Kenneth Ray Rogers (August 21, 1938 – March 20, 2020) was an American singer, songwriter, actor, record producer, and entrepreneur. He was elected to the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. Rogers was particularly popular with country audiences but also charted more than 120 hit singles across various music genres, and topped the country and pop album charts for more than 200 individual weeks in the United States alone. He sold over 100 million records worldwide during his lifetime, making him one of the best-selling music artists of all time. His fame and career spanned multiple genres: jazz, folk, pop, rock, and country. He remade his career, and was one of the most successful cross-over artists of all time.
Rogers was born the fourth of eight children on August 21, 1938, in Houston, Texas. His parents were Lucille Lois (née Hester; 1910–1991), a nurse's assistant, and Edward Floyd Rogers (1904–1975), a carpenter. Rogers was said to be of Irish and Native American ancestry. Rogers attended Wharton Elementary School, George Washington Junior High School, and graduated from Jefferson Davis High School (now Northside High School) in 1956.
In 1949 Rogers won a talent show at the Texan Theatre. He served as a busboy at the Rice Hotel and swept floors at a hat store for $9 a week. He later attended the University of Houston.
In a recording career dating back to the 1950s, Rogers moved from teenage rock and roll through psychedelic rock to become a country-pop crossover artist of the 1970s and 1980s. He had a minor solo hit in 1957 called "That Crazy Feeling". After sales slowed down, Rogers joined a jazz group called the Bobby Doyle Three, who were frequently hired by clubs due to their fan following. The group recorded for Columbia Records. They disbanded in 1965, and a 1966 jazzy rock single Rogers recorded for Mercury Records, called "Here's That Rainy Day", failed. Rogers also worked as a producer, writer and session musician for other performers, including country artists Mickey Gilley and Eddy Arnold. In 1966, he joined the New Christy Minstrels as a singer and double bass player.
Rogers was married five times and had five children. His first marriage was to Janice Gordon on May 15, 1958; they divorced in April 1960 with one child, Carole Lynne. He married his second wife, Jean, in October 1960 and divorced her in 1963. His third marriage was to Margo Anderson in October 1964; they divorced in 1976 with one child. He married his fourth wife Marianne Gordon on October 1, 1977, and they divorced in 1993 with one child. His fifth marriage was to Wanda Miller on June 1, 1997. They had twin sons and were married for 22 years until his death.
In the late 1950s, Rogers began his recording career with the Houston-based group the Scholars, who first released "The Poor Little Doggie". After some solo releases including 1958's "That Crazy Feeling", Rogers then joined a group with the jazz singer Bobby Doyle. In 1966 he became a member of the folk ensemble the New Christy Minstrels, playing double bass and bass guitar as well as singing. In 1967, he and several members of the New Christy Minstrels left to found the group the First Edition, with whom he scored his first major hit, "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)", a psychedelic rock song which peaked at number five on the Billboard charts. As Rogers took an increased leadership role in the First Edition, and following the success of 1969's "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town", the band gradually changed styles to a more country feel. The band broke up in 1975–1976, and Rogers embarked on a long and successful solo career, which included several successful collaborations, including duets with singers Dolly Parton and Sheena Easton, and a songwriting partnership with Lionel Richie. His signature song, 1978's "The Gambler", was a cross-over hit that won him a Grammy Award in 1980 and was selected in 2018 for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. He would develop the Gambler persona into a character for a successful series of television films starting with 1980's Emmy-nominated Kenny Rogers as The Gambler.
Feeling that the Minstrels were not offering the success they wanted, Rogers and fellow members Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Camacho left the group. They formed the First Edition in 1967 (later renamed "Kenny Rogers and the First Edition"). They were later joined by Kin Vassy. They chalked up a string of hits on both the pop and country charts, including "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" (Rogers doing lead vocals and bass—and famously used in the dream sequence of the Coen brothers' The Big Lebowski), "But You Know I Love You", "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town", "Tell It All, Brother", "Reuben James", and "Something's Burning".
In the 21st century (and at age 61), Rogers was back at No. 1 for the first time in more than a decade with the 2000 single "Buy Me a Rose". In doing so, he broke a 26-year-old record held by Hank Snow (who, in April 1974, was aged 59 when he scored with "Hello Love"). Rogers held the record until 2003, when then 70-year-old Willie Nelson became the oldest artist to have a No. 1 on the country charts with his duet with Toby Keith, "Beer for My Horses".
After leaving the First Edition in 1976, after almost a decade with the group, Rogers signed a solo deal with United Artists. Producer Larry Butler and Rogers began a partnership that would last four years.
