Kenny Rogers, who died yesterday at the age of 81, sold more 120 million records worldwide and his signature look – a neatly trimmed beard, silver hair and flared shirt collars – was part of the brand of one of the most successful singers of the modern era.
I was a genuine fan of country musician Rogers – as much for fine songs such as Sweet Music Man and Love or Something Like It as for his massive hits The Gambler, Lucille and The Coward of the County – and when I interviewed him during his trip to play Glastonbury in 2013, I was struck by his wit and self-deprecation.
I told him that a friend had showed me a website devoted to lookalikes and tribute acts. “Yes, I’ve seen that site, called 'Men Who Look Like Kenny Rogers', and there are some of the ugliest ones I have ever seen,” he said with a laugh. “I think my favourite is ‘Hot Tub Kenny’. Even in the UK, I see lots of men with the white hair and big silver beards.”
Like everything else about this smart operator, the look was not accidental. The man born Kenneth Donald Rogers on 21 August 1938 in Houston, Texas, started out with a pop-folk band called New Christy Minstrels, before getting his commercial break with an eclectic trio called The First Edition. He was a few years older than his new bandmates and decided to model his look after Dan Haggerty, the star of the television show Grizzly Adams. “They were looking for someone younger. I let my hair grow, I grew a beard and put an earring in my ear and wore sunglasses. After that, they wanted me with everything they had,” he recalled
The First Edition had a hit with Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town in 1969, which was mistakenly thought to be about the Vietnam War – Mel Tillis actually wrote it about the Korean conflict of the 1950s – and the hit provided the first big hint that Rogers’s husky tenor voice would have huge appeal to the wider public. He told me one of the strangest moments of his touring life was hearing 100,000 Moroccans join in with a singalong version of Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town in Agadir, when he was performing there when he was in his seventies.
His true burst of success began when he went solo in 1976. Rogers was a master at delivering storytelling songs and his January 1977 song Lucille – about a lovelorn father left with four hungry kids and a crop in the fields – was a global hit, won a Grammy and launched him to superstardom. His mother Lucille heard the song on the radio and rang him to say: “Kenneth Ray, what are you doing? How dare you tell people I had four hungry children.” Rogers said he told her, “First of all, you have eight kids. Secondly, I didn’t write it, and thirdly, it’s not about you.”
Another hit that became part of popular culture was The Gambler, written by Don Schlitz, which was later adopted by the England rugby team in 2007 as their unofficial anthem. Although the lines “you’ve got to know when to hold ’em / know when to fold ’em / know when to walk away / know when to run” were about a card game, Rogers said the song was really about a valuable philosophy of life.
Rogers was self-aware enough to know that people sometimes poked fun at him because of his image. In 1991, he opened a chain of chicken-based restaurants. Five years later, there was an episode of Seinfeld called ‘The Chicken Roaster’, in which a giant neon chicken from a Kenny Rogers ROASTERS restaurant played havoc with the sleep patterns of the residents living opposite.
What did he make of Seinfeld’s gentle mockery? “I thought it was really funny,” Rogers told me. “Jerry opened for me when I was touring and he was just starting out. He is one of those people who is funny without trying. He was young and didn't realise that he wouldn't be travelling with our tour bus. That was a situation he worked into Seinfeld, too.”
Rogers had a huge appeal to Middle America and in the late 1970s, he was the consecutive winner of the People’s Choice Award as the top male singer – which was voted for by the public through a Gallup poll. Although he was a country musician, the production style on many of his songs was Los Angeles pop (such as his version of Lionel Ritchie’s Lady) and Rogers was only belatedly inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013. That was 30 years after his hit duet with Dolly Parton on Islands in the Stream, which took its title from an Ernest Hemingway novel. “Everybody always thought we were having an affair, but Dolly and I just teased each other and flirted for decades,” he said.
The musician who made more than £130 million from his records was always modest, describing himself as “basically a country singer who’s capable of doing other things”. In fact, his achievements – leaving aside the dubious distinction of having five wives – were remarkable.
He was pleased when I asked him about his tennis career. He didn’t begin playing until he was 35 and then became obsessed, practising eight hours a day, always doubles. He played semi-professionally, including a match against Wimbledon finalist Chris Lewis and US Open finalist Van Winitsky. “In 1979 I had a ranking on the ATP tour and played two pro tournaments,” he said. “Believe it or not I was actually ranked ahead of Björn Borg in doubles when he was number one in the world in the singles rankings. He had played only one doubles tournament, it's true, but even so.” Even so, indeed. A knee injury forced him to stop playing in his seventies.
He also appeared in a television movie (based on The Gambler) and starred in an off-Broadway musical called The Toy Shoppe. He co-wrote a novel called What Are the Chances and wrote several short stories. He was a talented photographer and took a portrait of then-First Lady Hillary Clinton at the White House and he was awarded an honorary masters of photography from the Professional Photographers of America.
For all his off-stage talents, it was the indelible mark he left on the history of American music that will remain his greatest legacy.