Kenny Rogers' biggest hits -- "The Gambler," "Lady," "She Believes in Me," and "You Decorated My Life" among them -- flowed so easily it's a wonder to realize that it took him the better part of the decade to land upon his signature blend of country-pop and easy listening. He wandered through jazz combos and folk groups, eventually finding his way toward the First Edition, the show bizzy psychedelic pop group who scored a pair of big hits in the late 1960s with "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." The First Edition didn't quite weather the transition from the '60s into the '70s, leaving Rogers stranded in Las Vegas clubs until he refashioned himself as a country crooner with 1977's "Lucille," a single that topped the country charts and rocketed into the pop Top Ten. From there, he became a genuine superstar, a fixture on both the country-pop charts for the better part of a decade who managed to retain his celebrity even after the hits stopped. During the later period of his career, Rogers was as famous for his fame as he was for his music, a position he parlayed into TV appearances, restaurant franchises, and touring, a combination of that sustained a successful life in show biz until his retirement in 2017.
Like many country superstars, Rogers came from humble roots. Born in Houston, Texas, he and his seven siblings were raised in one of the poorest sections of town. Nevertheless, he progressed through high school, all the while learning how to play guitar and fiddle. When he was a senior, he played in a rockabilly band called the Scholars, who released three singles including "Kangewah," which was written by Louella Parsons. Following his graduation, he released two singles, "We'll Always Fall in Love Again" and "For You Alone," on the local independent label Carlton. The B-side of the first single, "That Crazy Feeling," was popular enough to earn him a slot on American Bandstand. In 1959, he briefly attended the University of Texas, but he soon dropped out to play bass in the jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three. While he was with the group, Rogers continued to explore other musical venues and played bass on Mickey Gilley's 1960 single "Is It Wrong." The Bobby Doyle Three released one album, In a Most Unusual Way, before Rogers left the group to play with the Kirby Stone Four. He didn't stay long with Stone and soon landed a solo record contract with Mercury.
Rogers released a handful of singles on Mercury, all of which failed. Once Mercury dropped the singer, he joined the New Christy Minstrels in 1966. He stayed with the folk group for a year, leaving with several other bandmembers -- Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Lou Camacho -- in 1967 to form the First Edition. Adding drummer Mickey Jones, the First Edition signed with Reprise and recorded the pop-psychedelic single "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." The single became a hit early in 1968, climbing to number five. Within a year, the group was billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, and in the summer of 1969, they had their second and final Top Ten hit, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." The country overtones of the single hinted at the direction Rogers was taking, as did the minor hit follow-up, "Ruben James." For the next two years, the First Edition bounced between country, pop, and mild psychedelia, scoring their last big hit with Mac Davis' "Something's Burning" in early 1970. By the end of 1972, the group had its own syndicated television show, but sales were drying up. They left Reprise the following year, signing to Rogers' new label, Jolly Rogers. None of their singles became major hits, though a version of Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again" reached the lower regions of the country charts late in 1973. Rogers left the group in 1974, and the band broke up the following year.
At the time the band broke up, Rogers was severely in debt and Jolly Rogers was out of business. In order to jump-start his career, he signed to United Artists in 1975, and with the help of producer Larry Butler, he devised an accessible, radio-ready, and immaculately crafted take on country-pop that leaned toward adult contemporary pop, not country. "Love Lifted Me," his debut single for the label, was a minor hit early in 1976, but it took a full year for Rogers to have a genuine breakthrough hit with "Lucille." Climbing to number one early in 1977, "Lucille" not only was a major country hit, earning the Country Music Association's Single of the Year award, but it also was a huge crossover success, peaking at number five on the pop charts. For the next six years, Rogers had a steady string of Top Ten hits on both the country and pop charts.
