Manager, promoter, author, TV producer, speaker and humanitarian Ken Kragen died in L.A. on Tuesday (Dec. 14) at age 85.
Kragen managed such top music stars as Trisha Yearwood, Lionel Richie, Harry Chapin, Dottie West, Travis Tritt, Olivia Newton-John, Burt Reynolds, The Bee Gees, The Smothers Brothers and, most famously, Kenny Rogers. Using his leverage with superstars Richie and Rogers, he organized the Grammy Award winning anthem “We Are the World” in 1985. Billed as by USA For Africa, this was an all-star charity recording that became one of the biggest selling singles of all time.
Early in his career, he managed folk-pop artist Harry Chapin (1942-1981). Noted for such hits as “Taxi” (1972) and “Cat’s in the Cradle” (1974), Chapin was notable for his charity work. Kragen applied this ethos for his own career following Chapin’s untimely death in a car accident.
He became the executive producer of The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour TV series. (1967-69). This is when he met Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, who guested on an episode. He subsequently produced the syndicated series Rollin’ on the River (1971-73) starring the band. This marked the beginning of his long and profitable relationship with Rogers.
With Kragen’s guidance, the singer rose to pop-country superstardom via a series of 1970s and 1980s hits such as “Lucille,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes In Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” “Coward of the County,” “Lady” (penned by Richie), “We’ve Got Tonight” (with Sheena Easton) and “Islands in the Stream” (with Dolly Parton). Kragen also negotiated a string of top-rated TV movies starring Rogers.
In 1985, he was approached by Harry Belafonte to raise funds for African famine relief. Kragen assembled a star-studded cast to record “We Are the World,” co-written by Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Quincy Jones. In addition to Rogers, Richie, Belafonte and Jackson, the singers included Tina Turner, Bruce Springsteen, Cyndi Lauper, Diana Ross, Ray Charles, Billy Joel, Stevie Wonder, Waylon Jennings, Paul Simon, Dionne Warwick, Huey Lewis, Kim Carnes, Willie Nelson, Bob Dylan, Bette Midler, Hall & Oates, The Pointer Sisters, Smokey Robinson, James Ingram, Al Jarreau, Jefffrey Osborne, Lindsey Buckingham, Sheila E, Dan Aykroyd and more. It raised more than $64 million.
The following year, Kragen organized Hands Across America. This involved creating a human chain of 6.5 million people holding hards, stretching across the continent. Celebrities involved included Liza Minnelli, Yoko Ono, Jerry Lewis, Ronald Reagan, Tony Danza, Fred Rogers, David Copperfield, Michael J. Fox, Walter Payton, Kathleen Turner, Bill Clinton, Lee Greenwood,George Burns, Tony Dorsett, Don Johnson, Bob Seger, Charlene Tilton, Dudley Moore, Richard Dreyfus, Kenny Loggins, Robin Williams, John Stamos, Chewbacca, Mickey Mouse and C-3PO, as well as Kenny Rogers, Belafonte, Jackson and Warwick. It benefitted U.S. hunger charities. The effort raised an estimated $15 million.
In 2010, he founded HomeAid.net, an annual campaign to combat homelessness. Kragen also worked with the Boys & Girls Clubs, the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, the NAACP and other charities. He was presented with the United Nations Peace Medal.
In 1992, he and Quincy Jones co-produced part of the Inauguration festivities for President Bill Clinton. He portrayed himself in the 1996 TV movie The Late Shift. In 2004, Kragen produced the movie 12 Dogs of Christmas, which has since sold more than a million DVDs.
Ken Kragen was the author of the 1994 book Life Is a Contact Sport: Ten Great Career Strategies That Work. He documented his time with Chapin in the 1970 photo book On the Road With Harry Chapin.
In later years, he became a convention speaker, an event organizer and a consultant to a number of corporations and non profits. He taught at UCLA, notably a popular course titled “Stardom Strategies for Musicians.”
Kragen is survived by his wife Cathy Worthington; daughter cinematographer Emma Kragen; his sister Robin Merritt; brothers-in-law David and Mark Worthington, along with several nieces and nephews.
Donations in remembrance of Kragen can be made here.