Bayou City

Go Inside Kenny Rogers's Houston

Greetings from the fabulous Shamrock Hotel...
Greetings from the fabulous Shamrock Hotel... Hilton College Hospitality Archives/University of Houston
Unless the tour is extended past October, which is not out of the question, tonight could very well be the last time Kenny Rogers performs for a hometown audience. Now 78 years old, the singer of “The Gambler,” “Lucille” and dozens of other country and pop hits has already been through the area once on this farewell tour, “The Gambler’s Last Deal,” October 2016 at Stafford Centre. Tonight’s show at the Redneck Country Club – note: It’s early, doors open at 6 p.m. – amounts to an unexpected encore, one more chance for fans to snuggle with their dates on “Lady” or ride out a gnarly ‘60s flashback on “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”

Rogers was born on August 28, 1938, at St. Joseph’s Infirmary, the present-day St. Joseph’s Medical Center, a short trip across downtown Houston from his childhood home on the outskirts of Fourth Ward. The city he describes in his 2012 memoir, Luck or Something Like It – a play off the title of his 1978 album Love or Something Like It – is altogether a homelier and less hurried place, but it hasn’t vanished completely. In the book, the singer recalls buying his first guitar with money he earned working as a busboy at the Rice Hotel (now Rice Lofts); newly married with a baby, Rogers once sold office supplies at the Gulf Building, today part of JP Morgan Chase’s downtown portfolio. So to give the Gambler a proper sendoff, the Houston Press decided to spotlight a few key locations from Rogers's years in the Bayou City that, in one way or another, helped set him on the path to stardom.

Allen Parkway Village in 2008 - TEXAS STATE HANDBOOK ONLINE
Allen Parkway Village in 2008
Predecessor of public-housing project Allen Parkway Village, San Felipe Courts were built in the early 1940s for white defense workers and their families, displacing many African-American residents of Fourth Ward in the process. Tensions persisted after many Vietnamese refugees settled there in the 1970s, and in 1991 Texas Monthly described the area as “dilapidated.” After years of back-and-forth between residents, developers and government officials, the development — which once contained nearly 1,000 units — underwent a major renovation in the mid-'90s and, with about half as many dwellings, is known today as Historic Oaks at Allen Parkway Village.

Kenny Says: After the Courts were built, the city put up a fence between the Courts and what was left of the black section. At that young age, I didn’t know why people were separated or even think to ask. It was just the way things were. I’m sure there must have been some bad feelings among the African Americans about that fence, but I never felt any hostility.

click to enlarge Kenny Rogers performing at UH's Frontier Fiesta in 1981 - UNIVERSITY OF HOUSTON LIBRARIES/WIKIPEDIA
Kenny Rogers performing at UH's Frontier Fiesta in 1981
Built in 1929, the school located at West Gray and Taft is now known as Wharton Dual Language Academy and serves as HISD’s dual-language magnet school (hence the name) from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade, also functioning as a regular elementary school from grades 1-5. In the magnet program, kindergarten students receive 80 percent of their lessons in Spanish; classes offered to seventh and eighth graders include Texas History, Spanish for Native Speakers and AP Spanish.

Kenny Says: My goal was anonymity. Being considered an average student was plenty good enough for me, and that’s what I was. I think I probably had a little attention deficit disorder, but of course there was no such diagnosis back then. I was just considered a hyper kid. I had a lot of energy and was a little scattered.

In May 2016, after months (if not years) of uncomfortable debate, the HISD Board of Trustees voted to rename Jeff Davis High and six other schools named after prominent Confederate figures. Enter Northside High School. Some six decades earlier, Rogers met a slightly younger Jeff Davis classmate who, Rogers recalls, pleaded to join his doo-wop group at the time, the Scholars. Eventually this kid became not only one of the most respected and successful singer-songwriters of his day, but the author of Rogers’s late-’60s/early-’70s group the First Edition’s breakthrough hit. His name was Mickey Newbury, and the song was “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”

Kenny Says: Mickey liked to write music, and one day when he brought us a song he had made up, I honestly don’t think we took him seriously. You’d have to know Mickey to appreciate this, but he wasn’t insulted in the least. That guy never met a problem he couldn’t solve if he put his mind to it. His solution was, he’d go home and lock himself in his bedroom for a month or two and practice. No one saw him for the entire summer.

I don’t know how he did it, but the next time he sang and played for us, we were dumbfounded. He could play and he could really sing!

If you have trouble picturing the Shamrock Hotel, remember the monolith James Dean’s character Jett Rink erects out of spite in the 1956 film Giant. (Or else ask your grandparents.) Known for its enormous (a.k.a. “Texas-size”) swimming pool, the Shamrock was built in 1949 by legendary oil wildcatter Glenn McCarthy — who, it is said, was even wilder than Jett Rink — and later purchased by the Hilton chain, looming at Holcombe and Main until its demolition in 1987. Across the street was an after-hours joint called the Showbiz, where Rogers racked up valuable experience as a member of blind pianist Bobby Doyle’s jazz trio. In his memoir, some of the celebrities Rogers remembers playing for are George Carlin, Liza Minnelli and Bonanza star Lorne Greene.

Kenny Says: One of my favorites was Tony Bennett, who came by every time he was in town. There were times when Bobby would get sloshed, then go onstage. Tony would say, “Bobby, can I come up and sing a song?” and Bobby would say, “In a minute, Tony.” I’m surprised Tony stayed our friend, but he did.

Boasting it had more than 200 rooms, a 1968 ad for this motel near the Southwest Freeway and Kirby also offers “radio; TV; telephone; free parking; heated swimming pool; coffee shop; dining room; gift shop; Houstonaire Club; convention facilities. Send for free pamphlet.” Rogers remembers it as the site of his telephone audition for popular ‘60s folk-pop group the New Christy Minstrels. He got the job and lasted about a year before he joined the First Edition. By the late ‘70s, the hotel had become the Colonel Sanders Inn; evidently the KFC kingpin branched out into other forms of hospitality at some point. An Olive Garden is on the site today.

Kenny Says: Now people were starting to turn around and look at me singing a folk song in the lobby of a hotel on a pay phone. I was trying to sing softly so as not to create too much of a disturbance, but Mike [Settle, the Minstrels’ musical director] wouldn’t have it.

“Can you sing a little louder, Kenny? I’m having trouble hearing you.”

I said to myself, You bet I can. After all, this might be the difference between having a job and not having a job next year.

Lobby or not, I started singing at full volume.

In the mid-’60s, weary of road life and figuring they’d always have a place to play, Rogers and his Bobby Doyle Three bandmates pitched in to purchase an after-hours club not terribly far from the Showbiz. The go-go dancers in the large picture window soon earned the Act III a spot of notoriety. “City of Houston would threaten to shut club down because the hottie go go’s were causing accidents coming under the overpass where the glass window was,” Carol Jacob wrote on the website in 2014. Not long after Rogers sold his interest, the Act III became a regular stop for a pair of blues-minded Beaumont brothers named Edgar and Johnny Winter.

Kenny Says: Unfortunately it didn’t last long. The waiters got rich, and we made nothing. When you’re onstage, you can’t watch everyone who works for you and they knew it. You can’t stop the hired help from stealing if that’s what their mission is. We fed them as long as we could; then we quit.
Note: an earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Rogers would be performing with Dottie West, who passed away in 1991. His partner Friday was Linda Davis. The Houston Press regrets the error.
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Chris Gray has been Music Editor for the Houston Press since 2008. He is the proud father of a Beatles-loving toddler named Oliver.
Contact: Chris Gray