Kenny Rogers obituary: Popular singer spanned genres and generations

From rags to riches, the actor and Grammy-winner remained popular for decades

 Kenny Rogers poses backstage after accepting the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement award at the 47th Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S in 2014. Photograph:  Eric Henderson/Reuters

Kenny Rogers poses backstage after accepting the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement award at the 47th Country Music Association Awards in Nashville, Tennessee, U.S in 2014. Photograph: Eric Henderson/Reuters

 

Kenny Rogers was a smooth, Grammy-winning singer who spanned jazz, folk, country and pop with hits including Lucille, Lady and Islands In The Stream.

Known for his husky voice and silver beard, he sold tens of millions of albums, won three Grammys and was the star of TV movies based on The Gambler and other songs, making him a superstar in the 70s and 80s.

He thrived for some 60 years before he retired from touring in 2017 aged 79.

Despite his crossover success, he always preferred to be thought of as a country singer.

“You either do what everyone else is doing and you do it better, or you do what no-one else is doing and you don’t invite comparison,” he said in 2015.

“And I chose that way because I could never be better than Johnny Cash or Willie or Waylon at what they did. So I found something that I could do that didn’t invite comparison to them. And I think people thought it was my desire to change country music. But that was never my issue.”

A true rags-to-riches story, Rogers was raised in public housing in Houston Heights, Texas, with seven siblings.

As a 20-year-old, he had a gold single called That Crazy Feeling under the name Kenneth Rogers, but when that early success stalled, he joined a jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Trio, as a stand-up bass player.

His breakthrough came when he was asked to join the New Christy Minstrels, a folk group, in 1966.

The band reformed as First Edition and scored a pop hit with the psychedelic song Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).

Rogers and First Edition mixed country-rock and folk on songs like Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town — a story of a Vietnam veteran begging his girlfriend to stay.

After the group broke up in 1974, Rogers started his solo career and secured a huge hit with the sad country ballad Lucille, in 1977, which crossed over to the pop charts and earned Rogers his first Grammy.

Suddenly the star, Rogers added hit after hit for more than a decade.

The Gambler, the Grammy-winning story song penned by Don Schlitz, came out in 1978 and became his signature song with a signature refrain: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em.”

The song spawned a hit TV movie of the same name and several more sequels featuring Rogers as professional gambler Brady Hawkes, and led to a lengthy side career for Rogers as a TV actor and a host of several television specials.

Other hits included You Decorated My Life, Every Time Two Fools Collide with Dottie West, Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer with Kim Carnes, and Coward Of The County.

Kenny Rogers at London’s Heathrow airport in 1977 with his wife of a few weeks, television star Marianne Gordon (left) and singer Crystal Gayle. Photograph: PA Wire
Kenny Rogers at London’s Heathrow airport in 1977 with his wife of a few weeks, television star Marianne Gordon (left) and singer Crystal Gayle. Photograph: PA Wire

One of his biggest successes was Lady, written by Lionel Richie, a chart topper for six weeks in a row in 1980.

Over the years, Rogers worked often with female duet partners, most memorably Dolly Parton.

The two were paired at the suggestion of Bee Gee Barry Gibb, who wrote Islands In The Stream.

“Barry was producing an album on me and he gave me this song,” Rogers said 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 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.”

US country music star Kenny Rogers pictured in 2011. Rogers has died away aged 81, from natural causes. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA
US country music star Kenny Rogers pictured in 2011. Rogers has died away aged 81, from natural causes. Photograph: Joe Castro/EPA

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.

Also in 2013, Rogers played the legends slot at the Glastonbury Festival.

Parton reprised Islands In The Stream with Rogers during his all-star retirement concert in Nashville in October 2017.

Rogers invested his time and money in a lot of other endeavours over his career, including a passion for photography that led to several books, as well as an autobiography, Making It With Music.

Veteran Country and Western singers (L-R) Kenny Rogers, Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell in central London in 1996 for a news cinference to launch their Unforgettable tour around Britain. Photograph: Rebecca Naden/PA.
Veteran Country and Western singers (L-R) Kenny Rogers, Tammy Wynette and Glen Campbell in central London in 1996 for a news cinference to launch their Unforgettable tour around Britain. Photograph: Rebecca Naden/PA.

He had a chain of restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters, and was a partner behind a riverboat in Branson, Missouri.

He was also involved in numerous charitable causes, among them the Red Cross and MusicCares, and was part of the all-star We Are The World recording for famine relief.

By the 90s, his ability to chart hits had waned, although he still remained a popular live entertainer with regular touring. Still he was an inventive businessman and never stopped trying to find his way back on to the charts.

At the age of 61, Rogers had a brief comeback on the country charts in 2000 with a hit song Buy Me A Rose, thanks to his other favourite medium, television.

Producers of the series Touched By An Angel wanted him to appear in an episode, and one of his managers suggested the episode be based on his latest single. That cross-promotional event earned him his first number one country song in 13 years.– PA