The iconic country music star made his mark with such hits as “Lucille,” “Coward of the County” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
Kenny Rogers, the iconic vocalist who topped the pop and country charts throughout the 1970s and ‘80s, and continued to attract a large and loyal following as a concert performer until his retirement in 2018, passed away Friday at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia. He was 81.
According to a statement released by his publicist, Keith Hagan, Rogers had been in hospice care and died of natural causes. The showbiz trade paper Variety reports that, due to the national COVID-19 emergency, his family currently expects to conduct a small private service, with a public memorial planned for a later date.
Variety also reports that the A&E cable network had announced earlier this month plans to air Biography: Kenny Rogers on April 13. “The special,” wrote Variety’s Chris Morris, “is said to be largely built around footage from the all-star salute Rogers received in Nashville on Oct. 25, 2017, just a couple of months before his final concert appearances. Among the guests who joined him for that sentimental sendoff at the Bridgestone Arena were Dolly Parton, Lionel Ritchie, Don Henley, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Little Big Town, Reba McEntire, the Flaming Lips and the Judds.”
A Houston native, Rogers first achieved prominence during the 1960s and ‘70s as a member of The First Edition — later known as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition — an eclectic ensemble that performed music ranging from rock and pop to folk and country. While a member of the group, he hit the Billboard charts with such singles as “But You Know I Love You,” “Something’s Burning,” “Reuben James,” “Heed the Call” and the crossover smash “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” Rogers and the First Edition also were showcased as the performer-hosts for the 1971-73 syndicated TV variety series Rollin’ on the River.
Rogers kicked off his solo career in 1976 with the release of the album Love Lifted Me. He had his first No. 1 hit on the country charts with “Lucille” in 1977, and followed one year later with “The Gambler,” the phenomenally popular ballad (written by Don Schlitz) that would become his personal and professional trademark.
In 1980, Rogers played the title character in The Gambler, a well-received TV-movie inspired by the latter song that spawned four sequels over a 14-year period. Rogers starred as Brady Hawkes, a Wild West cardsharp who sets out to meet the son he never knew he had. During his journey, he befriends Billy Montana (Bruce Boxleitner), a novice gambler who needs to learn when to hold ‘em, when to fold ‘em, when to walk away – and when to run.
In a 2011 interview with C&I, Rogers admitted that, despite his success in the Gambler franchise, Coward of the County (a 1981 TV-movie also based on one of his No. 1 hits), Six Pack (his first feature film, a 1982 comedy-drama for which he recorded “Love Will Turn You Around” as its theme) and other several other movies, “I never really wanted to be an actor. It’s like I told somebody the other day: ‘There are actors, and then there are people who can act.’ You give an actor unbelievable dialogue, and they can make it believable. If you give me believable dialogue, I can keep it believable. There are a lot of people who can’t do that.
“There’s a great story about an old western actor who went to join a Beverly Hills country club. They told him, ‘We’re very sorry, sir, but we don’t let actors in here.’ And he said, ‘I’m no actor — and I’ve got 42 movies to prove it.’ That’s how I feel.”
Still, Rogers had fond memories of playing cowboy in the first Gambler film. “I loved riding the horses,” he said, “and I loved being out in the West. And being in gunfights where I knew I couldn’t really get shot. It was a great time, and I’m so glad that I did that.”
Rogers recorded several popular duets with such artists as Kim Carnes (“Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer”), Dottie West (“Every Time Two Fools Collide”), Sheena Easton (“We’ve Got Tonight”) — and, most memorably, his longtime friend Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”).
In 2013, shortly after Rogers and Parton released their duet “You Can’t Make Old Friends” — the Grammy-nominated title cut from what turned out to be his final studio album — I had the pleasure to talk with Rogers about his music and his life for C&I. Among the highlights from that interview:
You’ve been associated with many other genres over the years – jazz, pop, folk music and so on. But country music appears to be what you do best – and love most.
Well, I never set out to be one thing or another. I’ve always said I’m a country singer with a lot of other musical influences. For me – and I’ve said this many times before – country music is the white man’s rhythm and blues. It’s where all the pain is. I think if you get out of country music, you don’t know what to expect. But here, you get the heartfelt feelings of the writer and the artist.
