Legends: Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers was an American singer, songwriter, actor, record producer and entrepreneur who had a remarkable career spanning multiple genres and decades. He was born on August 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas and grew up poor in a housing project.

He started his musical journey with a doo-wop group called the Scholars in high school and later explored jazz, folk, pop, rock and country styles with different bands and as a solo artist.

He achieved his first solo country hit with “Love Lifted Me” in 1975 and followed it with many more classics such as “Lucille”, “The Gambler”, “Coward of the County” and “Islands in the Stream” (with Dolly Parton). He won three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013.

He also starred in several movies and TV shows based on his songs, wrote books and ran a successful restaurant chain. He sold more than 100 million records worldwide and was voted the “Favorite Singer of All Time” by readers of USA Today and People in 1986. He died on March 20, 2020 at the age of 81.

Early Life and Influences

Kenny Rogers was born in a poor neighborhood in Houston, Texas, where he faced many challenges and hardships. He was the fourth of eight children of Edward Floyd Rogers, a carpenter who worked in a shipyard, and Lucille Lois Rogers, a nurse’s assistant. He grew up in a federal housing project and lived off peanut butter sandwiches. He attended Jefferson Davis High School and became the first member of his family to finish high school.

He developed a love for music at an early age, listening to a variety of genres, from gospel to jazz to country. He sang in the church choir and learned to play the guitar. He started his musical journey as a teenager, joining various bands and groups and experimenting with different styles and sounds. He recorded his first single, “The Poor Little Doggie”, with the Scholars, a rockabilly band, in 1957. He then went solo and had a minor hit with “That Crazy Feeling” in 1958, which earned him an appearance on American Bandstand. He later joined the Bobby Doyle Trio, a jazz group, playing bass and singing.

In 1966, he switched to folk-pop music and became a member of the New Christy Minstrels, a popular ensemble that featured several future stars, such as Kim Carnes and Gene Clark. He played double bass and bass guitar as well as sang lead vocals on some songs. He learned from his experiences and mentors, such as Randy Sparks, the founder of the group, who taught him how to write songs and arrange music. In 1967, he left the group with a few other members to form the First Edition, a pop-rock band that had hits like “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. The band soon became known as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and landed their own syndicated music show. They gradually changed their style to a more country-oriented sound, influenced by Rogers’s growing interest in country music legends like Merle Haggard and George Jones. The band broke up in 1975-76, paving the way for Rogers’s solo career.

Rise to fame and success

After the First Edition disbanded in 1976, Rogers launched his solo career and decided to focus on country music. He soon developed a more middle-of-the-road sound that appealed to both pop and country audiences. He charted more than 60 top 40 hit singles, including two number ones—”Lady” and “Islands in the Stream”, a duet with Dolly Parton. He won three Grammy awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. He sold more than 100 million records worldwide and became one of the best-selling music artists of all time.

Kenny Rogers in 2012
Kenny Rogers in 2012

He also showed his versatility and talent as a songwriter, collaborating with other artists such as Dottie West, Lionel Richie, Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes, and Ronnie Milsap. He wrote or co-wrote some of his most popular songs, such as “The Gambler”, “Love Will Turn You Around”, “You Decorated My Life”, and “Crazy”. He also covered songs by other writers, such as Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” (with Sheena Easton) and Lionel Richie’s “Lady”. He had a knack for choosing songs that resonated with his fans and expressed his emotions and personality.

Film and Television Appearances

Besides his music career, Rogers also ventured into acting, starring in several movies and TV shows based on his songs or inspired by his persona. His most famous role was as Brady Hawkes, a card-playing cowboy, in The Gambler series of films, which were based on his signature song. The first film, Kenny Rogers as The Gambler (1980), was a huge success and earned him an Emmy nomination. He reprised his role in four sequels: Kenny Rogers as The Gambler: The Adventure Continues (1983), Kenny Rogers as The Gambler, Part III: The Legend Continues (1987), The Gambler Returns: The Luck of the Draw (1991), and Gambler V: Playing for Keeps (1994). The films featured guest stars such as Linda Evans, Bruce Boxleitner, Reba McEntire, Johnny Cash, and Clint Black.

