Kenny Rogers was a big deal at the Golden Nugget. Bigger, even, than blackjack.
“Kenny played the lounge in those days, before the showroom was built, and it held about 250 people,” says Norm Johnson, who ran entertainment publicity at the hotel from 1974 to 1977. “When he started having hits, there was such an overflow of people to see him we had to take out all the 21 tables.
“The dealers couldn’t deal cards with all the people crowding around and climbing across the tables.”
A ground-breaking headliner at Golden Nugget when Steve Wynn owned the hotel, Rogers died Friday night of natural causes at his home in Sandy Springs, Ga. He was 81.
Recognize anyone? Kenny used to hold these at UNLV. Quite a few Vegas regulars here. pic.twitter.com/HXoXSEXQ3y
— Classic Las Vegas (@classiclasvegas) September 30, 2019
Rogers was lured to the Golden Nugget from his lounge gig at Riviera to generate a bonafide country-western atmosphere downtown. Through his headlining run, such stars as Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson, Barbara Mandrell, Roger Miller and Johnny Paycheck headlined the lounge.
Johnson recalls that when “Lucille” kicked off a string of top-selling hits for Rogers in ‘77, the singer was making about $3,000 to $4,000 a week at the hotel. Soon his pay was bumped to $15,000 to $20,000, and the budding superstar turned back offers of $300,000 from Strip resorts as “The Gambler” became a monster hit.
As Rogers explained in a 2016 interview, “I was performing to 20,000 people outside of Las Vegas, and was working for about 800 people a show in Vegas, five shows a night — and I had two weeks to go. I did it for Steve because he believed in me. I’m a believer that if you commit to something, you have to do it.”
Rogers’ run downtown captured a moment in time in Las Vegas.
“He was so much fun to work with, there was nothing conceited about him,” Johnson says. “In fact, they were all great — Barbara Mandrell and Willie Nelson were also really fun to work with. Those were some great times in this city.”
Rogers also hosted an annual charity softball tournament at UNLV, benefiting the Nevada Special Olympics, throughout the 1970s. The event drew celebs across the 70s entertainment galaxy. Those taking the diamond included Rogers’ former band First Edition, Jerry Lewis, Dionne Warwick, Steve Martin, Bernadette Peters, Rich Little, Alice Cooper, Roy Clark, Pat Boone, Mandrell, Leif Garrett and Barbi Benton.
At its peak in 1977, the event drew a then-record crowd of 5,000 at Earl Wilson Stadium at UNLV.
“He had that kind of power, that celebrity to bring all those people together,” Johnson says. “He was a real superstar.”
Tony Orlando, a recurring headliner at South Point Showroom, forged a strong bond with Rogers early in his career. A headliner in Las Vegas dating to the early 1970s as front man for recording and TV stars Tony Orlando & Dawn, Orlando met Rogers and his brother, Lelan, in 1962.
Orlando and sidekicks Telma Hopkins and Joyce Vincent Wilson were featured on the syndicated music show “Rolling On The River,” hosted by Rogers and the First Edition from 1971 to 1973.
“That show was one of the first to showcase myself, Telma and Joyce,” Orlando said in a text Saturday. “He was a truly great man, and a great talent. There is not a nation on this planet that does not know and love the music, and that voice of his. It’s a great loss.”
John Katsilometes’ column runs daily in the A section. His PodKats podcast can be found at reviewjournal.com/podcasts. Contact him at email@example.com. Follow @johnnykats on Twitter, @JohnnyKats1 on Instagram.