Gary James' Interview With
Kenny Rogers Tribute Artist
He is the number one Kenny Rogers tribute artist, and for good reason! He's been featured on Oprah!, Jay Leno's Tonight Show and CNN News to name just a few. He's performed in the States, Canada, Asia, England, Ireland, Mexico and Australia. He looks like Kenny Rogers. He sounds like Kenny Rogers. He's got it all going for him. He is Marty Edwards.
Marty talked with us about what it's like to do a Kenny Rogers tribute.
Q - Marty, as tribute acts go, what a great talent to be doing a tribute to!
A - Oh, yeah.
Q - The love that people have for Kenny Rogers surpasses that of the "hotter" stars out there today.
A - Absolutely right.
Q - I like to think that I saw Kenny Rogers at the height of his career. It was back in August, 1978 at the New York State Fair and he was singing with Dottie West.
A - Ooooh, man! It's funny you mention that. We're actually doing a Kenny Rogers / Dottie West show here (in Canada). Dottie West is one of my all time favorites. I work with a Dolly Parton (tribute artist) and I have a lot of fun doing the duets, but "Everytime Two Fools Collide" and "Til I Can Make It On My Own", just such wonderful songs.
Q - I take it you never had the opportunity to see Kenny Rogers and Dottie West perform together.
A - No, I didn't. I wiwh I had. Of all the female vocalists, I think she's at the top of my list. She was such a great talent. A great voice. So smooth.
Q - Now, I'm referring to you as "the number one Kenny Rogers tribute." Is that how you bill yourself, or is that how others see you? Where is that coming from?
A - That's typically on a lot of my promo stuff. It comes from agents I've worked with, producers, promoters as well as my peers. The Kenny Rogers guys, there's not a lot of us out there who make a living at it, we show up once in awhile at one of the conventions. Where a lot of the other acts, the Chers and Tim McGraws, you can see daggers, whereas for some reason all the Kenny guys, we all hang out together, not that there's a great number of them, but the ones that do, we hang out together and have a great time.
Q - So, you're telling me you do this full-time?
A - Yeah. Absolutely.
Q - You're in a unique position then.
A - I feel extremely blessed to be able to do something I love doing and you get paid to do it. I always tell people I'm onstage and do the singing for free because it comes from my heart. What I get paid for is the travel I gotta do and all the other stuff.
Q - You were in a Country act before you decided to go out as a Kenny Rogers tribute. Where did this Country band perform?
A - It was mostly a circuit through Southern Ontario (Canada). It was a three piece Country band. I love Country music, always have. I also like some of what I would say is the Classic Soft Rock. Sometimes there's not a lot of difference between that and some Country songs. I did that for a number of years. Actually I got quite jaded in the whole music business. We had a couple of managers that didn't treat us the way they should have. I missed some opportunities because of it. Greed entered into it. Not on our part. We just wanted to play and sing and maybe do some records. So I got quite jaded. I left the music business and went back to university and got a degree in computer science. But I think when it's in your blood, it's in your blood. It wasn't long before I came around into the music thing again and started doing a solo act, which I'd never done before. I've always been in either bands and tried different things in various bands as we all do. But I'd never done a solo act. I'm a very shy person. A lot of folks who don't know me before say "You gotta be kidding! I see what you do onstage." I don't know where it comes from to be honest with you. It's just there.
Q - It's not that strange. A lot of performers are shy offstage.
A - I think you're right, yeah.
Q - As a solo act, are you traveling with your own band or is the venue providing you with a band?
A - It varies. When I go over to Australia, it's an Australian band. This is our sixth year going over there that I've worked with them. They're absolutely awesome. Great musicians. Gary Puckett and B.J. Thomas take their band. With impersonators, it's a little bit different. We obviously don't have the same stature in the industry by any means. It helps the promoter by using an Australian band, to bring over an impersonator. And they love American impersonators there.
Q - Now see, you refer to yourself as an impersonator rather than a tribute artist. There are tribute artists who take offence to that word "impersonator."
A - Oh, really?
Q - Impersonator is a dirty word in tribute artist circles.
A - I've heard that. I use the term because it differentiates between somebody who, let's say a Kenny Rogers tribute, who gets up, sings some Kenny Rogers' songs and doesn't have the look, doesn't know the sound and doesn't have the mannerisms of Kenny Rogers. But an impersonator is someone who, when you go and see that person, it's like you're watching Kenny Rogers. That's the way it's supposed to be, in my book anyway.
Q - It wasn't until a record producer by the name of James Bowers told you that you look like Kenny Rogers that you decided to put a Kenny Rogers tribute act together. Is that true?
