Still in love with love even after a $60m divorce

Joe Jackson

BELIEVE ME, Kenny Rogers will be gleaming almost transcendentally during his forthcoming gig at Ballinlough Castle. And not just because the sunlight will be bouncing off his white hair! Or even the fact that as the headline act at the Midlands Music Festival he can quite justifiably be crowned king of the castle and is "genuinely excited" about the location.

No, Kenny has a host of other reasons to be blissful right now. For one thing, he's just had his first major American hit in six years - I Can't Unlove You - and it comes from an equally successful album of "provocative" love songs such as the title track Water and Bridges, in which Rogers addresses the sense of loss a man feels as he reflects upon his girlfriend's abortion earlier in life and yearns for the child that could have been.

Then again, similar "soul-searching" questions arose relatively recently in Rogers's own life when he had to decide whether or not to have a child with his fifth wife, Wanda. The singer finally opted to do so, prompted in part by the realisation that it would otherwise be "unfair to take her child-bearing years". And this brings us to the heart of the real reason Kenny is beaming these days. You see, at the seasoned age of 67 he's the daddy of 22-month-old twins.

Rogers, incidentally, has three other children from previousmarriages, and is rated sixth on an internet site listing the '10 Most Expensive Celebrity Divorce Settlements', as a result of the $60m he gave to wife number four, Marianne. So long Marianne, indeed!

This kind of "silly money" - and Kenny agrees with the phrase - could have purchased the federal housing project in which he and his seven siblings were raised, the high school Rogers began to attend at 13, where he noticed "I was the only one with holes in my jeans", and maybe half of Houston, Texas, at the time. Yet despite being poor, Rogers still had a "fun childhood" - even if it was occasionally blighted by his dad's tendency to drink the housekeeping money. But one plus came out of thelatter and Kenny's adolescent desire to be an athlete, and that is the fact that during his "entire lifetime" he hasn't drunk "even a gallon of alcohol!" and likewise has resisted drugs.

But with five marriages under his belt, in every sense, Kennyobviously became addicted towomen, right?

"That's a pretty astute observation!" he laughs. "But, yeah, I did and that was one of the reasons I became a musician at high school. To get the girls! Yet the other reason was that when I was 12 I went to see Ray Charles and I just loved the fact that everybody laughed at his jokes and clapped every time he sang. So I decided, 'This is what I want to do in life' - even though I didn't even know if I could sing! But, seriously, as a singer Ray Charles came from such an honest place emotionally, and that is what I've always tried to do, sing about what people know and what people care about."

Strangely enough, when Rogers was 19 he met a man who was "blind and played music like Ray" so, not surprisingly, Kenny joined that guy's jazz group, where he stayed for 10 years. Then came his time with the legendary New Christy Minstrels, which lasted until he and three fellow minstrels formed the First Edition and broke though with hits such as Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In) and Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town. By that stage, Kenny had been married for the first time, had fathered a child and divorced, and his second marriage was falling apart. But back when Rogers got his first 'hit' from the female of the species was he driven by a desire for love and romance or was he just another horny teenager?

"Probably just horny!" he responds. "Because romance takes time to develop, doesn't it? But I soon realised that I love being in love, and I love the high you do get from caring about someone and having someone care about you. That's a great place to be, and this is something I realised not long after I left high school. And the first time I fell in love, we'd already been friends, but then it blossomed into something more. I became more grown-up - partly because my mother always taught me to respect women - so my first love became my first marriage.

"But that lasted only two years because her mother didn't believe in the marriage and came and took her away from me. Yet that's when I realised I loved being married so I got married again, almost immediately. That only lasted three years because we finally realised, 'This isn't right' - and in the end, it was boring for me and for her. So then I met this girl and that was a really exciting relationship, which lasted 12 years, and out of it we had a son. In fact, the first nine years were as good as it gets, and it was only the last few that got ugly. I was touring a lot and that is part of what killed the marriage."

Then came Marianne, the spouse who ended up with $60m. But what's really revealing is the fact that following the settlement Rogers said, "She deserves every penny," and he stands by that assertion. Largely because the couple met when he was in the First Edition but by the time that band broke up Kenny owed $60,000, "didn't have a dime" and Marianne "stood behind" him all the way.

