Born Kenneth Ray Rogers on August 21, 1938, in Houston, TX; son of Edward Floyd (a carpenter) and Lucille (Hester) Rogers; married first wife, Janice Gordon, 1958 (divorced 1960); married second wife, Jean, 1960 (divorced 1963); married third wife, Margo Anderson, 1964 (divorced 1976); married fourth wife, Marianne Gordon (an actress), October 2, 1977 (divorced 1993); married fifth wife, Wanda Miller (a waitress), 1997; children: five. Addresses: Record company--Dreamcatcher Entertainment, 2910 Poston Ave., Nashville, TN 37203, phone: (615) 329-2303. Management--Kragen & Co., 1112 North Sherbourne Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90069. Website--Kenny Rogers Official Website: http://www.kennyrogers.com.
Kenny Rogers has been described in McCall's as "the silver-haired singer with the voice that's turned dozens of songs to gold." Rogers, an astute 50-year veteran of the music business, is a rarity, indeed: he's a crossover artist who moved from pop to country, rather than vice versa. His story ballads and love songs have found a wide mainstream audience and have been phenomenal successes, earning him 11 platinum and 18 gold albums in a ten-year span.
"There are many flashes in the pan in popular music, people who have a hit record or two and then disappear from the spotlight," observed Gene Busnar in Superstars of Country Music. "But Kenny Rogers, who had his first hit as a teenager, worked hard and kept at it for twenty years before reaching true superstardom. In that time, he played in jazz combos, folk singing groups, and rock bands. ... [He] kept growing and changing with the times until he finally carved out a permanent spot as a superstar."
Pioneer of Country Music
Few would argue that Rogers is one of the best-known singers in America, but his contribution to his industry is more substantial than mere personal popularity. Rogers is a pioneer of mainstream country music---a style that appeals to a far wider group than that of standard country fans. He told the Chicago Tribune that he views his fusion of rock, folk, pop, and country as a positive force that has "brought a lot of people into the fold who wouldn't have listened to country music otherwise. It used to be you either liked country music or you didn't, because it all sounded alike. Now it's no longer one-dimensional, and I think that's great."
Kenneth Ray Rogers was born and raised in Houston, Texas, one of seven siblings. He grew up in a federal housing project that he has described in People magazine as "a tenement." The Rogers family was very poor, and Rogers's father had a drinking problem, but still Kenny remembers his family fondly. By ninth grade the young Rogers had decided to become a professional musician. He bought himself a guitar with money earned as a restaurant busboy, and formed a band, The Scholars, with several friends from school. Thanks to his brother Lelan, who worked for a Houston record distributor, The Scholars actually got to record some music. A few of their songs became regional hits, and the band earned money doing live performances.
In 1957 Rogers recorded several solo singles, and one of them, "That Crazy Feeling," became a million-selling hit. Rogers appeared on "American Bandstand" and became prematurely convinced that he was headed for permanent stardom. Many lean years lay ahead of him, however. Lacking a good song to follow his first success, and with no professional band to back him, Rogers could not duplicate his first hit. Instead, he went to college for a term and then joined a jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Trio. The trio attracted the attention of Kirby Stone, a star of that era. Stone invited the group to tour with him, and under that tutelage, Rogers learned how to conduct himself in the music business.
In 1966 Rogers was playing with a jazz combo called the Lively Ones when Stone's manager offered him a position with the New Christy Minstrels. The Minstrels were a pop-folk group that had had several hits and were planning a national tour. Rogers joined the group even though he had to take a cut in pay. He thought the national exposure would advance his career. According to Busnar, the Minstrels "were making a nice living playing the safe kind of folk music that much of Middle America still wanted to hear. But Kenny and some of his cohorts wanted to become part of the more exciting and potentially more rewarding new folk rock."
Formed First Edition
Rogers and three associates left the Minstrels in 1967 to form their own group, the First Edition. Adopting the long-haired look of the times, the band released folk songs with rock overtones, and within six months they had a hit, "Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." The First Edition had to wait two years for another hit, but when it came, it was a major one. With Rogers singing lead, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town" topped the 1969 charts. That same year the group changed its name to "Kenny Rogers and the First Edition," recognizing that the charming but driven lead singer was the main attraction.
The First Edition fell into a slump in the mid-1970s, finally disbanding in debt in 1976. Rogers described that period as the low point of his career. "For five or six months I just sat around and thought," he told People. He also said that he came to realize that "there's a new hit rock group or singer every five minutes, but with country music, you have one hit and those people love you forever." Rogers headed for Nashville, changed his stage image, and began recording country music. "Emotionally," he said, "it was like coming home."
In 1977 he had four top-ten country hits and one crossover million-seller, the mock-tragic "Lucille," about a broken marriage. "Lucille" won numerous awards for Rogers, including a Grammy and citations from both the Academy of Country Music and the Country Music Association. "For Kenny Rogers and his manager Ken Kragen," wrote Busnar, "it was only the beginning." Rogers promoted himself tirelessly and carefully, with an eye on his business affairs and an ear on potential recording material.
