Kenny Rogers: Country Music’s ‘Gambler’

From bold psychedelic rockers and cinematic story songs to sentimental country pop, Kenny Rogers covered considerable musical turf throughout six decades of recording and performing, using his gravel-tinged vocals to dramatic effect. Along the way, he also became a globally recognized actor, photographer, businessman, and philanthropist. When Rogers announced his final Nashville concert in 2017, after 60 years of performances, he acknowledged that his mobility had become more limited in recent years.

Rogers died in March 2020, at the age of 81, from natural causes at his Georgia home.

Featured on a staggering 30 Number One singles across the U.S. pop, country, and adult contemporary charts from 1977 to 1999, Rogers earned three Grammys, five CMA awards, and eight ACM awards, along with membership in the Country Music Hall of Fame. He sold more than 100 million records worldwide and charted internationally with enduring hits including “The Gambler,” “Lucille,” and “Islands in the Stream,” the breezy Bee Gees-penned 1983 collaboration with Dolly Parton.

“You never know how much you love somebody until they’re gone,” Parton wrote following news of Rogers’ death. “I’ve had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success, I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend.”

In a statement to Rolling Stone, the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb called Rogers “a musical force and a character to be reckoned with. He made a huge impact on our lives, and we will miss him greatly.”

A founding member of folk-rock group the First Edition, Rogers was a staple on TV’s most influential variety series throughout the Sixties and Seventies, making regular appearances on shows hosted by Ed Sullivan, Johnny Cash, and Glen Campbell. His final Nashville concert, in October 2017, featured his last-ever performance with Parton and appearances from Reba McEntire, Alison Krauss, the Flaming Lips, and others.

Born on August 21st, 1938, Kenneth Donald Rogers was the fourth of eight children, raised in the San Felipe Courts, a public-housing project in Houston’s Fourth Ward. Exposed to everything from jazz and R&B to pop and country, Rogers played guitar and sang in a doo-wop vocal group he formed at Jefferson Davis High School in 1956 called the Scholars. In 1958, he (then billed on the label as “Kenneth Rogers”) scored a solo hit for Carlton Records called “That Crazy Feeling.”

Rogers would learn to play bass for his next gig as a member of the Houston jazz trio the Bobby Doyle Three. Moving to Los Angeles, he joined popular folk group the New Christy Minstrels. In 1967, Rogers and three of the Minstrels, plus non-Minstrel drummer Mickey Jones, formed the First Edition, the genre-defying group that would reach the Top Five with their sophomore single on Reprise Records, Mickey Newbury’s trippy “Just Dropped In (to See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Featuring Glen Campbell on guitar, the tune was the first of the group’s seven Top 40 pop hits, which also included their chilling take on Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”

Rogers’ gruff, smoldering vocals would also distinguish another of the group’s biggest hits, the Mac Davis-penned “Something’s Burning.” In 1969, the group released their fourth LP, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, which also featured their version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” The LP cover was the first to credit the group as “Kenny Rogers and the First Edition.”

Rogers was signed to United Artists Records in 1975 by producer and Nashville label head Larry Butler, and his first LP there, Love Lifted Me, produced only minor hits. But in 1977, he would earn his first Number One country smash (and first pop Top Five solo hit) with the mournful barroom ballad “Lucille.” A Number One in the U.K. and other countries, the Hal Bynum and Roger Bowling-penned weeper paved the way for Rogers’ conversational singing style to make blockbuster hits of story-to-screen tales, including “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.”

With “The Gambler,” Rogers hit a musical trifecta: a ghostly allegory built around trains, the draw of the cards, and the wisdom of the aged. Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz would take home a Grammy and CMA Song of the Year honors for the song, but Rogers parlayed it into a mini empire, portraying fictional Old West gambler Brady Hawkes in five made-for-TV films from 1980 to 1994. The song also spawned a slot machine, a book series, and Rogers’ appearance in a humorous 2014 GEICO Insurance commercial, where his a cappella rendition of the song’s memorable chorus (“You got to know when to hold ’em/know when to fold ’em…”) annoys his fellow poker players.

