Kenny Rogers, one of this century’s most legendary artists who treated the world to such classic hits as “The Gambler” and “Islands in the Stream,” passed away Friday, March 20, his family shared. He was 81.
“Kenny was one of those artists who transcended beyond one format and geographic borders,” says Sarah Trahern, Chief Executive Officer of the Country Music Association. “He was a global superstar who helped introduce Country Music to audiences all around the world. I had the pleasure of working with him over the years and I’ll always remember his graciousness and kind heart. He has left us with his music, some of which will go down as the most memorable performances in Country Music history. Our condolences go out to his family and friends at this sad time.”
Rogers parlayed a distinctive, husky voice and laid-back sex appeal into durable superstardom. Between 1977 and 1987 he logged 20 No. 1 Country hits, many of which climbed the pop charts. During his lengthy career the international star sold more than 50 million albums in the United States alone. Rogers was a five-time CMA Award-winner and entered the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
Rogers entered Country Music with a broad musical background. Growing up in public housing in Houston, he was exposed to R&B, pop, and jazz as well as Country. His first professional group was a late-1950s vocal act called the Scholars, which had local hits in Houston. “That Crazy Feeling,” a 1958 solo hit on Carlton Records, earned him an appearance on “American Bandstand.”
During the early 1960s, Rogers played bass, and occasionally sang, in a Houston jazz trio. Membership in the New Christy Minstrels folk group spurred the founding of the First Edition, in which Rogers and other former Minstrels mixed folk, rock and Country sounds. The new group went to No. 5 on the pop chart in 1967 with Mickey Newbury’s psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and gained several additional pop hits on Reprise Records.
After the group’s breakup in 1974, producer/executive Larry Butler signed Rogers to United Artists Records, on which he had modest hits until the stunning success of the mournfully catchy, Grammy-winning “Lucille” in 1977, which reached No. 1 on the Country chart and No. 5 on the pop chart. For the next dozen years Rogers logged hit after hit, including “The Gambler” (1978-79), penned by Don Schlitz, “She Believes in Me” (1979) and “Coward of the County” (1979-80). In 1980, on Liberty Records, Rogers’ No. 1 Country hit “Lady,” a romantic ballad written by pop star Lionel Richie, ruled the pop charts for six weeks. Successful duets included “Every Time Two Fools Collide” with Dottie West (1978) and the crossover smash “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer” with Kim Carnes (1980). In addition to his five CMA Awards wins, Rogers piled up three Grammys as the Country-pop era reached a peak, adding to his stature as one of Country’s first artists to sell out arena shows.
Already a veteran TV performer, Rogers gained further exposure through acting in made-for-television movies, including a series of five treatments of “The Gambler.” His hit “Love the World Away” was a theme song in the era-defining 1980 film “Urban Cowboy.” The 1980s also saw hits on Liberty and RCA, including “Love Will Turn You Around” (1982), the Sheena Easton duet “We’ve Got Tonight” (1983), and the memorable Dolly Parton duet “Islands in the Stream” (1983), all Country No. 1s that made the pop charts. Rogers appeared front and center in the megastar collaboration “We Are the World” (1985), scoring additional chart-toppers such as “Crazy,” “Real Love,” and the sensual George Martin-produced “Morning Desire.” But the solo hit “Tomb of the Unknown Love” (1986) and the Ronnie Milsap duet “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” (1986) were Rogers’s last No. 1 Country records until “Buy Me a Rose” (1999-2000), recorded with Alison Krauss and Billy Dean.
Rogers’ crossover approach began to work against him as pop took on a harder edge and younger Country artists went back to the music’s roots. Nevertheless, he invested in Branson, MO, ventures, published several well-received photography books, authored two children’s books, engaged in major philanthropic endeavors, and launched a chain of restaurants. Though his chart success slipped in the late 1980s and 1990s through stints with Giant, Atlantic, Reprise and Magnatone, “Buy Me a Rose” (on Dreamcatcher) gave him a boost at the outset of the 21st century. He continued to tour and released hits collections and albums of new material, the latter including “Water & Bridges” (Capitol Nashville, 2006), which yielded the Top 20 hit “I Can’t Unlove You.”