And so it came to pass that The Gambler finally broke even. Big-bearded country royalty Kenny Rogers’ most famous song told the tale of a nameless drifter who dishes out words of wisdom on a midnight train bound for nowhere. He tells of a life spent gambling and drinking, but explains that the secret to surviving it all is to treat life like a poker game: “You got to know when to hold them/Know when to fold them/Know when to walk away/Know when to run.” After dishing out his betting-based advice, the gambler quietly drifts off to sleep and dies.
Rogers didn’t write the song – that honour went to a 23-year-old songwriter called Don Schlitz, who penned the tune in 1976 and spent two years trying to get someone to sing it – but Rogers embodied the wise but rebellious spirit of the gambler so perfectly that he ended up portraying him in a series of TV Western films and the larger-than-life character became synonymous with this giant of country music.
It’s a fitting song to honour the life and legacy of Rogers, who has passed away at the age of 81 of and whose death, in many ways, marks the end of an era. One of the best-selling musicians of all time – he released 65 albums and sold in excess of 165 million records – Rogers dominated the charts of the 1970s and 1980s with his friendly, upbeat brand of mainstream country music. His perky, impossible-to-dislike version of ‘Islands in the Stream’, a duet with Dolly Parton, cemented his place in the country history books. Yet he wasn’t always a dyed-in-wool honky-tonk hero.
Born in 1938 in Houston, Texas, Kenny Rogers started making music in the 1950s. As a young man he scored his first hit in 1957 with swooning doo-wop single ‘The Crazy Feeling’, which showed no signs of the country music megastardom which awaited him.
He went on to dabble with jazz, singing harmony and playing bass for singer Bobby Doyle until 1965, then worked as a session musician until he founded folksy rock band The New Edition in 1967. It was then he finally started to find his own sound, drawing on hippy influences and bagging a chart hit in 1968 with a grungy, Western version of the Mickey Newbury-penned ‘Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)’, a song that scored a new lease of life after its far-out groove was featured on the soundtrack for The Big Lebowski.
A year after their breakthrough and the band had changed their name to Kenny Rogers and The First Edition to reflect the star-quality of their big-sunglasses sporting and earring-wearing long-haired frontman. ‘Ruby Don’t Take Your Love To Town’, the haunting but heartfelt pop ballad about a veteran, chimed in the desperate times of the Vietnam War and took the Number One spot in the NME Chart in 1969. Follow-up songs such as the steamy ‘Something’s Burning’ showed a raunchy side to Rogers. His mark on the modern musical landscape had been made, so much so that the band were even given their own blues-rock based musical variety television show. Called Rollin’ on the River, it saw live performances by everyone from Bo Diddley to Ike and Tina Turner.
But the band’s popularity waned. Rogers played with The New Edition until the mid-1970s, when he embarked on what was to be a phenomenally successful solo career. He softened the edges of his sometimes rough sound, scoring his first major hit with the slow-burning singalong ‘Lucille’. A perfect example of country music’s storytelling tradition, it reached Number One in the UK Top 40 and set the wheels in motion for a string of smashes for over a decade, including ‘Coward of the Country’ and team-ups with singer Dottie West for a number of equally popular duets.
The 1980s were marked by a number of high-profile collaborations – from Lionel Richie to Sheena Easton and Dolly Parton – and he continued to make new music into the 2000s as well as tour, most notably playing Glastonbury’s Sunday afternoon legends slot in 2013, during which he played ‘Islands in The Stream’ and ‘The Gambler’ twice because – well, why not, eh?
Rogers officially retired in 2015, but his final show took place in 2017 at Nashville Bridgestone Arena, with a star-studded array of guests that included Kris Kristofferson, The Flaming Lips, Chris Stapleton, Lionel Richie and, naturally, Dolly Parton.
Farewell to a true King of Country. They certainly don’t make them like that any more.