Kenny Rogers, a grizzled, raspy-voiced country-pop crooner who specialized in narrative-driven ballads such as “Lucille” and “The Gambler,” the latter of which sent its life-as-a-card-game refrain echoing through popular culture, died March 20 at his home in Sandy Springs, Ga. He was 81.
His farewell concerts generated headlines that referred to lyrics from his signature song, about a card player who philosophizes that in life, as in games of chance, “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em.”
A veteran of doo-wop, jazz and folk groups, Mr. Rogers was pushing 30 when he had his first brush with commercial success as part of the pop group the First Edition. The group’s 1968 hit “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” was about a hallucinogenic trip and was later featured in a psychedelic dream sequence in the 1998 Coen brothers film “The Big Lebowski.”
The act broke up in the mid-1970s, and Mr. Rogers found himself thrice divorced, $65,000 in debt and hawking the “Quick-Pickin’ ‘N Fun-Strummin’ Home Guitar Course” in TV commercials.
Seeking a change, he found it in Nashville.
“I went to Fan Fair in Nashville at Municipal Auditorium one time,” Mr. Rogers told Billboard, “and there were about 10,000 people in the audience, and they introduced this guy who had had a record back in 1954, and the crowd went crazy. I felt that, with that type of longevity, this is where I needed to be.”
Nashville producer Larry Butler engineered Mr. Rogers’s reinvention as a country performer. With his impeccably groomed gray beard and designer western wear, the singer cultivated a romantic but laid-back persona that played off Butler’s careful, hook-laden song choices.
“I’d say, ‘I want to do ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would want to hear,’ ” Mr. Rogers told The Washington Post in 2016. “And the reason I did that was then you had both audiences: You had the male and female audiences.”
During the 1970s, Mr. Rogers fine-tuned a middle ground between country and easy listening pop that reaped commercial dividends. Every recording he made between 1976 and 1984 sold more than 500,000 copies, and many sold more than 1 million.
“His roots were in pop and folk music,” country music historian Rich Kienzle said in an interview. “He developed a mellow voice that put him in the vanguard of a type of light, fluffy easy listening country which gained the industry name ‘Urban Cowboy’ after the popularity of the John Travolta film. He had a long career because of his crossover appeal to fans of easy listening pop.”
The love ballads included “You Decorated My Life” and “She Believes in Me,” both from 1979, and a cover the next year of Lionel Richie’s “Lady.” In addition to Don Schlitz’s “The Gambler” (1978), he had hits with “story songs” such as “Lucille” (1977), about a woman leaving her impoverished farmer husband (“You picked a fine time to leave me, Lucille”) and “Coward of the County” (1979), the story of a passive man’s bloody revenge against the rapists who attacked his sweetheart. Cumulatively, they established him as a force in country pop.
Some of his notable duets included “Islands in the Stream” with Dolly Parton and “We’ve Got Tonight” with Sheena Easton, both in 1983; “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” (1980) with Kim Carnes; and “Every Time Two Fools Collide” (1978) with Dottie West. “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” Mr. Rogers’s duet with a male singer Ronnie Milsap, won a Grammy for best country vocal duet in 1987.
He won two other competitive Grammys, for “The Gambler” and “Lucille,” and was nominated 19 times. In 2013, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
In part as a backlash against the crossover style of Mr. Rogers and other pop-driven singers, a number of performers, such as Randy Travis and George Strait, began in the mid-1980s to reorient the music toward its roots. Mr. Rogers’s chart presence declined, but he remained a constant and instantly recognizable presence on television, hosting music specials and bringing the title character of “The Gambler” to life in a series of made-for-TV westerns. He also starred as a racecar driver in the 1982 family film “Six Pack.”
In 1991, he invested his earnings and name in a chain of fast-food rotisserie chicken restaurants, Kenny Rogers Roasters. The company achieved a publicity coup in 1996 when its signature bright red neon signs became a plotline in the hit sitcom “Seinfeld.”
But the business faced stiff competition from other franchisers, and it filed for bankruptcy in 1998. After several changes in ownership — and the shuttering of its U.S. locations — the company began operating principally in Asia.
Kenneth Ray Rogers was born in Houston on Aug. 21, 1938. He was the fourth of eight children and grew up in a public housing development. He said his father — a carpenter and country fiddler — was an alcoholic who often drank his wages. His mother was a nurse’s assistant.
Inspired by a Ray Charles concert he attended in his youth, he decided to pursue a music career — in search, he later said, of acclaim and girls. He formed a Houston doo-wop group and called it the Scholars.
“A misnomer — there wasn’t a C student in the bunch,” he later quipped. They had a regional hit with “That Crazy Feeling” (1958) released under his own name. One of the group’s follow-up recordings was a song, “Kangewah,” written by Hollywood gossip columnist Louella Parsons.
“We figured she’d plug our record in her column,” Mr. Rogers later told People magazine. “It was a great idea but had no relationship to reality. We came home broke.”
After a stint as a bass player in a local jazz trio, he joined the New Christy Minstrels in 1966. But the next year, feeling stifled by the group’s formulaic hootenanny style, Mr. Rogers and three former Minstrels — singer Mike Settle, guitarist Terry Williams and vocalist Thelma Camacho — formed the First Edition. Mickey Jones, a drummer who had toured with Bob Dylan, rounded out the unit.
With Mr. Rogers increasingly featured as the frontman, the group was later billed as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. The group’s 1969 hit, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town,” written by country star Mel Tillis, was about a paralyzed and cuckolded veteran and was perceived as a thinly veiled swipe at the Vietnam War. “Reuben James,” also from 1969, told the story of a black man raising a white child. The band had a syndicated television show — “Rollin’ On The River” (later shortened to “Rollin’”) — which ran from 1971 to 1973.
Mr. Rogers said his ambition and inclination to put work first led to a turbulent personal life. Four of his marriages — to Janice Gordon, Jean Rogers, Margo Anderson and actress Marianne Gordon — ended in divorce. His 1993 divorce settlement with Marianne Gordon, after 16 years of marriage, cost him $60 million.
“She deserves every penny,” he later said, noting that she “stood behind” him in the years he was broke — and before his breakthrough as a major solo performer.
Survivors include his wife of 22 years, Wanda Miller, and several children from that and his earlier marriages. His oldest brother, Lelan Rogers, an independent record producer who died in 2002, produced some of Mr. Roger’s earliest doo-wop songs.
Mr. Rogers remained an enthusiastic performer, still hoping to make new fans, well into the twilight of his career. “I’ve always said I don’t care whether one person walks away saying, ‘He’s the best singer I’ve ever heard,’ ” he once said. “But I want everyone to walk away saying, ‘I enjoyed that.’ ”
Read more Washington Post obituaries