“The Gambler” himself, country music legend Kenny Rogers, died just a couple of weeks ago, only a few days into the COVID-19 lockdown, proving once and for all that he did indeed know when to fold ‘em.
A couple of decades past his heyday, it’s easy to forget what a massive crossover star Kenny Rogers became, topping the pop charts, starring in movies, and eventually owning a chain of roasted-chicken joints with his name on them. A&E’s revived Biography series revisits Rogers’ 50-year music career, right up to the the all-star tribute concert that marked its official end, with Biography: Kenny Rogers, premiering 9pm Monday, April 13.
Rogers grew up very poor in the Houston area, and developed an interest in music at a young age. Though he was initially a guitarist, he switched to bass in order to join his first band after he was told “there’s a lot more demand for bad bass players than bad guitar players.” In the late ‘60s, after an audition by telephone from a hotel lobby, Rogers joined the oversized folk collective the New Christy Minstrels as harmony singer and bassist, but, frustrated by the group’s scorn of secular material, struck out with a couple of fellow disillusioned Minstrels to form The First Edition. Soon, the band scored a big hit with “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” -- all you Little Lebowski Urban Achievers out there know what I’m talking about -- and by the time The First Edition had their own short-lived variety show, it became clear that Rogers was a frontman in waiting. Kenny Rogers and The First Edition eventually parted ways, but not before recording their first country song, “Ruby.”
Rogers spent some time in the wilderness before hooking up with producer Larry Butler, who encouraged the skeptical singer to fully commit to country music, a move Butler was confident would lead to success. But after finding a super-country country song that fit Rogers’ voice, his facility with story-songs, and bore his mother’s namesake, “Lucille” served as an announcement that country music had a new star.
From there, it’s just a rocket ride to the top, particularly once Rogers found a song that Johnny Cash had already cut to little notice, and whose own songwriter, Don Schmitz, wasn’t particularly confident in. “The Gambler” was a colossal hit on both country and Top-40 radio, and made Rogers a star. This kicked off the golden era of Rogers' life: His acting career, his friendship with Lionel Richie (who wrote “Lady” for Rogers, and then moved into his guesthouse), and his run of successful crossover duets with pop singers Kim Carnes and Sheena Easton, before landing on his signature partnership with Dolly Parton, with whom he recorded “Islands in the Stream” and performed with until the literal end of his career -- a moment captured in the doc.
There is not a lot of sensationalism here; Kenny Rogers seems to have managed to get through a multiplatinum music career without incurring any rehab bills. He even seems to be on good terms with his second wife, Marianne Gordon, an actress he met on the set of Hee Haw and who inspired some of his best-known songs. That marriage ended decades ago, but Gordon has nothing but good things to say about him. Kenny Rogers seems to have been a fundamentally decent guy.
For those of us who are suckers for music documentaries -- with or without lurid details -- this edition of Biography provides a great reminder of the depth of Rogers’ talent, the breadth of his popularity at its height, and the legacy he left behind.
Biography: Kenny Rogers premieres at 9pm ET Monday, April 13, on A&E, and will be available on demand.