Ken Kragen’s long time friend and client Kenny Rogers once said, “You can’t make old friends. You either have them or you don’t.”
Ken Kragen, one of the most important artist managers and producers in American music industry history, had plenty of friends; both new and old.
While many in Ken’s circle of friends and partners friends were famous; like Rogers and other starperformers Harry Chapin, Lionel Richie, The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John, Trisha Yearwood, the Smothers Brothers, and President Clinton, many more of Ken’s friends were less in the limelight, like me. Ken inspired so many with his often audacious dreams. Still, millions more owe their lives to Ken without even knowing him, through his relentless fight against hunger around the world.
Influenced by Harry Chapin in the 1970s, Ken became a leading advocate to eradicate hunger in Africa, North America, everywhere. After Chapin’s tragic death in 1981, Ken pushed on and fulfilled dreams of which Chapin would have been so proud.
He was an instrumental force in pulling off “We Are the World,” the collaborative song recorded by dozens of stars, including those mentioned above as well as Bruce Springsteen, Michael Jackson, and many more. After its release in March, 1985, the song and albumraised millions of dollars for hunger relief in Africa.
He was the founding president of USA for Africa, the foundation set up to administer the aid money raised by “We Are the World,” which continues today, and has distributed more than $100 million to help alleviate poverty.
I vividly remember Ken telling me one of his proudest achievements was receiving the United Nations’ Peace Medal. Only a handful of private citizens have received the medal.
Ken also spearheaded many more formidable fund-raising projects over the years, including “Hands Across America”, which raised awareness and millions of dollars to feed the less fortunate in America.
President Ronald Reagan was so impressed by the idea that he joined the human chain of 6 million Americans who held hands from coast-to-coast in May 1986.
I met Ken in Manhattan at a conference on the digital economy where we were both speaking. Over the age of 70 at the time, Ken was not slowing down, still looking for ideas to use technology to benefit the impoverished. We immediately hit it off and partnered on a number of incredible projects.
Ken and I kept in constant touch. He was a father figure, a mentor and an inspiration. He was a “connector” who introduced me to so many people who’ve been important in my life, not just business but also personally.
Like my law professor who I met in the 1990s, the great humanitarian and Nobel Peace Prize nominee Irwin Cotler, these two gentlemen – and I mean “gentle men” in the truest sense – have been two of the greatest influences in my life, save my parents.
Indeed, Ken often said it’s easier to shoot for the impossible than the ordinary because many more people are in the lanes heading towards the ordinary.
Not all of Ken’s dreams came to fruition, but many did. And those that didn’t came darn close and created lasting relationships in the process.
Some found Ken’s big dreams a form of naivety that should be discouraged. I believe the contrary. Ken taught me the greatest things, so long as they have substance, are accomplished through dreaming big and an aching to achieve the impossible.
Society teaches us to grow up and act like adults. Ken grew older and wiser, but he never let go of his child-like sense of awe and exploration. In some ways, he lived his life not unlike Mr. (Fred) Rogers – who taught young children about the importance of empathy and giving, messages adults all too often need to be reminded of.
Another gem from Kenny Rogers that applies to many of us: “There is a trade-off – as you grow older you gain wisdom but you lose spontaneity.” Nothing could be further from the truth when it came to Ken Kragen.
Not long ago, Ken caught me by surprise when he said, “Jay, you’re one of my best friends. Thank you.”
I was amazed by the sentiment coming from such an iconic character who was blessed with such a selfless heart and so many friends. He could see me virtually burst with pride, my ego soaring.
Then he said, “Well, you’re definitely in my Top Six!”
We laughed. For a man who had accomplished so much, Ken was not about ego and he was not about to let my ego grow too large.
In December, Ken died of natural causes in his Los Angeles home at age 85. He leaves his wife, Cathy Worthington, daughter Emma Kragen, sister Robin Merritt and countless friends.
As Dr. Seuss said, “Don’t cry because it’s over. Smile because it happened.” So many people miss Ken, but we can all smile because Ken happened and he lived an extraordinary, generous life.