Claims to Fame:
- Began his career with the folk-rock group New Edition.
- Was an unprecedented crossover success for a country singer -- scoring six top 10 songs on the Billboard pop charts between 1977 and 1982.
- Has sold over 85 million records.
- Went into the fast-food business with his Kenny Rogers Roasters fried-chicken franchise.
Kenny Rogers came from lower-class roots. He was the first child in his family to graduate high school. Rogers grew up in Houston, Texas, where his family lived in a federal housing project. His father was an alcoholic and an unskilled laborer, who was frequently out of work; his mother was a nurse.
During his school years, Rogers dabbled in music, joining The Scholars; he served as the bass player and sometime vocalist. The group recorded several singles that found local airplay.
After high school, Rogers worked as an office supply salesman until he was fired for keeping odd hours. He played for the jazz-pop group The Bobby Doyle Trio where Rogers made a good living -- earning $700 to $800 a week in the late 1950s. When the group broke up, he joined the folk ensemble The Christy Minstrels.
Rocking Out with First Edition:
After The Christy Minstrels dissolved, Rogers joined First Edition, a group that freely mixed country, folk, and rock-'n'-roll.
Kenny Rogers became the band's breakout star, singing their best known song "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Is In)". The tune turned into a #5 pop hit. While the group initially shared vocals, Rogers soon rose to the role of frontman. With the release of "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," the group was renamed Kenny Rogers and First Edition. When the group broke up in 1967, Rogers went on to pursue a solo career as a country singer.
Going Country with 'Lucille':
After a residency at Las Vegas's Gold Nugget Casino, Kenny Rogers released his self-titled debut in 1976. The single "Lucille" was released the next year and became one of Rogers's most enduring hits. The tune helped prove his country credentials, and was named Single of the Year by the Country Music Association; it peaked at #5 on the pop charts.
In the years to come, Rogers's velvet voice and straightforward delivery were embraced by country and pop audiences alike. Later hits would include "The Gambler" and "Coward of the County." Each were produced by Larry Butler, who was instrumental in crafting Rogers's early sound.
Kenny Rogers Quote on Fame:
"I'm ambitious but success is not what drives me. Happiness drives me. I would've been content being a local musician, I think, playing my music as long as I could make my house payment and my car payment. . . I would've been happy with that."
Going Pop in the 1980s:
In 1980 Kenny Rogers went in an R&B direction by recording Lionel Ritchie's "Lady". He continued in this path by working with Barry Gibb (The Bee Gees) on 1983's The Eyes that See in the Dark, which yielded the #1 hit "Islands in the Stream."
At the same time, his Greatest Hits proved hugely popular -- spending a total 181 weeks on the Billboard album charts.
Falling Out of Favor:
Rogers's crossover sensibility became increasingly out of favor with mainstream country audiences as New Traditionalist artists like Randy Travis and Ricky Van Shelton took over the airwaves
Rogers had his last pop hit in 1997.
Kenny Rogers was a frequent guest host on the Tonight Show. His 1980 TV movie The Gambler was a ratings smash that led to numerous sequels (four and counting). He also starred in the trucker movie Six Pack.
In 1991 Rogers invested in the fast-food chicken outlet Kenny Rogers Roasters; the concern filed for bankruptcy in 1998.
Key Songs by Kenny Rogers:
- "The Gambler"
- "Coward of the County"
- "Love Will Turn You Around"
- "Islands in the Stream"
- "She Believes in Me"
Recommended Kenny Rogers Recordings:
- Greatest Hits (Liberty, 1980): There are numerous Kenny Rogers greatest hits collections, but this one-disc wonder has most of his early hits.
- Through the Years (Capitol/EMI, 1999, box set): This four-disc set features the highlights from the span of Rogers's career. It included everything from early work with The Scholars and New Edition to the classic "The Gambler" and the late-period oddity "Planet Texas."