That certainly comes across in your latest album, You Can’t Make Old Friends. The title track – your duet with Dolly Parton – ranks with your very best work. What’s the story behind the song?
I was at the Stagecoach Country Music Festival in California, and I ran into Ryan King – the son of William King of the Commodores. And I said, “Ryan, my God, how are you? I haven’t seen you since you were 12.” He was about 30 or so at the time. And he told me, “I just want you to know that I was talking with some of my friends the other night, and I told them that some of my favorite childhood memories were about when we used to go to your farm in Athens, Georgia, and I used to ride the go-karts and the golf carts with your son Christopher. And I realized while I was talking about that – you can’t made old friends.” And I thought to myself: “Wow. That sounds like a great song title.”
The next night, I’m in New York, to see Don Schlitz get inducted into the Songwriters Hall of Fame. And I tell him this story – and he says, “Can I write that song?” And I said, “Sure. Have at it.” So the next day, I get this song from him, and it was absolutely everything I hoped it would be. So I sent it to Dolly, and asked, “Is this something you’d be interested in doing?” And she said said: “Absolutely.” Both of us felt that it wasn’t so important that it was a hit song. But it was important that we had our relationship documented. Because it’s a very special relationship to have in this business.
The opening lines of the song are just plain wonderful: “What will I do when you are gone? Who’s gonna tell me the truth?” Now that is what friendship is all about.
And you have to treasure those people. When I was young, my dad told me: “Son, be friendly to all, but be friends with a few.” Because he felt if you had five friends while you were growing up, you were a very wealthy man. He said, “Friendship is very expensive and very time-consuming. You have to be willing to do many things that you might not be willing to do. And one of them is tell the truth.” So, yeah, I love that line of the song, too.
Have you ever been surprised by hearing your music in unexpected places?
I was riding on the canals of Venice with my friend Steve Wynn, who owns all the gambling casinos. We were going around a corner, and somebody up on the bridge started singing: “You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em…” And I thought, “My God! Who does that in Venice?” And the guy on our gondola – he was singing some Italian thing, but then he starts singing “The Gambler,” too.
Within the past two years, you’re published your memoirs, co-written your first novel, released your 35th studio album – and received the Country Music Hall of Fame honor. How would you describe where you’re at in your career right now?
It’s like I was telling somebody the other day: I sign enough autographs to satisfy my ego, but not so much that it invades my privacy. As an artist, the last thing in the world you want to be is irrelevant, to not matter. So I think you keep trying to matter. Because new songs introduce new audiences to old songs. You buy time with that. See, I don’t want to be known just as that guy from the ‘70s and ‘80s. I want to do something that’s important now.
Unlike many contemporary recording artists, you’re remained a firm believer in the value of producing entire albums, as opposed to focusing on individual singles for digital downloading. Why?
In my day, when I was growing up, you had to buy ten songs to get one. Now you can just download that one. But the problem with that is, you don’t get to know the artist that way. I think when you buy an album, and you listen to the songs that aren’t the single, you get to know what kind of songs that person likes, what statement is he making, what does he care about – and where his heart is. That’s the beauty of the album, if you will. Nowadays, people release one song. And of that one doesn’t sell, they do five more singles in a year, until they get one that does work. That’s never been something I’ve wanted to do. There’s a lot of my music I know will never get played on the radio. But I want to do it for people to hear.
You’re still very active on the concert circuit. After all this time, have you figured out a foolproof way to know whether you’re really connecting with your audience?
Actually, I’ve found the best way to judge that is to see how they respond to the jokes between the songs. Really. People will applaud to be polite. But they won’t laugh to be polite. They have to really think something’s funny.
Finally: You returned to the world of gambling with your novel What Are the Chances [co-written with Mike Blakely], about a Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament. Do you — well, you know, still know when to hold ‘em, and when to fold ‘em?
[Laughs] I don’t spend too much time at the card tables anymore. See, I learned something about gambling a long time ago: I can’t win enough to excite me, but I can lose enough to depress me. So I stay away from that.