Country crossover star Kenny Rogers, known for recording enduring classics like “The Gambler,” “Lucille” and “Islands in the Stream,” and embraced his persona as “The Gambler” on record and on TV died Friday, March 20, 2020 at the age of 81.
He died at home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, representative Keith Hagan told The Associated Press. He was under hospice care and died of natural causes, Hagan said.
During his six-decade career, the charismatic, husky-voiced singer sold more than 100 million albums worldwide, won three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also published several photography books, donated time and money to philanthropic causes, appeared in a number of made-for-television movies and launched an eponymous restaurant chain.
Kenneth Donald Rogers (called “Kenneth Ray” by his family members) was born in Houston on Aug. 21, 1938. The fourth of Edward and Lucille’s eight children, Rogers grew up in the San Felipe Courts housing project and was the first person in his family to receive a high school diploma.
“As early as grade school, I began to see music and singing as a respite from all the awkwardness and embarrassment of growing up poor, shy and often an outsider,” Rogers wrote in his 2012 book, “Luck or Something Like It: A Memoir.”
He entered his first talent contest when he was 10 years old. His version of “Lovesick Blues” won him the grand prize: a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a meeting with country star Eddy Arnold.
In high school, he formed a vocal group called the Scholars. They cut a few forgettable tracks for L.A. label Imperial Records, then went their separate ways. As a solo artist, Kenneth Rogers (who’d soon change his stage name to Kenny) recorded a song called “That Crazy Feeling,” which was released on Carlton Records. At age 19, he performed the teen-dream ballad on “American Bandstand.”
In 1959, jazz pianist Bobby Doyle heard Rogers play at a club and asked him to join the Bobby Doyle Three as a bassist and harmony singer. Rogers wasn’t a bass player but signed on anyway. The group disbanded in the mid-1960s; by then, Rogers had “learned how to be a musician from Bobby Doyle,” as he wrote half a century later.
After the Bobby Doyle Three split, Rogers was invited to join feel-good folk group the New Christy Minstrels. But soon, he and bandmates Mike Settle, Terry Williams and Thelma Camacho formed their own band, the First Edition.
Mickey Newbury had penned a song called “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The band released it as its second single — the first with Rogers singing lead. The psychedelic-sounding song went to No. 5 on the charts and, as Rogers wrote in “Luck or Something Like It,” it gave the band “street cred during … a time of massive social change, when music was expected to be edgy and, in many cases, drug related.”
The band also recorded the now-classic “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a song written by Mel Tills.
After about a decade together, the First Edition split in the mid-1970s. Rogers decided to move from Los Angeles to Nashville.
‘The Gambler’ wins big
Rogers notched his first solo top 20 country hit with 1975’s “Love Lifted Me.” Other hits followed, including the chart-toppers “Lucille,” “Daytime Friends” and “Love or Something Like It.”
In late 1978, Rogers released a single called “The Gambler,” written by an unknown songwriter in his 20s named Don Schlitz. The song tells the story of a chance meeting on a train.
Rogers wasn’t the first to record it, but his rendition became the most enduring version. “The Gambler” won him a Best Male Country Vocal Performance Grammy, and became his signature song. It also led to a starring role in a series of made-for-television “Gambler” movies.
After country story-songs like “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County,” Rogers was looking to record something different. Enter Lionel Richie and his song “Lady.” Rogers’ sultry recording hit No. 1 on Billboard’s pop and country charts in 1980.
Between 1977 and 1985, Rogers released 15 No. 1 country hits. Most of those songs became pop hits as well, including “Islands in the Stream,” a catchy pop-country duet between Rogers and fellow megastar Dolly Parton.
Over the years, Rogers worked often with female duet partners, most memorably, Dolly Parton. The two were paired at the suggestion of the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, who wrote “Islands in the Stream.”
“(Bee Gees’ singer Barry Gibb) was producing an album on me and he gave me this song,” Rogers told the AP in 2017. “And I went and learned it and went into the studio and sang it for four days. And I finally looked at him and said, ‘Barry, I don’t even like this song anymore.’ And he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.’ I thought, ‘Man, that guy is a visionary.’”
Coincidentally, Parton was actually in the same recording studio in Los Angeles when the idea came up.
“From the moment she marched into that room, that song never sounded the same,” Rogers said. “It took on a whole new spirit.”
The two singers toured together, including in Australia and New Zealand in 1984 and 1987, and were featured in a HBO concert special. Over the years the two would continue to record together, including their last duet, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” which was released in 2013.
He found further chart success in collaborations with artists such as Dottie West (they were named CMA Vocal Duo of the Year in 1978 and 1979), Kim Carnes (“Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer”) and Sheena Easton (“We’ve Got Tonight”).
Rogers got involved with a number of offstage pursuits as well. Beginning in the 1980s, he published multiple photography books that showcased photos of landscapes as well as portraits he took of artists like Michael Jackson, Elizabeth Taylor and Ray Charles.
He also gave his name to Kenny Rogers Roasters, a chain of chicken restaurants, in 1991. The chain (once used as a subplot in a “Seinfeld” episode) eventually closed in the U.S. but has done well overseas, with multiple locations in Malaysia and other countries.
‘It’s about validation’
In 1999, Rogers, while working on an album for his own Dreamcatcher label, recorded “Buy Me a Rose,” a tender ballad written by Jim Funk and Erik Hickenlooper and featuring background vocals from Alison Krauss and Billy Dean. When it topped the charts in 2000, Rogers, then 61, was the oldest artist to have a No. 1 country hit. It was also his first No. 1 single since 1987.
“This is not about money, it’s about validation,” he told The Tennessean in April 2000, shortly before the song topped the charts. “Even Garth (Brooks) said on this television biography they did of me that ‘Kenny’s problem was he was too pop for country and too country for pop.’ Now the good news is that’s a great place to be; there’s a lot of money in that place. But you lose acceptance, and acceptance gives you tenure. Without acceptance, you come and you go.”
In 2013, Rogers’ contributions to the genre were recognized when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame alongside Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare.
The “Kenny Rogers: Through the Years” exhibit ran at the Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum from August 2014 through June 2015.
‘Know when to walk away’
In September 2015, Rogers appeared on “Today” to announce his plans to retire: “I’m going to do a big worldwide tour, and it’s going to be my last. … I’m going to say goodbye at that point. I’ve done this long enough.”
Rogers said that he felt he had accomplished everything he wanted to achieve as an artist and that retiring from the road would allow him to spend more time with his family, including his then-11-year-old twin sons. “I’m sure I will miss it,” he added.
He was honored with a star on the Music City Walk of Fame in 2017. At the event, Oak Ridge Boy Joe Bonsall said, “We’ve learned more from Kenny Rogers over these decades than anybody else in the music industry. We learned how to look for good songs, because Kenny is a song man. … We learned how to put on shows. We learned how to treat people right. We learned how to be honest. We learned integrity in your performance.”
Rogers’ family is planning a private service “out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency,” a statement posted early Saturday read. A public memorial will be held at a later date.
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