Award-winning singer/songwriter Kenny Rogers enjoyed enormous success on both the country and pop charts with hits like “Lucille,” “The Gambler” and “Islands in the Stream.”
Who Was Kenny Rogers?
After working with bands and as a solo artist, Kenny Rogers released The Gambler in 1978. The title track became a huge country and pop hit and gave Rogers his second Grammy Award. Rogers also recorded a series of hits with country legend Dottie West and scored a big No. 1 tune, “Islands in the Stream,” with Dolly Parton. Rogers also published several books, including a 2012 autobiography.
Early Life and Career
Singer and songwriter Kenneth Donald Rogers was born on August 21, 1938, in Houston, Texas. While his name was “Kenneth Donald” on his birth certificate, his family always called him “Kenneth Ray.”
Rogers grew up poor, living with his parents and six siblings in a federal housing project. By high school, he knew that he wanted to pursue a music career. He bought himself a guitar and started a group called the Scholars. The band had a rockabilly sound and scored a few local hits.
Breaking out on his own, Rogers recorded the 1958 hit single “That Crazy Feeling” for the Carlton label. He even got to perform the song on Dick Clark’s popular music program American Bandstand. Changing genres, Rogers then played bass with the Bobby Doyle Trio, a jazz group.
Moving on to a folk-pop style, Rogers was asked to join the New Christy Minstrels in 1966. He left after a year, along with a few other members of the group, to form the First Edition. Fusing folk, rock and country, the group quickly scored a hit with the psychedelic “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The band soon became known as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and landed their own syndicated music show. They scored a few more hits, such as Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town
In 1974, Rogers left the group to go solo again and decided to focus his energy on country music. “Love Lifted Me” became his first solo top 20 country hit in 1975. Two years later, Rogers reached the top of the country charts with the mournful ballad “Lucille,” about a man being left by his wife. The song also did well on the pop charts, making it into the top five and bringing Rogers his first Grammy, for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male.
Quickly following up on this success, Rogers released The Gambler in 1978. The title track was again a huge country and pop hit and gave Rogers his second Grammy. He also showed his tender side with another popular ballad, “She Believes in Me.” Kenny (1979) featured such hits as “Coward of the County” and “You Decorated My Life.” Around this time, he wrote the advice book Making It With Music: Kenny Rogers’ Guide to the Music Business (1978).
Duets With Dottie and Dolly
In addition to his solo work, Rogers recorded a series of hits with country legend Dottie West. The two reached the top of the country charts with “Every Time Two Fools Collide” (1978), “All I Ever Need Is You” (1979) and “What Are We Doin’ in Love” (1981). Also in 1981, Rogers held the No. 1 spot on the pop charts for six weeks with his version of Lionel Richie’s “Lady.”
By this time, Rogers was a true crossover artist, enjoying enormous success on both the country and pop charts and collaborating with such pop stars as Kim Carnes and Sheena Easton. Turning to acting, Rogers starred in television movies inspired by his songs, like 1980’s The Gambler, which spawned several sequels, and 1981’s Coward of the County. On the big screen, he played a race car driver in the comedy Six Pack (1982).
In 1983, Rogers scored one of the biggest hits of his career: a duet with Dolly Parton called “Islands in the Stream.” Written by the Bee Gees, the tune went to the top of both the country and pop charts. Rogers and Parton won the Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year for their efforts.
After this, Rogers continued to thrive as a country music performer. Among the hits from this period is his duet with Ronnie Milsap, “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” which won the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Duet.
In addition to music, Rogers also demonstrated a passion for photography. Images that he took while traveling around the country were published in the 1986 collection Kenny Rogers’ America. “Music is what I am, but photography would probably be second,” he later explained to People magazine. The following year, Rogers published another collection called Your Friends and Mine.
Continuing to act, Rogers appeared in such TV movies as Christmas in America (1990) and MacShayne: Winner Takes All (1994). He also began exploring other business opportunities, and in 1991 he launched a restaurant franchise called Kenny Rogers Roasters. He later sold the venture to Nathan’s Famous, Inc. in 1998.
That same year, Rogers created his own record label, Dreamcatcher Entertainment. He also starred in his own off-Broadway Christmas show, The Toy Shoppe, around that time. Releasing his next album, She Rides Wild Horses, in 1999, Rogers enjoyed a return to the charts with the hit “The Greatest,” which told the story of a boy’s love of baseball. He scored another hit with “Buy Me a Rose” off the same album.
In 2004, Rogers and his fifth wife, Wanda, welcomed twin boys Jordan and Justin in July — just a month before his 66th birthday. “They say that twins at my age will either make you or break you. Right now I’m leaning towards break. I would kill for the energy they’ve got,” Rogers told People magazine. He has three older children from his previous marriages. That same year, Rogers published his children’s book, Christmas in Canaan, which was later turned into a TV movie.
In 2009, he celebrated his long career with Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years, a musical retrospective. Rogers has made dozens of albums and sold more than 100 million copies worldwide.
In 2012, Rogers published the autobiography Luck or Something Like It. He received recognition for his substantial musical contributions in 2013 when he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. At the CMA Awards held that November, he also received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. Some of the country’s top performers turned out to honor Rogers, including Jennifer Nettles and Darius Rucker.
That same year Rogers released the album You Can’t Make Old Friends, followed in 2015 by the holiday collection Once Again It’s Christmas. Starting in December and going into 2016, the iconic singer/songwriter embarked on what he announced as his farewell tour.
In April 2018, after Rogers pulled out of a scheduled performance at Harrah’s Cherokee Casino Resort in North Carolina, the casino announced on Twitter that the singer was canceling the remaining dates of his final tour because of “a series of health challenges.”
“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,” said Rogers in a statement. “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.”
Rogers died on March 20, 2020, of natural causes. He was 81.
A&E Biography Special
Biography: Kenny Rogers, premiering Monday, April 13 at 9/8c, chronicles Roger’s life from his childhood, through the rise and fall of The First Edition, the iconic release of “The Gambler,” and to the height of his career as a successful solo artist, actor and pop-culture icon. Utilizing live performances and behind-the-scenes moments from Rogers’ 2017 star-studded farewell concert, All In For The Gambler, in Nashville, this “Biography” special pays tribute to a true country music legend. The two-hour documentary also features exclusive photos, a never-before-seen interview and acoustic performance by Rogers himself as well as intimate interviews with family and fellow luminaries including Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Chris Stapleton, Reba McEntire, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum, Jamey Johnson and more. Watch a preview: