Kenny Rogers death: Country music legend famous for ‘The Gambler’ and ‘Lucille’ dies aged 81

Three-time Grammy Award winner once said he wrote ballads that ‘say what every man wants to say and that every woman wants to hear’

Roisin O'Connor
Saturday 21 March 2020 08:07
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Kenny Rogers performs Islands In The Stream on TV show Live by Request

Kenny Rogers, the Grammy-winning country-pop pioneer whose signature gruff voice dominated the charts during the Seventies and Eighties, has died aged 81.

A representative said he “passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family”.

Rogers’ best-known songs included “The Gambler”, “Coward of the Country” and “Lucille”. He once said he believed his ballads “say what every man wants to say and that every woman wants to hear”.

Born and raised in Houston, Texas, Rogers was the fourth of eight children raised in a poor household. He formed a rockabilly group in school called The Scholars, before going on to study for a brief period at the University of Houston, where he played bass in various jazz groups.

He joined folk-pop band The New Christy Minstrels upon moving to Los Angeles in 1966; with members Mike Settle, Terry Williams and Thelma Camacho, he founded The First Edition the following year. The First Edition scored two Top 10 hits: “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”.

Rogers signed as a solo artist in 1976 and achieved near-immediate success with “Lucille”, about an encounter with a woman and her estranged husband. The song was Rogers’ first hit on the country music charts, and also made it to No 5 on the national pop chart. It won a Grammy – Rogers’ first – for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.

By the end of the decade, Rogers had achieved a further five No 1 country singles and had begun his foray into acting: he played Brady Hawkes in several series of The Gambler between 1980 and 1994. Even as his popularity waned in the Nineties, Rogers remained a prolific live performer. He also launched a number of business ventures, including Kenny Rogers Roasters, a fast-food chain that was made fun of by shows including Seinfeld and Fresh Off the Boat.

His memoir, Luck or Something Like It, was published in 2012.

A special, Biography: Kenny Rogers, was announced earlier this month and is currently scheduled to air on 13 April. It will reportedly be built around footage from an all-star send-off that Rogers received in 2017 before his final concert appearances.

Among the guests to join him at the ceremony were Dolly Parton, Kris Kristofferson, Chris Stapleton, The Flaming Lips, Lionel Richie, and Don Henley. Rogers had enjoyed further chart success with Parton, thanks to their duet of “Islands in the Stream”.

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In 2013, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He also received a Lifetime Music Award from the Country Music Association and played the Legends slot at Glastonbury Festival that same year.

“I think part of it is that there’s a certain amount of resentment that I made country go pop, and yet I think it actually added a lot of viewers to it,” Rogers told the Boston Globe in 2013. “As you can see now, it’s so much more pop than where I took it.”

His signature song, “The Gambler”, was selected by the Library of Congress in 2018 to be added to the National Recording Registry.

“I came into country music not trying to change country music but trying to survive,” Rogers said in a 2016 interview with CMT.com. “And so I did songs that were not country but were more pop. Nowadays they’re not doing country songs at all.

“What they’re doing is creating their own genre of country music. But I told somebody the other day, country music is what country people will buy. If the country audience doesn’t buy it, they’ll kick it out. And if they do, then it becomes country music. It’s just [the] era of country music we’re in.”

Rogers had planned further performances in April 2018, but called off the shows because of unspecified “health challenges”.

He said in a statement at the time: “I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to say farewell to the fans over the course of the past two years.

“I could never properly thank them for the encouragement and support they’ve given me throughout my career and the happiness I’ve experienced as a result of that.”

Singer Richard Marx shared a tribute to Rogers on Twitter, writing: “I’m so sad to see Kenny Rogers go. He did so much for me as a young songwriter and we stayed friends for over 30 years.

“I’ll really miss him. May he rest easy.”

Married five times, Rogers is survived by his wife Wanda and five children.

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