Vocalist Kenny Rogers, who dominated the pop and country charts in the 1970s and 1980s and won three Grammys, has died. He was 81. Rogers “passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family,” a representative for the singer said in a statement. 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 had announced a farewell tour in 2015 and was able to keep it going through December 2017. In April 2018, shortly before he was to spend a few months finishing out the tour after a break, he announced that he was having to call off the remaining dates due to unspecified “health challenges.”
A special, “Biography: Kenny Rogers,” had been announced by A&E earlier this month, set to air April 13. The special 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 Richie, Don Henley, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Little Big Town, Reba McEntire, the Flaming Lips and the Judds.
Rogers’ signature song “The Gambler” was added to the Library of Congress’ National Recording Registry in 2018. It was the most recent of a lifetime of honors bestowed on the singer, which included induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame and six CMA Awards.
After establishing himself commercially via rock and pop oriented singles with his group the First Edition, the bearded, prematurely gray Rogers was launched into the top rank of crossover country artists with a string of singles for United Artists Records. His appealing, sometimes gritty voice propelled 20 solo 45s to No. 1 on the country charts from 1977-87. Two of them, his 1980 reading of Lionel Richie’s “Lady” and his 1983 collaboration with Dolly Parton “Islands in the Stream”, also topped the pop lists. He worked profitably with a number of other female vocalists, including Dottie West, Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes and Anne Murray.
Born and raised in Houston, he was the fourth of eight children in his family. While in high school, he formed a rockabilly group, the Scholars. After a brief stint at the University of Houston, he played bass with jazz groups. After moving to Los Angeles in 1966, he joined a folk-pop group.
The First Edition’s fortunes began to wane in the early ’70s, and Rogers signed a solo deal with UA in 1976. He struck almost immediate pay dirt with “Lucille,” an absorbing vignette about a barroom encounter with a disillusioned woman and her estranged husband. The number became Rogers’ first No. 1 country hit and reached No. 5 on the national pop chart. It also scored Rogers his first Grammy, for best male country vocal performance.
He notched five more No. 1 solo country singles by the end of the decade. The biggest of these were the Grammy-winning “The Gambler” (also No. 16 pop in 1978) and the backwoods narrative “Coward of the County” (also No. 3 pop in 1979). They pushed the albums “The Gambler” and “Kenny” to No. 12 and No. 5, respectively, on the pop album charts. Each inspired a popular TV movie; Rogers would portray Brady Hawkes, protagonist of “The Gambler,” in a series of telepics that ran through 1994.
On the heels of a No. 1 greatest hits set in 1980, Rogers’ hits of the decade for Liberty and RCA found him moving increasingly into pop terrain and focusing on romantic balladry. “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” (the latter one of many duets with frequent partner Parton) solidified his standing as country’s biggest crossover attraction; his rendering of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” with Sheena Easton ruled the country chart and rose to No. 6 on the pop chart. In all, he recorded 23 top 10 country hits during the decade, five of which crossed to the pop side.
From the ’90s forward, as he maintained a busy touring schedule, Rogers increasingly turned his attention to various entrepreneurial enterprises, opening a chain of fast-food chicken outlets, Kenny Rogers Roasters, and a Sprint car manufacturing firm, Gamblers Chassis.
Always active on the road, Rogers announced his retirement in September 2015. At the Oct. 25, 2017 tribute concert in Nashville, Rogers joined in jocular exchanges with some of the homage-payers, notably Parton, who quipped, “I want to see what condition your condition’s really in.” They reprised their recorded duets of “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and “Islands In the Stream,” and Parton additionally sang him her own signature song, “I Will Always Love You.”
Footage of the 2017 concert was filmed by Blackbird Productions, but went unseen until it was set for inclusion in the A&E “Biography” special airing in April.