Kenny Rogers Dead at 81

RIP to a true legend.

Written by Bob Paxman
Kenny Rogers Dead at 81
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - DECEMBER 09: Kenny Rogers performs in concert at Golden Nugget Casino on December 9, 2017 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)

Kenny Rogers, who died Friday, March 20, at age 81, did not live a one-note life. The husky-voiced singer from Houston could have banked on his music career alone and certainly be content with what he had achieved: 21 No. 1 singles, more than 100 million records sold worldwide, induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. But Rogers continually looked for other ways to express the artistry in his soul, reaching beyond music to master other forms of media, including television, movies, and photography. He even briefly entered the world of casual dining with his Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurant chain, which was referenced on an episode of Seinfeld, further cementing Rogers’ place in pop culture,

Rogers parlayed his 1978 nation-sweeping hit “The Gambler” into five highly-rated TV films based on the main character of the song. The first effort in 1980, titled Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, cast Rogers in the role of Brady Hawkes, a professional gambler trying to reunite with his estranged son. The film earned through-the-roof ratings and even picked up two Emmy nominations. From there, Rogers went on to make four sequels to the original, culminating in 1994’s Gambler V: Playing for Keeps. In 1981, Rogers took the starring role in another made-for-television saga based on one of his hits, Coward of the County. His rugged good looks and commanding voice made him a natural for the small screen, and he built on his television popularity for a number of additional films and specials, including two movies in the MacShayne series of detective mysteries on NBC. Rogers also made appearances on Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, Touched by an Angel, and others.

Rogers also tried his hand at theatrical films, which didn’t fare as well as his television work. Fans saw a different side of him as a race car driver who befriends a group of orphaned children in the 1982 comedy/drama Six Pack, which also starred a young Diane Lane.

Always fascinated by the visual media, Rogers had a love for photography and adopted it as a hobby early in life. But the hobby grew into a more serious passion when he began shooting portfolio shots of his wife Marianne Gordon, a model and actress, while living in California. It wasn’t something he took lightly or looked on as an amateur sideline. Rogers once described himself as “an impulsive obsessive,” and when he became interested in something, he pursued it with an all-out relentlessness. That was definitely the case with photography. Rogers studied with professional photographer John Sexton, who worked with the legendary Ansel Adams. Another mentor was the famed portrait photographer Yousuf Karsh, who schooled Rogers in the art of capturing the personality of a subject.

Rogers published several books of photographs. His first book, a series of landscapes titled Kenny Rogers’ America, was released in 1985. The photos are notable for their crisp lighting and outstanding use of backgrounds. Two books of celebrity photos also dot the Rogers resume. Your Friends and Mine, authored in 1987, featured shots of Hollywood celebrities like Elizabeth Taylor, Michael Jackson, basketball star Larry Bird and others. Rogers’ crowning glory came with his 2005 book This Is My Country, featuring stunning black-and-white photographs of such country stars as Faith Hill, Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, Tim McGraw, and Alan Jackson.

Naturally, we remember Rogers most fondly for his music. “The Gambler,” “Lucille,” “Coward of the County,” 2000’s “Buy Me a Rose,” which was his final No. 1, and other songs are forever entrenched in the country listener landscape. During his peak years of the 1970s and 1980s, Rogers was one of the most highly recognized stars on the planet. His hits resonated on both the pop and country charts. In 1979, Rogers was named the CMA Male Vocalist of the Year.

But those accomplishments only marked Rogers’ triumphs as a solo act. During his career, Rogers proved that he could adapt to the group sound as well, lending his voice to 60s acts The Kirby Stone Four and folk group The New Christy Minstrels. During the late 1960s and early 1970s, Rogers served as the raspy lead vocalist of The First Edition, also known as Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. The group was more successful in the pop field, hitting the No. 5 spot in 1968 with the positively trippy “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” In 1969, they reached Top 10 on the pop charts with a song penned by Mel Tillis, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” which, amazingly, barely cracked the Top 40 on the country charts. Rogers left the group in 1973 to become a solo act.

Fans grew to embrace Rogers for his outstanding duets. It seemed that Rogers could blend with anyone, whether partnering with fellow superstar Dolly Parton, pop princess Sheena Easton or country firebrand Dottie West. Rogers and West combined for three No. 1 singles, “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” “All I Ever Need Is You,” and “What Are We Doin’ in Love.” They won back-to-back CMA awards in 1978 and 1979 for Vocal Duo of the Year.

One duet, though, stood out over the years, his teaming with Dolly Parton on the 1983 classic, “Islands in the Stream.” Written by pop icons The Bee Gees, the breezy tune hit No. 1 on both the country and pop charts and is considered one of the great vocal pairings in music history. As further proof of his duet versatility, Rogers and Ronnie Milsap took home a Grammy for their 1987 collaboration, “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine.”

Later in his career, Rogers expanded his artistic pursuits to include “author,” with his 2012 autobiography, Luck or Something Like It. In the book, Rogers recalled his career from his childhood to the often-struggling early days and his later success. Rogers shared several richly-detailed anecdotes and lessons that he picked up over the years. During an interview with Country Weekly, Rogers joked that he could have named the book Tell It All Brother, the title of one of his hits with Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. 

Rogers once noted that he wasn’t out to change country music. But he certainly expanded the territory. Rogers’ unique vocal style helped widen the country music audience, winning over fans of pop and rock to the genre. He had the uncanny ability to communicate a philosophical story/song like “The Gambler” with the same facility as romantic ballads “Through the Years” or “Lady.”

Rogers often pointed to his knack for choosing material as critical to his success. “You have to pick great songs and I always thought that was one of my strengths,” he said in a past interview. But Kenny Rogers also knew how to sing them – and that will always be his defining legacy.