Bobby Daniels is the supreme accompanist. He’s pushing a decade as Kenny Rogers’ drummer, and if you’ve seen Rogers in concert, you know the wide variety of material he offers his audiences. As Rogers roams the circular stage in the round, making sure he’s visible to everyone, Bobby is watching and anticipating his next move. During “Coward Of The County, ” Rogers throws a punch and Bobby is on top of it with a dramatic cymbal crash. It’s Bobby who provides the bounce to “Love Will Turn Us Around” which propels Rogers with equal bounce. Then, as the lights dim, Rogers goes into the beautiful “Lady,” which Bobby accompanies with sweet dynamics and punctuating tom fills.
What is his objective? “No matter who I am working for, I am dedicated to the responsibility of making that person look good. If it goes well for the performer, the people who paid for the seats out there are happy. If they’re happy and the performer is happy, it means I’m doing my job well.”
Bobby was raised between Philadelphia, where he was born and his mother lived, and Greenville, North Carolina, where his father resided after his parents’ separation. When Bobby first went out on his own, he moved to Durham, North Carolina, and played off the Duke University campus. It was there that he came in contact with the Drifters.
After Bobby moved to Nashville, Kenny Rogers approached him. At that time, Rogers had ended his association with the First Edition and was at the point of bankruptcy, but Daniels dedicated himself to Rogers’ dreams. The dreams came true, but not without a struggle on the part of Bobby, who, accustomed to playing R&B, had difficulty adjusting to country music. He almost left the group, but Rogers’ belief in Daniels prompted him to stay. Nine years later, Bobby is an integral part of the music, as a drummer, and of the business, as coordinator.
RF: You were with the Drifters for a while. When was that and how did that come about?
BD: I guess it was the summer of 1965. I met them in Durham, at a club where I was working with the house band. They only carried a guitar player and a bass player, so I played behind them that night. The next day, when they left, Heft with them for $15 a night, paying my own expenses. It just seemed like it was time to go. I watched some of the things that they were doing and they were dated, so I quickly set out to put together a medley for them and I got involved in the choreography very quickly. These were things I had never done before. Consequently, I didn’t stay at $15 a night. I didn’t make a lot of money doing it, but it was better than $15 a night.
Nevertheless, after about two years, I was singing with the band that they were traveling with. One night, one of the guys in the Drifters said, “We’re looking for another singer,” and this club owner said, “Well, why don’t you use Bobby?” By this time, I was doing all their choreography anyway, so I stopped playing drums with the Drifters, and I started singing with them. I’d play little things during the show, but I primarily stayed off the drums for a couple of years until I moved down to Nashville. When I got to Nashville, Freddie North, an executive vice-president at Nashville Records, encouraged me to produce something because he had the facilities right there with his company. I went in, did a couple of things, and said, “This is my calling.” I learned an awful lot from the Drifters, and I’m still very fond of them. They helped me to make that rough transition from childhood to adulthood. They just said, “Here, these are the dos and don’ts. You do this; you do that.” The greatest thing I learned from the Drifters was how to deal with people, because they genuinely cared about other people. They took away any pessimism that I had. I feel that I owe them a great deal. One night a bass player got sick on a show and I had never played bass before, but I could play the Drifters’ songs on bass. They encouraged me to do that, as opposed to some musicians who would have said, “Hey— don’t do that!” So I played a little bit of bass there for a while, although not of any consequence. The same thing held true for keyboards. One night we didn’t have a keyboard player, but we did have another drummer who could fill in, so I played keyboards. From there I went to Freddie North, and it was like the same teachings. It was just another phase of my life. We’re talking about recording where you’re actually the one sitting behind the board, in control of it.
RF: Had you done any recording?
BD: With the Drifters I had, but nothing where I was producing. The first thing that we did was a remake of an old Shep & The Limelights song, “Daddy’s Home.” I played bass, piano, vibes and drums on this record, so all we had was a guitar player. Trust me when I tell you that it was not a great record, but it was something I was very proud of at the time. Freddie North believed in me so much and he gave me that same type of influential push that the Drifters gave me.
After that, I just kind of hung around. I didn’t really play drums. I was doing quite a bit of writing at the time, with no major success. Every now and then, a couple of dollars would show up here or there for small things, and then I put together a band for Freddie North to go out on the road. He had a hit record out, “Friend Don’t Take Her, She’s All I Got,” in about’71. It was a country song, but he cut it in the R&B market. We did that for a couple of years, and I just kind of hung around until meeting a couple of guys who are now with Kenny’s band.