Rogers first outing for his new label was Love Lifted Me. The album charted and two singles, "Love Lifted Me" and "While the Feeling's Good", were minor hits. The song "Runaway Girl" was featured in the film Trackdown (1976). Later in 1976, Rogers issued his second album, the self-titled Kenny Rogers, whose first single, "Laura (What's He Got That I Ain't Got)", was another solo hit.
When the First Edition disbanded in 1976, Rogers launched his solo career. He soon developed a more middle-of-the-road sound that sold to both pop and country audiences. He has charted more than 60 top 40 hit singles (including two number ones—"Lady" and "Islands in the Stream"). His music has also been featured in top-selling movie soundtracks, such as Convoy, Urban Cowboy, and The Big Lebowski.
In 1980, a selection he recorded as a duet with Kim Carnes, "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer", became a hit. Earlier that year, he sang a duet of "You and Me" with Lynda Carter in her television music special Lynda Carter Special (Rogers originally recorded this with Dottie West for the Every Time Two Fools Collide album). Later in 1980 came his partnership with Lionel Richie who wrote and produced Rogers' No. 1 hit "Lady". Richie went on to produce Rogers' 1981 album Share Your Love, a chart topper and commercial favorite featuring hits such as "I Don't Need You" (Pop No. 3), "Through the Years" (Pop No. 13), and "Share Your Love with Me" (Pop No. 14). His first Christmas album was also released that same year. In 1982, Rogers released the album Love Will Turn You Around. The album's the title track reached No. 13 on the Billboard Hot 100 and topped the country and AC charts. It was the theme song of Rogers' 1982 film Six Pack. Shortly afterwards, he started working with producer David Foster in 1983, recording the smash Top 10 hit Bob Seger cover "We've Got Tonight", a duet with Sheena Easton. Also a number 1 single on the Country charts in the United States, it reached the Top 30 on the British charts.
The single "Lucille" (1977) was a major hit, reaching number one on the pop charts in 12 countries, selling over five million copies, and firmly establishing Rogers' post-First Edition career. On the strength of "Lucille", the album Kenny Rogers reached No. 1 on the Billboard Country Album Chart. More success was to follow, including the multi-platinum selling album The Gambler and another international Number 1 single, "Coward of the County", taken from the equally successful album, Kenny. In 1980, the Rogers/Butler partnership came to an end, though they would occasionally reunite: in 1987 on the album I Prefer the Moonlight and again in 1993 on the album If Only My Heart Had a Voice.
In 1981, Rogers bought the old ABC Dunhill building and built one of the most popular and state-of-the-art recording studios in Los Angeles. The song "We Are the World" was recorded there and at A & M Records.
"Islands in the Stream", Rogers' duet with Dolly Parton, was the first single to be released from Eyes That See in the Dark in the United States, and it quickly went to No. 1 in the Billboard Hot 100 (it would prove to be the last country single to reach No. 1 on that chart until "Amazed" by Lonestar did so in 2000), as well as topping Billboard's country and adult contemporary singles charts; it was certified Platinum by the Recording Industry Association of America for shipping two million copies in the United States. Rogers would reunite with Parton in 1984 for a holiday album, Once Upon a Christmas and TV special Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember (which resulted in a popular video of "Christmas Without You"), as well as a 1985 duet "Real Love", which also topped the U.S. country singles chart. The two would continue to collaborate on occasional projects through subsequent years, including a 2013 duet single "You Can't Make Old Friends".
The next few years saw Rogers scoring several top country hits on a regular basis, including "Twenty Years Ago", "Morning Desire", "Tomb of the Unknown Love", among others. On January 28, 1985, Rogers was one of the 45 artists who recorded the worldwide charity song "We Are the World" to support hunger victims in Africa. The following year he played at Giants Stadium.
In 1988, Rogers won a Grammy Award for "Best Country Collaboration with Vocals" with Ronnie Milsap—"Make No Mistake, She's Mine". In the 1990s, Rogers continued to chart with singles such as "The Factory" and "Crazy In Love", another selection that Kim Carnes provided him with, "If You Want To Find Love", and "The Greatest". His second Christmas album, titled Christmas in America, was released in 1989 for Reprise Records. From 1991–94, Rogers hosted The Real West on A&E, and on The History Channel since 1995 (Reruns only on The History Channel). He visited Miller's during this time period. From 1992–95, Rogers co-owned and headlined Branson, Missouri's 4,000 seat Grand Palace Theatre. In 1994, Rogers released his "dream" album titled Timepiece on Atlantic Records. It consisted of 1930s/1940s jazz standards, the type of music he had performed in his early days with the Bobby Doyle Three in Houston.
