Kenny Rogers — who died Friday at 81 — was one of the giants of the music industry, in part because he was the king of country crossover. His music and other performances certainly touched most Americans and music fans at some point or another during his more-than-60-year career, making him a pop icon.
In 1968, Rogers tasted his first major chart success, as part of Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, courtesy of this psychedelic rock tune written by Mickey Newbury. The song, about an LSD trip, showcased Rogers' unique vocal style, earning him his first national TV exposure, on "The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour." It hit #5 on the pop chart, making it the band's biggest success (just ahead of the #6 hit "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" in 1969). The song stands the test of time, and in 1998 experienced a resurgence when it was used prominently in the dream sequence of the Coen Brothers' cult movie "The Big Lebowski."
Rogers' first #1 song on the country charts also marked his first solo success, the international hit "Lucille." It demonstrated his unique ability to walk his listener through a complicated story via song, telling the tale of a married woman who, while drinking, decides to turn her back on her husband and their "four hungry children," only to be rebuffed by the singer of the song, who experiences a change of heart. For his efforts, Rogers won his first of three Grammys — for Male Country Vocal Performance.
Rogers' most important song was probably this classic, which only hit #16 on the Billboard Hot 100, but which was another #1 country success, winning Rogers his second Grammy for Male Country Vocal Performance. It also established for Rogers his eternal "Gambler" persona. In the song, a wise old gambler coaches a young man, telling him he's got to "know when to hold 'em / know when to fold 'em." The song was so catchy it spawned a series of TV movies in which Rogers starred as Brady Hawkes: "The Gambler" (1980), "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). It was also the focus of his 2014 GEICO commercial.
In the same vein as "The Gambler," this #3 pop and #1 country hit from 1979 tells the story of a young man whose father's dying plea was to "walk away from trouble when you can," earning him the reputation of a coward. When his wife is raped, he must decide whether to continue his pacifist ways, or confront the three brothers who committed the crime, ultimately deciding, "Sometimes you gotta fight when you're a man."
In 1982, buoyed by his nonstop musical success and the high ratings of his "Gambler"-themed acting gigs on TV, Rogers headlined the feature film "Six Pack," about a race car driver who bonds with some abandoned kids (including a young Diane Lane). Panned for his acting, Rogers nonetheless got credit for the film's $20-million performance at the box office. It has grown in popularity ever since as a frequent rental and via TV airings. The movie's theme, "Love Will Turn You Around," was a #13 pop hit, and the film spawned a short-lived TV spin-off starring Don Johnson, Markie Post and newcomer Joaquin Phoenix.
At the peak of Scottish singer Sheena Easton's popularity on the charts, Rogers teamed up with her for 1983's immensely popular duet "We've Got Tonight," written by Bob Seger. It was the most-performed country track of the year.
Speaking of duets — and Rogers performed so many, so well — one of the most beloved recordings of his career arrived in 1983 and dominated the charts in 1984, the #1 hit "Islands in the Stream." Sung with close pal Dolly Parton, the song — written by the Bee Gees — had been intended for Marvin Gaye, but was reworked for the country titans. It sold over 2 million physical copies, and to this day is among his most famous works. Dolly and Kenny performed it together for the last time at his final Nashville appearance in 2017.
The big-hearted national treasure made sure he was one of the prominent figures to appear on the 1985 famine-relief charity song "We Are the World." He had been asked to participate by his old pal Richie, harmonizing with Paul Simon before handing things off vocally to his 1984 collaborator James Ingram.
Rogers was nominated or 19 Grammys, winning only three. His last Grammy came for Best Country Collaboration with Vocals for this 1987 duet with Ronnie Milsap. A #1 country hit, it was originally written as "Make No Mistake, He's Mine" by Kim Carnes as a duet between herself and Barbra Streisand in 1984.
... and many more.
Rogers' funeral will be private, but a public memorial is expected to be planned after social distancing to combat the COVID-19 pandemic ends.