It took several tries before Kenny Rogers became a star. As a member of the First Edition (and the New Christy Minstrels before that), he shared in some million-sellers, among them “Reuben James” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” an excellent Mel Tillis song about a disabled veteran. But superstardom lay ahead for this Texan, and it arrived in the late ’70s. His experience with the two previous pop groups had prepared him well: he knew the easy listening audience was out there, and he supplied them with well done middle-of-the-road material with a country flavor. Having gone solo, in 1976 Rogers charted with “Love Lifted Me.” But it was with an outstanding song by writers Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, “Lucille,” that his star shot upward.
The rest (as they say) is history: award-winning duets with Dottie West and Dolly Parton, 12 television specials, another song of the year with “The Gambler,” “Daytime Friends,” “Coward of the County,” “We’ve Got Tonight,” “Crazy,” “Lady” (his first pop number one), etc., etc., etc. And that’s just the musical side of Rogers. In 1980, the made-for-TV movie The Gambler blasted the competition, came quickly by Coward of the County, then enough sequels to The Gambler to get him to Roman numeral IV. Throughout the ’80s, Rogers remained a celebrity, even when his sales were declining. Even at a time of the ’90s, when he rarely charted, his name, face, and music were recognizable in a series of concerts, tv specials, films, and even fast-food restaurants.
Like many country superstars, Rogers followed from humble roots. Born in Houston, TX, Rogers and his seven siblings were raised in one of the poorest sections of town. Nevertheless, he progressed through high school, all the at a time of learning how to play guitar and fiddle. When he was a senior, he played in a rockabilly group called the Scholars, who released three singles, including “Kangewah,” which was written by Louella Parsons. not long after his graduation, he issued two singles, “We’ll Always Fall in Love Again” and “For You Alone,” on the local independent label Carlton. The B-side of the first single, “That Crazy Feeling,” was popular enough to earn him a slot on American Bandstand. In 1959, he briefly attended the University of Texas, but he soon dropped out to play bass in the jazz combo the Bobby Doyle Three. at a time of he was with the group, Rogers continued to explore other musical venues and played bass on Mickey Gilley’s 1960 single “Is It Wrong.” The Bobby Doyle Three issued one album, In a Most Unusual Way, before Rogers left the ensemble to play with the Kirby Stone Four. He didn’t stay long with Stone and soon landed a solo album record deal with Mercury.
Rogers gave us a handful of singles on Mercury, all of which failed. Once Mercury dropped the singer, he joined the New Christy Minstrels in 1966. He stayed with the folk band for a year, leaving with several other bandmembers — Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Lou Camacho — in 1967 to form the First Edition. Adding drummer Mickey Jones, the First Edition signed with Reprise and recorded the pop-psychedelic single “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” The single became a hit early in 1968, climbing to number five. Within a year, the ensemble was billed as Kenny Rogers & the First Edition, and in the summer of 1969, they had their second and final Top Ten hit, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The country overtones of the single hinted at the direction Rogers was taking, as did the minor hit follow-up, “Ruben James.” For the next two years, the First Edition bounced between country, pop, and mild psychedelia, scoring their last big hit with Mac Davis’ “Something’s Burning” in early 1970. By the end of 1972, the lineup had its own syndicated television show, but sales were drying up. They departed Reprise the following year, signing to Rogers’ new label, Jolly Rogers. None of their singles became major hits, though a version of Merle Haggard’s “Today I began Loving You Again” reached the lower regions of the country charts late in 1973. Rogers left the group in 1974, and the band broke up the following year.
At the time the band broke up, Rogers was severely in debt and Jolly Rogers was out of business. In order to jump-start his career, he signed to United performers in 1975, and with the help of producer Larry Butler, he devised an accessible, radio-ready, and immaculately conspired take on country-pop that leaned toward adult contemporary pop, not country. “Love Lifted Me,” his debut single for the label, was a minor hit early in 1976, but it took a full year for Rogers to have a genuine breakthrough hit with “Lucille.” Climbing to number one early in 1977, “Lucille” not only was a major country hit, earning the Country music Association’s Single of the Year award, but it also was a huge crossover success, peaking at number five on the pop charts. For the next six years, Rogers had a steady string of Top Ten smashes on both the country and pop charts.
His crossover success is important — his lush, easy listening productions and smooth croons showed that country stars could conquer the pop audience, if produced and marketed correctly. at a time of the late ’70s and early ’80s, much of country radio was topped either by urban cowboy or country-pop in the vein of Rogers’ own singles. Between 1978 and 1980, he had five straight number one country singles — “Love or Something Like It,” “The Gambler,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life,” “Coward of the County” — most of which also reached the pop Top Ten. In addition to his solo hits, he had a series of Top Ten duets with Dottie West, including the number one hits “Every Time Two Fools Collide” (1978), “All I Ever Need Is You” (1979), and “What Are We Doin’ in Love” (1981). Not only did his singles sell well, but so did his albums, with every record he gave us between 1976’s Kenny Rogers and 1984’s Once Upon a Christmas going gold or platinum.
By the beginning of the ’80s, Rogers’ audience was as much pop as it was country, and singles like his cover of Lionel Richie’s “Lady” confirmed that fact, spending six weeks at the top of the pop charts. Rogers also began performing duets with pop singers like Kim Carnes (“Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” number three country, number four pop, 1980) and Sheena Easton (“We’ve Got Tonight,” number one country, number six pop, 1983). Rogers also started making inroads into television and film, appearing in a number of television specials and made-for-TV movies, which included 1982’s Six Pack and two movies based on his music “The Gambler” and “Coward of the County.” Late in 1983, he left United Artists/Liberty for RCA Records, releasing a duet with Dolly Parton called “Islands in the Stream” as his first single for the label. Written by the Bee Gees and produced by Barry Gibb, the record became one of his biggest hits, spending two weeks on the top of both the country and pop charts.
Rogers stayed at RCA for five years, at a time of which time he alternated between MOR, adult contemporary pop, and slick country-pop. The favorites didn’t come as often as they used to, and they were often competing with releases from Liberty’s vaults, but he managed to log five number one singles for the label, in addition to “Islands in the Stream”: “Crazy” (1984), “Real Love” (1985), “Morning Desire” (1985), “Tomb of the Unknown Love” (1986), and the Ronnie Milsap duet “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” (1987). Despite his country successes, he no longer had pop crossover favorites. Nevertheless, Rogers’ shows continued to be popular, as did his made-for-TV movies. Still, the lack of groundbreaking records meant that RCA failed to renew his signed deal when it expired in 1988. Rogers came back to his first label, Reprise, where he had one major hit — 1989’s Top Ten “The Vows Go Unbroken (Always True to You),” taken from the gold record Something Inside So Strong — before his singles began charting in the lower half of the Top 40.
Throughout the late ’80s and ’90s, Rogers kept busy with charity work, concerts, his fast-food chain Kenny Rogers’ Roasters, tv specials, movies, and photography, publishing no less than two books, Kenny Rogers’ America and Kenny Rogers: Your friends and Mine, of his photos. Rogers continued to record, releasing albums nearly every year, but they failed to hiatus beyond his large, devoted fan base and only made a slight impact on the charts. With 1998’s Christmas from the Heart, he established his own record label, Dreamcatcher; She Rides Wild Horses followed a year later, and There You Go Again was gave us in mid-2000. A&E Live by Request appeared in 2001, followed by Back to the Well in 2003, Me & Bobby McGee in 2004, and Water & Bridges in 2006.