A - Yeah. I mentioned I got out of the music business. When I started to get back in, and I had some original material I had writen, I thought, I want to go in the studio and do it right. I had just written a song for my wife. It would be a surprise for her. So, I found a studio and went in and talked to the guy. We sat down and did this song. I was very happy with the way it turned out. I thought, I can't just leave it at that. I have to do some more. I did an album with him. When we were chatting, doing mix downs and talking about the business, he said "You ever thought about doing a Kenny Rogers tribute?" I said "No, never have." I always had the look. In bands, we'd done Kenny Rogers material. Even back to his First Edition days, I was a big Kenny Rogers fan. I never thought any more about it. We all have our pet charities. For me, it's abused kids. I had a good upbringing and my Dad believed in corporal punishment, but I was not abused by any stretch of the imagination. He was more a disciplinarian. But I saw abused kids on TV and it tears your heart out. I read in a Readers Digest a story in May or June 1998 about (abused) kids. Thinking about it now, it gives me a shiver. I said "I wish I could do something." My wife said "You always say that, but you never do anything. Do something!" We ended up producing a benefit concert with some buddies I knew in the music business. I thought, I'm doing some of my own stuff, some cover stuff. I'll throw a Kenny Rogers thing in just to fill out the show a little bit, have a little fun with it. Three songs. My mom,who was alive at the time, had a coat made for me. It was a three-quarter, sparkling. Very Kenny looking. We did the show and we had 150 people come out to a 300 seat theatre for the show that first year. Every penny went to help abused kids. Everybody donated their time and talents. Some folks afterward said "Are you gonna do it again next year?" I said "Why not? Maybe we'll do a bit better next year." "Are you gonna do the Kenny Rogers thing?" I said "I don't know. Maybe not!" They said Oh, yeah, 'cause we want to bring people back." Just from there it mushroomed to where I met Kenny a couple of times. I performed in Malaysia, England, Ireland, Mexico, Australia. It's been an absolutely wonderful career for me.
Q - Did you look like Kenny Rogers when you were in the studio? Did you have the beard?
A - Yeah. Always had that.
Q - When you would walk down the street, would anyone ever say "Is that Kenny Rogers?" or "Are you Kenny Rogers?"
A - I had that so many times. Somebody would say "I thought you were Kenny Rogers." I haven't really changed anything looks-wise. It's always been that look. I've had people come up to me at the airport and say "Are you Kenny Rogers? You sure look like him." That's been an absoulte hoot. When people ask me "Are you Kenny Rogers?" I always say "no," even after I started doing the shows. I say I do a tribute to Kenny Rogers. I'm an impersonator and maybe I give them my card. I had this one lady on the street, it was an outdoor restaurant and she stopped me going back. She said "Could I get a picture?" I said "Absolutely. Sure!" So she had somebody take a picture of the two of us together. I said "You know who I am?" She said "Yeah, you're Kenny Rogers." I go "No, I'm an impersonator, tribute artist." She actually got really upset. She said "Why did you have to tell me that? I was quite happy. This had made my day, made my year. I'm such a big Kenny Rogers fan. And here I thought I met him." After that, I never specifically passed myself off as Kenny Rogers, but if somebody asked me, "Are you Kenny Rogers, I'll say no. If they want to assume that, I'll let them take the picture. I think of myself as kind of a Kenny Rogers Ambassador.
Q - There you go.
A - When I met him, one of the last things he said to me was "Dont go out and get me in trouble." I kind of took that to heart and I make sure that I would never, ever do that. And I always show Kenny in a good light.
Q - Is the reaction to Kenny Rogers songs pretty much the same, no matter where you go?
A - In Malaysia they tend to be not as outgoing. Actually the promoter said "Don't expect the people to be applauding. They don't do that here." One of the shows was for the Buddhist Society. Going over there I thought to myself, do these people know Kenny Rogers' songs? It turns out they do. They still have in Malaysia a lot of the Kenny Rogers Roasters Restaurants. They didn't do well over here, but they flourish over there. They're certainly adding more. So, he's considered a bit of a celebrity of there. They knew the songs. I think the funniest one would be Ireland. Ireland, as you know, is like a lot of pubs, sing-a-long type things. They have that sort of pub mentality or atmosphere, even when they go to a show. One of the lines in "Ruby" is Don't take your love to town. But in Ireland they sing along and it took me by surprise right off the bat. They were singing something different. After the song I said "I gotta know what you were all singing there." Almost in unison they said Don't take your knickers down! It just broke me up. But they love the songs and they sing along. Ireland, pretty much every song they would sing along.
Q - The first time you met Kenny Rogers was in Billings, Montana in 1998. How did you arrange a backstage meeting with him? Did you know someone in his organization?