RF: What provoked you to move to Nashville?
BD: I was always moving. At one point, I kept a little place down in Orlando, one in Atlanta, and one in Miami. Then I just moved to Miami. It seemed that the name “the Drifters” was appropriate. So I had already had a taste of that slower living and I knew that I didn’t want any more of Boston or New York. They’re wonderful to visit. I love these cities, but at that point in time, you really had to have your act together to survive in them. The first time I went to Nashville, the city felt comfortable. I didn’t know anything at all about country music. If an older country song— which I call the B-flat country—came on the radio, I would turn the radio off. Finally, I started playing clubs here or there just to have fun. I ended up playing with Gene Golden and later Steve Glassmeyer, who are two members of Kenny’s band, as a trio. I’d never played in that kind of trio before — one that just played top-40 at clubs. I started doing session work also, although not mainstream, because I was still working at clubs at night. I was in and out of the Gospel idiom, playing a lot of Gospel music and still writing a bit.
Then up jumped Kenny. Steve, Gene and myself had been together for four years, and all of a sudden, there was no Kenny Rogers & the First Edition any more. He wanted to move to Nashville then, because he was basically starting over and it would make more sense if he had a Nashville-based band. The fellow who was going to manage him in Nashville, and who was the manager of George Jones and Tammy Wynette at that time, brought him to see us. The first time Kenny saw us, he thought we were just awful. It was one of those real rare nights, but he came back again. We had become just a little bit complacent within this group, so it was time to do something else. The clubs were just not happening and Kenny was so positive about what he was going to do. We made bets along the way, like it would take one year to bring in a hit. If we didn’t get that hit within one year, it would take another year to get it, but after that, it would take 14 months to host the Tonight Show, and little things like that. We made bets on all of them, just out of fun, and damn if Kenny didn’t win just about every bet. He laid out this blueprint, and from that first meeting, he convinced us of all this. I’m not talking about super salesmanship. When he said it, it made sense that this was going to work.
RF: While he was telling you all this about what he felt was going to happen, had you even worked with him?
BD: No. I used to watch his TV show, Rolling On The River, and I enjoyed a couple of things. But Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, and the music they recorded that stayed close to the old country was out of my league. I was in a rhythm & blues world. That’s all I basically wanted to do. I wasn’t closed-minded; I just made my money at R&B and I was happy doing it. That’s all I’d ever done because I came up basically from the streets with the music. The only formal training I’ve ever had was when I was down in Greenville, North Carolina, from some instructors over at East Carolina University.
RF: So you’re basically self-taught?
BD: Yeah. I’ve since gone back to my reading and updated myself, but working out of Nashville, I didn’t have to read that often. It’s a completely different system in the studios than it is, say, in New York or Los Angeles. They jokingly say that, with the number charts over in Nashville, you can take a piece of paper about the size of your hand and write out a whole song. I don’t want to mislead you there. There’s reading in commercials, but in most of the record dates, they don’t use it that much. Now, more and more, there are a lot of L. A. producers who are going to Nashville and who want everything written out. The musicians in Nashville are really, really excellent. All the people who play on the “countriest” of songs can just turn around and walk into a jazz idiom. They’ve been labeled because of all the country music, but these musicians stand up to musicians anywhere in the world.
RF: Who have been some of the influential drummers in your life?
BD: I’ve always been fascinated with Bernard Purdie’s drumming and, of course, Gadd. But more so, I think the people who I respect are session drummers from Nashville like Larrie Londin, who I think is an awesome drummer. Technically, he’s brilliant—a very powerful drummer. He helped me make that transition to country music. But then, too, I know him as just people, and he’s such a gentle man. Kenny Malone is a technician. He says, “Give me ten minutes to figure out something clever here.” He’s that kind of drummer with very intricate tuning, and he is a beautiful man. Bill Harris, who does all of the TV things out of Nashville, was influential. Jerry Carrigan is a very dear friend of mine. I studied him a lot. At times, when I was making the transition, he was very encouraging. He’s a nice man as well as one of the best cymbal players in that city.
RF: When you hooked up with Kenny, he was basically at the point of bankruptcy. If you’d never even played on the same stage with him at this point, what accounted for the dedication?
