Kenny Rogers passed away, silencing a six decade career. There will be many articles and blogs about his life and long career, so I won’t focus on that. Kenny Rogers did a very unusual thing, he was a successful entertainer in just about every medium and genre. As such, he charted a large number of songs on different charts. From folk to country-rock to country to adult contemporary, Rogers crossed over to a variety of audiences. He had an engaging personality, a voice that sounded warm as an old friend and the ability to connect to everyone.
After his group, The First Edition, folded, Rogers reinvented himself. It would be a few years before he had his first big hit, “Lucille,” but this started one of the most incredible second acts in the history of show business.
I selected a dozen of his songs. I passed up some obvious chart hits like “The Gambler,” “Lucille” and “Coward of the County.” I am not real big on those songs, but they helped establish Rogers as a mega-star. Rogers said he generally recorded two types of songs: ballads and story songs. The ballads crossed over to mainstream radio play, and story songs connected with the average fan who could identify with the struggles embedded in the lyrics.
He admired Ray Charles, and felt that Charles never hit a false note. “He was genuine.” A trait Rogers never forgot.
“This all started with me when I was 12 years old and I went to see Ray Charles,” Rogers often said. “I went home and I told my mom, ‘That’s what I want to do.’” And 67 years later, when Rogers performed his last concert, he closed the book on a remarkable career.
Here are twelve (actually 13) that I enjoy.
“Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was in)” – From 1967 and his group, The First Edition. Rock psychedelia, yep, you heard that right. Quirky lyrics and imagery. Rogers’ vocal style and phrasing are there. Not quite the Jefferson Airplane, but on the same glide path.
“Reuben James” – Another song from the 1969 First Edition days. A song about a black man raising a white child after his real father was hospitalize. The boy grew up thinking he was the black brother of the other boy in the household. Country-rock.
“Lady” – Maybe Rogers best ballad. Written and produced by Lionel Richie and released by Rogers in 1980. It charted on four charts and reached number one on three of them. Richie only had a verse, but the general idea of the song when he presented it to Rogers, who immediately wanted to record it. The story goes that Richie retreated to the bathroom at the studio to finish writing the song.
“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” – Written by Mel Tillis. A sad song about a disabled veteran who watches his wife go meet other men. A definite country lyric and steady beat, with a very pleasing vocal chorus. Recorded by the First Edition in 1969 as they were a country-rock band at this point, with Rogers as the bass player.
“She Believes in Me” – From The Gambler album, this is one of Rogers’ story songs. It has country-type lyrics but the arrangement is pop-adult contemporary. It was a number one country song and also on the adult contemporary chart.
“Through the Years” – Produced by Lionel Richie, from the album Share Your Love, which sold nine million copies. This is adult contemporary, with a big arrangement and orchestra. It’s very middle of the road. I wouldn’t say this was one of his best songs, but it was one of his most popular songs. Rogers had an ear for songs that he could mold and make even better.
“Islands in the Stream” – The best of Kenny-Dolly songs, this one written and produced by the Bee Gees. A number one song on several charts. Easy-going in that Bee Gees vibe, it gets in your ear and stays there. Accompaniment by the Bee Gees band. The Bee Gees or Barry Gibb, were in-demand songwriters, penning hits for Kenny and Dolly, Dionne Warwick and Barbra Streisand.
“You and I” – This is one of the songs from the album written and produced for Rogers by the Bee Gees. You get a gentle sound, like summer breeze, with the Gibb brothers on backup vocals. How could you not like this? I believe this was the best of the Kenny/Gibb collaboration.
“Every Time Two Fools Collide” – One of the songs he performed with Dottie West during their frequent collaboration during the 1970s. Rogers more famously recorded with Dolly Pardon, but his earlier work with West was quite good. This song oozes with soul, it is almost an R&B song, it is one of the best Rogers-West collaborations.
“What Are We Doing in Love” – Another Kenny-Dottie duet, a pop-R&B song, in my opinion, better than his later duet pairings, which were often schmaltzy. The song was written by Randy Goodrum. Released from West’s 1981 album, Wild West.
“Love Will Turn You Around” – Co-written by Rogers, this was the theme from his film Six-Pack and from one of his albums. It has a nice bouncy rhythm and beat with an acoustic feel. The film was only a moderate success, but the single was number one on the country and adult contemporary charts.
“We’ve Got Tonight” – The Bob Seger song, Rogers recorded a version with Sheena Easton. The Seger version was good, but Rogers-Easton made it into a worldwide hit.
“Real Love” – Another Kenny-Dolly duet, this one from 1985. A nice song, but in my opinion, over produced with too much 80s production slickness. Still, a fine song underneath the muck.