Kenny Rogers, 'Island in the Stream' and 'The Gambler' country legend, dies at 81
Country music icon Kenny Rogers, known for hits like “Islands in the Stream” and “The Gambler,” has died from natural causes. He was 81.
His family confirmed his death on Friday on Twitter. "The Rogers family is sad to announce that Kenny Rogers passed away last night at 10:25PM at the age of 81," the tweet read. "Rogers passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family."
Announcing his retirement in 2015, Rogers had been touring the globe over the past few years on The Gambler’s Last Deal, a farewell tour named after his 1979 song “The Gambler.” He had cut the tour short in April, however, citing “a series of health challenges.”
“His doctors fully expect the outcome to be great, but they have advised him to cancel all performances through the end of the year to focus on recuperation,” Rogers’ reps said in a statement at the time.
Over the course of Rogers’ illustrious career, he received three Grammys, a place in the Country Music Hall of Fame, and 18 American Music Awards -- a pretty impressive resumé for someone who always said, “I've never felt I was a particularly good singer, but I've always thought I had a great knack for picking hit songs.”
His first hit song was "That Crazy Feeling" in the 1950s, a song that landed him an appearance on American Bandstand. He played jazz as a member of The Bobby Doyle Three, but then joined the folk group The New Christy Minstrels as a singer and double-bass player in 1966. Rogers and fellow members Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Camacho eventually left that group to form The First Edition.
The spotlight started sticking more to Rogers as the group was renamed Kenny Rogers and the First Edition and they scored a hit with “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In).” Rogers launched his solo career after the group disbanded in 1976.
“Lucille,” off his self-titled second album, solidified Rogers’ career and earned him a Grammy. The track was named both Song of the Year and Single of the Year by the Academy of Country Music.
“The Gambler,” the title track off his sixth studio album, came in 1978 and became so popular it served as the inspiration for a television movie (and four sequels) with Rogers starring as Brady Hawkes. This marked another creative facet to Rogers, who worked as an actor and photographer alongside music.
1983 was the year he and Dolly Parton became the definition of perfect duet partners with “Islands in the Stream,” which they followed with hits like “Love Is Strange" and "You Can't Make Old Friends.”
“I take great pride in that we have a very warm, sweet friendship that we’ve had for 30 years,” Rogers recalled to PEOPLE in a 2017 interview. “It all started when [singer-songwriter] Barry Gibb wrote ‘Islands in the Stream,’ and he gave it to me to record -- he was producing an album.”
Singing it “for four days,” Rogers came to the conclusion that he didn’t really like what would become a future hit -- which is why he made a recommendation. “We need Dolly Parton,'” he recalled saying. “I had a recording studio at the time and she was downstairs and my manager Ken Kragen said, ‘I just saw her!’ and I said, ‘Well, go get her!’ He went downstairs and she came marching into the room, and once she came in and started singing, the song was never the same. It took on a personality of its own.”
Rogers continued reaching new heights at the age of 61 when he became the oldest artist to reach the No. 1 spot on the country music charts with “Buy Me a Rose” in 2000. By 2012, he became a New York Times best-selling author with the release of Luck or Something Like It -- A Memoir. By 2013, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame and received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Country Music Association.
Rogers had been singing that line from “The Gambler,” “you've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em” for years. In 2015, he decided he needed to fold ‘em.
On his decision to retire, he told Savannah Guthrie and Carson Daly on the Today show, “I’ve done this long enough. I wrote in my book that sometimes there’s a fine line between being driven and being selfish, and I think I crossed that line when I was younger. I really want to be there with my kids and my wife. They’re very important to me and I don’t see enough of them.”
Stars from across the country music scene -- including Reba McEntire, Chris Stapleton, and Lady Antebellum -- gathered for a tribute concert in Nashville to give Rogers a grand send-off. Reunited with Parton, they performed “You Can’t Make Old Friends” and, of course, “Island in the Stream” for the audience, while the “Joelene” singer offered a rendition of “I Will Always Love You” to her longtime friend.
“We’ve been so excited about this because he says, of course, he’s retiring,” Parton said. “Kenny, I just wanted to say that I’m really, really proud of you, and I just hope many, many years from now when I’m older, I’ll know when to hold ’em and when to fold ’em.”
Rogers is survived by wife Wanda and five children — daughter Carole, sons Christopher and Kenny, and twins Jordan and Justin.