Country music icon Kenny Rogers dies at 81

Vocalist Kenny Rogers, who dominated the pop and country charts in the 1970s and 1980s with a string of sleekly tailored hits and won three Grammys, has died. He was 81. Rogers “passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family,” a representative for the singer said in a statement.

Due to the national COVID-19 emergency, the family is planning a small private service at this time with a public memorial planned for a later date.

His appealing, sometimes gritty voice propelled 20 solo 45s to No. 1 on the country charts from 1977-87. Two of them, his 1980 reading of Lionel Richie’s “Lady” and his 1983 collaboration with Dolly Parton “Islands in the Stream” (penned by the Bee Gees), also topped the pop lists. He worked profitably with a number of other female vocalists, including Dottie West, Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes and Anne Murray.


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Rogers parlayed his music success into a successful side career as an actor. His 1978 country chart-topper “The Gambler” spawned five popular TV movies, while some of his other hits also inspired small-screen features.

Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013 and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Assn. the same year.

Born and raised in Houston, he was the fourth of eight children in a poor family. He took to the guitar as an adolescent, and would sometimes perform with another aspiring local musician and future star, Mickey Gilley.

His early professional career was stylistically eclectic. While in high school, he formed a rockabilly group, the Scholars, who recorded for Carlton Records, a local label. After a brief stint at the University of Houston, he played bass with the jazz groups of Bobby Doyle and Kirby Stone.

After moving to Los Angeles in 1966, he joined the folk-pop unit the New Christy Minstrels, a group that also numbered such performers as Carnes, the Byrds’ Gene Clark, “Eve of Destruction” vocalist Barry McGuire and the Lovin’ Spoonful’s Jerry Yester among its members at one time or another.

He notched five more No. 1 solo country singles by the end of the 1970s. The biggest of these were the Grammy-winning “The Gambler” (also No. 16 pop in 1978) and Rogers’ biggest hit, the backwoods narrative “Coward of the County” (also No. 3 pop in 1979). They pushed the albums “The Gambler” and “Kenny” to No. 12 and No. 5, respectively, on the pop album charts. Each inspired a popular TV movie; Rogers would portray Brady Hawkes, protagonist of “The Gambler,” in a series of telepics that ran through 1994.

On the heels of a No. 1 greatest hits set in 1980, Rogers’ hits of the decade for Liberty and RCA found him moving increasingly into pop terrain and focusing on romantic balladry. “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” (the latter one of many duets with frequent partner Parton) solidified his standing as country’s biggest crossover attraction; his rendering of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” with Sheena Easton ruled the country chart and rose to No. 6 on the pop chart. In all, he recorded 23 top-10 country hits during the decade, five of which crossed to the pop side.

He issued a memoir, “Luck or Something Like It,” in 2012, and a novel, “What Are the Chances,” in 2013. That same year, he was the recipient of the CMA Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award. He received a similar honour from CMT with its Artist of a Lifetime Award in 2015.

Always active on the road, Rogers announced his retirement in September 2015, not long after a widely aired commercial for Geico insurance saw him reprising “The Gambler” for comedic effect.

Married five times, Rogers is survived by his last wife Wanda and five children.

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