s song was left out of the credits.  Of course, this is one of the main reasons the song went unnoticed.

With Prince’s absence on “You’re My Love” recording, the producers brought in pop singer El Debarge, who had a massive hit in 1985 with “Rhtyem of the Night,” to accompany Kenny Rogers.

But its not that Kenny didn’t bring in another top tier 80’s pop star into the studio to work with on “You’re My Love.”  For the backing vocals Kenny brought in El Debarge.  Sure, today you might not put El Debarge in the “top tier” of the pop hierarchy, but Debarge had hit really big a year earlier with “Rhythm of the Night.”  Believe me.  You couldn’t escape that song in 1985 and it was a real banger. 

So with El Debarge singing with him, and Prince as the writer, you’d think this song would pop, right?  Well…it didn’t.  When you listen to “You’re My Love” you can hear a few Prince inspired riffs, but I don’t know if it’s Kenny’s soft pop crooning style or the cheesy electronic string section, but it just falls flat as a song and is something of a nothing track.  Obviously RCA agreed and when it came to selecting the singles for the album, “You’re My Love” was passed over.  The first single, “The Love We Share” was a flop, while the second single “Twenty Years Ago” did make it to #2 on the Country charts.  But overall, “They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To” was a commercial fail – one of Kenny’s first.  Kenny had strayed to far from his outlaw country roots, and he didn’t really fit in with the adult contemporary market of Julio Iglesias and Barbara Streisand very well.   Then he’d go and get that terrible face lift and it was all over.  Meanwhile Prince never acknowledged “You’re My Love.”  Probably not out of embarrassment, but more that he just didn’t care, or didn’t think about it.  The whole thing just went forgotten.

Prince – Originals (2019) Put out in 2019, “Originals” containted previous unreleased tracks of songs Prince wrote for other artists, including his original version of “You’re My Love,” revealing a very different kind of song.

That was until 2019 when Warner Records released a brand new album of previously unreleased material from Prince’s vault called “Originals.” A very special album, the two disc set featured Prince original demos of him performing songs he wrote for other aritsts including hits such as “Nothing Compares 2 You,” “Manic Monday,” “Jungle Love” and “Sex Shooter.” A surprise on the album was the original tape that Prince sent to Kenny Rogers of The Artist performing “You’re My Love,” putting it back on the public’s radar. Although still not one of Prince’s best songs, a very different version of the song was discovered for the first time containing Prince’s siguature brand of funk. Meanwhile, you can hear why Prince chose this particular song for Kenny Rogers. While it isn’t a perfect fit for him, Prince must have recognized that Kenny Rogers could do something with it. I mean, you couldn’t have Kenny singing “Darling Nikki,” “When Doves Cry” or “Sexy Mother Fucker.” Kenny might not make it a hit, but he could sing it at least and Prince was right. Kenny took the gift he was given, recorded it enthusiastically, put it out in the world and didn’t have a hit with it at all. While there is no doubt that the Prince original is a much stronger version, you got to give Kenny kudos at least for trying “You’re My Love” on and making it his own.

Although he seems to be remembered now for his questionable push into the adult contemporary genre, Kenny Rogers’ country music output from the 1970’s is filled with sex, death, drinking, infidelity, regret, revenge and redemption making him country music’s gentelman outlaw.

And that’s why we don’t remember that Kenny Rogers was cool, but I swear to you, he was.  Forget all you think you know about Kenny Rogers and go back in time and start with his work with the First Edition and through his early career up until his 1980 concept album “Gideon.”  There’s a few good tunes after 1980 (“Scarlet Fever” and his cover of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” with Sheena Easton come to mind immediately), but the 70’s is really his best era.  You’ll find not only a lot of great songs, but ones filled with powerful emotional depth and story telling that draws you in.  Kenny was one of the greats, and although he has his die hard fans, he is getting sadly ignored by new audiences.

But who was that mutual friend that contacted Prince on Kenny’s behalf?  It wasn’t revealed, but I’d bet my hat that it was Lionel Richie.  Lionel and Kenny were good friends and collaborated constantly, and one of the projects they worked closely together almost had Prince on it.  That song was “We Are the World,” and Lionel has talked openly about his troublesome conversations with Prince about it.  But that’s a whole other Vinyl Story.

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