A - No. Here's how that came about: I was booked to do this outdoor show in Billings, Montana. It was a July long weekend. I didn't know that Kenny Rogers was going to be in town. It was at the time when the Goldwing Road Riders Association was doing their annual rally. They get like ten to fifteen thousand motorcycles of these Goldwings. So they block some of the streets off and they have these shows and concerts outside. I did three shows on that particular Saturday. They had a lot of other artists. There was an Elvis impersonator. Other than that it was a Blues band, a Rock band, that type of thing. The last show, I came off, I'm swamped by people who want autographs. "I'm not Kenny Rogers. I'm an impersonator." This guy came up and said "You know Kenny Rogers is in town." I said "Yeah, I saw the bus as I was walking by." He said "I'm the promoter for the show. Kenny and I were having supper across the road," right across the street from where the stage was. It was a place called Jake's Steak House. A great steak house in Billings. "He saw your show, liked it and asked me to invite you to his show." So he got backstage tickets, or ticket. It was just me. I got to meet him there. There's two parts to this I want to tell you. One is, I'm backstage with the Mayor of Billings, the Governor of Montana and all these other dignataries. I get to meet Kenny. We got to chat. I get a picture. We chat briefly 'cause there were a few other people. I came back out and you could tell there's this "Aaah" in the crowd. They thought it was Kenny coming out. This very attractive woman comes up to me and said "Could we get a picture together?" I said "You know who I am?" She said "You're Kenny Rogers." I said "No. I'm not. I'm kind of Kenny." It turns out she was Miss Montana for that year. The other hook to this story, which I absolutely love, is about five years ago now I got booked with a Dolly Parton I work with in Billings, Montana for the same rally that Kenny was there for. They took me in the dressing room and said "Just want you to know this is the dressing room Kenny had." For me it was very special.
Q - How long of a time did you have to talk with Kenny Rogers backstage?
A - We had maybe three or four minutes.
Q - Was he joking with you about your appearance?
A - Yeah. He was very good. Unless I'm told not to, I like to do a meet and greet after the show. I've talked to a lot of people. Sometimes Kenny's demeanor is maybe not the best for the fans. They'll say he was in a bit of a snip and he wasn't very nice. So, I try to smooth that kind of stuff over.
Q - I wonder what he's got to be mad about.
A - I don't know. I've seen him a number of times. I always like to see if he's doing something new. And I saw him on this one show. There was a little old lady who brought up an album she had, a Kenny Rogers album. She obviously had it for years and it was important to her and she just wanted him to sign it. He just waved her away. I know it upset her.
Q - Of course, when he's singing, he's probably thinking, what am I supposed to do? Stop the show and sign the album for her?
A - Oh, yeah. I can understand that.
Q - Now, in 2003, you're at one of his concerts, and he stopped the show and introduced you to the audience?
A - Yeah.
Q - He got you to stand up?
A - Yeah. He got me to stand up and sort of turn around so everybody could see me. He said "Sometime we should do 'Reuben James' together." We've never done it, of course. To be honest with you, I don't know if he remembered me from Billings or not.
Q - You must have been sitting fairly close to the stage for him to see you.
A - Front row.
Q - Did he introduce you by name?
A - No.
Q - As a tribute artist, you've achieved more than most tribute artists. So what's left for you? Is there anything you'd like to do that you haven't done at this point?
A - The only thing which would absolutely make it incredible for me would be to actually be onstage with Kenny sometime. I love doing the show. I love meeting people. Probably 20% of the shows I do every year are for charity, a fund raiser, a good cause. And there are so many good causes. You can't posibly do everything that everyone brings to you. I think it's important for any artist to give back to the community.
Q - How may shows would you say you do a year?
A - I would say a hundred shows a year.
Q - Your busy season in probably summer.
A - Yeah, but winter too. Australia is six weeks at a time. Man, it is gruelng. But there's never been a point where I've gotten tired of doing it, even on a show where it was the same thing every night for an extended period of time. The very last show and the very last song still gets all of my feeling because I sing from the heart. Every song that comes out, that's why it's there. I never get tired of it. It never gets old for me.
Q - That you're able to make a living from that means that you're doing better than most tribute artists I"ve talked to.
A - I've been extremely blessed and a lot of the business I get is repeat business. I've got a lot of promoters that if they want to present a Kenny Rogers, it'll be me. If I'm not available, they wouldn't look at another Kenny Rogers.
Q - That's a real tribute to you!
A - Yeah. I'm extremely blessed. I've worked with some amazing people. If for some reason tomorrow I couldn't do shows anymore, I would say, you know what? It's far exceeded where I thought I could go with it.