It took several tries before Kenny Rogers became a star. As a member of the First Edition (and the New Christy Minstrels before that), he shared in some million-sellers, among them "Reuben James" and "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town," an excellent Mel Tillis song about a disabled veteran. But superstardom lay ahead for this Texan, and it arrived in the late '70s. His experience with the two previous pop groups had prepared him well: he knew the easy listening audience was out there, and he supplied them with well done middle-of-the-road songs with a country flavor. Having gone solo, in 1976 Rogers charted with "Love Lifted Me." But it was with an outstanding song by writers Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum, "Lucille," that his star shot upward.
The rest (as they say) is history: award-winning duets with Dottie West and Dolly Parton, 12 TV specials, another song of the year with "The Gambler," "Daytime Friends," "Coward of the County," "We've Got Tonight," "Crazy," "Lady" (his first pop number one), etc., etc., etc. And that's just the musicalside of Rogers. In 1980, the made-for-TV movie The Gambler blasted the competition, followed quickly by Coward of the County, then enough sequels to The Gambler to get him to Roman numeral IV. Throughout the '80s, Rogers remained a celebrity, even when his sales were declining. Even during the '90s, when he rarely charted, his name, face, and music were recognizable in a series of concerts, television specials, films, and even fast-food restaurants.
Like many country superstars, Rogers came from humble roots. Born in Houston, Texas, Rogers and his seven siblings were raised in one of the poorest sections of town. Nevertheless, he progressed through high school, all the while learning how to play guitar and fiddle. When he was a senior, he played in a rockabilly band called the Scholars, who released three singles, including "Kangewah," which was written by Louella Parsons. Following his graduation, he released two singles, "We'll Always Fall in Love Again" and "For You Alone," on the local independent label Carlton. The B-side of the first single, "That Crazy Feeling," was popular enough to earn him a slot on American Bandstand. In 1959, he briefly attended the University of Texas, but he soon dropped out to play bass in the jazz combo The Bobby Doyle Three. While he was with the group, Rogers continued to explore other musical venues and played bass on Mickey Gilley's 1960 single "Is It Wrong." The Bobby Doyle Threereleased one album, In a Most Unusual Way, before Rogers left the group to play with the Kirby Stone Four. He didn't stay long with Stone and soon landed a solo record contract with Mercury.
Rogers released a handful of singles on Mercury, all of which failed. Once Mercury dropped the singer, he joined the New Christy Minstrels in 1966. He stayed with the folk group for a year, leaving with several other bandmembers -- Mike Settle, Terry Williams, and Thelma Lou Camacho -- in 1967 to form the First Edition. Adding drummer Mickey Jones, the First Edition signed with Reprise and recorded the pop-psychedelic single "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)." The single became a hit early in 1968, climbing to number five. Within a year, the group was billed asKenny Rogers & the First Edition, and in the summer of 1969, they had their second and final Top Ten hit, "Ruby, Don't Take Your Love to Town." The country overtones of the single hinted at the directionRogers was taking, as did the minor hit follow-up, "Ruben James." For the next two years, the First Edition bounced between country, pop, and mild psychedelia, scoring their last big hit with Mac Davis' "Something's Burning" in early 1970. By the end of 1972, the group had its own syndicated television show, but sales were drying up. They left Reprise the following year, signing to Rogers' new label, Jolly Rogers. None of their singles became major hits, though a version of Merle Haggard's "Today I Started Loving You Again" reached the lower regions of the country charts late in 1973. Rogers left the group in 1974, and the band broke up the following year.
At the time the band broke up, Rogers was severely in debt and Jolly Rogers was out of business. In order to jump-start his career, he signed to United Artists in 1975, and with the help of producer Larry Butler, he devised an accessible, radio-ready, and immaculately crafted take on country-pop that leaned toward adult contemporary pop, not country. "Love Lifted Me," his debut single for the label, was a minor hit early in 1976, but it took a full year for Rogers to have a genuine breakthrough hit with "Lucille." Climbing to number one early in 1977, "Lucille" not only was a major country hit, earning the Country Music Association's Single of the Year award, but it also was a huge crossover success, peaking at number five on the pop charts. For the next six years, Rogers had a steady string of Top Ten hits on both the country and pop charts.
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