Chart-topping 1983 duet Islands in the Stream is so beloved the world over – particularly by inebriated karaoke participants – that it’s hard to picture the late, great silver fox Kenny Rogers without his regular singing and touring partner, Dolly Parton.
As iconic as their pairing may have been, Dolly wasn’t the only musical royalty that came into Kenny’s orbit during his long and illustrious career.
From a King to a Prince, here are the other music legends that in an alternate universe might have replaced Dolly Parton in the coveted role of go-to duet partner…
Kenny & Jimi
Long before he was a purveyor of AM radio-dominating country-lite, Kenny Rogers was a member of country-folk act The First Edition. A decision to ride the ’60s counterculture wave by recording the psychedelic single Just Checked In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) in 1967 – actually an anti-drug song that Jerry Lee Lewis first recorded for an album the very same year – changed Rogers’ fortunes forever.
A song that’s now synonymous with The Dude’s trippy bowling alley dream sequence in the Coen Brothers’ The Big Lebowski, Just Checked In was a big enough hit that the band rebranded as “Kenny Rogers and the First Edition” after Kenny was promoted to lead singer.
As Rogers recounted to music writer Rob Tannenbaum in 2000, the song also had a pretty big fan in the form of the world’s most famous left-handed guitarist. “Sitting at the bar was Jimi Hendrix. I talked to him between shows,” said Kenny about a gig he played in the late-’60s. “He said Just Dropped In was his favourite song of all time. I thought that was pretty cool.”
Yes, Kenny. It is pretty cool.
Kenny & Elvis
Kenny Rogers and the First Edition found themselves playing shows at a Las Vegas hotel in the mid-’70s at the exact same time as Elvis Presley, with each artist checking out the others’ shows. Kenny and the King buddied up pretty quickly, with Elvis giving Rogers shout-outs from the stage each night.
“I’d go sit in his audience, and he’d introduce me in the middle of the show: ‘Hey, say hello to my friend, Kenny Rogers,’” Kenny told Tannenbaum. “I’d go every night, just to be introduced!”
Elvis’ Kenny love was fully revealed when Rogers found himself on a plane with Ginger Alden, Elvis’ girlfriend before he died, sometime in the ’70s. “She said that Elvis’ favourite song of all time was a song I wrote called Sweet Music Man,” Rogers told the Daily Journal in 2006. “She said he used to sing it all the time backstage and play with it. I thought that was very cool.”
Yes, Kenny. It is very cool.
Kenny & Prince
Not content with simply cosying up to the King, Prince fan Kenny reached out to the Purple One in the mid-’80s via a mutual friend hoping that the two could collaborate. (The fact there’s someone out there in the world who counted both Kenny Rogers and Prince as friends is mind-blowing in and of itself.)
No stranger to writing songs for other artists and often using kooky pseudonyms like “Jamie Starr” and “Alexander Nevermind”, Prince created the persona of “Joey Coco” to write You’re My Love for Rogers, a song that appeared on his 1986 album They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To.
“When he sent the song to me, if I remember right, it was him playing all of the instruments on it and he had his background vocals on it,” Rogers once wrote on his official Facebook page. “Unfortunately on the finished record, somehow my producer didn’t end up using the music or vocals (the song was re-cut). It was such an incredible thing that Prince took the time to do that for me.”
Yes, Kenny. It is incredible.
Kenny & Lionel
In a decision they are likely still kicking themselves over, funk-soul band the Commodores rejected the song Lady when group member Lionel Richie presented it to them in 1980.
Knowing a hit record when he heard one, Kenny Rogers recorded the track himself, Lady going on to become an absolute smash and the first record of the ’80s to chart on all four of Billboard’s singles charts – country, Hot 100, adult contemporary and Top Soul Singles.
Richie went on to produce Rogers’ hit 1981 album Share Your Love, the pair developing a strong friendship that lasted up until Kenny’s death on March 20 of this year.
Rogers and Richie were so tight, in fact, that they even vacationed together once in the early-’80s on a sailing trip in the Bahamas. According to Richie, though, it was a far from relaxing experience.
“We’re falling into swells. The first thing [Rogers] said was, ‘There’s a storm coming.’ All the ships are coming in. Kenny casts off. We are going out to sea,” Richie told TV talk show host Jimmy Kimmel in 2018. “Now, what happens? The Coast Guard shows up. Why? ’Cause the only damn fools in the whole world are drug dealers, trying to go out across [the ocean], and of course they board the boat.”
A wild storm in the Bahamas where the Coast Guard board a boat they believe to be ferrying drugs, only to find pure, uncut Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie aboard? Turn this into an action movie immediately, Hollywood.
Kenny & Barry
A master of picking up songs that other artists had rejected and turning them into mega-hits, Kenny swooped in to record the Bee Gees-penned Islands in the Stream in 1983 after Marvin Gaye decided it wasn’t quite his cup of tea.
Bee Gee Barry Gibb must’ve taken a shine to Kenny since he insisted the pair record an entire album together, the result being nonsensically titled ’83 LP Eyes That See in the Dark.
“It was hard for me because Barry writes very melody-specific songs,” Kenny told music writer Bill DeYoung in 1998. “I think it’s a great album, but there’s very little of me in there. I sound like a deep-throated Bee Gee – and that’s not necessarily bad, just me tempering my sound to their sound, as opposed to him producing me to get the most out of me.”
Thank you, Barry Gibb, for being a pushy bastard and delivering us the greatest karaoke duet song of all time.
Kenny Rogers: Biography is now streaming at SBS On Demand: