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The Gambler and the Bandit: Michael Strickland Remembers Kenny Rogers

PLSN Staff • NewsNewsroom • March 25, 2020

KNOXVILLE, TENNESSEE – In 1976, Bandit Lites owner Michael T. Strickland saw on stage in Las Vegas a has-been rocker, playing to an almost empty room. It was none other than Kenny Rogers, formerly of The First Edition. In a moment that would forever shape Bandit Lites and the life of Michael Strickland, Kenny struck up a conversation and the two swapped numbers; while Bandit was already a big player in a very small industry, what happened next was a real game changer.

More details from Bandit (www.BanditLites.com):

Strickland met with promoter Keith Fowler who saw something in Rogers and stated that he believed Rogers could succeed. Kenny took the 1960’s hippie image, refined it, classed it up, and picked songs that were unique. By the end of 1977, Rogers released his self-titled album, and things were starting to happen.

Almost overnight and in the blink of an eye, Kenny released the track “Lucille,” and life would never be the same for either Kenny Rogers or Michael Strickland. The song zoomed to the top of the country and rock charts worldwide, and Kenny Rogers was born! What followed was huge global chart successes with “Daytime Friends,” “Love or Something Like it,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” “Coward of the County,” “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” and “Lady.” In four short years Kenny Rogers became the biggest entertainer in the world as he slayed record charts, radio, television and live shows.

Kenny was a virtual hit machine and the public and the media loved him. Strickland and Bandit Lites were along for the ride, and it was the ride of a lifetime. This company from Kingsport, Tennessee was illuminating the biggest entertainer in the world, and having Kenny Rogers as a client led Bandit quickly to many, many more clients. As Kenny was a cross-over act, Bandit gained rock and country clients at an amazing pace. Kenny was the ultimate selling card, and Bandit exploded.

One day in 1979 at a state fair somewhere in middle America, Kenny gave Strickland some of the best business advice he ever received. Bandit Lites was exploding, and cash was a big need to fuel growth. Strickland worked up a sales pitch for Rogers and made it this faithful day, in the dressing room. After twenty minutes of telling Kenny how wonderful Bandit Lites was, how far it would go, and how valuable it was, Strickland asked Rogers if he would like to buy half of the firm for $100,000.

Rogers rocked back, pulled on his neatly trimmed silver beard and paused. This was the longest moment of silence in Strickland’s life.

“Michael, is Bandit as good as you say it is?” Kenny asked very quietly. “Is Bandit as successful as you say it is? Will Bandit be the biggest and the best lighting company one day? Michael, is everything you are telling me true?”

“Yes sir,” Strickland quickly answered.

As quietly as before, Kenny tilted his head slightly to the side and locked eyes with Strickland. If you ever spoke to Kenny, you know the look. He always squinted when he looked at you like this.

“Well, Michael, if Bandit is all you say it is, why in hell would you sell me half for only $100,000?”

Kenny Rogers, with this single question, had again changed the course of life for Michael Strickland and Bandit Lites. Strickland did not sell half of his dream, and it turned out well in the end. Sitting there Strickland had no plan and no path to the easy cash he so desired, but he also maintained full ownership of a company that would go on to become a world leader and be successful for over 50 years.

This advice was by far the single biggest piece of advice anyone every supplied to Strickland and Bandit Lites, and Kenny Rogers showed he believed in Bandit by cosigning the first ever commercial loan for Bandit Lites, a whopping $100,000.00. Not a lot, but it was to Strickland, and Kenny graciously signed it.

Bandit and Kenny Rogers worked together right up to the end. The Kenny Rogers “All In For The Gambler” at Bridgestone Arena was an extravaganza on October 25, 2017 that served as a capstone to a phenomenal career. The early years were a very special time for Bandit and Strickland, as Strickland was Kenny’s Production Manager and lighting director from 1976 to 1980.

No one knows where Bandit would be today without Kenny. There were even rumors at the time that Kenny owned Bandit, which were never true. Yet that faithful day in 1976 when The Gambler met The Bandit, the world of entertainment was forever changed. There is no doubt that Kenny would have become Kenny, but perhaps, just perhaps, Bandit might never have fully become Bandit Lites as it is known today. For that opportunity, and for that great advice, Strickland says “Thank you Kenny Rogers,” as well as, “I love you and goodbye my friend.”

 

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