Last evening, American popular song lost one of its most resonant and reassuring voices when Kenny Rogers died peacefully of natural causes at the age of 81. Rogers’ recording career spanned seven decades, from his early singles in the 1950s through his final studio album, 2015’s Once Again It’s Christmas. He sold over 100 million records worldwide. It’s appropriate that Rogers’ last studio recording would be a Christmas album, as he embodied the season’s spirit of joy and goodwill throughout his life.
Though closely identified with the country genre, Rogers’ tastes were universal. His earliest major label recordings were with Columbia Records as part of jazz vocalist Bobby Doyle’s trio; his first Mercury solo single had him personalizing the classic Johnny Burke/Jimmy Van Heusen standard “Here’s That Rainy Day.” Rogers finally found stardom in the countercultural era fronting The First Edition, and in the band his eclectic instincts flourished. The First Edition blended country, pop, and psychedelia on songs by such remarkable songwriters as Mel Tillis (“Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town”), Mickey Newbury (“Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In”), Paul Williams and Roger Nichols (“Only Me’), Alex Harvey (“Reuben James”), and Michael Martin Murphey (the ambitious country-rock opera The Ballad of Calico).
When The First Edition split for Rogers to pursue his own solo career, superstardom was in the wings for the singer with the instantly recognizable, alternately gritty and warm yet always commanding voice. He notched 21 chart-toppers on the Billboard Country Singles chart, two of which crossed over to top the Hot 100. A further seven made the top ten of that chart, attesting to Rogers’ appeal to pop audiences. Rogers’ hits have lost none of their luster in the ensuing years: “Lucille,” “Daytime Friends,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” “Coward of the County,” “Lady,” “Through the Years,” and so many others. Rogers’ voice was ideally suited for romantic ballads, but his greatest strength was as a storyteller. He invited listeners into a world of his creation for three or four minutes at a time, and then parlayed that ability to a successful career as an actor in numerous television films and programs.
Singers clamored to duet with Kenny: Kim Carnes (“Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer”), Sheena Easton (“We’ve Got Tonight”), Dottie West (“What Are We Doin’ in Love,” “Every Time Two Fools Collide”), Ronnie Milsap (“Make No Mistake, She’s Mine”), Don Henley (“Calling Me”), and of course, Dolly Parton (“Islands in the Stream”) among many others. Songwriters wanted him to introduce their songs: Lionel Richie, The Bee Gees, Burt Bacharach and Carole Bayer Sager, and Prince. But he was a writer, too, of compositions like the hit “Sweet Music Man.” His albums were produced by such titans as Richie, Larry Butler, David Foster, and Sir George Martin. Michael Jackson and Gladys Knight and the Pips sang backgrounds for Kenny.
Rogers was also a successful businessman, launching the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain, and heavily involved himself in philanthropy. He joined the all-star roster of “We Are the World,” and co-chaired the Hands Across America campaign to raise awareness for hunger and homelessness. The Kenny Rogers Children’s Center has been helping children in need since 1979.
Kenny Rogers led a full life, continuing to tour in front of his adoring fans worldwide until his health made it impossible to do so. His final performances were filled with the same joie de vivre for performing that had characterized his long career; with his farewell tour, he knew when to fold ’em. But the multiple Grammy, ACM and AMA winner and Country Music Hall of Fame inductee’s music will live on. The dealin’ might be done, but The Gambler’s spirit endures.