Kenny Rogers, singer-actor-songwriter, ‘Sweet Music Man’ succumbs . . .

NASHVILLE — When we wrote most of the following piece, Kenny Rogers was 67, and at the Country Radio Seminar, participating in a personality gig titled “The Life Of a Legend: A Conversation with Kenny Rogers,” conducted by Nashville DJ Gerry House. 

Kenny’s March 2020 death at 81, occurred in a Hospice care facility at Sandy Springs, Ga. Actually Rogers, one of the more successful country-pop stars, was born Aug. 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas. That’s where in 1956 he netted $13 as a Jefferson Davis High School student fronting his very first band: The Scholars. 

Only two years later, he garnered his first gold single – “That Crazy Feeling” – performing as Kenneth Rogers, and earning a guest spot on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand. In 1966, Rogers was recruited for the already famed New Christy Minstrels.  A short year later, as the Minstrels called it a day, Kenny and three other ex-members kicked off their new First Edition, and soon landed a pact with Reprise Records. Successes included “Just Dropped In,” “But You Know I Love You” and “Reuben James.” Newly billed in ’69 as Kenny Rogers & The First Edition, they sco red Top 40 with “Ruby (Don’t Take Your Love To Town),” penned by Mel Tillis.

By 1975, Rogers received solo billing by United Artists, and a Top 20 hit “Love Lifted Me.” A string of #1 successes followed, including “Lucille,” a million-seller, earning Rogers two Grammy Awards (best single, best vocalist) in 1977. Among the chart-toppers were duets with Dottie West, “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” “All I Ever Need Is You” and “What Are We Doin’ In Love.”

Rogers co-wrote “Sweet Music Man” and “Love Or Something Like It,” and solidified his superstar status via “The Gambler,” another dual Grammy winner, “Coward Of the County” both of which prompted films featuring Kenny, and “Islands In the Stream” with Dolly Parton, a Platinum-selling single penned by the Gibbs’ brothers. Incidentally, Barry Gibb co-produced Kenny’s RCA debut release “Eyes That See In the Dark.”

In 1999, Rogers started up his own indie label DreamCatcher, garnering a #1 comeback hit “Buy Me a Rose” (featuring Alison Krauss & Billy Dean), his longest-charting single at the time: 37 weeks. So why did he sell off DreamCatcher five years later?

“I have this theory: I will never spend my personal money on my career,” he said.

Nor did he shy away from discussing touchy queries like liposuction and cosmetic surgery, noting, “You tell people, and nobody cares. You try to hide it and they make a big thing out of it.”

Grinning, he glibly acknowledged failing with Kenny Rogers’ Roasters fast-food chicken venture, thusly: “I learn more from failures than success.” After suffering from a back injury, he also sold off his Atlanta, Ga. golf course, but acknowledged, “I lost a lot of friends when I sold it.”

In addition to the Gambler series and the Coward click, Rogers starred in the theatrical movies “Six Pack,” “Wild Horses” and “Rio Diablo.” Asked if he regarded himself as an actor, he replied (tongue-in-cheek style), “My acting reminds me of what happened to Randolph Scott (1950s Western screen hero) when he wanted to join the Los Angeles Country Club and was told, ‘We don’t allow actors to join,’ prompting the reply, ‘I’m no actor and I’ve got 41 movies to prove it!’ . . .”

Regarding being labeled pop by country die-hards or country by rock fans, Rogers reminded folks, “When ‘Lady’ came out (1980) that was not a country record (but indeed it charted #1 pop and #1 country) . . . country music was more about the message than the messenger. Today’s country music (15 years ago) is more about the messenger than the message.” 

Asked which of his numerous hits he regards as a signature song, he hesitated, finally saying, “I think maybe ‘The Gambler’ because it’s so worldwide,” but added that he has warm feelings about “Lucille,” his premiere #1. “That’s my momma’s name. She thought that was the coolest song. She asked, ‘Whey did you write that?’ Of course, I didn’t write it (Roger Bowling & Hal Bynum co-wrote it) . . . and she (Mom) had eight kids, instead of four.”

Kenny confided, “I got my sense of values from my mother,” and pushed further, added, “and a sense of humor from my father.” Yet another lady Rogers admired was the late Dottie West: “I miss her more than you’ll ever know. She was what country music was all about. She was just a sweetheart.” 

Regarding “Islands In the Stream” (1983) with Dolly, which was both #1 country and #1 pop, Kenny admitted he had to be talked into cutting the song, by Barry Gibb, who co-wrote it with twin brothers Maurice and Robin Gibb (of The BeeGees).

“No matter who the singer is, when you record with Barry Gibb, you sound like the fourth BeeGee . . . I was ready to write it off (until Barry suggested it as a duet with Dolly) . . . so I give Dolly full credit for that song.”

Rogers insisted he was a realist when it came to enduring fame: “Quite honestly, you can’t stay on top . . . and I defy anyone to say that ‘The happiest time of my life was when I was on top!’ (adding with a grin) Because that time is just a blur to me – and I didn’t do drugs.” 

In 2013, the multiple Grammy Award-winning Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. According to his long-time publicist Keith Hagan, the artist accumulated 24 #1 hits, and sold more than 50 million albums in the U.S. alone.

Rogers’ family planned a small, private service, considering the current pandemic, but Hagan added, “they look forward to celebrating the life of Kenny Rogers publicly with friend and fans at a later date.” 

On FaceBook, friend Lionel Richie (who wrote and produced Roger’s “Lady”) tweeted his feelings upon news of Rogers’ death, “Today, I lost one of my closest friends. So much laughter, so many adventures to remember. My heart is broken . . . my prayers go out to Kenny’s family.”– Walt Trott