Kenny Rogers has died. Although best known as a country artist, Rogers was one of the most successful musicians of all time in any genre, with hits that ran the gamut from rock to pop to folk—even if none of his other songs could ever quite live up to the story-song impact of “The Gambler,” the Don Schlitz-penned tune that not only gave Rogers his second Grammy (out of three), but also provided him with the persona he’d frequently adopt for the next four decades of his career.
Born in Texas, Rogers started out with an interest in jazz, before scoring his first hit with his band The First Edition in 1967. A drive-by tour of the psychedelic rock scene (from a band better known for its folk influences), “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)“ hit No. 5 on the Billboard charts; 30 years later, it would serve as the soundtrack to one of the most memorable dream sequences that the Coen Brothers ever shot.
After The First Edition broke up in 1976, Rogers embarked on a solo career notable not only for its breadth and success, but also for its eye for top-notch collaboration: Lionel Richie, Kim Carnes, Dottie West, Dolly Parton, Barry Gibb and more all worked with him at different points in his career—almost always coming away from the team-up with yet another massive hit to their shared credit. To run through Rogers’ discography is to be confronted with dozens of the most successful singles of the era in which he lived, from “Lucille”—Grammy win No. 1, by the by—to “The Gambler,” to “Lady,” to “Coward Of The County” to “Islands In The Stream,” and beyond. Among his numerous partners across these eras: The Muppets, cementing the idea that you weren’t really anybody in music in the 1970s or ’80s unless you had a Henson-approved cover of your biggest song for the kids to sing along to.
Even as his albums continued to chart in the world of music, Rogers leaned into his “Gambler” persona in the wider world, acting in a series of TV movies based around the character—as well as NBC’s MacShayne mystery series, in which he played (you guessed it), a down-on-his-luck gambler, trying to make good in the world of solving crimes. It’s also as good a time as any to mention his sideline as a restaurateur; as any good Seinfeld fan knows, Kenny Rogers Roasters (developed in association with former KFC CEO John Y. Brown, Jr.) remains an enduring institution in the fast-casual dining world. (At least in Asia; it went bust in the United States.)
But despite Rogers’ willingness to embrace a bit of corniness from time to time, it’s also impossible to deny that the man made music—and showmanship—the passionate centerpiece of his life. With an eventual 39 studio albums to his name, and a touring career that continued up until 2015 (when he turned 76), Rogers threw himself into a lifetime of giving audiences the best possible evening that he could. Just watch his face in the below concert footage from 1985, as Parton makes a surprise arrival to cover the second verse of “We’ve Got Tonight”—it’s the face of a man who knows he’s about to get an entire room full of people one hell of a show.
Rogers retired from music a few years back; he released his last album (with Parton) back in 2013. He leaves behind a career with more greatest hits compilations than many bands have actual albums, an enduring legacy as a performer who was never far from the top of his game, and some of the best crossover country songs of all time.
Rogers had been dealing with various health issues the past few years. On doctor’s orders, he canceled the final leg of his final tour in spring 2018 due to “health challenges” and was hospitalized for dehydration last May. He turned 81 last August.