Kenny Rogers’ First Decade in the Music Industry Was Spent Playing Bass in Houston Jazz Clubs

by Josh Lanier

It’s hard to imagine The Gambler plucking out experimental bass licks on an instrument he didn’t really understand, but that was how the beginning of his career went. Kenny Rogers explained that when he started playing nightclubs in Houston, things were much different.

Rogers explained to Texas Monthly that in the 1950s and 1960s, there were enough guys like him. What bands were looking for someone versatile. Rogers wasn’t exactly that either, but he was willing to give it a try.

“I was 19 years old and played mediocre to somewhat good guitar,” Rogers recalled. “And I met Bobby Doyle. And he asked me to come and join his jazz group. I said, ‘I don’t play near well enough to play jazz.’ And he said, ‘I don’t want you to play guitar. I want you to play bass.’ And I said, ‘I don’t play bass at all.’ And he said, ‘I’ll teach you how to play bass. And there’s more demand for bad bass players than for bad guitar players.’ I thought was pretty good logic. So he taught me.

“I worked for 10 years with him this really avant-garde jazz group, and we worked three different clubs every day. We worked from 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. in what’s called a cocktail job. We worked from 8 p.m. to midnight for what was called a dance club and then worked from 12:30 till 3 a.m. on an after-hours job. So we were very busy and extremely successful. I was making a lot of money when I was nineteen doing those jobs.”

But it was these jobs that taught him how to perform, and more importantly, how to entertain crowds — no matter who they were.

“The after-hours gig was the real learning experience,” Rogers said. “We had to entertain them and threw in-jokes from time to time. They got a great response, and we were incredibly successful at that job.”

Kenny Rogers Passes Knowledge Along to Next Generation

It’s a lesson he passed on to Travis Tritt. Playing music you enjoy is worth 10 times more than playing music you don’t.

Kenny Rogers told me years and years ago,” Tritt explained to American Songwriter, “‘You know what success is? Success is doing things because you want to, not because you have to. If you go out and do it just because you love the music, the money, and the success and all the other stuff that goes along with that will probably come to some extent.”

Despite all of his success, Tritt hasn’t forgotten what Rogers told him.

“But whether it does or whether it doesn’t, it doesn’t really matter,” Tritt continued. “As long as you’re out there doing what you love, having an effect on people, and watching what the music you’re creating does to people. How it becomes the soundtrack of so many people’s lives and how powerful that is.’”