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Obituary: Kenny Rogers

Country star sold more than 150m records, including 'Lucille', and enjoyed a fruitful partnership with Dolly Parton


Country man: Kenny Rogers in song. Photo: Wade Payne/Invision/AP

Country man: Kenny Rogers in song. Photo: Wade Payne/Invision/AP


Country man: Kenny Rogers in song. Photo: Wade Payne/Invision/AP

Kenny Rogers, who died last Friday aged 81, was the grizzled king of easy-going country & western music, a gravel-voiced charm-merchant who spoke of real things with just a hint of cheese; he sold more than 150m records, and among his Top 40 singles, of which there were almost 70, are the all-time classic jukebox favourites, Lucille, Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, The Gambler, Coward of the County, and, with Dolly Parton, Islands in the Stream.

Success did not come easy. When Rogers's group First Edition split up and he went solo in 1976, the United Artists producer Larry Butler was advised by several colleagues not to sign him, as he was widely seen as a has-been.

Butler ignored them but their first collaboration, Love Lifted Me, was only a moderate hit.

The following year, however, Lucille, written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, taken from his second album with Butler, Kenny Rogers, made the difference.


With his wife Wanda. Photo: TRAPPER FRANK/CORBIS SYGMA

With his wife Wanda. Photo: TRAPPER FRANK/CORBIS SYGMA

With his wife Wanda. Photo: TRAPPER FRANK/CORBIS SYGMA

No 1 in 12 countries, it sold five million copies worldwide and helped push Kenny Rogers to number one in the Billboard country album chart.

The albums kept on coming, The Gambler (1978) and Kenny (1979) being particularly successful. The title track from the first of these, and Coward of the County from the second, were massive smash hits.

After signing for the RCA label for a record-breaking $20m advance in 1983, he released Eyes That See in the Dark (1983) from which came Islands in the Stream. The album was produced by Barry Gibb, whose band, the Bee Gees, had written the song, originally intending it to be sung by Diana Ross.

In 1986 a joint poll by readers of USA Today and People magazine declared Kenny Rogers to be "Favourite Singer of All Time", and, with not much left to prove, he graciously let the likes of Garth Brooks and Billy Ray Cyrus vie for the top spot in the field of soft country.

He kept on recording and performing but his point was proved.

Kenneth Donald Rogers was born in Houston, Texas, on August 21, 1938, the fourth of eight children. He was educated there at Jefferson Davis High School and briefly attended the University of Texas.


Singing 'Islands in the Stream' with old friend and country queen Dolly Parton. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Singing 'Islands in the Stream' with old friend and country queen Dolly Parton. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

Getty Images

Singing 'Islands in the Stream' with old friend and country queen Dolly Parton. Photo: Paul Natkin/Getty Images

His career in music began in the mid-1950s with a rockabilly band called The Scholars.

They had some success with Poor Little Doggie but disbanded soon after when their lead singer (not Rogers) embarked on a solo career.

Rogers had a minor hit on his own in 1958 with That Crazy Feeling and then played bass with the jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Trio and sang with the New Christy Minstrels.

In 1967 he and three other Minstrels left to form First Edition. They became a successful outfit, Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town, written by Mel Tillis, being their most prominent contribution to pop and country history.

With First Edition, Rogers performed using a much smoother vocal style than the one for which he is most well-known, and also sported long brown hair, pink sunglasses and an earring.

His later image (neatly- clipped greying beard, twinkling eyes, lop-sided smile) became so well known that a likeness website was set up (menwholooklikekennyrogers.com).

This proved extremely popular: it featured hundreds of photographs of men who did indeed resemble Rogers, tips on how to resemble him, good places to spot Rogers lookalikes and a regular "Kenny of the Month" competition.

Many contributors to the site in fact looked more like Rogers than he did: after extensive plastic surgery he declared, "I'm like the Bionic Man now, I have no original moving parts".

Rogers was always keen to explore other avenues than music, and in 1982 Six Pack, a movie in which he played a racing-car driver, proved a considerable hit at the American box office.

Several made-for-television movies were made based around hits of his, including The Gambler and Christmas in America, and he was also an entrepreneur who in partnership with a former chief of Kentucky Fried Chicken began the Kenny Rogers Roasters chain in 1991.

The music kept on coming, and in the 1990s Rogers continued to score chart hits with songs such as Crazy in Love, If You Want To Find Love and The Greatest.

In 1994 he released Timepiece, a collection of jazz standards from the 1930s and 1940s, the kind of music he played in his early days with the Bobby Doyle Trio.

His success endured into this century, and when Buy Me A Rose hit No 1, Rogers became the oldest artist in the history of country music to hit the top.

There were also at least 23 different greatest hits albums, most of which sold well.

In 2006 he released, with Capitol Nashville Records, 21 Number Ones and then Water and Bridges.

From this second album came the singles I Can't Unlove You and The Last Ten Years (Superman).

In 2012, Rogers published Luck or Something Like it: A Memoir, and the following year a novel set in Nashville, What Are the Chances, written with Mike Blakely.

In 2015 he embarked on what was billed as his retirement tour, "The Gambler's Last Deal".

More dates were in fact scheduled for 2018, but he was forced to cancel through ill health.

Rogers's final appearance was in 2017 at the Bridgestone Arena in Nashville, where he was joined by guests including Lionel Richie, Kris Kristofferson and Dolly Parton, with whom he sang Islands in the Stream one last time.

As well as his "Favourite Singer of All Time" accolade, Rogers accumulated around 50 other prizes,.

These included Grammies, awards from the Academy of Country Music, the BBC and from American Music Awards.

Although referred to as "an overweight lightweight" by Rolling Stone magazine, Rogers, who once said "I have never taken my talent that seriously", was an undoubted great of country and western music.

He showed, with his lush and easy productions, that the country artist could conquer the pop market.

Kenny Rogers was first married in 1958 to Janice Gordon; they had a child, but divorced in 1960.

That year he married Jean Rogers, divorcing in 1963. The following year he married Margo Anderson. They had a child but divorced in 1976. In 1977 he married Marianne Gordon, with whom he had a child.

They also divorced - the settlement was famously substantial - and in 1997 he married Wanda Miller, who was an identical twin; they had twin boys.