Before long Rogers was churning out a string of platinum albums and top-ten singles that rode both the country and pop charts. These included story ballads such as "The Gambler" and "The Coward of the County," the love songs "Lady," "You Decorated My Life," and "She Believes in Me," and the duet "Islands in the Stream." By 1980 Rogers was one of the best-paid performers in the country, and he and his fourth wife Marianne Gordon were breaking records with extravagant expenditures on homes in Los Angeles and Georgia.
Some of his story songs were so popular that they were expanded into television movies in which Rogers played the main character. In 1980 Rogers starred in The Gambler, as gambler Brady Hawkes. He followed that up in 1981, starring as Uncle Matthew in Coward of the County. The Gambler spawned multiple "Gambler" sequels. Rogers also had roles in numerous television shows and movies, most often playing a western-type character who can sing. In addition, he appeared on television talk shows and music specials.
Rogers also capitalized on the success of the "Gambler" song and subsequent movies by opening an online casino. Legal issues did not allow gambling for United States residents, but was available in most other places throughout the world.
Continued to Reinvent Himself
Despite his success, Rogers retained an element of insecurity, based on his poverty-stricken youth and his financially lean years as an adult, but the insecurity had its positive repercussions. Rogers, never content with a comfortable niche, continued to experiment with other performance options. With his rugged features and characteristic growling voice, Rogers found film roles in both features and made-for-TV vehicles, some of which were based on his story songs. He also entered the competitive daytime talk-variety show market with a syndicated program for television. Rogers told McCall's that "a lot of people in this business devote ninety-five percent of their lives to music. When the music goes, there goes ninety-five percent of their lives. I can express my creativity in different ways." Rogers insisted he did not plan to give up singing, and that he was simply engaged in diversifying his talents through acting, hosting television, photography, and writing.
Not every critic has been charitable about Rogers's music. Esquire reviewer Mark Jacobson contended that Rogers "can barely sing. His middle range isn't that awful. ... But down low he croaks bad. Upward, he's so pinched as to recall a trapped, furry thing. For a country artist, he is without down-homeness; as a rocker, he ignites nothing." But New York Daily News contributor William Carlton offered a different view of the popular entertainer. According to Carlton, Rogers "sings in a warm, supple, romantic, tender voice with a surprisingly wide range. His story songs are always fresh, tasteful, honest and intelligent, well-crafted and interesting. The man and his music are as welcome as old friends and family."
Rogers has admitted that his early quest for success ruined his first three marriages and alienated him from his oldest two children. He has sought to make amends by spending more time with his families. Still, Rogers has remained intense about his career and almost single-minded in his pursuit of prestige. His manager Ken Kragen told McCall's: "Part of Kenny never really slows down. He wears out the people who travel with him."
The years gave Rogers a perspective on success, however. He told McCall's that "being onstage, getting immediate feedback from an audience, is absolutely addictive. It's worse than heroin. I'm lucky because other things in my life give me the same sort of high." In People Rogers declared, "I'm enjoying my rise from the ashes. I just hope I can spread some of the happiness that's been coming my way."
Rogers's drive for success continued, and in between performing and recording, he found time to open a restaurant chain. Kenny Rogers Roasters was a rotisserie chicken operation that opened in 1991. The restaurant franchise was a success, and was later featured on an episode of the popular television sitcom Seinfeld.The company was later bought out by Nathan's Famous, Inc., in 1998.
Rogers's personal life seemed to be a constant struggle. In 1993 he divorced his fourth wife, Marianne Gordon. In 1997 he married Wanda Miller, and they welcomed twin boys, Justin Charles and Jordan Edward, on July 6, 2004.
In 1998 he established his own record label, Dreamcatcher Entertainment. The soundtrack for the theater musical Christmas From the Heart was Dreamcatcher's first release. He released his 59th album, She Rides Wild Horses, in 1999, with a surprise hit single, "The Greatest," about a boy who loves to play baseball. In 2000 he had a top 40 hit with "Buy Me A Rose."
Rogers's long musical career has enabled him to continually reinvent himself over the years. He has explored new avenues while somehow remaining the same Kenny Rogers that draws a crowd. As a staple in the business, no one expects him to leave the music scene any time soon.
by Anne Janette Johnson and Sarah Parkin
Kenny Rogers's Career
Pop-rock singer, 1957-76; country-pop singer, 1976--. Formed group The Scholars, 1957; member of the Bobby Doyle Trio, 1959-66; member of the New Christy Minstrels, 1966-67; founding member (with Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Camacho) of the First Edition, 1967; name changed to Kenny Rogers and the First Edition, 1969-76; began as a solo artist, 1976; starred in TV movie "The Gambler," 1980; starred in TV movie "Coward of the County," 1981; made numerous TV movie sequels; signed with RCA, 1983; participated in "We Are the World," 1985; published photography book Kenny Roger's America, 1986; published photography book, Your Friends and Mine, 1987; signed with Reprise label, 1988; developed Kenny Rogers Roasters chicken restaurants, 1991; established his own record label, Dreamcatcher, in 1998.
