Kenny Rogers Biography

Kenneth Donald Rogers, 21 August 1938, Houston, Texas, USA. Rogers was the fourth of eight children, born in a poor area, where his father worked in a shipyard and his mother in a hospital. By sheer perseverance, he became the first member of his family to graduate. By 1955 Rogers was part of a doo-wop group, the Scholars, who recorded ‘Poor Little Doggie’, ‘Spin The Wheel’ and ‘Kangewah’, which was written by gossip columnist Louella Parsons. At the age of 19, he recorded ‘That Crazy Feeling’ as Kenneth Rogers for the small Houston label Carlton Records. Rogers’ brother Lelan (b. 1928, USA, d. 22 July 2002, Nashville, Tennessee, USA), who had worked for Decca Records, promoted the record and its local success prompted the brothers to form their own label, Ken-Lee, although Rogers’ single ‘Jole Blon’ was unsuccessful. Rogers also recorded ‘For You Alone’ for the Carlton label as Kenny Rogers The First. When Lelan managed Mickey Gilley, Rogers played bass on his 1960 single ‘Is It Wrong?’, and he also played stand-up bass with the jazz outfit Bobby Doyle Three (he appears on their 1962 album of standards, In A Most Unusual Way).

After recording solo for Mercury Records, Rogers joined the New Christy Minstrels (he appears on their 1966 album of pop hits, New Kick!) while forming a splinter group the First Edition with other Minstrels - Mike Settle, Thelma Camacho and Terry Williams. The First Edition signed with Reprise Records and enjoyed a string of country pop hit singles in the late 60s and early 70s, including ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’, ‘But You Know I Love You’, ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town’ and ‘Something’s Burning’. Now billed as Kenny Rogers And The First Edition, the band left Reprise in 1972 to record for Rogers’ Jolly Rogers label. Rogers has since described running the label as ‘a lesson in futility’. When First Edition broke up in 1974, he owed $65, 000.

The following year, Rogers signed with United Artists Records and his producer, Larry Butler, envisaged how he could satisfy both pop and country markets. Impotence was an extraordinary subject for a hit record, but ‘Lucille’ (US number 5, UK number 1) established Rogers as a country star. He wrote and recorded ‘Sweet Music Man’, although the song is more appropriate for female singers and has been recorded by Billie Jo Spears, Anne Murray, Tammy Wynette, Dolly Parton and Millie Jackson. Rogers, who had a second solo hit with ‘Daytime Friends’, toured the UK with Crystal Gayle, and, although plans to record with her did not materialize, he formed a successful partnership with Dottie West. Don Schlitz’s story-song, ‘The Gambler’, was ideal for Rogers and inspired the television movies The Gambler, The Gambler II and The Gambler Returns which featured Rogers. His love for poignant ballads about life on the road, such as ‘She Believes In Me’ (US number 5), is explained by his own life. Rogers had the first of four marriages in 1958 and blames constant touring for the failure of his relationships (although Rogers says the worst aspect of touring is being bombarded with grey-bearded lookalikes!). His fourth marriage was to Marianne Gordon, a presenter of the US television series Hee Haw and an actress who appeared in Rosemary’s Baby. His stage show promoted his happy family life and included home movies of their child, Christopher Cody. ‘You Decorated My Life’ was another US hit and then came ‘Coward Of The County’ (US number 3, UK number 1). This song, too, became a successful television movie, and the album Kenny sold over five million copies.

Rogers also made the documentary Kenny Rogers And The American Cowboy, and a concept album about a modern-day Texas cowboy, Gideon, led to a successful duet, ‘Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer’ (US number 4), with one of its writers, Kim Carnes. Rogers also had success with ‘Love The World Away’ from the soundtrack of the movie Urban Cowboy, and ‘Love Will Turn You Around’ from Six Pack, a light-hearted television movie in which he starred. Rogers’ voice was ideal for Lionel Richie’s slow-paced love songs and ‘Lady’ topped the US charts for six weeks. This was followed by ‘I Don’t Need You’ (US number 3) from the album Richie produced for Rogers, Share Your Love. Rogers and Sheena Easton revived the Bob Seger song ‘We’ve Got Tonight’ (US number 6).

Having sold 35 million albums for United Artists, Rogers moved to RCA Records. Eyes That See In The Dark was produced by Barry Gibb, featured the Bee Gees, and included ‘Islands In The Stream’ (US number 1, UK number 7) with Dolly Parton, which was helped by her playful approach on the video. Further US hits include ‘What About Me?’ with James Ingram and Kim Carnes and ‘Make No Mistake, She’s Mine’ with Ronnie Milsap. Surprisingly, Rogers has not recorded with his close friend Glen Campbell, although he took the cover photograph for his album Southern Nights. Rogers was also featured on USA For Africa’s highly successful ‘We Are The World’. George Martin was an inspired choice of producer for The Heart Of The Matter album, which led to two singles that topped the US country charts, ‘Morning Desire’ and ‘Tomb Of The Unknown Love’. The title track from They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To was the theme song for the Kirk Douglas and Burt Lancaster movie Tough Guys, but overall, Rogers’ services on RCA may have disappointed its management, who had spent $20 million to secure his success. Rogers returned to Reprise but the opening track of his first album, ‘Planet Texas’, sounded like a joke. His son, Kenny Rogers Jnr., sang background vocals on his father’s records and launched his own career in 1989 with the single ‘Take Another Step Closer’.

Rogers now breeds Arabian horses and cattle on his 1, 200-acre farm in Georgia and has homes in Malibu, Bel Air and Beverly Hills. He owns entertainment centres and recording studios and has 200 employees. This is impressive for someone who was described by Rolling Stone as an ‘overweight lightweight’. He says, ‘I’ve never taken my talent that seriously. At one time I had a three-and-a-half octave range and sang the high parts in a jazz group. Now I don’t use it because I don’t have to. If Muhammad Ali can beat anyone without training, why train?’ He now records for his own independent label Dreamcatcher Records, and unexpectedly found himself with a huge hit in 2000. ‘Buy Me A Rose’, featuring both Billy Dean and Alison Krauss on harmony vocals, topped the US country chart.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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