One of the major tenets of music criticism is that great artists must take risks. By that criterion, there was no greater artist than Kenny Rogers.
The chronology: Houston native Rogers learned guitar and fiddle and played in a rockabilly recording band, The Scholars, in high school. He also recorded solo singles and performed on American Bandstand.
Dropping out of the University of Texas, he played bass in jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three, and played bass on country star Mickey Gilley’s 1960s single “Is It Wrong.” He joined the Kirby Stone Four vocal group, then released a few unsuccessful solo singles before joining the successful New Christy Minstrels folk group--out of which the First Edition formed.
With the First Edition, he scored the No. 5 pop-psychedelic hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” in 1968 and others including “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” “Something’s Burning” and the distinctly country-flavored, “Reuben James”--the band now billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition. In the early ’70s they had their own syndicated TV show.
Leaving the group, he then built a superstar country music career in the late 1970s and ’80s following the Grammy and Country Music Award-winning success of his No. 1 country hit “Lucille” in 1977; when it reached No. 5 on the pop charts, it also ushered in a remarkable country-crossover career generating a pair of country and pop chart-toppers in “Lady,” which was written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton that was written by the Bee Gees and produced by Barry Gibb.
As a solo artist, Rogers also worked with The Beatles’ George Martin and pop star producer David Foster. Besides Parton--who also recorded Rogers’ “Sweet Music Man”--Rogers had hit duets with Dottie West, Kim Carnes, Sheena Easton, James Ingram (also with Carnes), Nickie Ryder, Ronnie Milsap, Anne Murray, Wynonna, Alison Krauss and Billy Dean, and Whitney Duncan. He was represented on the music charts in one way or other for seven decades while spinning off a successful acting career--most notably his series of TV movies based on his Grammy-winning 1978 hit “The Gambler.”
“Kenny Rogers redefined and elevated country music superstardom in every sense,” Kyle Young, the director of Nashville’s Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum, said at a stellar VIP reception there in 2014 for the opening of Kenny Rogers: Through the Years, a biographical exhibit named for his 1982 hit and containing awards, costumes, sheet music and memorabilia from Rogers’s personal vault as well as from the collections of frequent collaborators—all encompassing all of his acclaimed musical phases and other artistic outlets like photography.
“He blurred traditional genre lines and substantially expanded the core demographics of country music’s audience, all by being true to his unique artistic vision,” Young continued, then nailed it: “His versatility is astounding!”
Indeed, “Kenny Rogers was that rare artist who truly transcended musical genres,” states music historian John Alexander.
“Although he wasn't a ‘born’ country singer, I’ve always said that after enjoying a successful pop run with the First Edition, he adopted country music--and country music in turn adopted him. He did so much to bring a new audience to country without altering his sound or style. In fact, if you look at his early recordings with the First Edition, it’s no surprise that their first hit was a cover of a Mickey Newbury song ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).’”
And Rogers, Alexander notes, “just had that knack for picking the perfect song throughout his career. Like Eddy Arnold and Jim Reeves before him, Kenny Rogers always appealed to both the pop and country audience. The difference is, they established their careers in country, while Rogers did not.”
Alexander further noted that Rogers “could do it all,” from tender love songs like “Lady” and “She Believes in Me” to “unforgettable story songs--and I believe his greatest legacy is as a musical storyteller: From early--and controversial for their time--songs like ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,’ to ‘Lucille,’ and to later classics like ‘Coward of the County’ and ‘The Gambler,’ he knew how to tell a story the audience wanted to hear.”
Observing that “The Gambler” was “possibly Rogers’ most enduring ballad,” Alexander, the author of The Man in Song—A Discographic Biography of Johnny Cash, states that “no less country giants than Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare recorded the song before him--but even they could not deliver it as memorably as he did. Simply put, Kenny Rogers made it into a masterpiece.”
“The Gambler,” which was placed by Rolling Stone at No. 20 in its “100 Greatest Country Songs of All Time” listing, was written by Don Schlitz, the subject of a songwriter session during the launch events for the Kenny Rogers: Through the Years exhibit. At the reception, he noted that when he moved to Nashville in 1973, “Kenny Rogers was the record to get.”
“That’s the voice we wanted singing our songs,” he said. “My ‘a-ha moment’ came the night he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He was so kind and gracious to everyone, and when his sister said, ‘Kenneth!,’ [he] whipped around with such love and respect. It’s stuck in my mind ever since: I realized you don’t sing through your heart, but all of our hearts.”
Following Rogers’ death Friday at 81, Schlitz said, by email, “The best any songwriter could hope for was to have Kenny Rogers sing one of your songs. He was very kind to me—and he was very kind to my songs. He loved them to the world, and I am forever grateful.”
Like Rogers, pop, country and Christian music star B.J. Thomas grew up in Houston.
“Kenny and I were friends from the early ’60s when he was with the Bobby Doyle Trio, and I toured with him in the ’80s,” Thomas recalled via Facebook message. “He really was one of the all-time greatest recording artists, whose records were always great songs recorded with the best producers. And he was a generous guy, with a charming way about him--just a really cool guy. I thought a lot of him and will miss him very much.”
In 2010, Rogers, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame three years later, received the American Eagle Award from the National Music Council in recognition of his distinguished service to American music, and his career-long dedication to helping young singers and songwriters and charitable causes. One of those causes was WhyHunger, which was co-founded by Bill Ayres and late Harry Chapin.
Ironically, it was the day in 1981 that Chapin tragically died in a car crash that Rogers agreed to fund the World Hunger Media Award to honor print and electronic media for outstanding coverage positively impacting hunger, poverty and self-reliance. Presenting Rogers’ American Eagle Award, Ayres noted that WhyHunger was in grave danger of going under when Rogers stepped in to save it.
“Because of Kenny, the organization survived,” said Ayres. “He didn’t give up after Harry died, and funded it for years after--and it was because of Kenny’s support, and then others coming in, that we survived and thrived.”
Accepting the award, Rogers said that he’d been blessed by having “an alcoholic father with a great sense of humor,” and a mother who had only a third-grade education but gave him both a sense of values and an appreciation for music. He cited his involvement with Chapin in expressing his gratitude for the chance of meeting and spending time with “the great people in the music business.”
Chapin’s singer-songwriter daughter Jen Chapin concluded the presentation by singing one of Rogers’ great story songs, “Lucille.” On Twitter Saturday, two of Rogers’ biggest collaborators remembered him lovingly.
“Today I lost one of my closest friends,” posted Lionel Richie. “So much laughter, so many adventures to remember. My heart is broken.”
Tweeted Dolly Parton: “You never know how much you love somebody until they’re gone. I’ve had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend.”
Huge hits aside, Alexander selects as his Kenny Rogers favorite a song that appeared on his 1996 Christmas album The Gift and was a country duet hit by him and Wynonna Judd, “Mary, Did You Know?” Now a seasonal standard, it was written by Southern gospel greats Mark Lowry and Buddy Greene.
“It defines the finest attributes of Rogers’ music,” says Alexander. “It contains elements of country, pop, folk and gospel--just like Rogers himself. He really will be missed on so many levels.”
Adds Thomas: “Of course his music will live on--and we can be thankful for that. I was always proud to be his friend.”