100 Greatest Men: #17. Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

The biggest crossover star that country music has ever known, Kenny Rogers was among the biggest stars of any genre in the seventies and eighties, becoming a worldwide icon and one of the genre’s finest ambassadors.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Rogers started off as a rockabilly artist in the mid-fifties, as part of a band called the Scholars. Though he was not the lead singer of the band, Rogers pursued a solo career when they disbanded.   When that proved unsuccessful, he joined a jazz trio called the Bobby Doyle Three.   They did reasonably well on the concert circuit, but when Rogers again pursued a solo career after they folded, he was not successful.

So Rogers regrouped, working as a studio musician and songwriter until he joined up with the First Edition.  Although he wasn’t initially their primary lead singer, his turns on the mic led to huge hits like “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition my Condition was in)” and the Mel Tillis-penned “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”, and they were soon billed as Kenny Rogers & The First Edition.  The band had further big hits with “Reuben James” and “Something’s Burning”,  but by the mid-seventies, they had disbanded and Rogers was pursuing a solo career.

The First Edition had done well with some releases in the country market, and Rogers turned his attention to his Texas roots, pursuing a country music career.  After some moderate success, he had his huge breakthrough with “Lucille”, a compelling song about an encounter with a farmer’s wife that scored Rogers the CMA for Single of the Year in 1977.   The song was also an international hit, selling five million copies worldwide and topping the charts in over a dozen countries.

By the end of the seventies, Rogers was a full-blown superstar, selling millions of records on the strength of international crossover hits like “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.”  In 1980, his greatest hits collection topped the pop albums chart and sold more than 12 million copies, shattering all previous records for Nashville-based acts.   His Lionel Richie-penned hit “Lady” spent a stunning six weeks atop the pop singles chart.   It was an appropriate title for a Rogers hit, who managed to have country and pop hits with ladies as diverse as Dottie West, Dolly Parton, Sheena Easton, and Kim Carnes.  His duet with Parton on “Islands in the Stream” topped both the country and pop charts and sold more than two million copies in the United States alone.

As pop tastes changed, Rogers remained a force on the country charts, but further diversified his portfolio with a string of popular television movies based on his hit, “The Gambler.”  He further collaborated with Parton on a tour and a Christmas album, that latter of which was supported by a Holiday-themed television movie.

In the nineties, he was one of many stars who were pushed off of the radio for younger acts, but refused to complain about the ageism at work.   He noted, “Those who can compete, compete.  Those who can’t, b***h.”   Proving his own case in 1999, he had a comeback album with She Rides Wild Horses, scoring his first #1 country hit in over a decade with “Buy Me a Rose”, which powered that set to platinum sales.

Rogers continues to record and tour, recently enjoying a Grammy nomination for his latest collaboration with Parton.  He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, a mere year after publishing his memoir, Luck or Something Like It.

Essential Singles:

  • Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town (with The First Edition), 1969
  • Lucille, 1977
  • The Gambler, 1978
  • She Believes in Me, 1979
  • Coward of the County, 1979
  • Lady, 1980
  • Islands in the Stream (with Dolly Parton), 1983
  • Buy Me a Rose (with Billy Dean and Alison Krauss), 1999

Essential Albums:

  • Kenny Rogers, 1977
  • Daytime Friends, 1977
  • The Gambler, 1978
  • Kenny, 1979
  • Eyes That See in the Dark, 1983
  • She Rides Wild Horses, 1999

Next: #16.  Marty Robbins

Previous: #18. Webb Pierce

100 Greatest Men: The Complete List

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5 Comments

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5 Responses to 100 Greatest Men: #17. Kenny Rogers

  1. bobNo Gravatar

    Good write-up. Besides your essential singles, i like those other First Edition songs, his “We Got Tonight” duet with Sheena Easton, his songs with Dolly on her Christmas album and “The Greatest”, a Don Schlitz song from the Wild Horses album. I think that most baseball fans will get a kick out of the twist at the end of The Greatest.

    I like the current geico commercial with Kenny singing part of the Gambler much to the annoyance of his fellow card players.

  2. Erik NorthNo Gravatar

    What is remarkable about “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town)” is that it wasn’t an especially big country hit at the time (it got no higher than #39 ), though it did get up to #6 on the Hot 100.

    And, of course, it can’t help but be pointed out that the “crazy Asian war” Mel Tillis wrote about in that song is really about Korea; but, given that this was a 1969 hit, people read the lyric in reference to Vietnam instead.

  3. When I first got into country music and my tastes ran much more pop than they do now, I was a pretty big Kenny Rogers fan. While I haven’t maintained my love for his music in general, I do still like many of his hits. My favorites are: “Love Will Turn You Around, “The Gambler”, “Coward of the County”, “Through the Years”, “Lucille”, “Love is Strange”, “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and “Islands in the Stream” (with Dolly). In college, I remember being the one to inform my bright friend of what was really going on in “Coward of the County”, which was weird for me as a pretty naive person at the time. It was one of her favorite songs, but I don’t think the song was ever the same for her after that.

    At any rate, Rogers has had a huge impact on country music and music/entertainment in general.

  4. Paul W DennisNo Gravatar

    I’ve always regarded Rogers as a pop star who crossed over into country and if you listen to his so-called country hits, only a few were very country at all.

    He recorded a lot of songs I didn’t like at all – I regard “Islands In The Stream” as pure schlock and songs like “You Decorated My Life” as being as bland as anything that ever charted on the country charts

    Obviously there were some great songs and performances such as “The Greatest”, “The Gambler” “Love Lifted Me” but I think a single disc ‘Best Of’ collection with about twelve songs would suffice for anyone not a diehard fan of his.

  5. bulbulNo Gravatar

    I second what Leeann said, especially about Kenny Roger’s impact on music in general. How big of an impact? Well, I knew his songs even before I spoke any English. The Czech versions of “Lucille” (brilliantly translated, by the way) and of “Coward of the County” were big hits in my home country (Czechoslovakia back then). And unless my memory is playing tricks on me, my love for country music started with those songs, so there you have it.

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