Crossover country superstar Kenny Rogers dies at age 81

Kenny Rogers has died, according to his publicist, Keith Hagan. A statement released by Hagan on Friday evening says the country legend “passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family.” Rogers was 81 years old. 

During his six-decade, genre-hopping career, Rogers released 65 albums and sold more than 165 million records, making him one of the most successful recording artists of all time. A massive crossover star, he not only scored 24 No. 1 hits on the Billboard country chart, but more than 120 hits across various genre charts — including his 1978 signature story song "The Gambler,” which inspired five television movies and was selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress. A Country Music Hall of Fame inductee in 2013, Rogers also won three Grammy Awards, 13 American Music Awards, six Country Music Association Awards, the CMA Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award, and the CMT Artist of a Lifetime Award.

Rogers was born fourth of eight children on Aug. 21, 1938 in Houston, Texas, and he actually launched his music career as a doo-wop artist in 1957 with the minor hit “The Crazy Feeling,” before joining jazz group the Bobby Doyle Three in 1958. Taking yet more eclectic career turns, he then played in folk outfit the New Christy Minstrels in 1961, before founding the First Edition in 1967 and scoring a surprising No. 5 hit with that band’s psych-rock classic "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” After the First Edition, whose sound had become increasingly countrified over the years, disbanded in the mid-‘70s, Rogers continued in that country direction, releasing his moderately successful first solo album, Love Lifted Me, in 1976.

In 1977, Rogers broke through with his first major solo hit, “Lucille,” but it was his sixth studio LP the following year, The Gambler, that finally made him a bona fide superstar. That album went quintuple-platinum on the strength of the ballad “She Believes in Me,” which established his smooth countrypolitan sound, and its title track. Another one of his classic story songs, “Coward of the County,” went to No. 3 on the Billboard Hot 100 and spawned another TV movie starring the affable, raspy Rogers. A feature film starring the singer, Six Pack, followed in 1982.

Rogers’s cross-genre collaborations resulted in some of this biggest hits — notably "Islands in the Stream," duet with Dolly Parton written by the Bee Gees, and the Lionel Richie-penned “Lady,” both of which topped the Billboard Hot 100. A David Foster-produced duet with Scottish pop diva Sheena Easton, a cover of Bob Seger’s "We've Got Tonight,” went to No. 1 on the country chart and No. 6 on the pop chart. Rogers was also one of the 45 superstars recruited by Richie to perform on the USA for Africa charity single “We Are the World” in 1985.

Rogers’s other duet partners during his career included Ronnie Milsap (with whom he won the Best Country Collaboration With Vocals Grammy in 1988 for "Make No Mistake, She's Mine"), Kim Carnes, James Ingram, and Dottie West. He had his final No. 1 country hit, “Buy Me a Rose,” with Billy Dean and Alison Krauss in 1999, though he released a second duet with Parton in 2013, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” that made it to No. 57 on Billboard’s U.S. Country Airplay chart.

Although Rogers’s chart streak didn’t continue throughout the ‘90s and beyond, he maintained a busy recording and touring schedule (he even played with Phish at Bonnaroo in 2012). He also authored the 2012 memoir Luck or Something Like It and 2013 novel What Are the Chances, and launched two businesses, the successful fast-food chicken chain Kenny Rogers Roasters and Sprint car manufacturing firm Gamblers Chassis.

