Over the course of his six-decade career, Kenny Rogers established himself as one of the best-selling artists of all time, selling 120 million albums worldwide, releasing hit songs in each of the past seven decades and winning three Grammy awards. From jazz to folk to pop-rock and, of course, country, his career spanned a variety of genres.
He passed away this year at the age of 81, but through his expansive entertainment career, he left an indelible mark on American music.
Listen: Ann Delisi remembers country superstar Kenny Rogers.
Rogers was born to a poor family in Houston, Texas in 1938. He explains that while the family didn’t have much, they were a happy family. His mother once told him that if he did something he loved, he would never work a day in his life – so that’s exactly what he did.
In the late 1950s, Rogers began his recording career with the Houston-based group The Scholars. He then dappled with solo releases before joining a group with the jazz singer and pianist Bobby Doyle. Doyle introduced Rogers to an array of genres beyond country which would influence his style throughout his career.
Rogers ended up in a band called The First Edition from 1967 to 1976. It was with this band that he had his first hit with the song “Just Dropped In To See What Condition My Condition Was In.” In it, he sounds nothing like the recognizable voice the nation would come to know as a country music superstar.
His road to country music stardom, however, was not easy. He didn’t fit the traditional mold of “country star.” “They said ‘you’re too pop, you’re too old, you have a beard, you have long hair, and it’s not gonna happen,” remembers Rogers.
Despite not fitting the mold, Rogers persevered and went on to have a stunning solo career. As a solo artist, Rogers would go on to record songs that became crossover hits. One of his biggest songs, “Lady,” was written by Lionel Richie.
In addition to a thriving music career, Rogers had acting roles in 11 movies and on television shows from 1972 to 2009 and fostered a deep love of photography. In 1998, he released a book of celebrity portraits he’d taken called Your Friends and Mine.
His dedication to his music and busy career did not come without a cost. His personal relationships suffered a significant toll; he was married 5 times.
In 2017, Rogers announced his retirement from music. In a statement at the time, he said “I’ve done everything I set out to do. Every goal I’ve set, I’ve done that, and there’s a point where you have to say ‘I’ve had my turn. Let someone else have it.”
Kenny Rogers passed away of natural causes at the age of 81 on March 20, 2020.