Country Music Legend Kenny Rogers Dies At 81

Mar 21, 2020
Originally published on March 23, 2020 5:14 pm

Country music icon Kenny Rogers, whose hits included "Lucille," "Lady" and "The Gambler," died late Friday at his home in Sandy Springs, Ga., his family said in a statement. He was 81.

The Houston-born country star had 20 No.-1 hits and three Grammys and performed for some 60 years before retiring from touring in 2017 at age 79, according to the Associated Press.

Rogers didn't write most of his hits and often said he didn't consider himself much of a songwriter. But he told NPR in 2012 that he had a knack for picking songs that could draw in the listener.

"I've always felt great songs put you in a spot, put you in a place — on a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere," he said. "You know where you are, and from there the rest of the song plays out."

"The Gambler" would become a worldwide hit in 1978 and turn into Rogers' calling card. He always joked, however, that he wasn't much of a gambler himself.

"I learned a long time ago, I can't win enough money to excite me, but I can lose enough to depress me," he said told NPR's Rachel Martin 2015. "So I don't gamble. But you're right, it's been a career-identifying song."

Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, in 2013, but he always spanned genres. His career really started with jazz, playing upright bass with a trio in Houston, the city where he grew up in public housing and became the first in his family to graduate from high school. After a stint playing bass with the The New Christy Minstrels, he went on to co-found The First Edition.

Rogers would quickly become a solo artist, but he was always known for his collaborations — especially duets with Dolly Parton.

The story goes that Rogers was in his studio in Los Angeles for days trying to perfect the song "Islands in the Stream" by the Bee Gees. Someone suggested, "This needs Dolly Parton," and she happened to be in town. They both recalled it being a magical studio moment. "Islands" became a No.-1 hit in 1983.

Kenny Rogers, Dolly Parton and Rogers's twin boys perform at the MGM Grand at Foxwoods in Ledyard Center, Conn., in 2010.
Rick Diamond / Getty Images

After that first chance encounter, Rogers and Parton performed together for decades. They were often accused of carrying on a love affair, but both said it was just a special bond. In 2017, Dan Rather asked Parton to explain.

"I love him to death," she told Rather. "He's like a brother to me, or like a twin soul. We just know each other. We can see each other across the room and know what each other is thinking about, whatever else is going on in the room."

Their musical chemistry was so central to both of their careers that Don Schlitz, who wrote "The Gambler," penned a song, "You Can't Make Old Friends," based on their three-decade relationship.

The song will now be a poignant tribute. But Parton once told Rogers she would never be able to sing at his funeral.

Rogers' family plans a private service "out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency," the statement posted early Saturday read. The family plans to hold a public memorial at a later date.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

Kenny Rogers considered himself more of a storyteller than a superstar singer. And he's being remembered for spinning 4-minute tales with titles like "The Gambler," "Through The Years" and "Lucille." Kenny Rogers died last night at the age of 81. Blake Farmer of member station WPLN in Nashville has this remembrance.

BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: Kenny Rogers had 20 No. 1 hits, and he'd often say there were two kinds - love ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LADY")

KENNY ROGERS: (Singing) Lady, I'm your knight in shining armor, and I love you.

FARMER: The other kind are story songs that have a social significance. "Coward Of The County" is really about a rape.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "COWARD OF THE COUNTY")

ROGERS: (Singing) Tommy opened up the door and saw his Becky crying. The torn dress, the shattered look was more than he could stand.

FARMER: Rogers didn't write most of his hits. He often said he didn't consider himself much of a songwriter. But he told Morning Edition in 2012 that he had a knack for picking songs that could draw in the listener.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROGERS: I've always felt great songs put you in a spot, put you in a place - on a warm summer's evening, on a train bound for nowhere. You know where you are. And from there, the rest of the song plays out.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GAMBLER")

ROGERS: (Singing) So we took turns a-staring out the window at the darkness, till boredom overtook us, and he began to speak.

FARMER: "The Gambler" would become a worldwide hit in 1978. And it would end up being Rogers' calling card. He toured and performed into his late '70s and said he would never skip it and risk a revolt in the audience. He always joked, however, that he wasn't much of a gambler himself. Here he is talking to Rachel Martin on Weekend Edition in 2015.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

ROGERS: 'Cause I learned a long time ago I can't win enough money to excite me, but I can lose enough to depress me.

RACHEL MARTIN, BYLINE: (Laughter).

ROGERS: So I don't gamble. But you're right - it has been a career-identifying song.

FARMER: Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, but he always spanned genres. His career really started with jazz, playing upright bass with a trio in Houston. That's where he was raised in public housing, becoming the first in his family to graduate from high school. After a stint playing bass with The New Christy Minstrels, he went on to co-found The First Edition.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JUST DROPPED IN (TO SEE WHAT CONDITION MY CONDITION WAS IN)")

ROGERS: (Singing) I just dropped in to see what condition my condition was in.

FARMER: Rogers would quickly go on to be a solo artist, but he was always known for his collaborations, especially duets with Dolly Parton.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLANDS IN THE STREAM")

KENNY ROGERS AND DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) You do something to me that I can't explain. Hold me closer, and I feel no pain. Every beat of my heart, we've got something going on.

FARMER: The story goes that Rogers was in his studio in Los Angeles for days, trying to get this song written by the Bee Gees just right. Then someone said, this needs Dolly Parton, and she happened to be in town. They both recalled it being a magical studio moment, and "Islands In The Stream" became a No. 1 hit in 1983.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ISLANDS IN THE STREAM")

ROGERS AND PARTON: (Singing) Islands in the stream, that is what we are.

FARMER: After that first chance encounter, they performed together for decades. Their musical chemistry was so central to both of their careers that Don Schlitz - who wrote "The Gambler" - penned a song called "You Can't Make Old Friends," based on their three-decade relationship.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU CAN'T MAKE OLD FRIENDS")

DOLLY PARTON: (Singing) When I'm out, on the stage all alone, and I hear the music begin.

ROGERS: (Singing) We all know the show must go on.

ROGERS AND PARTON: (Singing) But you can't make old friends.

FARMER: It will now be a poignant tribute. But Parton once told Rogers she would never be able to sing at his funeral. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.