Kenny Rogers — topped coun­try, pop charts

San Francisco Chronicle - Late Edition (Sunday) - - OBITUARIES - By Kristin M. Hall Kristin M. Hall is an As­so­ci­ated Press writer.

Ac­tor­singer Kenny Rogers, the smooth, Grammy­win­ning bal­ladeer who spanned jazz, folk, coun­try and pop with such hits as “Lu­cille,” “Lady” and “Is­lands in the Stream” and em­braced his per­sona as “The Gam­bler” on record and on TV, died Fri­day night. He was 81.

He died at home in Sandy Springs, Ga., rep­re­sen­ta­tive Keith Ha­gan said. He was un­der hos­pice care and died of nat­u­ral causes, Ha­gan said.

The Hous­ton­born per­former with the husky voice and sil­ver beard sold tens of mil­lions of records, won three Gram­mys and was the star of TV movies based on “The Gam­bler” and other songs, mak­ing him a su­per­star in the ’70s and ’80s. Rogers thrived for some 60 years be­fore re­tir­ing from tour­ing in 2017 at age 79. De­spite his cross­over suc­cess, he al­ways pre­ferred to be thought of as a coun­try singer.

“You ei­ther do what ev­ery­one else is do­ing and you do it bet­ter, or you do what no one else is do­ing and you don’t in­vite com­par­i­son,” Rogers in 2015. “And I chose that way be­cause I could never be bet­ter than Johnny Cash or Wil­lie or Way­lon at what they did. So I found some­thing that I could do that didn’t in­vite com­par­i­son to them. And I think peo­ple thought it was my de­sire to change coun­try mu­sic. But that was never my is­sue.”

“Kenny was one of those artists who tran­scended be­yond one for­mat and ge­o­graphic bor­ders,” says Sarah Tra­h­ern, chief ex­ec­u­tive of­fi­cer of the Coun­try Mu­sic As­so­ci­a­tion. “He was a global su­per­star who helped in­tro­duce coun­try mu­sic to au­di­ences all around the world.“Rogers was a five­time CMA Award win­ner, as well as the re­cip­i­ent of the CMA’s Wil­lie Nel­son Life­time Achieve­ment Award in 2013, the same year he was in­ducted into the Coun­try Mu­sic Hall of Fame. He re­ceived 10 awards from the Academy of Coun­try Mu­sic. He sold more than 47 mil­lion records in the United States alone, ac­cord­ing to the Record­ing In­dus­try As­so­ci­a­tion of Amer­ica.

A true rags­to­riches story, Rogers was raised in pub­lic hous­ing in Hous­ton Heights with seven sib­lings. As a 20year­old, he had a gold sin­gle called “That Crazy Feel­ing,” un­der the name Ken­neth Rogers, but when that early suc­cess stalled, he joined a jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Trio, as a standup bass player.

But his break­through came when he was asked to join the New Christy Min­strels, a folk group, in 1966. The band re­formed as First Edi­tion and scored a pop hit with the psy­che­delic song, “Just Dropped In (To See What Con­di­tion My Con­di­tion Was In).” Rogers and First Edi­tion mixed coun­try­rock and folk on songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” a story of a Viet­nam vet­eran beg­ging his girl­friend to stay.

After the group broke up in 1974, Rogers started his solo ca­reer and found a big hit with the sad coun­try bal­lad “Lu­cille,” in 1977, which crossed over to the pop charts and earned Rogers his first Grammy. Sud­denly the star, Rogers added hit after hit for more than a decade.

“The Gam­bler,” the Grammy­win­ning story song penned by Don Sch­litz, came out in 1978 and be­came his sig­na­ture song with a sig­na­ture re­frain: “You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.” The song spawned a hit TV movie of the same name and sev­eral more se­quels fea­tur­ing Rogers as pro­fes­sional gam­bler Brady Hawkes, and led to a lengthy side ca­reer for Rogers as a TV ac­tor and host of sev­eral TV spe­cials.