BD: There was something about him. He saw all this. I don’t know if he saw it to the degree that he’s come to see it, and I don’t want to be trite and say he had a dream. He just said, “I’ve made so many mistakes in my career before. I now feel that I can approach this industry with the business sense that it takes to survive in it.” You felt it from his speaking about it. It really is hard to describe because we’re not talking about a super sale. He came to the club one night, and the next day at 10:00 in the morning, we were in a meeting with him. Within 30 minutes, we were going to be the next Kenny Rogers band.
RF: What was the game plan at that point?
BD: At that point in time, he had already met Larry Butler, who was his producer and who is very important. He’s one of the special people that I’ve met in this music industry. Lovingly, respectfully, I call him “the magic man,” because I feel that the combination they had during that time was just magic. He believed in Kenny. He convinced United Artists records, and they cut the Love Lifted Me album with studio musicians, but nothing really happened from it. But country music fans are very loyal. You can have a hit, and they will support you in some way ten years later. They’re not as fickle as the pop or rock fans. The next album had “Lucille” and that started the ball rolling.
One of the interesting things I remember from those early days—without getting into names—concerns some people who were the headliners we were opening shows for. It was interesting to see the difference in the way they treated me and the ego trips that I ran into. I remember one stage we played on where they didn’t want us to use their “special” lighting. I was sitting so far back that the lights didn’t reach the drums, so I was playing in the dark. Or a drummer would say, “I don’t want you to use these cymbals.” We ran into a lot of people who didn’t have that little touch of class. I learned from the experience that, if I ever get to the position, I won’t treat other people like that, because I know what that feels like.
RF: You mentioned to me that you thought playing country was going to be a breeze because you knew jazz and R&B.
BD: I had that misconception that you could just walk in and do it. I didn’t look at it as an art form.
RF: How did you arrive at the opposite conclusion
BD: It took about two weeks. I never felt comfortable with it. I went to Kenny and I said, “I feel like I’m not earning the money that you give me and I know that these are tough times. I don’t understand this music.” Kenny always said, “I don’t want to tell you what to do with your life, but I think if you give it a chance, you’ll be fine because you’re close to it now.” What was happening in my head was that I didn’t want to try to fake it. I wanted to understand it honestly or not do it. It wasn’t an easy transformation for me because I knew nothing.
RF: Can you pinpoint, technically, what is so different about playing country music from what you were used to playing?
BD: Rhythm & blues, or black music as it was sometimes called, was very aggressive. Acoustic guitars playing straight 8ths or quarter notes, or just strumming, gives a whole other flavor. With rhythm & blues, the bass and the drums were out front, energetic or slick, hard, hard, hard. Country was soft, and when they did drive and said, “Okay, we’re going to play this song real fast,” they put brushes in the drummer’s hands. I want to be careful not to stereotype, though. That’s a tough question. What I think has been really beneficial to me is, because of my R&B background, there seems to be an edge that I feel with Kenny’s music, that I’ve put on it. It’s like a slight marriage of the two worlds. At first I tried to copy the Nashville drummers. Then when I became comfortable with it, some of my roots started surfacing. All I did was put a nice little tension within, say “The Gambler” or “The Coward Of The County,” and it just felt a little more earthy. With rhythm & blues or any type of progressive music like that, normally they try to move just a little more dynamic or something within that bass and the drums. Within the last four years, country music moved up to the same thing. There’s a real interesting tension there, because within our whole group we have a diversified bunch of talented people. We’ve got two or three guys with an R&B background, and three of the other guys are from jazz backgrounds. It provides an interesting little twist for the country music.
RF: What do you think is your role in the rhythm section? What does it take to be Kenny Rogers’ drummer?
BD: I’m the meter, obviously. I also figure that, whether it is me or whoever playing drums, it’s up to that drummer to create excitement. Because of my years with the Drifters, I am so attuned to never stepping on a singer. I like to think of it as embellishment. You never step on singers because they stand there with nothing but a microphone in their hands. You’ve got all these drums and you could be very distracting. I watch Kenny’s moods. If he ever seems to be just a little bit sluggish, I put an edge on everything just to pick him back up. I don’t know if it’s from my early training, but if he blanks out on a word or something, I will instantly do something. Maybe I’m out to lunch here, but I think that I can help from the drums. If he misses a word, at the same time he misses it, I will do something on the drums to take the concert goers’ eyes off Kenny. I can crash a cymbal and I’ll have the audiences’ attention for just that split second. Those people came to see him look good, and that’s all I’m concerned with. They didn’t pay to see me; they paid to see him. I want to accompany him.