Kenny Rogers's Awards
Numerous awards, including Grammy Awards, 1977, 1979, 1987; Country Music Association Awards, 1978, 1979; Academy of Country Music Awards, 1977, 1978, 1983; American Music Awards, yearly from 1978-85; Billboard magazine, 1977; People magazine, 1979, 1980; American Society of Composers, Authors, and Musicians (ASCAP), 1983; United Nations Peace Award, 1984; Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA), Most Awarded Artist Award, 1984; Roy Acuff Award, 1985; TNN Music Award for Career Achievement, 2000.
- Selected discography
- Solo albums
- Love Lifted Me United Artists, 1976.
- Lucille United Artists, 1977.
- Daytime Friends United Artists, 1977.
- Ten Years of Gold United Artists, 1977; reissued, 1986.
- (With Dottie West) Every Time Two Fools Collide United Artists, 1978.
- Love or Something Like It United Artists, 1978.
- Convoy (soundtrack), United Artists, 1978.
- The Gambler United Artists, 1978.
- (With West) Classics United Artists, 1979.
- Kenny United Artists, 1979.
- Singles Album United Artists, 1979.
- Shine Out Radar, 1980.
- Gideon United Artists, 1980.
- Kenny Rogers's Greatest Hits Liberty, 1980.
- Share Your Love Liberty, 1981.
- Lady Liberty, 1981.
- Kenny Rogers Christmas Liberty, 1982.
- Love Will Turn You Around Liberty, 1982.
- We've Got Tonight Liberty, 1983.
- Eyes That See in the Dark RCA, 1983.
- The Best of Kenny Rogers Breakaway, 1984.
- (With West) Something's Burning MCA, 1984.
- What About Me? RCA, 1984.
- Heart of the Matter RCA, 1984.
- Love Is What We Make It Liberty, 1985.
- They Don't Make Them Like They Used To RCA, 1986.
- Short Stories Liberty, 1986.
- I Prefer the Moonlight RCA, 1987.
- Christmas in America Reprise, 1989.
- Yes, No, Maybe Cypress, 1989.
- Something Inside So Strong Reprise, 1991.
- Love is Strange Reprise, 1990.
- Back Home Again Reprise, 1991.
- Lucille Special Music, 1992.
- If Only My Heart Had Voice Warner Bros., 1993.
- Timepiece 143/Atlantic, 1994.
- Country Songs MCA, 1995.
- Pieces of Calico Silver MCA, 1995.
- The Gift Magnatone, 1996.
- Across my Heart Magnatone, 1996.
- Branson City Limits (Live) Unison, 1998.
- Christmas from the Heart Dreamcatcher, 1998.
- She Rides Wild Horses Dreamcatcher, 1999.
- Christmas Greetings Capitol, 2000.
- X-mas Disky, 2000.
- There You Go Again Dreamcatcher, 2000.
- The Way It Used to Be Direct Source, 2001.
- A&E Live By Request Dreamcatcher, 2001.
- Sing You a Sad Song TKO Magnum, 2001.
- Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town Prestige Elite, 2002.
- The Best of Kenny Rogers, Vol. 2 Bellaphon, 2003.
- Back to the Well Dreamcatcher, 2003.
- Christmas with Kenny Rio Creek, 2004.
- With the First Edition
- The First Edition Reprise, 1968.
- The First Edition's Second Reprise, 1968.
- First Edition 1969 Reprise, 1969.
- Ruby Don't Take Your Love to Town Reprise, 1969.
- Something's Burning Reprise, 1970.
- Tell It All, Brother Reprise, 1970.
- Fools Reprise, 1971.
- Kenny Rogers and the First Edition's Greatest Hits Reprise, 1971.
- Transition Reprise, 1971.
- The Ballad of Callico Reprise, 1972.
- Back Roads Jolly Rogers, 1972.
- Monumental Jolly Rogers, 1973.
- Rollin' Jolly Rogers, 1973.
- Hits and Pieces MCA, 1985.
- 60s Revisited MCA, 1985.
- (With the New Editions) 15 Greatest Hits MCA, 1987.
- Busnar, Gene, Superstars of Country Music, J. Messner, 1984.
- America's Intelligence Wire, June 25, 2004.
- Billboard, February 27, 1999; May 6, 2000.
- Chicago Tribune, August 12, 1979.
- Country Music, October 1977.
- Daily News (New York, NY), March 26, 1979.
- Esquire, March 1986.
- McCall's, November 1988.
- People, January 9, 1978; December 10, 1979; March 29, 1982.
- PR Newswire, May 4, 1998; February 22, 2005.
- Stereo Review, April 1980.
- "Kenny Rogers: Biography," Country Music Television, http://www.cmt.com/artists/az/rogers_kenny/bio.jhtml (June 17, 2005).
- Kenny Rogers Official Website, http://www.kennyrogers.com (June 17, 2005).