The Gambler, Kenny Rogers, dies at 81

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Kenny Rogers performs at the American Music Awards 1984 / AP file photo, Nick Ut

(AP) — Actor-singer Kenny Rogers, the smooth, Grammy-winning balladeer who spanned jazz, folk, country and pop with such hits as “Lucille,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” and embraced his persona as “The Gambler” on record and on TV, died Friday night. He was 81.

He died at home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, representative Keith Hagan told The Associated Press. He was under hospice care and died of natural causes, Hagan said.

In a private ceremony at the home of the groom, singer-songwriter Kenny Rogers is married to TV actress Marianne Gordon, Oct. 3, 1977 in Los Angeles. Congratulating the couple immediately after the ceremony is the Reverend James Davidson, father of singer John Davidson, who performed the marriage. From left: John Davidson, Glen Campbell, Marianne Gordon, Rogers, and John Denver. (AP Photo)

The Houston-born performer with the husky voice and silver beard sold tens of millions of records, won three Grammys and was the star of TV movies based on “The Gambler” and other songs, making him a superstar in the ‘70s and ’80s. Rogers thrived for some 60 years before retired from touring in 2017 at age 79. Despite his crossover success, he always preferred to be thought of as a country singer.

“You either do what everyone else is doing and you do it better, or you do what no one else is doing and you don’t invite comparison,” Rogers told The Associated Press in 2015. “And I chose that way because I could never be better than Johnny Cash or Willie or Waylon at what they did. So I found something that I could do that didn’t invite comparison to them. And I think people thought it was my desire to change country music. But that was never my issue.”

American singing star Kenny Rogers arrives at London’s Heathrow airport with his two favorite ladies – his bride of a few weeks, television star Marianne Gordon, left, and singer Crystal Gayle – for a concert tour, Nov. 4, 1977. Crystal will be appearing on all dates with Kenny, whose million selling single “Lucille” has just been voted Best Song of the Year at the Country Music Awards in Nashville. (AP Photo/Press Association)

A true rags-to-riches story, Rogers was raised in public housing in Houston Heights with seven siblings. As a 20-year-old, he had a gold single called “That Crazy Feeling,” under the name Kenneth Rogers, but when that early success stalled, he joined a jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Trio, as a standup bass player.

But his breakthrough came when he was asked to join the New Christy Minstrels, a folk group, in 1966. The band reformed as First Edition and scored a pop hit with the psychedelic song, “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Rogers and First Edition mixed country-rock and folk on songs like “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” a story of a Vietnam veteran begging his girlfriend to stay.

Kenny Rogers performs at American Music Awards in Los Angeles, Jan. 16, 1984. (AP Photo/Nick Ut)

After the group broke up in 1974, Rogers started his solo career and found a big hit with the sad country ballad “Lucille,” in 1977, which crossed over to the pop charts and earned Rogers his first Grammy. Suddenly the star, Rogers added hit after hit for more than a decade.

“The Gambler,” the Grammy-winning story song penned by Don Schlitz, came out in 1978 and became his signature song with a signature refrain: “You gotta know when to hold ‘em, know when to fold ’em.” The song spawned a hit TV movie of the same name and several more sequels featuring Rogers as professional gambler Brady Hawkes, and led to a lengthy side career for Rogers as a TV actor and host of several TV specials.

Country singer Kenny Rogers, center, has it all on a roll of the dice as he tosses the ivorys at Regine’s in New York, March 22, 1979. Flanking Rogers are his wife Marianne, right, and Red Buttons, left, at a party following his concert at New York’s Carnegie Hall. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Other hits included “You Decorated My Life,” “Every Time Two Fools Collide” with Dottie West, “Don’t Fall In Love with a Dreamer” with Kim Carnes, and “Coward of the County.” One of his biggest successes was “Lady,” written by Lionel Richie, a chart topper for six weeks straight in 1980. Richie said in a 2017 interview with the AP that he often didn’t finish songs until he had already pitched them, which was the case for “Lady.”

“In the beginning, the song was called, ‘Baby,’” Richie said. “And because when I first sat with him, for the first 30 minutes, all he talked about was he just got married to a real lady. A country guy like him is married to a lady. So, he said, ‘By the way, what’s the name of the song?’” Richie replies: “Lady.”

Country singers Kenny Rogers and Crystal Gayle are shown at the Academy of Country Music Awards, April 28, 1978 in Los Angeles. The two were named top male and female vocalists of the year. Rogers also received three other awards for best single record, song of the year, and album of the year. (AP Photo)

Over the years, Rogers worked often with female duet partners, most memorably, Dolly Parton. The two were paired at the suggestion of the Bee Gees’ Barry Gibb, who wrote “Islands in the Stream.”

“Barry was producing an album on me and he gave me this song,” Rogers told the AP in 2017. “And I went and learned it and went into the studio and sang it for four days. And I finally looked at him and said, ‘Barry, I don’t even like this song anymore.’ And he said, ‘You know what we need? We need Dolly Parton.’ I thought, ‘Man, that guy is a visionary.’”

