Kenny Rogers, 1938–2020
The hitmaker who straddled country and pop
Kenny Rogers brought country music to the suburbs. In the 1970s and ’80s, the husky-voiced singer with the trim silver beard was a country music powerhouse, notching 21 No. 1 country hits. Rogers delivered his balladry with a congenial pop smoothness rather than a honky-tonk edge, and many of his biggest hits—the Lionel Ritchie–penned “Lady,” the Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream”—crossed over to the pop charts. But the lyrics to his story-song smashes often made for anything but easy listening. In “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a wheelchair-bound Vietnam vet watches his wife head off to meet other men; in “The Coward of the County,” a quiet man takes vengeance on the gang that raped his beloved. Then there was “The Gambler,” Rogers’ signature megahit about an encounter with a card sharp who waxes philosophical about when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em. Rogers, who wasn’t a songwriter, credited his success to his ear for a hit. “Country music is about pain,” he said. “I have a knack of picking songs that touch people.”
Raised in a Houston housing project, Rogers was the fourth of eight children, said The Washington Post. His mother was a nurse’s assistant, his father a carpenter and country fiddler “who often drank his wages.” Rogers entered his first talent contest at age 10, said the Nashville Tennessean, performing the Hank Williams favorite “Lovesick Blues.” He took home the grand prize, “a half-gallon of vanilla ice cream and a meeting with country star Eddy Arnold.” In high school he formed a doo-wop group that cut some tracks for a Los Angeles label; after the act split, Rogers had a regional hit, “That Crazy Feeling,” that he performed on American Bandstand. By then he was a father, having impregnated the woman he lost his virginity to at 19.
When his small-time hit yielded no follow-up success, Rogers “began to look for direction in his career,” said Billboard.com. He played bass in a jazz trio, then joined a folk group, the New Christy Minstrels. That band morphed into the Los Angeles–based New Edition, which had a string of hits, including the LSD number “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” When they broke up in the mid-’70s, Rogers—by then twice divorced and broke—moved to Nashville and teamed up with producer Larry Butler.
Butler spearheaded Rogers’ “reinvention as a country performer,” said the Los Angeles Times. His breakthrough came with 1977’s “Lucille,” which hit No. 1 on the Hot Country Singles chart and earned Rogers his first Grammy. The following year he released “The Gambler,” which led to a string of TV movies starring Rogers in his gambler persona. Many story songs followed, but Rogers balanced them with love ballads that delivered, he said, “what every man would like to say and every woman would want to hear.” That way, he figured, “you had both audiences.”
“Like many another star of his era, Rogers began to fall out of fashion in the ’90s,” said Variety.com, so he increasingly turned his attention to nonmusical ventures. He opened a chain of fast-food chicken restaurants, published a pair of photography books—and fathered twin boys with his fifth wife, a waitress 28 years his junior. He announced his farewell tour, The Gambler’s Last Deal, in 2015. Perhaps part of Rogers’ appeal was his relative modesty; he made few claims to greatness. “I’ve always said I don’t care whether one person walks away saying, ‘He’s the best singer I’ve ever heard,’” he said. “But I want everyone to walk away saying, ‘I enjoyed that.’”