Kenny Rogers, the country singer who made “The Gambler” a hit, was a pioneer in crossing musical genres, and left his indelible mark as one of country’s most authentic storytellers, died on March 20 of natural causes at his home in Sandy Springs, GA. He was 81.
On Roger’s official Twitter, his family said that he died peacefully Friday night under hospice care and surrounded by his loved ones.
In a career spanning nearly 60 years, Rogers, with his smooth, gravelly voice, iconic beard, and that unwavering twinkle in his eye, was a pure storyteller, selling more than 120 million records worldwide and topping the charts with 24 number one hits, including “Lady,” “Islands In The Stream,” “Lucille,” and “Through the Years.”
Most notably, Rogers was known for his 1978 hit “The Gambler” and its iconic chorus You gotta know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, know when to run. Rogers later starred as gambler Brady Hawkes in the 1980s television series inspired by the hit.
Earning three Grammy Awards throughout his career, The Country Music Hall of Famer also picked up six CMA awards, in addition to a CMA Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013 and CMT Artist of a Lifetime Award honoree in 2015.
Born August 31, 1938 in Houston, TX, Rogers began his music career in the 1950s as a member of jazz trio The Bobby Doyle Three before cutting his teeth further as a writer, producer, and session musician for various artists. By the mid-60s, Rogers played bass for the folk band The New Christy Minstrels, which later broke off into a country group The First Edition.
After the band eventually parted ways, Rogers went solo releasing his debut Love Lifted Me with United in 1976. He went on to release 27 albums throughout his career, including his final one, 2013’s You Can’t Make Old Friends, featuring a duet with longtime friend, and “Islands In The Stream” partner, Dolly Parton, on the title track.
Known for his seamless country-pop crossover, Rogers’ roots were always country, and he often gave a nod to musical heroes like Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson. Despite straddling various genres, Rogers always considered himself a country music artist.
“You either do what everyone else is doing and you do it better, or you do what no one else is doing and you don’t invite comparison,” Rogers told The Associated Press in 2015 after being honored as a CMT Artist of a Lifetime. “And I chose that way because I could never be better than Johnny Cash or Willie [Nelson] or Waylon [Jennings] at what they did. So I found something that I could do that didn’t invite comparison to them. And I think people thought it was my desire to change country music. But that was never my issue.”
Retiring from touring in 2017 at the age of 79, Rogers turned his focus back to his other love, photography. Mostly drawn to landscapes and celebrity portraits, Rogers was honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the International Photography Hall of Fame in 2017 and received an Honorary Masters of Photography from the Professional Photographers of America in 2014. Throughout the years, Rogers released three photography books, including 1986’s “Kenny Rogers’ America,” “Your Friends and Mine” (1987), and “This Is My Country” (2001), featuring country artists Reba McEntire, Tim McGraw, and Willie Nelson.
Rogers is survived by his wife, Wanda, sons Kenny Jr., Justin, Chris, and Jordan, two brothers, a sister, grandchildren, nieces, nephews, and his millions of fans around the world.
In light of the current COVID-19 emergency, Rogers’ family is planning a small, private service for the singer, according to his representative in a statement, and plan to celebrate the country music superstar with fans at a later date.