Kenny Rogers & The Mafia: Detroit-Toledo Mob Bar Inspired Hit Song, Career Transformation For The Gambler

November 13, 2022 — The Grammy-winning song that made Kenny Rogers a chart-topping superstar was written about a mafia-controlled bar in Toledo, Ohio, called the Country Palace. Lucille launched Rogers as a solo artist in the late 1970s. He went on to sell more than $100,000,000 records in his solo career and became the face of the country-music genre in the 1980s.

The owner of the Country Palace, the late Duane Abbajay (d. 2017), is now the subject of a new book titled A Bar In ToledoThe Untold Story Of A Mafia Front Man & A Grammy-Winning Song. Co-authored by Dominic Vaiana and Stephanie Abbajay (Duane’s daughter), the book was published earlier this fall by the University of Toledo Press. The Country Palace was a cash cow of a tavern and performance venue financed by a Toledo mob crew. That mob crew ran by Anthony (Whitey) Besase operating as a branch of the Detroit mafia and reported directly to the Giacalone brothers, the men the FBI believes infamously kidnapped and murdered Teamsters boss Jimmy Hoffa in 1975 and still missing today.

Lucile opens with the line, “In a bar in Toledo across from the depot.” The song was written by Hal Bynum and Roger Bowling, inspired by a trip to the Country Palace where he overheard an argument between a couple breaking up and saw the bitterness the man displayed in reaction to being rejected. Bynum had penned hits for Country Music stars Johnny Cash and Waylon Jennings and was going through his own marital woes at the time he wrote Lucile, taking some creative liberties with the story and turning it into a first-person narrative of an interaction between a stranger striking up a conversation with a woman in a “bar in Toledo” who just left her husband.

The 1977 smash hit Lucile took Rogers from a journeyman pop act to a true powerhouse in the music industry, spearheading a transition from psychedelic folk pop as the lead singer for the group First Edition to mainstream country-western solo artist famous for heart-piercing ballads and high-profile duets. Lucile went on to win Rogers a Grammy for Best Male Country Music Vocal and Bynum and Bowling Grammy and CMA awards for Country Song of the Year. Rogers soon became known around the globe as “The Gambler” for another No. 1 hit on the charts and Grammy Award for his trophy mantle, not to mention spawning a series of television movies with Rogers starring as the titular character Brady Hawkes.

Abbajay was Syrian and for decades served as a front for Italian and Jewish mobsters in Northwest Ohio. First, in 1962, he opened a rock-&-roll venue called the Peppermint Club. Then, a decade later, he turned the place into the legendary Country Palace, the most popular and iconic country-western performance venue in the history of the Midwest and a mainstay on club tours of almost every major country-western recording artist of that era. 

The Detroit mafia first settled the Toledo area as territory in the then fledgling Tocco-Zerilli crime family back in the early 1930s. The crime family’s Licavoli crew came to town and killed its way to the top of the local underworld. For decades, the Detroit mafia’s point man in Northwest Ohio was Anthony (Whitey) Besase.

Abbajay’s backers in both clubs, the Peppermint Club and the Country Palace consisted of Whitey Besase and Besase’s No. 1 Jewish bookie, Irving (Slick) Shapiro. Upon the Licavoli brothers leaving the area for semi-retirement in Arizona, Detroit mafia street bosses Anthony (Tony Jack) Giacalone and Vito (Billy Jack) Giacalone, grabbed control of the Toledo rackets. Billy Giacalone was officially responsible for mob affairs in Northwest Ohio from the 1950s until he died of natural causes in 2012.

Informants told the FBI, Besase and Shapiro had gambling, loan sharking, stolen merchandise and prostitution rackets being run out of both the Peppermint Club and the Country Palace. Besase’s headquarters was the Sunningdale Country Club near the Michigan-Ohio border. He died of cancer in 1977. Shapiro was shipped out to Las Vegas by the Giacalones to help look after Detroit mafia interests in the casino &

hotel business.

You can purchase Vaiana and Abbajay’s book A Bar In Toledo here: https://www.utoledopress.com/ABIT.html