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Kenny Rogers, Country Legend, Dead at 81

Kenny Rogers, Country Legend, Dead at 81
Splash News

Kenny Rogers, one of the most successful country music stars of all time, and a performer who crossed over into pop music and acting, died under hospice care Friday evening at his Sandy Springs, Georgia, home. He was 81.

THR reports Rogers died of natural causes, as confirmed by his rep Keith Hagan.

The Country Music Hall of Famer sold over 100 million records and charted over 100 singles in his long career, which stretched back to the late '50s and heated up beyond his wildest dreams in the '70s and '80s.

Born on August 21, 1938, in Houston, Rogers began performing in the jazz outfit the Bobby Doyle Three, had a minor solo hit with the song "That Crazy Feeling" (1957), and was a member of the folk group the New Christy Minstrels, singing and playing multiple instruments.

His first impact on the charts was as a founding member of the First Edition, whose "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)" was a Top 5 rock hit in 1968 that recaptured the public's interest when it was included on the soundtrack of the cult movie "The Big Lebowski" (1998). The song's psychedelic vibe and subversive content — it was about an LSD trip — shared nothing in common with his later, signature work, but he continued churning out increasingly countrified hits with the band until 1976, and co-hosting the variety series "Rollin' on the River" (1971-1973), laying the groundwork for a solo career with his magnetic stage presence and raspy delivery.

With his second, self-titled solo album, Rogers crossed over into pop success via the hit single "Lucille" (1976), with its country lyrics — about a woman's hasty decision to abandon her husband "with four hungry children and a crop in the field" — and pop hook.

For the long haul after that impact, most of Rogers' singles were both country and pop hits, including his smash recording of "The Gambler" in 1978, with its iconic line, "You've got to know when to hold 'em / Know when to fold 'em." Selected in 2018 for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress for its cultural, historical, or artistic significance, the song also inspired a string of TV movies in which he starred, beginning with 1980's "Kenny Rogers as The Gambler." His Gambler persona was revived to great effect in a 2014 GEICO TV ad.

In spite of his Gambler persona, Rogers said in 2019 he wasn't a gambler himself. "I found out a long time ago: I could lose enough to depress me, but I can't win enough to excite me — so I quit."

Any definitive list of Rogers' greatest hits would also have to include "She Believes in Me" (1979), "You Decorated My Life" (1979), "Coward of the County" (1979), "Lady" (1980), "I Don't Need You" (1981), "Through the Years" (1982), "Love Will Turn You Around" (1982), and "This Woman" (1984). Among his most memorable duets were "Don't Fall in Love with a Dreamer" with Kim Carnes (1980), "We've Got Tonight" with Sheena Easton (1983), "Islands in the Stream" with Dolly Parton (1983), "What About Me?" with Carnes and James Ingram (1984), and "Make No Mistake, She's Mine" with Ronnie Milsap (1987).

The latter duet won him the last of his three Grammys; he was nominated 19 times.

He was remembered warmly by Parton on Instagram Saturday, who quoted one of her most impactful hits in an Instagram video, saying, "I loved Kenny with all my heart, my heart's broken, and a big ol' chunk of it has gone with him today, and I think that I can speak for all his family, his friends, and fans, when I say that I will always love you."

Rogers was also known for his business ventures, including Gambler Sprint cars and a chain of chicken joints called Kenny Rogers Roasters that featured prominently in the 1996 "The Chicken Roaster" episode of "Seinfeld." Rogers approved of the classic episode, speaking warmly of Jerry Seinfeld, who had opened for him on tour when Seinfeld was just starting out.

Rogers was a touring powerhouse who sought to go out with a bang in 2018 with his Gambler's Last Deal tour. Sadly, he had to cut that venture short due to health challenges. He said in a statement at the time, "I didn’t want to take forever to retire. I’ve thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to say farewell to the fans over the course of the past two years on the Gambler’s Last Deal tour. I could never properly thank them for the encouragement and support they’ve given me throughout my career and the happiness I’ve experienced as a result of that."

He had delivered his last Nashville appearance on October 25, 2017, as part of an all-star farewell concert that included such stars as Parton, Don Henley, Little Big Town, Kris Kristofferson, Reba McEntire, and more.

Rogers also dabbled in acting throughout his career. Along with his extensive TV work, he starred in the 1982 feature film "Six Pack." His final acting jobs were voice work, including on "How I Met Your Mother" (2009).

Rogers, who was married five times, is survived by his wife Wanda and by his five children. His funeral will be private "out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency," but a public memorial could follow in the future.

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