The emotional tributes paid by fans and fellow musicians since the death of singer and actor Kenny Rogers a week ago are testament to the enduring influence that his music had the world over.
With the exception of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie and Madonna, few pop musicians have transcended generations in the way that Kenny Rogers did in a career spanning six decades.
His stories of love, heartbreak and social struggle resonated with ordinary folk across the globe who have movingly shared in the grief of his passing.
With his perfectly coiffed hair and silver beard, he not only possessed one of the most familiar faces in the music business but his trademark warm and soothing voice touched the hearts of millions.
But Kenny Rogers, who died last Friday night at the age of 81, also defied the boundaries of music genres. As a budding musician, he dabbled in folk and jazz, found his mark in country, and collaborated with artists from a broad range of styles from pop to R&B: Lionel Richie, Michael Jackson, Gladys Knight and James Ingram and the Bee Gees. In the last decade of his career, he released the album “The Love of God” in 2011, harking back to the deep connections between country and gospel.
Rogers first announced his retirement in 2015 while on tour, but stayed on the road until 2018 when mobility challenges forced him to finally call it quits.
That was the same year that his signature tune, The Gambler, was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress in the US which archives songs that are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
His autobiography, Luck Or Something Like, released in October 2012, is packed with fascinating stories about his rise from grinding poverty as the fourth of eight children, to one of the most successful careers in the music business.
Kenny Rogers formed his first band, The Scholars, in 1956 as a 17-year-old high school student. In 1960, he joined the jazz band, the Bobby Doyle Trio as a bass player while studying at the University of Houston.
In 1966, he joined the New Christy Minstrels which he stayed with for just a year before leaving, along with former bandmate Mile Settle to form the First Edition. His first mainstream chart success came in 1969 with what was to become a Kenny Rogers staple, Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town.
This song, an account of a paralysed ex-serviceman and his straying wife, was originally inspired by the Korean War in the 1950s, but acquired grim significance as it was released in the midst of the Vietnam War in the 60s.
After a few more hits with the First Edition, Kenny launched his solo career in 1972 and it took him four years to make an impact as a soloist with Lucille, another sorrowful tale about a wayward wife deserting his farmer husband and four children. He described it as “the happiest, sad song you’ve ever heard… a depressing story with the most wonderfully uplifting chorus.”
That same year he released The Gambler, a song with advice about living one’s life by utilising some poker playing imagery, that became his most popular song. The romantic She Believes In Me and Coward of the County, a saga of self-restraint and turning the other cheek to honour a promise to a dying father were his biggest successes in 1979.
In 1980, Kenny moved out of the confines of the Nashville country music circuit and reached out to Lionel Richie, who was still with the Commodores, to write Lady, an unparalleled success that topped both the country and pop charts.
A highlight of Kenny’s career were the collaborations with female artistes: Kim Carnes (Don’t Fall In Love With a Dreamer), Dottie West (Till I Make It On My Own and Every time Fools Collide), Sheena Easton (We’ve Got Tonight) and Gladys Knight (Share Your Love With Me).
The most successful of the duets was Island in the Stream, the first of many with Dolly Parton, also a pop and country No1 in 1983.
“Everybody always thought we were having an affair,” he once said of his relationship with Dolly Parton. “We just flirted with each other and loved every minute of it.”
In all, Kenny Rogers recorded 65 albums, sold more than 160 million records, won three Grammy Awards and was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013.
Among his acting roles was starring in the television films, The Gambler and Coward of the County, both based on his two biggest songs.
Rolling Stone magazine paid tribute to him by writing that he is a reminder, in these bleak times that the world faces, of how “pop music’s communal pleasures can be a light in dark times”.
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