Kenny Rogers released The Gambler in 1978 after years of working with bands and as a solo artist. Rogers received his second Grammy Award for the title single, which became a massive country and pop smash. Rogers also had a string of singles with country icon Dottie West and a big No. 1 single, “Islands in the Stream,” with Dolly Parton. Rogers also wrote many books, including an autobiography in 2012.
Early Life and Career
Kenneth Donald Rogers, a singer and songwriter, was born on August 21, 1938, in Houston, Texas. While his birth certificate listed his name as “Kenneth Donald,” his family always referred to him as “Kenneth Ray.”
Rogers grew up in a federal housing project with his parents and six siblings. He knew by high school that he wanted to be a musician. He bought a guitar and formed a band named the Scholars. The band’s sound was rockabilly, and they had a few local singles.
Rogers made his solo debut with the 1958 smash single “That Crazy Feeling” for the Carlton label. He even had the opportunity to sing the song on Dick Clark’s iconic music show American Bandstand. Rogers subsequently moved on to play bass with the Bobby Doyle Trio, a jazz outfit.
In 1966, Rogers was requested to join the New Christy Minstrels, a folk-pop group. After a year, he and a few other members of the group formed the First Edition. The ensemble rapidly had a hit with the trippy “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Kenny Rogers and the First Edition quickly became well-known, and they even had their own syndicated music show. They had a couple more chart-topping singles, including Mel Tillis’ “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.”
Rogers departed the group in 1974 to go solo and focus his energies on country music. In 1975, “Love Lifted Me” became his first solo top 20 country song. Two years later, Rogers topped the country charts with the melancholy song “Lucille,” about a man who has been abandoned by his wife. The song also performed well on the pop charts, reaching the top five and earning Rogers his first Grammy nomination for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male.
Following on from this triumph, Rogers published The Gambler in 1978. The title song was a tremendous country and commercial smash, earning Rogers his second Grammy. He also demonstrated his compassionate side with another well-known ballad, “She Believes in Me.”Hits from Kenny (1979) included “Coward of the County” and “You Decorated My Life.” Making It With Music: Kenny Rogers’ Guide to the Music Business (1978) was written around this period.
Duets With Dottie and Dolly
Along with his solo success, Rogers had a string of hits with country icon Dottie West. With “Every Time Two Fools Collide” (1978), “All I Ever Need Is You” (1979), and “What Are We Doin’ in Love” (1981), they topped the country charts. In 1981, Rogers topped the pop charts for six weeks with his version of Lionel Richie’s “Lady.”
By this point, Rogers had established himself as a true crossover performer, having massive success on both the country and pop charts and teaming with pop stars such as Kim Carnes and Sheena Easton. Rogers went on to star in television movies based on his songs, such as 1980’s The Gambler, which spawned multiple sequels, and 1981’s Coward of the County. In the comedy Six Pack (1982), he portrayed a race car driver.
In 1983, Rogers had one of his biggest singles, a duet with Dolly Parton called “Islands in the Stream.” The Bee Gees wrote the song, which rose to the top of both the country and pop charts. For their efforts, Rogers and Parton received the Academy of Country Music Award for Single of the Year.
Rogers’ career as a country music musician flourished after that. Among his songs from this period is “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” a duet with Ronnie Milsap that received the 1988 Grammy Award for Best Country Vocal Performance, Duet.
Photography and Businesses
In addition to music, Rogers has a keen interest in photography. Kenny Rogers’ America, a series of photographs he took while traveling around the country, was released in 1986. “Music is what I am, but photography would probably be second,” he subsequently told People magazine. Rogers released another compilation, Your Friends and Mine, the following year.
Rogers continued to act in TV movies such as Christmas in America (1990) and MacShayne: Winner Takes All (1994). He also began looking at other business options, and in 1991 he launched Kenny Rogers Roasters, a restaurant franchise. In 1998, he sold the business to Nathan’s Famous, Inc.
Rogers founded his own record company, Dreamcatcher Entertainment, the same year. Around the same time, he was in his own off-Broadway Christmas production, The Toy Shoppe. Rogers returned to the charts with the smash “The Greatest,” which chronicled the story of a boy’s passion of baseball, on his next album, She Rides Wild Horses, released in 1999. “Buy Me a Rose” from the same album was another hit for him.
Rogers and his fifth wife, Wanda, had twin boys Jordan and Justin in July 2004, only a month before his 66th birthday. “They believe that at my age, twins will either make or ruin you. Right now, I’m leaning toward taking a sabbatical. “I’d kill for their energy,” Rogers, who had three elder children from previous marriages, told People magazine. That same year, he released Christmas in Canaan, a children’s novel that was eventually adapted into a TV movie.
Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years, a musical retrospective, was released in 2009 to commemorate his long career. He had made dozens of albums and sold over 100 million copies globally by that point.
Rogers’ autobiography, Luck or Something Like It, was released in 2012. In 2013, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in appreciation of his significant musical achievements. He also got the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the CMA Awards that November. Jennifer Nettles and Darius Rucker were among those in attendance to pay tribute to Rogers.
Rogers published the album You Can’t Make Old Friends the following year, followed by the holiday compilation Once Again It’s Christmas in 2015. Starting in December and continuing into 2016, the legendary singer/songwriter started on his farewell tour.
Rogers pulled out of a scheduled performance at Harrah’s Cherokee resort Resort in North Carolina in April 2018, prompting the resort to announce on Twitter that the singer was canceling the remaining dates of his farewell tour due to “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 of natural causes at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on March 20, 2020. He was 81.