While “The Gambler” was a country-to-pop crossover hit, Rogers’ next several singles, alternating between ballads (“She Believes in Me,” the Grammy-winning “You Decorated My Life”) and story songs (“Coward of the Country”), kept his feet firmly planted in both worlds, culminating in a six-week Number One pop tune in “Lady,” penned by Lionel Richie. He also scored a smash duet, “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” with Kim Carnes, who wrote an entire concept album with husband Dave Ellingson at Rogers’ request. Gideon, which through its dozen tracks told the story of Texas cowboy Gideon Tanner, was Rogers’ fifth Number One country album and another Top 20 entry on the multi-genre Billboard 200. Interestingly, Rogers, with his former band the First Edition, had previously recorded a concept album about a California town, The Ballad of Calico, in 1972.

Rogers, who was one of country music’s first acts to sell out arenas, released his Greatest Hits LP in 1980, a compilation that has sold in excess of 24 million copies worldwide. The 1981 LP Share Your Love featured appearances from Michael Jackson and Gladys Knight, and included four songs penned by Lionel Richie. Teaming with Dottie West in the late Seventies and early Eighties, the pair notched five massive hits, including the Number Ones “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” “All I Ever Need Is You,” and “What Are We Doin’ in Love.”

Rogers’ sole starring role in a feature film was as race car driver Brewster Baker in the 1982 comedy-drama Six Pack. He also sang the film’s hit theme song, “Love Will Turn You Around.” A year later, he had yet another hit duet, with Sheena Easton, on Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight.”

In 1984, he reunited with Dolly Parton to record the holiday LP Once Upon a Christmas. They also topped the country charts again in 1985 with “Real Love.” Other collaborations included the 1984 Grammy-nominated single “What About Me?” with Kim Carnes and James Ingram, and 1987’s “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” with Ronnie Milsap. Rogers was also a featured performer in the 1985 USA for Africa collaboration “We Are the World,” alongside Michael Jackson, Bob Dylan, and Ray Charles. Rogers’ soft-rock-influenced 1985 LP, The Heart of the Matter, produced by George Martin, was the singer’s last to top the Billboard Country Albums chart. In 1986, under the pseudonym “Joey Coco,” Prince penned the power ballad “You’re My Love,” for Rogers, who cut it for his They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To album.

From 1992 to 1994, Rogers hosted the A&E history series The Real West. His 1993 album If Only My Heart Had a Voice featured “Ol’ Red,” later a hit for Blake Shelton. He returned to his musical roots as a member of the Bobby Doyle Three with the 1994 collection of jazz standards, Timepiece. In 1999, Rogers’ own Dreamcatcher label issued the She Rides Wild Horses LP, featuring “The Greatest,” penned by Don Schlitz. A subsequent release from the album, “Buy Me a Rose,” with Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, marked Rogers’ return to the top spot on the Country Singles chart for the first time in almost 13 years. In 2005, Rogers and Parton topped CMT’s 100 Greatest Duets with “Islands in the Stream.” It marked the last time the pair performed together onstage until Rogers’ farewell concert in Nashville in 2017.

A co-founder of the Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant franchise (which would form the basis of an entire 1996 episode of Seinfeld), the singer was involved in various ventures in the live-entertainment destination of Branson, Missouri. He also helped fund construction of the Kenny Rogers United Cerebral Palsy Center of Southeast Missouri, which was later rechristened the Kenny Rogers Children’s Center.

Rogers was an amateur photographer and published three photo books, including 2005’s This Is My Country, featuring black-and-white portraits of country stars Reba McEntire, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and others. In addition, he authored the children’s books The Greatest, based on his hit song, and The Toy Shoppe, inspired by his touring musical play presented during his popular annual Christmas tour.

Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, and received a Grammy nomination with Dolly Parton the following year for their duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends.” Not long before his 2017 retirement, Rogers played to hundreds of thousands of attendees at iconic music festivals including Bonnaroo and Glastonbury.

“I tried not to compromise. I did songs I believed in, because you do them with more authority and you do them with a greater sense of belief,” Rogers said of his legacy as an artist to Rolling Stone Country in a previously unpublished 2017 interview. “If you do that … if you have something you believe in, you have to stick to it and you have to commit to it. That’s what I think I’ve done best. I’ve believed in things and I’ve stuck to ’em.”

  • Adapted from a tribute in Rolling Stone by Stephen L. Betts

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