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Kenny Rogers
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: (AUSTRALIA OUT) Photo of Kenny ROGERS (Photo by GAB Archive/Redferns)
UNITED KINGDOM - FEBRUARY 01: TOP OF THE POPS Photo of Kenny ROGERS, Kenny Rogers & The First Edition (Photo by Ron Howard/Redferns)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Kenny Rogers (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
UNSPECIFIED - JANUARY 01: Photo of Kenny Rogers (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)
American musician Kenny Rogers performs at the Rosemont Horizon (later renamed the Allstate Arena), Rosemont, Illinois, May 17, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)
LaToya Jackson. Kenny Rogers and Janet jackson 1985 American Music Awards (Photo by Chris Walter/WireImage)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: Photo of Kenny ROGERS (Photo by Roberta Parkin./Redferns)
UNITED KINGDOM - JANUARY 01: BOURNEMOUTH Photo of Kenny ROGERS (Photo by Harry Herd/Redferns)
LOS ANGELES - JANUARY 28: Musician Kenny Rogers attends the 12th Annual American Music Awards on January 28, 1985 at Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, California. (Photo by Ron Galella, Ltd/WireImage)
Kenny Rogers received the Career Acheivement Award at the 36th Annual Academy of Country Music Awards at the Universal Amphitheatre in Los Angeles, Ca. 5/9/01. Photo by Kevin Winter/Getty Images.
Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers perform their hit duet 'Islands In The Stream' at the CMT's 100 GREATEST DUETS concert. A celebration of the the Top 12 duets in country music history, the concert included live performances by 21 of country music?s biggest artists, including Dolly Parton, Carrie Underwood, Kenny Rogers, Trace Adkins, Terri Clark and more. The two-hour concert will round out a remarkable six-hour special, CMT 100 GREATEST DUETS, which airs on Saturday, September 17. (Photo by Ed Rode/WireImage)
Kenny Rogers, presenter Video of the Year during 2006 CMT Music Awards - Show at Curb Events Center at Belmont University in Nashville, Tennessee, United States. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/FilmMagic)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 07: Kenny Rogers performs at the VAULT Concert Stage during the 2008 CMA Music Festival on June 7, 2008 at LP Field in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Rick Diamond/WireImage)
AUSTRALIA - OCTOBER 24: STATE THEATRE Photo of Kenny ROGERS, Kenny Rogers performing on stage (Photo by Bob King/Redferns)
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - DECEMBER 09: Kenny Rogers performs in concert at Golden Nugget Casino on December 9, 2017 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)
ATLANTIC CITY, NJ - DECEMBER 09: Kenny Rogers and Linda Davis perform in concert at Golden Nugget Casino on December 9, 2017 in Atlantic City, New Jersey. (Photo by Donald Kravitz/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - NOVEMBER 05: Singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers accepts the Legacy Award onstage during 2017 SESAC Nashville Music Awards on November 5, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Michael Loccisano/Getty Images for SESAC)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 24: Kenny Rogers is inducted into the Nashville Music City Walk of Fame on October 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 24: Kenny Rogers is inducted into the Nashville Music City Walk of Fame on October 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 24: Kenny Rogers is inducted into the Nashville Music City Walk of Fame on October 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - OCTOBER 24: Kenny Rogers poses with wife Wanda Rogers (L),Joe Bonsall, Duane Allen, William Lee Golden and Richard Sterban of The Oakridge Boys, twin sons Justin and Jordan Rogers attend as Kenny Rogers Induction Into The Nashville Music City Walk Of Fame at Nashville Music City Walk of Fame on October 24, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Anna Webber/Getty Images)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers and Linda Davis perform during day 1 of the 2017 CMA Music Festival on June 8, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage)
NASHVILLE, TN - JUNE 08: (EDITORIAL USE ONLY) Singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers performs during day 1 of the 2017 CMA Music Festival on June 8, 2017 in Nashville, Tennessee. (Photo by Terry Wyatt/WireImage)
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Rogers announced his retirement in 2015 and embarked on a farewell tour called “The Gambler's Last Deal.” In a true demonstration of his crossover appeal, one of his final concerts, an all-star tribute at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena on Oct. 25, 2017, featured appearances by the Flaming Lips, Elle King, Idina Menzel, Chris Stapleton, Richie, Parton, and many others. (An A&E special, Biography: Kenny Rogers, featuring footage from that concert, was already scheduled to air next month.) On April 5, 2018, Rogers canceled his remaining tour dates due to “a series of health challenges.”

Rogers is survived by his fifth wife, Wanda Miller, whom he wed in 1997, their twin sons Justin and Jordan, and his three children from previous marriages, Carole, Kennedy, and Christopher. Hagan says Rogers’s family is only planning a small private service right now due to coronavirus concerns, but they plan to organize a larger public memorial to celebrate his life and legacy at a later date.

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