Kenny Rogers, who brought country music to a pop audience, dies at 81

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Kenny Rogers, who brought country music to a pop audience, dies at 81
Kenny Rogers performs with the rock band Phish at the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., June 10, 2012. Rogers, a prolific singer who played a major role in expanding the audience for country music in the 1970s and ’80s, died on Friday, March 20, at his home in Sandy Springs, Ga. He was 81. Chad Batka/The New York Times.

by Bill Friskics-Warren

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Kenny Rogers, a prolific singer who played a major role in expanding the audience for country music in the 1970s and ’80s, died Friday at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia. He was 81.

His death was announced by his publicist, Keith Hagan. Hagan did not specify the cause but said that Rogers had been in hospice care. Rogers retired from performing for health reasons in 2018.

Singing in a husky voice that exuded sincerity and warmth, Rogers sold well over 100 million records in a career that spanned seven decades. He had 21 No. 1 country hits, including two — “Lady,” written and produced by Lionel Richie, and “Islands in the Stream,” composed by the Bee Gees and performed with Dolly Parton — that reached No. 1 on the pop chart as well.

Rogers placed more than 50 singles in the country Top 40, of which 20 also appeared in the pop Top 40. He was among the first country artists to sell out arenas.

Rogers’ popularity stemmed partly from his genial persona and rugged good looks but also from his ability to inhabit his material, which, he often said, was of two main types: love songs like “You Decorated My Life” and narrative ballads like “The Gambler” and “Lucille.”

“All the songs I record fall into one of two categories, as a rule,” he said in a 2012 interview with NPR. “One is ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear. The other is story songs that have social significance.

“‘Reuben James’ was about a black man who raised a white child,” he continued, referring to a 1969 song that was a Top 40 hit for his group Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. “‘Coward of the County’ was about a rape. ‘Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town’ was about a guy who came home from war.”

Duo recordings were a prominent part of Rogers’ repertoire, accounting for more than a dozen country hits, including eight No. 1 records. Several of them, including “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” a 1980 duet with Kim Carnes, and “We’ve Got Tonight,” a remake of a Bob Seger hit performed with Sheena Easton, were pop successes as well.

Most of Rogers’ material was written by others. Two notable exceptions were “Sweet Music Man,” a Top 10 country single in 1977 written solely by Rogers, and “Love or Something Like It,” a No. 1 country hit the next year, which he wrote with Steve Glassmeyer.

He received many accolades during his career, among them three Grammy Awards and recognition for lifetime achievement from the Country Music Association. In 2013 he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Rogers also had an acting career, most notably a starring role in a series of TV movies based on his signature song, “The Gambler.”

Kenneth Donald Rogers was born Aug. 21, 1938, in Houston. He is survived by his wife of 22 years, Wanda Miller, and their twin sons, Justin and Jordan, as well as a daughter, Carole Billingsley, from his marriage to Janice Gordon, and two other sons, Kenny Jr. (from his marriage to Margo Anderson) and Christopher (from his marriage to Marianne Gordon).

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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