Our October spotlight artist has had a career spanning more than fifty years and has enjoyed tremendous success in a variety of musical genres. Kenneth Ray Rogers was born on August 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas. His recording career dates back to the 1950s. After enjoying a minor hit in 1957 with “That Crazy Feeling” he joined a jazz group called The Bobby Doyle Three. After the group disbanded in 1965 he had a brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels. A year later, he and some of his bandmates formed a new group, Kenny Rogers and The First Edition. Marketed primarily as a rock group, The First Edition dabbled in a variety of styles, including psychedelic pop, folk, and R&B. In 1969 the group enjoyed a Top 40 country hit with the Mel Tillis-penned “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love to Town”. Although it was only a modest success on the country charts, it reached the Top 10 on both the pop and adult contemporary charts.
After The First Edition disbanded, Rogers reinvented himself as a country artist, signing a solo deal with United Artists Records 1n 1975. His first single for the label, “Love Lifted Me” reached the Top 20 on the country charts. Two more minor hits followed, and in 1977 he enjoyed his breakthrough hit “Lucille”, a story song about an aborted one-night stand that occurs shortly after the narrator witnesses the breakup of his partner’s marriage in a bar. It reached #1 on the country charts and #5 on the Billboard Hot 100 and enjoyed international success as well. For the rest of the 1970s and well into the 1980s, Kenny Rogers was country music’s best selling artist. Most of his records enjoyed success on both the pop and country charts.
He recorded a number of hit duets with United Artists labelmate Dottie West in the late 1970s, beginning with 1978’s “Every Time Two Fools Collide”. The exposure not only revived West’s solo career; it took it to new heights. In 1980 she enjoyed her first solo #1 hit, twenty years into her recording career.
Also in 1978, Rogers released the song with which he is most closely identified today: “The Gambler”, which led to a number of made-for-TV movies with Rogers in the starring role. In 1980 he teamed up with Lionel Richie, who wrote and produced “Lady”, Rogers’ only solo record to top the Billboard Hot 100.
United Artists was sold to EMI in 1978 and was renamed Liberty Records in 1980. Rogers remained with the label until 1983, when he signed a $20 million deal with RCA (a huge sum in those days). His last #1 hit for Liberty was a remake of Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” performed as a duet with Scottish singer Sheena Easton. After signing with RCA, Rogers teamed up with Barry Gibb, who produced and wrote most of the material for Eyes That See In The Dark,
the debut album for his new label. The first single from that project was “Islands in the Stream”, which found Kenny collaborating for the first time with Dolly Parton. Although country in name and marketing only, the tune quickly topped the country charts and reached the top of the Hot 100 as well, marking the second and last time that either artist would top that chart. It went on to become a global hit.
At the same time, Liberty Records was still releasing Kenny Rogers singles, and “Scarlet Fever”, his final release for his former label, became a #5 country hit at the same time “Islands in the Stream” was climbing the charts. Rogers remained with RCA through the end of the decade. During his tenure with the label, his music became more adult-contemporary oriented while the rest of country music went in the opposite direction when the New Traditionalist movement got underway. In 1989, Kenny moved to Reprise Records (his label during his First Edition days), and his chart success began to become less consistent.
The 1990s marked the beginning of a long dry spell. He left Warner/Reprise and eventually started his own label Dreamcatcher. In 1999 he enjoyed a surprise late-career hit when “The Greatest”, a tune about a young boy dreaming of becoming a professional baseball player, reached #26 on the country charts. Many regarded the surprise hit as an outlier, but country music had not yet heard the last of Kenny Rogers. He enjoyed another unexpected hit in 1999 when “Buy Me a Rose” went to #1, making the 61-year-old Kenny Rogers the oldest artist to ever top the Billboard country chart. The record was broken a few years later when 69-year-old Willie Nelson topped the chart with his Toby Keith duet “Beer For My Horses”.
The success of “Buy Me a Rose” was enough to make the major labels take another look at Kenny Rogers. He released “Water & Bridges” for Capitol in 2006 and You Can’t Make Old Friends for Warner Bros in 2013. The title track of the latter paired him up once again with Dolly Parton. That same year he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Two years later he announced his retirement and embarked on a farewell tour that is scheduled to conclude in Nashville at the end of this month.