As an entrepreneur, he collaborated with former Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO John Y. Brown Jr. in 1991 to start up the restaurant chain Kenny Rogers Roasters. The chicken and ribs chain, which is similar to Boston Market, was famously featured in an episode of the NBC sitcom Seinfeld called "The Chicken Roaster". On the November 27, 1996, broadcast of Late Night with Conan O'Brien, Rogers could not pick his chicken out in a taste test, claiming he preferred "greasy burgers". Season four of the TV series Fresh Off the Boat depicts the chain as owning a share of Louis Huang's Cattleman's Ranch restaurant and then filing for bankruptcy. Rogers is shown from the back but played by Jeff Pomerantz in the episode "Let Me Go, Bro".
In the late 1970s, Rogers teamed up with close friend and Country Music legend Dottie West for a series of albums and duets. Together the duo won two gold records (one of which later went platinum), two CMA Awards, an ACM nomination, two Grammy nominations and 1 Music City News Award for their two hit albums Every Time Two Fools Collide (No. 1) and Classics (No. 3), selling out stadiums and arenas while on tour for several years, as well as appearing on several network television specials which showcased them. Their hits together "Every Time Two Fools Collide" (No. 1), "Anyone Who Isn't Me Tonight" (No. 2), "What Are We Doin' in Love" (No. 1), "All I Ever Need Is You" (No. 1) and "Till I Can Make It On My Own" (No. 3) all became Country standards. Of West, Rogers stated in a 1995 TNN interview: "She, more than anybody else I ever worked with, sang with such emotion that you actually believed what she sang. A lot of people sing words, Dottie West sang emotions." In a 1978 press release for their album "Every Time Two Fools Collide", Rogers credited West with further establishing and cementing his career with Country Music audiences. In the same release, West credited him with taking her career to new audiences. Rogers was with West only hours before she died at age 58 after sustaining injuries in a 1991 car accident, as discussed in his 2012 biography "Luck Or Something Like It". In 1995 he starred as himself, alongside Michele Lee as West, in the CBS biographical film Big Dreams and Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story.
In 1996, Rogers released an album Vote For Love where the public requested their favorite love songs and Rogers performed the songs. (Several of his own hits were in the final version.) The album was the first for the TV shopping channel QVC's record label, onQ Music. The album, sold exclusively by QVC, was a huge success and was later issued in stores under a variety of different titles. It reached No. 1 in the UK country charts under the title Love Songs (a title also used for various compilations) and also crossed over into the mainstream charts.
In 1999, Rogers scored with the single "The Greatest", a song about life from a child's point of view (looked at through a baseball game) The song reached the top 40 of Billboard's Country singles chart and was a Country Music Television Number One video. It was on Rogers' album She Rides Wild Horses the following year (itself a top 10 success). In 1999, Rogers also produced a song, "We've Got It All", specifically for the series finale of the ABC show Home Improvement. Not found on any album, the recording sells for a high sum at auction.
Rogers' albums The Gambler and Kenny were featured in the About.com poll of "The 200 Most Influential Country Albums Ever". He was voted the "Favorite Singer of All Time" in a 1986 joint poll by readers of both USA Today and People. He received numerous awards such as the AMAs, Grammys, ACMs and CMAs, as well as a lifetime achievement award for a career spanning six decades in 2003. Later success included the 2006 album release, Water & Bridges, an across the board hit, that hit the Top 5 in the Billboard Country Albums sales charts, also charting in the Top 15 of the Billboard 200. The first single from the album, "I Can't Unlove You", was also a sizable chart hit. Remaining a popular entertainer around the world, he continued to tour regularly until his retirement in 2017.
Although Rogers did not record new albums for a couple of years, he continued to have success in many countries with more greatest hits packages. In 2004 42 Ultimate Hits, which was the first hits collection to span his days with the First Edition to the present, reached Number 6 on the American country charts and went gold. It also featured two new songs, "My World Is Over" with Whitney Duncan and "We Are the Same". "My World Is Over" was released as a single and was a minor hit. In 2005 The Very Best of Kenny Rogers, a double album, sold well in Europe. It was the first new solo Rogers hits album to reach the United Kingdom for over a decade, despite many compilations there that were not true hits packages.
Rogers also signed with Capitol Records and had more success with the TV advertised release 21 Number Ones in January 2006. Although this CD did contain 21 chart-toppers as the title claims (recorded between 1976 and the present day), this was not a complete collection of Rogers' No. 1 singles, omitting such singles as "Crazy in Love" and "What About Me?"
