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