Gene Kennedy, who was best known as the man behind the durable Door Knob Records, has died at age 87.
According to journalist John Lomax III, Kennedy was battling pneumonia when he contracted COVID-19. The producer, songwriter, recording artist, publisher and record-label executive passed away on Thursday, April 1.
Kennedy’s Door Knob Records is believed to be Nashville’s longest-lived independent label. During the company’s 1976-2015 existence, it recorded more than 100 country artists, including such charting acts as Wayne Kemp, Bobby G. Rice, Gary Goodnight, Big Al Downing, Tom Carlile, Jerry Wallace, Bonnie Nelson, Perry LaPointe, Jeris Ross and Sonny Wright. Door Knob reportedly placed more than 140 titles on various country popularity charts.
Among the more prominent Door Knob artists was Loretta Lynn’s sister and longtime backup vocalist Peggy Sue, who had 13 charted singles on the label in 1977-80. Gene Kennedy, himself, recorded for Door Knob, both as a solo and as the duet partner of Karen Jeglum. She became his wife and business partner in 1982.
Gene Kennedy was a native of Florence, South Carolina who began his career by playing in a band while serving in the Air Force in 1956. WLAC Nashville disc jockey Hoss Allen became his manager in 1960 and placed him with Chicago’s Old Town Records as a pop artist. Kennedy toured on package shows with Connie Francis, Ace Cannon, Roy Orbison and other teen favorites.
Back in Nashville, Allen and Kennedy formed Music City’s first independent promotion company. This brought Kennedy to the attention of Acuff-Rose Publishing. Wesley Rose hired him to promote discs issued on Hickory Records, the label affiliated with Acuff-Rose.
In 1965, the company’s big pop act The Newbeats recorded Kennedy’s co-written song “Mean Woolly Willie.” Gene Kennedy also recorded for Hickory in those days.
After becoming head of national promotion for Hickory, Kennedy was hired by Owen Bradley to assume the same position at Decca Records. There, he promoted the releases of such stars as Jack Greene, Jeannie Seely, Bill Anderson, Jeanne Pruett, Conway Twitty, Loretta Lynn, Brenda Lee, Crystal Gayle, Cal Smith and Ernest Tubb.
In 1974, country star Bobby Lewis charted with Kennedy’s song “Lady Lover.” Lewis also recorded the songwriter’s “Your Love,” as did Jerry Wallace.
Following brief stints at the 4-Star and Ace of Hearts labels, Gene Kennedy formed his own record-promotion company in 1975. His first client was Loretta Lynn, who was then introducing “The Pill,” “When the Tingle Becomes a Chill” and “Somebody Somewhere.”
Gene Kennedy created Door Knob Records in 1976, and he produced most of its artists. Based in Mount Juliet, his company also encompassed three song-publishing firms, record promotion and artist management.
In addition to its own products, Door Knob distributed such imprints as Gold Spin, Horse Shoe, Silver Star, Tug Boat, Swanee and Tapestry. Among the artists on Tapestry was ‘60s pop star Bobby Vinton. Future Country Music Hall of Fame member Bill Anderson was on Swanee.
After founding Door Knob, Kennedy continued to contribute as a songwriter. The label’s Big Al Downing, Peggy Sue and Mark Brine recorded his co-written songs. Other notables on the roster included Rusty “Koko the Clown” Adams, Kent Westberry, Bo Harrison, Buford Pusser, Don Sepulveda, Billy Wilcox and Tim Tesch.
Door Knob hosted its own autograph booth at the annual Fan Fair celebrations throughout the 1980s and 1990s. It began to wind down around 2010 and filed for a reorganization bankruptcy in 2011.
Gene Kennedy was a founder and lifetime member of R.O.P.E. (Reunion of Professional Entertainers). The organization honored him with its Business award in 2006 and its Media award in 2014.
He was selected for the second annual Leadership Music group and graduated from the program in the class of 1991.
Gene Kennedy is survived by his wife, Karen. Also surviving are his children: Daryl Jean Chansuthus of Jackson, TN; Debra Gail Kennedy, Cathy Denise Velasquez, Victoria Kennedy, all of Nashville; and Kenneth Kennedy of LaVista, NE; plus a sister, seven grandchildren and six great grandchildren.
The visitation for Gene Kennedy will be at noon today (April 5) at Hermitage United Methodist Church (205 Belinda Dr., Hermitage, TN 37076). The funeral service will begin at 2 PM.