Capitol followed 21 Number Ones with Rogers' new studio album, Water & Bridges, in March 2006 on the Capitol Nashville Records label. The first single from the album was "I Can't Unlove You", which peaked at No. 17 on the country charts, after spending over 6 months on the hit list, more than 50 years after he formed his first group and 38 years after his first major hit as leader of the First Edition; the song remains in recurrent airplay on some radio stations today. "I Can't Unlove You" was followed up with the second single from the album, "The Last Ten Years (Superman)", in September 2006. The third single, "Calling Me", which features Don Henley, became popular in early 2007, and was nominated for a Grammy Award at the 2007 Grammy Awards. Also in 2007, the 1977 Kenny Rogers album was re-issued as a double CD, also featuring the 1979 Kenny album and this once again put Rogers' name into the sales charts worldwide. The following year, another compilation album (A Love Song Collection) also charted.
On August 26, 2008, Rogers released 50 Years exclusively at Cracker Barrel stores. The album includes some of Rogers' greatest hits, plus 3 new songs. The release is designed to celebrate Rogers' 50th year in the music business. In 2007, the England national rugby union team adopted Rogers song "The Gambler" as their unofficial 2007 Rugby World Cup anthem, after hearing prop Matt Stevens playing it in the team hotel. Before the semi-final against France and the final against South Africa, Rogers sent video messages of support to the team in light of them choosing his song.
At Beaver Dam Farms, a former estate in Colbert, Georgia, Rogers kept a pet goat named Smitty. He originally acquired the animal from a friend in 2008. According to Rogers, the goat was "(his) center", providing a calming influence after long and stressful touring schedules.
In 2008, Rogers toured with his Christmas Show. He split the show up, making the first half his "best of" and the second half his Christmas songs. In 2009, Rogers embarked on his 50th Anniversary Tour. The tour went around the United States, United Kingdom and Ireland.
On April 10, 2010, a TV special was taped, Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years. Dolly Parton and Lionel Richie were among those set to perform with Rogers during a show celebrating his contribution to country, blues and pop music. It took place at the MGM Grand in Foxwoods.
On June 10, 2012, Rogers appeared on stage with the musical group Phish to perform his hit song "The Gambler" at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival. Also in 2012, Rogers re-recorded the hit song "Lady", a duet with its songwriter Lionel Richie, on Richie's album Tuskegee. The pair also performed the song live at the 2012 ACM concert, "Lionel Richie & Friends".
In October 2012, Rogers released a book Luck or Something Like it: A Memoir about his ups and downs in his musical career. With Mike Blakely, he has written a novel, What Are the Chances, that was released September 1, 2013.
In 2013, Rogers recorded a new album with the name You Can't Make Old Friends. This album included the title track, a new duet with Dolly Parton, which was his first single released in six years.
On April 10, 2013, the CMA announced that Rogers would be a 2013 inductee into the Country Music Hall of Fame, along with Cowboy Jack Clement and Bobby Bare. In June 2013, he performed at the Glastonbury Festival in England in the Sunday afternoon 'Legends' slot.
In 2014, Rogers appeared as himself in a GEICO commercial, singing part of his song "The Gambler" a cappella while acting as the dealer in a card game.
In 2015, Rogers announced his farewell tour, titled The Gambler's Last Deal. He stated his intention to retire from touring at its completion, although he was considering the possibility of recording another studio album. In announcing the tour, Rogers indicated at the time that his final tour appearance would be on NBC's Today show. Concert dates were scheduled through 2018 and included visits to the United States, Australia, Scotland, Ireland, England, The Netherlands and Switzerland. On April 5, 2018, it was announced that Rogers canceled his remaining tour as advised by doctors due to a series of health challenges.
Rogers' final concert in Nashville took place on October 25, 2017, at the Bridgestone Arena where he was joined by an array of guest artists including Linda Davis, Elle King, Little Big Town, Lionel Richie, Billy Currington, Lee Greenwood, the Flaming Lips, the Oak Ridge Boys, Justin Moore, Travis Tritt, the Judds, Kris Kristofferson, Alison Krauss, Chris Stapleton, Lady Antebellum, Idina Menzel, Crystal Gayle, Reba McEntire and Jamey Johnson. The concert also included a special appearance by long-time friend Dolly Parton, who performed "You Can't Make Old Friends" and "Islands in the Stream" with Rogers for the final time.
On March 20, 2020, Rogers died from natural causes under hospice care at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia. He was 81 years old. The family is planning a small private service with a public memorial planned for a later date.