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Kenny Rogers (1938–2020), country music icon

by Linnea Crowther

Kenny Rogers was the iconic country music singer whose hit song “The Gambler” propelled him to Grammy-winning superstardom.

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Died: March 20, 2020 (Who else died on March 20?)

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Details of death: Died at home under hospice care of natural causes at the age of 81.

View gallery: Kenny Rogers’ Best


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Career beginnings in jazz, folk and rock: Though Rogers is best known as one of country music’s most beloved singers, it took him a few years to settle into country music as the style he’d play. His first recording gig was playing standup bass with jazz act the Bobby Doyle Three. He moved on to join the New Christy Minstrels, the popular folk ensemble with a large and frequently rotating roster. He played bass and sang with the New Christy Minstrels for a short period before leaving with the spinoff group the First Edition, singing lead and playing bass. His first taste of stardom was with their 1968 hit, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The psychedelic single climbed to No. 5 on the Billboard chart, Rogers’ first entry into the Top Ten.

Growing stardom: As the First Edition gained fame, Rogers became their unmistakable face, known for his long hair and earring. The band renamed itself Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, and they had further success as they began to incorporate country music into their sound. “But You Know I Love You” was a popular single in 1968, followed in 1969 by the enduring hit “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a story of a paralyzed veteran who despairs as his wife goes out for the evening without him. Kenny Rogers and the First Edition were soon stars, and as they continued to turn out hit songs, they moved to TV, hosting the variety show “Rollin’ on the River,” later renamed “Rollin’.” It featured the band in comedy sketches and songs, and brought in guests including Ike and Tina Turner, the Carpenters, and B.B. King.

Solo career: After almost 10 years with First Edition, Rogers went solo in 1976, already a well-known star thanks to the band’s music and TV presence. While the First Edition had been a rock band that sometimes played country-tinged music, Rogers settled on country as the sound that would carry him into his solo career – and he adopted the low-key, conversational singing style that would distinguish him from other country musicians and make him an international superstar. He quickly rose to the top of the charts as a solo artist, scoring his first No. 1 country hit with 1977’s “Lucille.” It was a crossover hit, popular on mainstream radio as well as with country music fans, and it laid the groundwork for Rogers’ worldwide superstardom that came with 1978’s “The Gambler,” which won him a Grammy Award and was a standout track on a multi-platinum-selling album.

Top of the charts: Rogers followed “The Gambler” with hit songs including “She Believes in Me” and “Coward of the Country,” achieving new heights in 1980 when “Lady” topped not just the country chart but the Billboard Hot 100 as well. He’d repeat that feat three years later when he teamed up with Dolly Parton for the upbeat duet “Islands in the Stream.” Rogers duetted with other women over the years, recording hits with Dottie West, Sheena Easton, and Kim Carnes. In 1985, Rogers was a part of the popular “We Are the World” charity single, which was recorded in part at his Los Angeles recording studio. Rogers topped the country charts 19 times, and he continued recording and touring until his 2017 retirement. Later career singles include 2013’s “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” another collaboration with Dolly Parton. Rogers was a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame and the second person to receive the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association.

Actor and entrepreneur: The wild success of “The Gambler” inspired a series of TV movies based on the persona created in the song. Rogers played Brady Hawkes, an Old West gambler who encountered friends and villains alike as he traveled the west. “Kenny Rogers as the Gambler” (1980) was so successful that it spawned four sequels, the last one coming in 1994. Rogers also starred on the big screen in “Six Pack” (1982) and made TV appearances on “Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman,” “Touched By an Angel,” and “How I Met Your Mother.” From 1992 to 1994, Rogers hosted the A&E history series “The Real West.” In 1991, Rogers launched the restaurant chain Kenny Rogers Roasters, offering rotisserie chicken and touting its healthy options. All U.S. locations of Kenny Rogers Roasters had closed by 2011, but it remains popular in Asia.

Notable quote: “I’ve never considered myself a great singer but I am a great storyteller.” —from a 2000 interview with Billboard magazine

What people said about him: “I’m very sad to learn that Kenny Rogers has passed away. Kenny was a friend who helped me in so many ways early on. He was always funny, kind, and full of advice. Kenny’s legacy of great music will live on forever. My deepest condolences to Wanda & family.” —Travis Tritt

“As a young comic, I opened for Kenny Rogers & bombed. An outdoor event that everyone but comics thought would be great for comedy. After my set, Rogers found me backstage & told me I was weird & hilarious. He invited me to the after party. A real sweet guy.” —Talk show host Chip Franklin

“Kenny Rogers was one of my favorite recording artists growing up — his songs played out like movies in my mind always with uplifting, thoughtful and inspiring narratives. Thank you and RIP.” —Fox Business host Charles V. Payne

“I feel like any time my dad drove me anywhere as a kid I heard The Gambler by Kenny Rogers. I loved it. I had no idea what the words meant but I didn’t know that I didn’t know what the words meant. That song is part of a stunning body of work. RIP Kenny Rogers.” —Comedian Mike Birbiglia

“So saddened by the news on Kenny Rogers this Saturday morning. He was an incredible singer, I was just playing his songs 2 days ago. A family favorite, we played his music constantly. She Believes in Me, Through the Years, Coward of the Country, Lady, Sweet Music Man. RIP” —La Toya Jackson

Full obituary: Rolling Stone

Related lives:

  • Johnny Cash (1932–2003), legendary musician known as “The Man in Black”
  • Merle Haggard (1937–2016), country music giant known for “Okie from Muskogee”
  • George Jones (1931–2013), country music star who sang “He Stopped Loving Her Today”

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