A look into the life of the greatest "gambler" there was.
A decade and a half before Shania Twain and Garth Brooks started filling arenas with full-blooded country music, Kenny Rogers was doing it in the ‘70s. A pioneer in bringing country to mainstream pop audiences, Rogers brought home plenty of awards in his time but was, ultimately, more of a fan favourite than a critical darling. Given how easy he made it look, you might be surprised to learn it took him a decade to land on his easy-going style.
Kenny Rogers 2009 / Photo Credit: Brent Perniac/Zuma Press/PA Images
Rogers was born in Houston, Texas to Edward Floyd Rogers and Lucille Rogers on August 21st, 1938. One of eight, his roots were humble to say the least. He grew up in a public housing development, San Felipe Courts, in a family held together by his mother’s cleaning and hospital jobs. His father, a carpenter, struggled with alcohol but still had a powerful influence on young Kenny. An amateur fiddle player, he had Kenny and his siblings playing instruments from early ages and would take the family to Apple Springs, Texas, where they would take to the front porch with aunts and uncles for jam sessions.
Rogers sang at school and in his church choir, but it was seeing Ray Charles when he was 12 that lit a fire in young Kenny. The honesty and authenticity of Charles’s performance had a powerful impact on Rogers and in the years that followed he began trying in earnest to get his own thing going.
A stint with a high school doo-wop group, the Scholars, led to a minor regional solo hit for Rogers with ‘That Crazy Feeling’. More groups came and went but it was with The First Edition that Rogers had his first serious taste of success with the psychedelic pop song ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’. Rogers’ trademark easy listening, country sound was still a way off, but the track hinted at the wide-ranging influences that would mark his career.
Rogers would later say that he recorded two types of song – one is the ballads that say what women want to hear and what men want to say, the other is narrative songs that have a wider social significance.
His most famous hit
Of the latter type, his most famous is ‘The Gambler’. In it, the singer meets a man on a train – a veteran of many a poker game – who warns him with some of the basic rules of poker ‘You got to know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ‘em, Know when to walk away, And know when to run.’ After four decades in heavy circulation it feels like the song follows a well-worn groove, but it struck enough of a chord to land Rogers a role in a series of made for TV movies based on the song and set in the old west.
It was a rich vein that had, a year before ‘The Gambler’, given Rogers his first major hit with ‘Lucille’. He was already 38. The executives at his label, United Artists Records, thought he was too old and that his sensibilities were too pop to work for a country audience. ‘Lucille’, a cheating song with the twist that the singer had a change of heart, proved them wrong on both counts. It was a country chart number one and also cracked the pop Top 10. The song made Rogers an overnight success decades in the making. He had, to take an anachronistic look backwards, known when to hold ‘em.
Once Rogers had established himself as a storyteller the narrative songs began pouring in. Rogers later joked that every songwriter in Nashville with a story song sent it to him.
While it was this style that established him in America’s popular consciousness, he had a wide-ranging curiosity that saw him crossing fields and working with numerous other artists across his career.
Famous duets from Rogers’ repertoire included ‘Islands in the Stream’ with Dolly Parton and pop crossover hits in the form of songs like ‘Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer’ with Kim Carnes and ‘We’ve Got Tonight’, a remake of the Bob Seger classic made with Sheena Easton. He even recorded with R&B singers such as Gladys Knight and James Ingram, while the likes of Anthony Hamilton and Wyclef Jean have riffed on his songs in their work.
Beyond the worlds of music and film Rogers also had success as a photographer and entrepreneur. He published two collections of his photographs – the first, ‘Kenny Rogers’ America’ (1986) captured iconic national landmarks and other landscapes. The second, ‘Your Friends and Mine’, was a series of pictures of other celebrities such as Michael Jackson and Elizabeth Taylor.
Rogers also did well as a businessman. His most notable venture was a chain of chicken restaurants, ‘Kenny Rogers Roasters’, opened with former Kentucky governor and Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO John Y. Brown Jr. The business did well in the States for two decades and, even after closing in the US, a big hit in Southeast Asia.
Rogers even co-wrote and published a novel, ‘What Are The Chances’, with Mike Blakely in 2013.
Rogers considered his eclectic tastes to be one of his strengths. He recalled that his wide-ranging musical tastes went back right back to a time in childhood when he heard gospel music spilling out of a small Houston Church. He noted in his memoir that even in his early First Edition days his songs moved smoothly from the drug soaked ‘Just Dropped In’ to the dark country of ‘Ruby’. He brought all these influences with him to Nashville, arguably building his career out of them.
Rogers passed away from natural causes in hospice care at home on March 20th, 2020, aged 81. He was survived by his wife of 22 years, Wanda Miller, and his sons Kenny Jr., Christopher, Justin and Jordan and his daughter, Carole Billingsley.
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