So how did Rogers turn potential bankruptcy into a fortune that is currently estimated to be $250m? First, he noticed that country singer Charlie Rich was having huge hits with songs such as Behind Closed Doors during the mid-Seventies, and said, "I want his audience," and then proceeded to net that very demographic, and more, with singles such as Lucille, Coward of the County and Islands in the Stream.

Rogers also opened a chain of restaurants, a design company, bred Arabian horses and bought entertainment centres and recording studios, and started his own record label. "But Marianne really did deserve the 60 million because she is a great girl and we had a perfect marriage for 15 years," he says. "In fact, everything was fine until our son Christopher was born - but I wouldn't want him to take any responsibility for this - because that's when Marianne stopped touring with me and stayed home to take care of him, and then when I came home from touring or doing a tennis tournament, I found that our lifestyles were clashing. So one day we just said, 'Life is short, we deserve to be happy, let's find something else to do with our lives,' and the marriage ended."

How did Christopher respond?

"I remember when I told him - we were out in a golf cart together - I said, 'Chris, your mom and I are going to get a divorce,' and he started screaming. I said, 'It's going to be OK, I won't spend as much time with you but the time I spend will be quality time,' and he said, 'But will you still be my dad?' So I told him, 'Of course', and he said, 'I thought Mom was going to remarry and somebody else was going to be my dad and I could never tell people you were my daddy and you wouldn't look at me like I'm your son.' It was just a 12-year-old sorting out those things in his head, but then he was fine." Rogers readily accepts that parents in such a situation must work "extra hard" in order to sustain relationships with their children. "And in this sense, Marianne has been absolutely wonderful to Wanda, very supportive," he says. "Ex-wives can make current wives miserable, but Marianne doesn't do that. She sees I'm happy and that makes her happy. For example, she'll send me a birthday greeting card, or whatever. But nothing goes across my desk that Wanda doesn't know about. Because to me the definition of an affair is anything you can't tell your spouse about, even if it is only having coffee with someone else. If you can't tell, there is a hidden agenda. Also, if you don't tell, then they imagine the worst."

Indeed. So how exactly did Kenny - who "no, never" went through an abortion experience with any woman - respond when Wanda first said, if she did, that she wanted children?

"Actually, before we married my position was, 'Been there, done that', so I told her, 'I don't want any more kids' and she said, 'I don't either,'" he claims. "But Wanda hadn't had any kids, so I said, 'That may be your choice now but when you turn 30 your body is going to say, Have a baby now or miss it forever' and she said, 'Not me'. Yet on her 31st birthday Wanda, sure enough, asked, 'Can we have one?' So I did some soul-searching and realised it was unfair of me to take her childbearing years. I also didn't want her to wake up at 50 and me be dead and for her to have to say, 'I wish I hadn't married Kenny, I could have had kids.'

"So we went for it, and when I was told it was twins, man, I was thrilled. So was Wanda. It wasn't just 'We are going to have a baby' it was totally overwhelming."

Yet that still leaves another key question that must be faced by all ageing parents - 'Should I bring a child into the world when I know I probably won't be there to share, for example, their 21st birthday?'

"That bothers me on a daily basis," Kenny admits. "Someone will be talking about his or her child going to college and it breaks my heart. And that was the reason I didn't want children again. Because I knew I wouldn't be there at the prime of their lives. But it's that half-full/half-empty thing, because I get so much joy out of my children now and they are such a blessing to Wanda and me. They have drawn us together in a way that even sex can't."

But surely, in the end, if Wanda and Kenny Rogers get it right as parents they can lay down the kind of emotional foundation for the twins that might compensate for the fact that he may not be there for their 21st birthday? "I agree, totally," he says, smiling. "And I think being a father is what I'm best at. Even if it did take me five attempts to get here! But maybe anybody who doesn't get it right after five marriages doesn't deserve to!"

© Joe Jackson

The Midlands Music Festival, Ballinlough Castle, Athboy, Co Meath, is on July 28/29. Tickets, from ?65, from Ticketmaster or by ringing (081) 871-9300.