Kenny Rogers, a Country Music Hall of Fame member and legendary artist who delivered classic hits as “The Gambler,” “Lady,” “Islands In The Stream,” “Lucille,” and “She Believes In Me,” passed away on Friday, March 20. He was 81.
Rogers garnered 20 No. 1 country hits between 1977 and 1987, 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.
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 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. 1 songs 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.
Later in life, Rogers invested in Branson, Miss., 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.”