ENTERTAINMENT

Crossover Country Superstar Kenny Rogers Dies At 81

Mar 21, 2020, 9:12 AM | Updated: Jun 27, 2022, 7:46 pm
Singer/Songwriter Kenny Rogers performs at the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum's in the Ford ...
Singer/Songwriter Kenny Rogers performs at the Country Music Hall Of Fame And Museum's in the Ford Theater as part of his Artist-in-Residence on May 10, 2012 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)
(Photo by Rick Diamond/Getty Images)

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) — Kenny Rogers, the smooth, Grammy-winning balladeer who spanned jazz, folk, country and pop with such hits as “Lucille,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” and embraced his persona as “The Gambler” on records and on TV, died Friday night. He was 81.

He died at home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, representative Keith Hagan told The Associated Press. He was under hospice care and died of natural causes, Hagan said.

The Houston-born performer with the husky voice and silver beard sold tens of millions of records, 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. Rogers thrived for some 60 years before retired from touring in 2017 at age 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,” Rogers told The Associated Press 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.”

His “Islands in the Stream” duet partner Dolly Parton posted a video on Twitter on Saturday morning, choking up as she held a picture of the two of them together. “I loved Kenny with all my heart and my heart is broken and a big ole chunk of it is gone with him today,” Parton said in the video.

“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.”

Rogers was a five-time CMA Award winner, as well as the recipient of the CMA’s Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013, the same year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He received 10 awards from the Academy of Country Music. He sold more than 47 million records in the United States alone, according to the Recording Industry Association of America.

A true rags-to-riches story, Rogers was raised in public housing in Houston Heights 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 standup bass player.

But 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 found a big 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 host of several TV 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.” One of his biggest successes was “Lady,” written by Lionel Richie, a chart topper for six weeks straight in 1980. Richie said in a 2017 interview with the AP that he often didn’t finish songs until he had already pitched them, which was the case for “Lady.”

“In the beginning, the song was called, ‘Baby,’” Richie said. “And because when I first sat with him, for the first 30 minutes, all he talked about was he just got married to a real lady. A country guy like him is married to a lady. So, he said, ‘By the way, what’s the name of the song?’” Richie replies: “Lady.”

Over the years, Rogers worked often with female duet partners, most memorably, Dolly Parton. The two were paired at the suggestion of the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, who wrote “Islands in the Stream.”

“Barry was producing an album on me and he gave me this song,” Rogers told the AP 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 actually 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.”

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. Parton reprised “Islands in the Stream” with Rogers during his all-star retirement concert held in Nashville in October 2017.

Rogers invested his time and money in a lot of other endeavors over his career, including a passion for photography that led to several books, as well as an autobiography, “Making It With Music.” 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 MusiCares, 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 onto 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 favorite 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 No. 1 country song in 13 years.

Rogers is survived by his wife, Wanda, and his sons Justin, Jordan, Chris and Kenny Jr., as well as two brothers, a sister and grandchildren, nieces and nephews, his representative said. The family is planning a private service “out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency,” a statement posted early Saturday read. A public memorial will be held at a later date.


Associated Press journalist Mallika Sen contributed from Los Angeles.

KSL 5 TV Live

Top Stories

Entertainment

LOS ANGELES, CALIFORNIA - DECEMBER 04: (2nd L-R) Bret Michaels, C.C. DeVille, Rikki Rockett, and Bo...
Megan Thomas, CNN

Poison singer Bret Michaels shares update on his hospitalization

Poison frontman Bret Michaels is thanking supporters as he remains hospitalized for a "medical complication."
1 day ago
R. Kelly has been placed on suicide watch at the federal detention facility in New York where he is...
Sonia Moghe and Alaa Elassar, CNN

R. Kelly placed on suicide watch after being sentenced to 30 years in prison, his lawyer says

R. Kelly has been placed on suicide watch at the federal detention facility in New York where he is being held after he was sentenced this week to 30 years in prison on racketeering and sex trafficking charges, his lawyer said Friday.
2 days ago
Japanese musician Takeshi (L) and Canadian musician Randy Bachman (R) exchange guitars on July 01, ...
MARI YAMAGUCHI, Associated Press

Rock star Randy Bachman reunited with beloved stolen guitar

Canadian rock legend Randy Bachman’s long search has ended after he was reunited in Tokyo with a cherished guitar 45 years after it was stolen from a Toronto hotel.
2 days ago
Young Gru (Steve Carell) dreams of being the baddest villain of all time in MINIONS: THE RISE OF GR...
ANDY FARNSWORTH, KSL TV & KSL NEWSRADIO

REVIEW: Solid story, setting, voice cast lift animated sequel/prequel ‘Minions: The Rise of Gru’ above its predecessor

MINIONS: THE RISE OF GRU brings back everyone's favorite little yellow troublemakers from the DESPICABLE ME franchise, this time in a tale of how Gru began to be a super-villain. KSL's Andy Farnsworth says it's a much more enjoyable entry from start to finish over the first MINIONS movie, with clever villains, a great voice cast, soundtrack, and just the right amount of Minions hi-jinks mixed in.
2 days ago
Cameron Diaz is making a new movie with Jamie Foxx. (Weiss Eubanks/NBCUniversal/Getty Images via CN...
Leah Asmelash, CNN

Cameron Diaz is coming out of retirement, thanks to Jamie Foxx

After an eight-year hiatus, Cameron Diaz is making movies again.
4 days ago
R. Kelly (C) appears at a hearing before Judge Lawrence Flood at Leighton Criminal Court Building J...
Associated Press

R. Kelly timeline: Shining star to convicted sex trafficker

R. Kelly's musical accomplishments have been accompanied by a long history of allegations that he sexually abused women and children. Now the R&B singer has been sentenced to spend the next three decades behind bars.
4 days ago

Sponsored Articles

hand holding 3d rendering mobile connect with security camera for security solutions...
Les Olson

Wondering what security solutions are right for you? Find out more about how to protect your surroundings

Physical security helps everyone. Keep your employees, clients, and customers safe with security solutions that protect your workplace.
Many rattan pendant lights, hay hang from the ceiling.Traditional and simple lighting....
Lighting Design

The Best Ways to Style Rattan Pendant Lighting in Your Home

Rattan pendant lights create a rustic and breezy feel, and are an easy way to incorporate this hot trend into your home decor.
Earth day 2022...
1-800-GOT-JUNK?

How Are You Celebrating Earth Day 2022? | 4 Simple Ways to Celebrate Earth Day and Protect the Environment

Earth Day is a great time to reflect on how we can be more environmentally conscious. Here are some tips for celebrating Earth Day.
Get Money Online...

More Ways to Get Money Online Right Now in Your Spare Time

Here are 4 easy ways that you can get more money online if you have some free time and want to make a little extra on the side.
Lighting trends 2022...

Lighting Trends 2022 | 5 Beautiful Home Lighting Trends You Can Expect to See this Year and Beyond

This is where you can see the latest lighting trends for 2022 straight from the Lightovation Show at the Dallas World Trade Center.
What Can't You Throw Away in the Trash...

What Can’t You Throw Away in the Trash? | 5 Things You Shouldn’t Throw in to Your Trash Can

What can't you throw away in the trash? Believe it or not, there are actually many items that shouldn't be thrown straight into the trash.
Crossover Country Superstar Kenny Rogers Dies At 81