Rogers, Kenny (1938—)
Rogers, Kenny (1938—)
Born in Texas in 1938 and raised in one of the state's poorest Federal Housing projects, the country singer Kenny Rogers grew up to become one of the most recognizable celebrities in the United States. Although variously a television and film actor, photographer, author, and fast food entrepreneur, it is for his music that he has secured a place in popular American culture.
Rogers began his first career, music, in the 1950s when he joined a singing group called the Scholars, who had local hits. He made his first national television appearance in 1958, when a solo hit on a local label, Carlton Records, became popular enough to land him an American Bandstand slot. In the late 1950s, he played bass in a jazz combo called the Bobby Doyle Three, and made one record with them before being given a solo contract with Mercury. The arrangement proved short-lived and commercially fruitless, and when Mercury failed to renew his contract, Rogers joined the folk-pop group the New Christy Minstrels and stayed with them for a year. Together with other members of the group, Rogers left to form the New Edition, with whom he made his first significant national splash. The New Edition performed a mixed bag of styles, but they scored a top ten hit for Reprise in 1968 with the psychedelic "Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." They also had success with Mel Tillis's "Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town," as well as "Reuben James," in which Rogers' country tendencies were becoming apparent. The group parlayed this and a few other minor hits into a prime-time television show in 1972. Rogers left the group in 1974, and the Edition broke up shortly after.
In 1975, Rogers signed with United Artists, and released a number of records, achieving his first major number one smash-hit with "Lucille" in 1977. It was also a big crossover success, peaking at number five on the pop charts. Thus began a run of massive crossover hits, including "The Gambler" in 1978, a song that spawned a series of made-for-television movies starring the singer. In the late 1970s, Rogers teamed up with Dottie West for a series of successful duets, beginning a run of pairings in the early 1980s with such major female stars as Sheena Easton, Kim Carnes, and, memorably, Dolly Parton, with whom he duetted to a number-one smash with the Bee Gees' "Islands in the Stream." He also had a hit with Lionel Richie's "Lady," further blurring the lines between country and pop. Crossover successes like those enjoyed by Rogers and a handful of other artists changed the course of the country music industry. Country artists were no longer satisfied to succeed solely in the country charts, and they began producing music with a sonic quality appropriate for Top 40 radio. The twangy steel guitars and fiddles of the Grand Ole Opry were widely forsaken in favor of the lusher "Nashville" sound as pop success became both desirable and attainable.
In 1983, Rogers signed with RCA records, and though he had several number-one country hits, his crossover appeal was starting to wane. When his contract came up for renewal in 1988, RCA opted out. Though he was no longer as looming a presence on the radio charts, he did appear in several television shows and continued to tour. He invested in the new country music mecca of Branson, Missouri, the Ozark Mountain resort where many older country stars built theaters in which to perform regularly; he also became involved in charity work and published two well-received books of his own photography. He diversified further into the fast food business, lending his name to the Kenny Rogers Roasters franchise, which expanded to hundreds of outlets countrywide.
In 1996, Rogers twice moved into a new spot on the cultural radar. In January that year, his album Vote For Love was the first release on "on Q" records, owned by the QVC cable shopping station. It was, of course, marketed exclusively through QVC, and sold over 100,000 copies in its first month of release. Then, in November, the television comedy Seinfeld produced a classic episode revolving around Kenny Rogers Roasters. This multi-faceted man has continued to release records almost yearly, but outside of his devoted fan base, they have not made much impact. However, through all of his entertainment and business exploits, he has remained a high-profile figure in the landscape of popular culture.
Hume, Martha, and Kenny Rogers. Gambler, Dreamer Lover. New York, New American Library, 1980.