Kenny Rogers, left, and Lionel Richie perform “Lady” at ACM Presents: Lionel Richie and Friends in Concert on Monday April 2, 2012 in Las Vegas. (AP Photo/Jeff Bottari)

Coincidentally, Parton was actually in the same recording studio in Los Angeles when the idea came up.

“From the moment she marched into that room, that song never sounded the same,” Rogers said. “It took on a whole new spirit.”

Kenny Rogers, left, and Dolly Parton share a few stories at “All In For The Gambler: Kenny Rogers’ Farewell Concert Celebration” at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Laura Roberts/Invision/AP)

The two singers toured together, including in Australia and New Zealand in 1984 and 1987, and were featured in a HBO concert special. Over the years the two would continue to record together, including their last duet, “You Can’t Make Old Friends,” which was released in 2013. Parton reprised “Islands in the Stream” with Rogers during his all-star retirement concert held in Nashville in October 2017.

“Kenny was one of those artists who transcended beyond one format and geographic borders,” says Sarah Trahern, chief executive officer of the Country Music Association. “He was a global superstar who helped introduce country music to audiences all around the world.”

Kenny Rogers performs at the 2013 CMA Music Festival at the LP Field on Thursday, June 6, 2013 in Nashville,Tenn. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision/AP)

Kenny Rogers, the Houston-born performer with the husky voice and silver beard sold tens of millions of records, won three Grammys and was the star of TV movies based on “The Gambler” and other songs, making him a superstar in the ‘70s and ’80s.

Rogers thrived for some 60 years before retired from touring in 2017 at age 79. He died at his home in Sandy Springs, Georgia, on Friday night of natural causes.

Kenny Rogers, left, and Dolly Parton walk the red carpet of the “All In For The Gambler: Kenny Rogers’ Farewell Concert Celebration” at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Oct. 25, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Laura Roberts/Invision/AP)
Country music recording artist Kenny Rogers looks on before the start of a of a baseball game between the Miami Marlins and Atlanta Braves in Atlanta, Monday, July 21, 2014. (AP Photo/John Bazemore)
Kenny Rogers
FILE – In this Oct. 24, 2017 file photo, Kenny Rogers poses with his star on the Music City Walk of Fame in Nashville, Tenn. Actor-singer Kenny Rogers, the smooth, Grammy-winning balladeer who spanned jazz, folk, country and pop with such hits as “Lucille,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” and embraced his persona as “The Gambler” on record and on TV died Friday night, March 20, 2020. He was 81. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey, File)
Kenny Rogers poses with his wife, Wanda Miller, and sons Justin, left, and Jordan, right, both 13, at the Music City Walk of Fame Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Kenny Rogers, winner of the Willie Nelson lifetime achievement award, poses backstage at the 47th annual CMA Awards at Bridgestone Arena on Wednesday, Nov. 6, 2013, in Nashville, Tenn. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP)
FILE – In this Sept. 4, 2013 file photo, Kenny Rogers poses for a portrait at The Hot Seat in Nashville, Tenn. Rogers long ago cemented his legacy in the world of popular music, and we’ll get another reminder of this on Sunday, Oct. 27, 2013, when he’s finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame with Bobby Bare and the late “Cowboy” Jack Clement. Many believe Rogers’ induction is years late since few did as much to spread country music beyond its once rural borders. (Photo by Donn Jones/Invision/AP, File)
FILE – In this June 9, 2012, file photo, Kenny Rogers performs at the 2012 CMA Music Festival in Nashville, Tenn. Actor-singer Kenny Rogers, the smooth, Grammy-winning balladeer who spanned jazz, folk, country and pop with such hits as “Lucille,” “Lady” and “Islands in the Stream” and embraced his persona as “The Gambler” on record and on TV died Friday night, March 20, 2020. He was 81. (Photo by Wade Payne/Invision/AP, File)
Kenny Rogers speaks during a ceremony for the presentation of his star on the Music City Walk of Fame Tuesday, Oct. 24, 2017, in Nashville, Tenn. Rogers received the 80th star on the walk, one day before his farewell concert that’s scheduled to be held across the street in Bridgestone Arena. Behind Rogers are Joe Bonsall, left; Duane Allen, second from left; and William Lee Golden, right; of The Oak Ridge Boys. (AP Photo/Mark Humphrey)
Kenny Rogers performs during the Bonnaroo Music and Arts Festival in Manchester, Tenn., Sunday, June 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
FILE – In this Nov. 6, 2013 file photo, Kenny Rogers, winner of the Willie Nelson lifetime achievement award, poses backstage at the 47th annual CMA Awards in Nashville, Tenn. Rogers said he is retiring from touring and will do one last worldwide farewell tour after five decades on the road. Rogers, 77, said in a video message on his website that he wants to spend more time with his two young sons and his wife, Wanda. (Photo by Evan Agostini/Invision/AP, File)

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