Country music superstar Kenny Rogers dies at 81; his 10 best songs

Scored more than 20 No. 1 singles
Kenny Rogers is shown in an undated photo.
Kenny Rogers is shown in an undated photo.

Kenny Rogers, the three-time Grammy Award winner whose career spanned more than 60 years, died at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on Friday night. He was 81.

His first recording was a minor hit in the late 1950s, but he became a star in the 1970s with sales topping more than 50 million albums and a string of 24 Number 1 hits.

He dominated radio with songs like “The Gambler,” “Islands in the Stream,” “Lucille,” “She Believes In Me,” “Coward of the County” and “Through the Years.”

“The Rogers family is sad to announce that Kenny Rogers passed away last night at 10:25PM at the age of 81. Rogers passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family,” according to a statement posted early Saturday morning on the singer’s verified Twitter account.

Born in Houston on Aug. 21, 1938, Rogers scored a minor hit in 1957 with “That Crazy Feeling.” Later, he formed The First Edition and sang on “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).”

His signature tune, “The Gambler,” led to Rogers starring in a TV movie based on the country hit. He went on to star in more than a dozen television films.

In 1991, he co-founded the restaurant chain Kenny Rogers Roasters with former Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO John Y. Brown Jr. There are more than 150 restaurants worldwide.

He announced his retirement in 2015, but continued to play dates into late 2017 before health concerns forced him to call it quits

“I didn’t want to take forever to retire,” Rogers said in an April 2018 statement. “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to say farewell to the fans over the course of the past two years on ‘The Gambler’s Last Deal’ tour. I could never properly thank them for the encouragement and support they’ve given me throughout my career and the happiness I’ve experienced as a result of that.”

Married five times, Rogers is survived by his wife of 23 years, Wanda, and five children.

In a statement, his management company said, “Due to the national COVID-19 emergency, the family is planning a small private service at this time with a public memorial planned for a later date.”

Rogers may be best remembered for introducing a global pop audience to the homespun charms of country music. But his work as an ambassador didn’t open just his listeners’ ears: Perhaps more than any other Nashville act of his generation, Rogers dabbled freely in other sounds and styles; his long and varied catalog, with its many collaborations, is a testament to both his musical curiosity and his keen commercial sense. Looked back upon now, it also indicates clearly how country music, in many ways a hidebound genre before Rogers emerged, would evolve in his wake.

Rogers understood that a sturdy persona and an unchanging look — and, of course, a warmly reassuring voice with just the right amount of grown-up sex appeal — could provide a kind of continuity that allowed him to experiment without alienating his core fans. Today, we’d call that continuity a savvy approach to branding, and indeed Rogers parlayed his musical stardom into successful sidelines as an actor and an entrepreneur with his own chain of rotisserie-chicken restaurants.

Yet it was his music in the ’70s and ’80s that made Rogers a crucial bridge between country’s origins and its arrival as a true pop force in the ’90s. Here are 10 of Rogers’ most enduring songs, listed in chronological order.

“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” (1967)

Before he found stardom in Nashville — and after earlier forays into doo-wop, jazz and folk music — Rogers made the Top 10 as lead singer of the First Edition with this tidy blast of pop psychedelia.

“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (1969)

Rogers had moved the First Edition toward country music by the time of this vivid story song (written by Mel Tillis), in which the singer portrays a paralyzed Vietnam veteran whose wife is stepping out on him.

“Lucille” (1977)

Another finely observed narrative ballad, this one featuring Rogers as the man with whom a married woman is carrying on, the singer’s first big solo hit also won him his first of three Grammy Awards.

“The Gambler” (1978)

Rogers’ signature song sets a poker player’s hard-won wisdom — “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em” — over an easygoing country groove that helped him do what neither Bobby Bare nor Johnny Cash could do with the tune: top Billboard’s country chart.

“Coward of the County” (1979)

As with most of his songs, Rogers didn’t write this chilling account of a bullied young man taking revenge on three brothers after they rape the man’s girlfriend. (It’s credited to Roger Bowling and Billy Edd Wheeler.) But Rogers’ intimate vocal performance is a fine example of the empathy he found in interpretation.

“Lady” (1980)

Written and produced by Lionel Richie, the silky, sensual “Lady” blurred the line between country music and R&B.

“We’ve Got Tonight” (1983)

Rogers’ raspy voice made him a natural fit to cover Bob Seger’s ballad. But doing the song as a duet with Sheena Easton added a layer of adult-contemporary polish that drew fans from beyond country and rock.

“Islands in the Stream” (1983)

Rogers’ smash duet with Dolly Parton — a shimmering studio creation of the Bee Gees, whose trademark tight harmonies are evident throughout — led to additional singles and a concert tour by the duo, as well as a joint Christmas album and accompanying TV special. In 1998, producer Wyclef Jean remade “Islands in the Stream.”.

“What About Me?” (1984)

Credit the presence of the great James Ingram for pushing Rogers toward one of his most soulful vocals in this three-way slow jam, which also features Kim Carnes and was co-written by Richard Marx.

“Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” (1987)

A gender-flipped take on Carnes’ and Barbra Streisand’s duet from just a few years before, “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” paired Rogers with Ronnie Milsap for a tale of two smooth-talkers competing for the same woman’s affection.

Categories: Entertainment, Life & Arts

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