In 2013, no one was as surprised as Kenny Rogers when he was invited to perform at the Glastonbury Festival, decades since he last dominated the music charts. “I’m convinced that all these kids’ parents played my music for them when they were young,” he told The Guardian’s Alexis Petridis. “I think that counts as child abuse.”
Despite his self-deprecation, Rogers’ set attracted thousands of festivalgoers. Thousands gathered once again for Rogers’ 2017 finale, a retirement and tribute show in Nashville called All In With The Gambler. Upon his passing away in March 2020 at the age of 81, A&E Biography gathered footage from the show to pay loving tribute to the late music icon, revealing the hard battles behind the journeyman’s long career.
Rogers’ path to stardom began in the 1950s with several false starts, dabbling in doo wop, jazz and folk before forming The First Edition in 1967. His early genre-hopping proved a strength for the equally adventurous band, especially on their psychedelic-blast of a second single ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’. Unfortunately, the single proved an early peak, and the rest of the band’s run was spent seeking a style that would fit, attempting rock, folk and even a country rock opera, but failing to repeat their success.
The disbandment of First Edition sent Rogers back into the wilderness, feeling like his long fought-for career was all but finished. Dejected, he moved to Nashville in the hopes of rebooting it. Relief came when he met Larry Butler, a record producer who knew the singer could attract a country audience and fought hard to help him.
After two failed solo singles, Butler presented a song he felt was perfect for Rogers: ‘Lucille’. While Rogers considered it a great country song, the record executives thought it was “too country” for him. Nevertheless, Butler persisted with convincing Rogers. As he recounts in the special: “I think it’s an important song for you to do because it will show your audience that you’re serious about country music”. As Butler foresaw, ‘Lucille’ hit the top of the country charts and the top 10 of the US Hot 100, returning Rogers to the spotlight, and finding him a home in country music.
Having peaked early once before, Rogers was determined to find more hits to escape being a one-hit wonder twice over. During that period, struggling songwriter Don Schlitz wrote a song even he felt was flawed, recounting to A&E, “It’s too long; it’s too linear melodically; there’s no love interest”. That song, ‘The Gambler’, was previously recorded by the likes of Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash to no success, but Butler heard a hit for Rogers, telling him, “If you record this, I think you will become The Gambler”. Butler’s prediction came true, becoming Rogers’ next hit, the basis for the Rogers-starring The Gambler TV movie, and a defining song in a long career of hits.
‘The Gambler’ fit Rogers perfectly. As his long-time duet partner and friend Dolly Parton recounts in the special: “He looked like the kind of person that would go to some Western town and just play any card game and win.” But his voice proved to be the winning ingredient in his successful career.
Despite not writing his biggest hits, Rogers’ expressive rasp helped him embody his narrators and sound like a man who had lived his tales and grown hoarse from frequent retellings – perfect for country music’s storytelling tradition. “[Rogers’ voice] tells a compelling story,” writer Robert K Oermann says in the special, “and you hang on to hear what he’s going to sing next”.
Whether singing country, rock or R&B ballads, Rogers’ voice drew out the emotion in a song. It’s a trait that gained many admirers, with his retirement show featuring tributes from famed country trio Lady A (formerly Lady Antebellum), musical theatre star Idina Menzel, and collaborator and R&B legend Lionel Richie. While Rogers has passed, his timeless voice will live on to the enjoyment of all, its dealing never done.
Kenny Rogers: Biography airs on SBS on Friday 17 July at 7:30pm.