His crossover success is important -- his lush, easy listening productions and smooth croons showed that country stars could conquer the pop audience, if produced and marketed correctly. During the late '70s and early '80s, much of country radio was dominated either by urban cowboy or country-pop in the vein of Rogers' own singles. Between 1978 and 1980, he had five straight number one country singles -- "Love or Something Like It," "The Gambler," "She Believes in Me," "You Decorated My Life," "Coward of the County" -- most of which also reached the pop Top Ten. In addition to his solo hits, he had a series of Top Ten duets with Dottie West, including the number one hits "Every Time Two Fools Collide" (1978), "All I Ever Need Is You" (1979), and "What Are We Doin' in Love" (1981). Not only did his singles sell well, but so did his albums, with every record he released between 1976's Kenny Rogers and 1984's Once Upon a Christmas going gold or platinum.
By the beginning of the '80s, Rogers' audience was as much pop as it was country, and singles like his cover of Lionel Richie's "Lady" confirmed that fact, spending six weeks at the top of the pop charts. Rogers also began performing duets with pop singers like Kim Carnes ("Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer," number three country, number four pop, 1980) and Sheena Easton ("We've Got Tonight," number one country, number six pop, 1983). Rogers also began making inroads into television and film, appearing in a number of TV specials and made-for-TV movies, including 1982's Six Pack and two movies based on his songs "The Gambler" and "Coward of the County." Late in 1983, he left United Artists/Liberty for RCA Records, releasing a duet with Dolly Parton called "Islands in the Stream" as his first single for the label. Written by the Bee Gees and produced by Barry Gibb, the record became one of his biggest hits, spending two weeks on the top of both the country and pop charts.
Rogers stayed at RCA for five years, during which time he alternated between MOR, adult contemporary pop, and slick country-pop. The hits didn't come as often as they used to, and they were frequently competing with releases from Liberty's vaults, but he managed to log five number one singles for the label, in addition to "Islands in the Stream": "Crazy" (1984), "Real Love" (1985), "Morning Desire" (1985), "Tomb of the Unknown Love" (1986), and the Ronnie Milsap duet "Make No Mistake, She's Mine" (1987). Despite his country successes, he no longer had pop crossover hits. Nevertheless, Rogers' concerts continued to be popular, as did his made-for-TV movies. Still, the lack of blockbuster records meant that RCA failed to renew his contract when it expired in 1988. Rogers returned to his first label, Reprise, where he had one major hit -- 1989's Top Ten "The Vows Go Unbroken (Always True to You)," taken from the gold album Something Inside So Strong -- before his singles started charting in the lower half of the Top 40.
Throughout the late '80s and '90s, Rogers kept busy with charity work, concerts, his fast-food chain Kenny Rogers' Roasters, television specials, movies, and photography, publishing no less than two books, Kenny Rogers' America and Kenny Rogers: Your Friends and Mine, of his photos. Rogers continued to record, releasing albums nearly every year, but they failed to break beyond his large, devoted fan base and only made a slight impact on the charts. With 1998's Christmas from the Heart, he established his own record label, Dreamcatcher; She Rides Wild Horses followed a year later, and There You Go Again was issued in mid-2000. A&E Live by Request appeared in 2001, followed by Back to the Well in 2003, Me & Bobby McGee in 2004, and Water & Bridges in 2006.
At this point in his career, unable to hit the pop or country charts any longer, Rogers repositioned himself as a nostalgic brand in the middle, releasing 2011's The Love of God, a collection of gospel hymns and inspirational songs, only through Cracker Barrel locations (the album was re-released a year later by the Gaither Music Group under the title Amazing Grace). In 2012 he issued an autobiography, Luck or Something Like It: A Memoir, and the following year he received the honor of an induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame. A new deal with Warner Bros. Nashville yielded You Can't Make Old Friends, his first major-label, big-budget release in seven years, and he promoted it with a major tour and even appeared at England's legendary Glastonbury Festival. The album's October 2013 release was preceded by the title-track duet with longtime friend Dolly Parton. In late 2015 Rogers returned to a familiar genre, releasing Once Again It's Christmas, his first holiday album in 17 years.
Rogers launched a farewell tour called The Gambler's Last Deal in 2015. It culminated in 2017 with a final show held at Nashville's Bridgestone Arena filled with guests including Lionel Richie and Dolly Parton.
© David Vinopal & Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo