by Chris Koseluk.—
The Houston-born performer won three Grammys and was the star of telefilms based on “The Gambler.”
Kenny Rogers, the superstar country singer and occasional actor who had hits with “Lucille,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” and knew when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em as The Gambler, died Friday night. He was 81.
A three-time Grammy winner, Rogers died of natural causes at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, representative Keith Hagan told the Associated Press.
Inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, Rogers sold more than 120 million records worldwide, racking up 17 No. 1 Hot Country Songs on the Billboard charts and another 10 among the top 10. With his sweet, husky voice and easygoing demeanor, he was hugely popular.
“He wasn’t one of the bad boys — he was no Johnny Cash, the Man in Black who sang of shooting a man in Reno ‘just to watch him die,'” Virginia Parker wrote of Rogers in a 2007 profile for Atlanta Magazine. “He was no ‘don’t boss him, don’t cross him’ Red Headed Stranger like Willie Nelson, who sang he ‘shot her so quick there was no time to warn her.’ He didn’t do hard time in the slammer like Merle Haggard. Rogers was the man who begged his woman not to leave, the sensitive guy who promised eternal fidelity, the loser out of aces. And he was catnip to the ladies.”
Rogers broke through in 1967 as the frontman for The First Edition, an eclectic band that played a range from rock and R&B to folk and country. The group, which included Mickey Jones and Terry Williams, scored its first hit in 1968 with the psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The song attracted a new legion of fans when it was used in 1998’s The Big Lebowski.
Rogers’ appeal prompted the band’s name change to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Under its new moniker, it took the single “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” to the Billboard Top 10. The group generated 14 albums before disbanding in 1974.
It didn’t take long for Rogers to find success after going solo. His eponymous second album topped the Country Album charts in 1977. For the next decade, he grew to be one of the most successful recording artists of all time. Eleven consecutive studio albums reached the top 10 on Billboard’s country chart, including a string of five No. 1s. Every release also charted on the Billboard 200, its overall ranking of the most popular U.S. albums.
With hit singles such as 1978’s “The Gambler” and “Love or Something Like It”; 1979’s “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life” and “Coward of the County”; 1982’s “Love Will Turn You Around”; and 1983’s “We’ve Got Tonight,” Rogers’ voice was constantly filling the radio airwaves.
“All the songs I record fall into one of two categories, as a rule,” Rogers told NPR in 2012. “One is ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. The other is story-songs that have social significance. ‘Reuben James’ was about a black man who raised a white child. ‘Coward of the County’ was about a rape. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ was about a guy who came home from war. That’s really what I love to do: songs that you love before you realize what they’re about, but you get the message vicariously.”
Rogers scored a big success in 1983 when he teamed with Dolly Parton for “Islands in the Stream.” Written by Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb of the Bee Gees, the song originally was designed to be recorded in an R&B style by Marvin Gaye. Giving it a distinctive country twist, Rogers and Parton’s rendition sold more than 2 million records on its way to becoming the No. 1 single in America. In 2005, it was named the best country duet of all time in a Country Music Television poll.
At the height of his popularity, Rogers attempted to parlay his singing success into an acting career. His debut came in 1973 as a balladeer in the telefilm Saga of Sonora. He starred in TV adaptations of his popular tunes in 1980’s The Gambler (as professional gambler Brady Hawkes) and 1981’s Coward of the County, then made his feature film debut in Six Pack, a 1982 family comedy that cast him as a race car driver who takes a gang of larcenous orphans (including Diane Lane and Anthony Michael Hall) under his wing.
“Fans of Mr. Rogers’ singing will be glad to know that he sings a hit theme song and that when one of the kids fixes his radio it begins playing ‘The Gambler,'” Janet Maslin wrote in her review for The New York Times. “His singing, infrequent as it is here, comes as a happy change of pace, since his acting is much less assured. Mr. Rogers is not overdemonstrative here, but he tends to overdo even the simplest gestures, stirring a bowl of chili as if he were rowing a boat or driving a car as if he were pretending to drive a car. He’s pleasant here, but not very natural, which is just as well; no one else in the film is any more authentic than he.”
Rogers continued to act sporadically throughout his career, most notably starring in four TV sequels to The Gambler. He made more than 200 television appearances as himself on everything from The Muppet Show and Hee Haw to Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman and How I Met Your Mother.
But mostly, Rogers stuck to what he did best, singing.
“I have done big outdoor festivals including Stagecoach and Bonnaroo and I did one with 100,000 people in Agadir, Morocco, last week. It’s so satisfying to have fans around the world. I met a Korean girl recently who said she had learned to speak English listening to my records,” Rogers told The Telegraph in 2015. “I love the singalong element. That’s when I am in my comfort zone. I call songs like ‘The Gambler’ my artillery. Sometimes, audiences have to work harder with songs they don’t know, but with ones like ‘Lucille’ and ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,’ it’s such a thrill to hear people enjoying joining in.”
Kenneth Ray Rogers was born on Aug. 21, 1938, in Houston, the fourth of eight children. His father, Floyd, was an alcoholic sharecropper who earned his living in the shipyards that bloomed during World War II. His mother, Lucille, brought in money as a nurse.
Rogers grew up in a Houston federal housing project and became the first in his family to graduate from high school. In his teens, he began performing with the doo-wop group The Scholars and realized his musical talents could be his ticket out of poverty. In 1958, he released the single “That Crazy Feeling,” followed by “For You Alone” and “Jole Blon.”
When his records didn’t gain traction, Rogers took to playing upright bass in The Bobby Doyle Three, touring with the jazz combo until it broke up in 1965. He took another shot at performing solo, releasing the single “Here’s that Rainy Day” in 1966. When that also failed to generate heat, he signed on as a singer and bass player for The New Christy Minstrels.
Rogers and fellow Minstrels Williams, Mike Settle and Thelma Camacho left to form The First Edition, and they appeared on programs hosted by the Smothers Brothers, Pat Boone, Mike Douglas and Glen Campbell.
From 1971-73, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition hosted Rollin’ on the River, a variety series that mixed song and comedy on a Mississippi riverboat set.
Rogers received a total of 19 Grammy nominations, with wins in 1977 for “Lucille,” in 1979 for “The Gambler” and 1987 for “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine.”
In 1987, Rogers earned a Golden Globe nomination for best original song when the title track from his 19th studio album, They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To, was used as the theme song for the Kirk Douglas-Burt Lancaster film Tough Guys.
Rogers spread his wings in 1991 by teaming with former Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO John Y. Brown Jr. to launch Kenny Rogers Roasters. At its pinnacle, the restaurant chain, which offered a menu of wood-fired rotisserie chicken, ribs, turkey and side dishes, boasted more than 350 outposts worldwide. It also became a pop culture touchstone with references on MADtv, Fresh Off the Boat and, most famously, in “The Chicken Roaster,” a 1996 episode of Seinfeld.
“I thought it was funny. Seinfeld was an incredibly funny sitcom with brilliant personalities and so well written by Larry David and Jerry Seinfeld,” Rogers said. “Jerry opened for me when I was touring and he was just starting out. I liked having comedians supporting me, and we got on well.”
In 2013, he released his autobiography, Luck or Something Like It: A Memoir.
Rogers was married five times and had five children. His family is planning a private service “out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency,” with a public memorial to be held later.