For the past several weeks we have been focused on the coronavirus, and for good reason. The deadly pandemic has killed thousands and infected hundreds of thousands worldwide. Moreover, it has disrupted the world economy to the point that we are facing the very real potential of a deep recession or even a depression.
However, lost in the shuffle was the passing of one of the most versatile and prolific entertainers of the last 60 years. He achieved great success as a singer, songwriter, actor, record producer, and entrepreneur. Although his primary popularity was as a country music singer he cut some 120 “hit” singles across many other genres, including jazz, pop, folk and rock. He sold in excess of 100 million records, making him one of the best-selling artists ever.
Kenneth Ray Rogers was born on August 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas. He was the fourth of eight children. He came from very humble beginnings. His father was a carpenter; his mother was a nurse’s assistant.
He demonstrated his musical potential at an early age when he won a talent show at the Texan Theatre in 1949. As a youth he worked at a succession of menial odd jobs, such as sweeping floors and as a busboy.
He began his recording career in the late 1950s with a group called the “Scholars,” which few of us remember. The group’s big hit was “The Poor Little Doggie.”
After bouncing around for several years in 1966 he joined a group called “The New Christy Minstrels,” with which some of you might be familiar, for which he played double bass and bass guitar in addition to singing. In 1967 he and a few members left to found “First Edition.” Among that group’s hits you may recall “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was in”), which peaked at #5 on “Billboard” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” When the band disbanded in 1976 Rogers embarked on a long and very successful solo career.
In 1978 he released what I and many others believe was his signature hit, “The Gambler.” Not only did it win him a Grammy Award, but it also became the basis for a series of made-for-tv movies for which he would win an Emmy nomination. During his long career he collaborated with many other famous entertainers, such as Barry Gibb of the “Bee Gees” and Dolly Parton, which yielded one of his biggest hits, “Islands in the Stream.” He and Parton enjoyed a decades-long friendship and collaborated on various projects. He won another Grammy in 1988 for “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” in collaboration with Ronnie Milsap.
Kenny was featured in various movies such “Six Pack” in 1982, in which he played a race-car driver, and in television series, such as “The Gambler,” “Coward of the County”” and the MacShayne Series. “Six Pack” was modestly successful at the box office ($20 million in the US). In addition, he was host and narrator for the historical series, “The Real West,” which ran on A & E.
He co-founded a chain of restaurants, “Kenny Rogers Roasters,” which are still popular in Asia. Some of you may recall that it was featured on an episode of the popular tv show “Seinfeld.” His partner in the venture was John Y. Brown, former Governor of Kentucky and chief executive officer of Kentucky Fried Chicken.
Kenny was not as successful in his personal life. He was married five times and had five children. At one point, he had a pet goat, named Smitty whom he considered his “center.” He maintained that Smitty provided a “calming influence” in his life in contrast to his hectic and stressful touring schedule.
Kenny commenced his farewell tour in 2015. In October 2017 he was honored by a host of contemporary star entertainers at the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, including Lionel Ritchie, Dolly Parton and Wynonna and Naomi Judd, among many others, who appeared with him in what was billed as a “Salute to Kenny Rogers All in for the Gambler Farewell Concert Celebration.” In 2018 he had to cancel the remaining dates of his farewell tour due to ill health.
Eventually, because of ill health, Kenny was living under hospice care in his home in Sandy Springs, GA. He passed away there on March 20.
Rest in peace, Kenny. You entertained us for 60 years and you will be sorely missed.