Kenneth Ray Rogers has died. Known to the world as – he was sometimes the butt of jokes, more often celebrated (rightly) as a legendary singer and performer. He was a bit of a songwriter too, but his greatest skill was knowing what songs worked best – his greatest hits all covers; he celebrated the work of Lionel Richie, Prince, Bob Seger, the Bee Gees and many more. Transformed the work, collaborated – always celebrated.
Thing is, he was a businessman – because he could sure play. But a lot of people that played the shit out of whatever version of his greatest hits album they were raised on maybe didn’t know he was a bass player with jazz chops. It took a while for some people to find that he was in a band called First Edition and then became the star of that group and that the psychedelic pop classic, Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) was Kenny; a showcase – an early star turn.
The Big Lebowski’s excellent placement of it made a few people suddenly decide Kenny was cool.
I always thought Kenny was cool.
He was the sound of summer to the six and seven and eight year old me. Clifton Beach and the tractor my granddad drove the kids out to Cape Kidnappers on has a score I hold forever in my heart – and it’s Kenny Rogers’ greatest hits. Lucille and Reuben James and Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town and Don’t Fall In Love With A Dreamer and We’ve Got Tonight and Coward of The County – and yes The bloody Gambler. Many more besides.
Top songs. Pop songs – dressed in rhinestones. Country songs allowed out to party on the pop charts.
He was a clever businessman.
Kenny was cool even though my folks and almost all of the adults I grew up around and all of my kid friends fucking loathed country music. But Kenny was allowed in (Dolly and Willie Nelson too, mostly by association). I would go on to get hooked on so many country artists and that started with a copy of The Most of Kenny Rogers.
He was everywhere too. On TV variety shows and in movies – we were allowed to stay up to catch a re-run of the movie they made around the song The Gambler. We were taken to the picture theatre to see Six Pack.
Kenny was cool.
He duetted with Sheena Easton and Kim Carnes – and Dolly Parton of course. He showed the world what a great country songwriter Lionel Richie was (and is).
And he knew how to put on a show. All the hits.
I saw him in the mid-90s. Hawke’s Bay. Far too many cowboy hats in the crowd. Far too many people really only there to hear The Gambler. But what a great show. All the hits. Of course…
I played The Gambler more than I ever cared to in a covers band at university. I even wrote a eulogy for Wellington’s busker called “Kenny” who would recite Rudyard Kipling’s poetry to me but later decided I was infected by the devil!
Kenny Rogers was 81. And he had been sick for a while and was in hospice care and many people made light jokes about his passing, in the wake of Covid-19 we’re searching for humour and a chance to momentarily escape. So it was that Kenny, “picked a fine time to leave us” and “knew when to fold ‘em” and so on.
Kenny was clever.
He was cool. He was smart. He was good. Really good.
And his music was some sort of mystical, magical and fucking-obvious gateway, a touchstone. Big proud songs with huge themes. Epic storytelling and a performance-style that always suggested wisdom, deep connection.
The soundtrack of my life. A big part of it at least.
R.I.P. Kenny Rogers