He also played a race car driver in Six Pack (1982), a comedy-drama film that co-starred Diane Lane and Erin Gray. He also produced the film’s soundtrack, which included the hit song “Love Will Turn You Around”. He also starred in other TV movies, such as Coward of the County (1981), based on his song of the same name; Wild Horses (1985), a western romance; MacShayne: Winner Takes All (1994) and MacShayne: The Final Roll of the Dice (1994), two mystery films in which he played a former gambler turned detective; and Big Dreams & Broken Hearts: The Dottie West Story (1995), a biopic of his duet partner and friend Dottie West, in which he played himself.

He also appeared as himself or as a guest star in several TV shows, such as The Muppet Show (1979), where he sang “The Gambler” with a group of Muppet frogs; Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman (1993), where he played a photographer; How I Met Your Mother (2009), where he played himself as a poker mentor; and Reno 911! (2004), where he played himself as a shooting range instructor. He also hosted or co-hosted several TV specials, such as Kenny & Dolly: A Christmas to Remember (1984), Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton Together (1985), Kenny Rogers Live in Concert (1983), and Kenny Rogers: The First 50 Years (2010). He also published several books, including an autobiography, Luck or Something Like It (2012), and a photography book, Your Friends and Mine (1987).

Kenny the Entrepreneur

Besides his music and acting career, Rogers also ventured into the restaurant business, co-founding a chain of chicken-based restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters in 1991. He partnered with former KFC CEO and Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr., who had been an early investor in Kentucky Fried Chicken. The restaurants featured wood-fired rotisserie chicken as their main item, along with various side dishes, such as mashed potatoes, cornbread, and coleslaw.

kenny rogers roasters
Kenny Rogers Roasters


The chain expanded rapidly in the 1990s, reaching over 350 locations in the United States, Canada, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. However in the 1990’s it suffered declining popularity and remains as a well know brand in the Far East with  over 150 locations in Malaysia, Philippines, Singapore, China, Indonesia, India, Brunei, Cambodia, Dubai, and Thailand.

Death and legacy

Kenny Rogers died peacefully at home from natural causes on March 20, 2020, at the age of 81. He was surrounded by his family and under the care of hospice. His family announced his death in a statement, saying that he “left an indelible mark on the history of American music”. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his funeral service was delayed until March 22, 2022, when his friends and family gathered to celebrate his life and music.

Rogers was widely regarded as one of the most successful and influential country music artists of all time, with a career that spanned more than six decades and crossed over to pop, rock, folk, and jazz. He sold more than 165 million records worldwide and charted more than 120 singles across various genres. He won three Grammy awards, six Country Music Association awards, eight Academy of Country Music awards, and numerous other honors. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association in 2013. He also received a Kennedy Center Honor in 2017 for his contributions to American culture.

He also left behind a legacy of timeless songs that touched millions of fans around the world with their stories, emotions, and messages. Some of his most popular songs include “The Gambler”, “Lucille”, “Coward of the County”, “Lady”, “Islands in the Stream”, “Through the Years”, and “We’ve Got Tonight”. He also collaborated with other legendary artists such as Dolly Parton, Lionel Richie, Dottie West, Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes, Willie Nelson, and Johnny Cash. He also inspired many other singers and musicians who followed in his footsteps, such as Garth Brooks, Keith Urban, Blake Shelton, Reba McEntire, Carrie Underwood, and Kenny Chesney.

He also made an impact as an actor, starring in several movies and TV shows based on his songs or inspired by his persona. He also published several books, including an autobiography and a photography book. He also co-founded a chain of chicken-based restaurants called Kenny Rogers Roasters that operates mainly in Asia. He also supported various charitable causes, such as MusiCares, the Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, and World Vision. He was known for his generosity, humility, humor, and kindness.

Kenny Rogers was a legend who left behind a rich legacy of music and entertainment that touched millions of fans around the world. He was known for his distinctive raspy voice, his storytelling skills and his ability to cross over different genres and audiences. He was also a generous philanthropist who supported many causes such as education, health care and disaster relief. He once said, “I’ve never considered myself a great singer, but I am a great storyteller.

Kenny Rogers knew how to live his life with courage, wisdom, and grace. He also knew how to leave it with dignity and peace. He was a true gambler who played his cards right and won the hearts of many. He was a legend in his own time and beyond.

As he sang in one of his most famous songs, “The Gambler”:

You’ve got to know when to hold ‘em Know when to fold ‘em Know when to walk away And know when to run You never count your money When you’re sittin’ at the table There’ll be time enough for countin’ When the dealin’s done.

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