Other hits in­cluded “You Dec­o­rated My Life,” “Ev­ery Time Two Fools Col­lide” with Dot­tie West, “Don’t Fall In Love with a Dreamer” with

Kim Carnes, and “Coward of the County.” One of his big­gest suc­cesses was “Lady,” writ­ten by Lionel Richie, a chart top­per for six weeks straight in 1980. Richie said in a 2017 in­ter­view that he of­ten didn’t fin­ish songs until he had al­ready pitched them, which was the case for “Lady.”

“In the be­gin­ning, the song was called, ‘Baby,’ ” Richie said. “And be­cause when I first sat with him, for the first 30 min­utes, all he talked about was he just got mar­ried to a real lady. A coun­try guy like him is mar­ried to a lady. So, he said, ‘By the way, what’s the name of the song?’ ” Richie replies: “Lady.”

Over the years, Rogers worked of­ten with fe­male duet part­ners, most mem­o­rably, Dolly Parton. The two were paired at the sug­ges­tion of the

Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, who wrote “Is­lands in the Stream.”

“Barry was pro­duc­ing an al­bum on me and he gave me this song,” Rogers said in 2017. “And I went and learned it and went into the stu­dio and sang it for four days. And I fi­nally looked at him and said, ‘Barry, I don’t even like this song any­more.’ And he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.’ I thought, ‘Man, that guy is a vi­sion­ary.’ ”

Co­in­ci­den­tally, Parton was ac­tu­ally in the same record­ing stu­dio in Los An­ge­les when the idea came up.

“From the mo­ment she marched into that room, that song never sounded the same,” Rogers said. “It took on a whole new spirit.”

The two singers toured to­gether, in­clud­ing in Aus­tralia and New Zealand in 1984 and 1987, and were fea­tured in a HBO con­cert spe­cial. Over the years the two would con­tinue to record to­gether, in­clud­ing their last duet, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” which was re­leased in 2013. Parton reprised “Is­lands in the Stream” with Rogers dur­ing his all­star retirement con­cert held in Nashville in Oc­to­ber 2017.

Rogers in­vested his time and money in a lot of other en­deav­ors over his ca­reer, in­clud­ing a pas­sion for photograph­y that led to sev­eral books, as well as an au­to­bi­og­ra­phy, “Mak­ing It With Mu­sic.” He had a chain of restau­rants called Kenny Rogers Roast­ers and was a part­ner be­hind a river­boat in Bran­son, Mo. He was also in­volved in nu­mer­ous char­i­ta­ble causes, among them the Red Cross and MusiCares, and was part of the all­star “We are the World” record­ing for famine re­lief.

By the ’90s, his abil­ity to chart hits had waned, al­though he still re­mained a pop­u­lar live en­ter­tainer with reg­u­lar tour­ing. Still he was an in­ven­tive busi­ness­man and never stopped try­ing to find his way back onto the charts.

At the age of 61, Rogers had a brief come­back on the coun­try charts in 2000 with a hit song “Buy Me a Rose,” thanks to his other fa­vorite medium, tele­vi­sion. Pro­duc­ers of the se­ries “Touched by an An­gel” wanted him to ap­pear in an episode, and one of his man­agers sug­gested the episode be based on his lat­est sin­gle. That crosspro­mo­tional event earned him his first No. 1 coun­try song in 13 years.

Rogers is sur­vived by his wife, Wanda, and his sons Justin, Jordan, Chris and Kenny Jr., as well as two brothers, a sis­ter and grand­chil­dren, nieces and neph­ews, his rep­re­sen­ta­tive said.

Doug Pizac / As­so­ci­ated Press 1983

Kenny Rogers worked of­ten with fe­male duet part­ners, most mem­o­rably Dolly Parton, shown dur­ing a re­hearsal in 1983.

Suzanne Cordeiro / AFP / Getty Images 2017

Coun­try bal­ladeer Rogers, shown per­form­ing in Austin, Texas, on his 2017 farewell tour, sold tens of mil­lions of records, won three Gram­mys and starred in TV movies based on his songs.

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