RF: Kenny’s become very well known for his ballads. There are tremendous dynamics involved in playing those ballads.
BD: I think the ballad playing is my strongest asset with Kenny. I feel that I work well around his voice. I like to think I make the drums stand out at the times he wants them to stand out. We have a very good rapport with the ballads. I’ve had many other drummers that worked with us on some of these shows ask about different ballads. When they comment about my playing, they speak of the ballads first. Also, because I sing, I feel like I’m a melodic drummer, even from the tuning of my drums. They change from time to time, but I hear a chord in my entire set when they’re tuned. I start with the fourth drum on an F-sharp and tune backwards. So I think of myself as a melodic drummer. I don’t play a lot, but the ballads give me a chance to treat the drums almost like a piano.
RF: Do you think that comes also from having had experience playing a lot of different instruments?
BD: I’m aware of them. I think the ballads stand out, though, because you want to sing with them. One of the things about an audience, as a rule, is if you play a very loud song, people will be boisterous, and they will be up, clapping their hands or stamping their feet. They need that color change of coming down to something that is very faint. Then they won’t want to turn away and say something to somebody else, because they’ll be afraid that they’re going to miss some of the words. After that, you’ve got to be able to make the lyrics live. “She Believes In Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” and some of the other stuff are very good examples. You have to paint a picture. I try to do it with the drums and the cymbals.
RF: What about equipment?
BD: I play a set of Pearl drums, which I love. I’ve played Pearl drums for about six years, and I use Zildjian cymbals. I play the concert toms, although I don’t think I really need them. I could go back to a basic five-piece kit, with a kick, a snare, two toms and one on the floor, but the concert toms are just that one more color change. It’s another note. The key thing is that I think of it as a note. I use 8″, 10″, 12″, 13″ and 16″ on the floor. All of them have two inches of extra depth and are double headed. They’re basically tuned as if they were in a studio. They’re tuned for the microphones. We have a sound engineer who’s just a drum freak. He loves the drums, and we get an excellent and very consistent drum sound no matter what kind of hall we’re in. The places we play in are anywhere from 10,000 to 20,000 seaters, and it can get rough.
RF: Your title is coordinator. Explain what that means.
BD: I guess, in essence, it is a bandleader. All these people who work with us are responsible, and this show is such a well oiled machine that everybody knows what to do. Consequently, I don’t need to lead anybody. I have kind of a jerk reaction to that word “leader.” But basically what I do is check them in and out of hotels. I’m the liaison between flights or last-minute changes, and I keep the times that we’re going to leave. As a rule, I’m the go between for musical problems or organizational problems, even though the guys are around Kenny all the time. I find myself getting involved in the overall Kenny Rogers picture. If I see something that’s not being done, whether it’s my position to do it or not, I don’t mind doing it. I enjoy the business end of it as well. My basic concern is that Kenny Rogers is happy when he gets to the show. Whether I had anything to do with it or not, that’s my ultimate concern. I genuinely like this man. It’s very easy for people to say, “Well, this guy pays my salary,” but he’s a human being. He has his moments. We all do. Two adults are not going to agree on every single thing, but I feel fortunate to have met him and worked with him, because I have learned from him, not just about the business end, but musically as well.
RF: Do you have any specific plans for the future?
BD: I’ve had the good fortune and the pleasure of being around a lot of talented people. I feel that I’ve learned a lot just through association. I feel like I’m starved for something new. I’m one of those people who needs to have some sort of challenge. You asked the reason for my dedication to Kenny Rogers at the beginning, and I think it was because it was something new. There’s no reason for me to go back to anything I’ve done in my life because I’ve already done that. I need to set new goals for myself, and now it’s the production arena. Kenny’s not going to want to sing forever. I enjoy my job, but I want to grow and I want to move into other areas. I might like to do a solo album of my own at some point in time, and I feel very dedicated to the fact that it would be a Gospel 0. One of my thoughts is that tomorrow is the best day of my life. When people say, “Those were the good old days,” they’re the old days. The best day of your life is tomorrow.