Kenny Rogers, the giant of country who gambled with genres and won
Fame didn't come easy, but he became a fount of hit-making gold that transcended musical boundaries
Kenny Rogers, who has died at the age of 81, was the grizzled king of easy-going country and western music, a gravel-voiced charm merchant who spoke of real things with just a hint of cheese; he sold more than 150 million records, and among his Top 40 singles, of which there were almost 70, are the all-time classic jukebox favourites, Lucille, Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town, The Gambler, Coward of the County and, with Dolly Parton, Islands in the Stream.
Success did not come easy. When Rogers’s group First Edition split up and he went solo in 1976, the United Artists producer Larry Butler was advised by several colleagues not to sign him, as he was widely seen as a has-been. Butler ignored them but their first collaboration, Love Lifted Me, was only a moderate hit. The following year, however, Lucille, written by Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, taken from his second album with Butler, Kenny Rogers, made the difference. No 1 in 12 countries, it sold five million copies worldwide and helped push Kenny Rogers to the top of the Billboard country album chart.
The albums kept on coming, The Gambler (1978) and Kenny (1979) being particularly successful. The title track from the first of these, and Coward of the County from the second, were massive smash hits. After signing for the RCA label for a record-breaking $20m advance in 1983, he released Eyes That See in the Dark (1983) from which came Islands in the Stream. The album was produced by Barry Gibb, whose band, the Bee Gees, had written the song, originally intending it to be sung by Diana Ross...