Critics have often derided Kenny Rogers as not authentically country, and there is no doubt that because he tried to maintain a presence on both the pop and country charts, not all of his music will appeal to everyone. That being said, there is no denying his contributions to and impact on the country genre. We can’t possibly do justice to a 50-year career in just one month, so we’ll be focusing mainly on his country successes of the 1970s and 1980s.
One of the true superstars of country music. Although some of his music was admittedly more pop sounding than country at times he brought millions of new fans to the genre. He is an engaging onstage entertainer with a superb well-paced show. Best of all he never took himself too seriously. He exhibits a Burt Reynolds style sense of humor in that he often pokes fun at himself. Off stage I found him to be very friendly, approachable and down-to-earth considering what a huge star he was at that time. But he never seemed to get caught up in being “a star.”
A couple of additions to Kenny’s discography:
Kenny’s first recordings date to 1956 as a member of the Texas group The Scholars, He sang back-up & played guitar before embarking on his first solo career. That group did issue several singles.
The First Edition’s first seven singles and two albums did not include Kenny’s name. The band became “Kenny Rogers And The First Edition” with the release of their eighth single and third album both titled “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” The band left Reprise in 1972 and the following year Kenny formed his own record label “Jolly Rogers Records” that was distributed by MGM. That imprint issued three LP’s and five singles including the group’s version of Merle Haggard’s “Today I Started Loving You Again” that briefly charted in Billboard in mid-1973. The group finally came to an end in late 1975 when Kenny began his solo career on United Artists records as Razor indicated above.
My memory is that “Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town” by Kenny & The First Edition was actually a bigger record with country fans than the Billboard chart indicates Although it met resistance from some country stations that viewed the group just as a pop/rock act, the record did receive substantial airplay on many country stations – perhaps better reflected by the Cashbox country chart where it climbed to #5. [Billboard’s peak was #39] Some Billboard monitored country stations may also have resisted the record as the hit version of the song by Johnny Darrell [#9] just two years earlier was still spinning regularly on most country stations. However that song was unfamiliar to most pop listeners and the continuing Vietnam War made the lyrics even more relevant. The record exploded at pop radio and that new popularity spilled over to country fans that also requested to hear the new Kenny Rogers version.
Per his website, Rogers will continue to tour after the Nashville concert through mid-December, with additional dates in the Mid-West and then the PA, Upstate NY, NJ, CT region with some Christmas-themed shows. I’ve never seen him in person, so I may just take advantage of the opportunity. (I’m guessing that the Christmas songs are only a part of the show.)
Both WCMS and WHOO played the Johnny Darrell version as an oldie. It was far and away the most believable version of the song. County cover bands sometimes sang the bit about war as “that crazy Korean War” which actually sounds better than the verse Mel Tillis wrote.
Never heard “Ruby” performed without the line “crazy Asian War” although Mel Tillis said one version recorded by a group in Ireland amended that line to “Irish War.” For many years there was a false narrative about that song claiming that it was written about a Korean War vet. But Mel Tillis set the record straight in his book stating that he based the story on a wounded World War II veteran that lived nearby. That man had a wife like “Ruby” in the song and Mel had great sympathy for her as the man was very abusive to her. Written in 1966 Mel used the “Asian War” line rather than World War II to place the story into a contemporary setting although he did not intend it as a political song about Vietnam. Mel was first to release it albeit as an LP track. In addition to the Johnny Darrell recording there were also excellent early versions by Waylon Jennings & Roger Miller. Many others followed and Mel said that royalties from that song paid his grocery bills for 15 years.
I liked the Johnny Darrell recording just as well as the Kenny Rogers version. Different treatments and arrangements but both quite effective. I especially love the excellent harmony used on the line “Ruby” in Kenny’s version followed by a brief pause before “don’t take your love to town.” Jimmy Bowen was the producer and Glen D Hardin did the arrangement.
Here’s a clip from the Johnny Cash Show that aired August 16, 1969 as the record was peaking in the charts. Sounds to me that they sang live over the recorded backing track.
Love Kenny Rogers and I’ve been listening to his music for many years I’ll really enjoy this spotlight.