Crossover King: Kenny Rogers in the ’80s

Rogers was a country star in the back half of the ‘70s, but became an all-conquering superstar in the 1980s

Kenny Rogers (Art: Ron Hart)

As the 1980s began, Kenny Rogers was hot and getting hotter.

Way back in the late ‘60s, he’d tasted pop success with the First Edition, hitting the top 10 of the Hot 100 twice, with “Just Dropped In” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” (neither of which was a substantial hit on the format he’d become most attached to: the country charts). After going solo in the mid ‘70s, he became a country star fairly instantly, notching six #1s, starting with 1977’s “Lucille” (also a top 5 pop hit), as well as two more #1 duets with Dottie West. 1979’s “She Believes in Me” also got to #5 pop and became his first Adult Contemporary #1 as well. And on the very first Hot 100 of the decade, his then-current single “Coward of the County” vaulted from #22 to #8, heading for a peak of #3 (then his highest pop chart position), where it would remain for five consecutive weeks. (“Coward” also became Rogers’ seventh overall and fifth consecutive country chart-topper.) The success of “Coward” also helped lift the album Kenny to #5 on the pop albums chart, his first visit to that chart’s top 10; it was also his fifth #1 country album.

Kenny Rogers 2 (Art: Ron Hart)

Not a bad place to start a new decade, right?

Before 1980 drew to a close, Rogers would have his first #1 pop single, “Lady,” which topped the Hot 100 for six weeks (+ four weeks AC and one at country), as well as his first #1 pop album, Greatest Hits, which spent two weeks atop the chart and would eventually be RIAA-certified for selling 12 million copies in the U.S. alone. By the end of 1980s, Rogers would go down as the #4 country singles artist of the decade, the #12 pop singles artist, and the #3 pop albums artist. Rogers was one of the first country stars to consistently cross over not just albums but singles, regularly, to the pop charts. Contemporaries such as Ronnie Milsap and Eddie Rabbitt did it too, but Rogers did it first, and much more frequently. He had 11 top 10 pop singles, and 28 top 40s in total over the course of his career, the vast majority of those in the 1980s.

 

VIDEO: KENNY TALKS ABOUT AND SINGS “LADY” WITH LION RICHIE AT THE “LIONEL RICHIE & FRIENDS” CONCERT, LAS VEGAS, 2012

“Lady,” of course, was written/produced by the Commodores’ leader, Lionel Richie. It wasn’t exactly the would-be crossover move you might think, though. As Rogers told Craig Rosen for The Billboard Book of #1 Albums, “I had remembered that Ray Charles had sung R&B to country tracks [on 1962’s Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music]. I thought that was so clever, because there is such a finite difference between country and R&B. What I wanted to do was sing country to R&B tracks. I went to Lionel and said, ‘Don’t change your tracks, but just let me sing it my way.’ And we were very successful with that approach.” Well, that’s putting it mildly. His next studio album, 1981’s Share Your Love, was produced entirely by Richie — and remember, this was prior to Richie becoming a massive solo star himself — and racked up a quartet of top 10 country hits, three of which (“I Don’t Need You,” the Aretha Franklin cover “Share Your Love with Me” (with backing vocals from Gladys Knight & the Pips!) and “Through the Years”) also made the pop top 20. And all three are also lovely ballads, prominently showcasing Rogers’ sterling voice.

In the midst of that run, Rogers found time for another duet with his friend Dottie West, with whom he’d recorded two smash albums in the late ‘70s. Those albums, however, didn’t bother the pop charts; West’s Wild West featured the single “What Are We Doin’ in Love,” which not only topped the country chart (their third such duet #1) but climbed to #14 on the Hot 100, West’s only top 40 pop single ever. 1982 saw Rogers star in his first film, the ridiculous Six Pack, which featured yet another smash single, “Love Will Turn You Around” (#1 country/#13 pop). That was followed by 1983’s We’ve Got Tonight, whose title track, penned by Bob Seger (and a #13 pop hit five years prior), was cut as a duet with Scottish songstress Sheena Easton. The contrast of Easton’s clear-as-a-bell voice with Rogers’ slightly gritty, rich baritone was a home run, and the song hit #1 country/#2 AC/#6 pop. 

 

VIDEO: KENNY + SHEENA PERFORMING THE SONG LIVE, GREENSBORO, NC, 1983

Next up, Rogers teamed up with another pop powerhouse: the Brothers Gibb. 1983’s Eyes That See in the Dark had all ten of its songs co-written by Barry Gibb (mostly with his brothers Maurice and Robin), and was produced by Barry with his usual team of Albhy Galuten and Karl Richardson. Oh, and they had one more trick up their collective sleeve: country (and occasionally pop) queen Dolly Parton, who duetted with Rogers on lead single “Islands in the Stream.” The song topped Billboard’s country, AC, and pop charts, and was the #1 country single of the year. Its parent album returned Rogers to the pop album top 10 for the first time since Share Your Love, making it to #6. Don’t be fooled into thinking that it’s just a pop effort, however; three further singles charted in the country top 30, including the #3 “Buried Treasure” and #11 “Evening Star,” both of which feature backing vocals from the Gatlin Brothers.

The following year’s What About Me? saw Rogers co-producing himself, alongside pop titan David Foster, and this album is definitely more pop-leaning. Its lead title single is a trio with Kim Carnes and James Ingram. It’s gorgeous, and it’s not remotely country — ergo, it peaked at #15 pop but only #70 country. Follow-up “Crazy,” however, topped the country chart and barely grazed the Hot 100, making it to #79. (Fun fact: both were co-written by then-budding L.A. songwriter Richard Marx, a couple of years before he’d break through as a solo artist on his own.) “What About Me?” was the last time Rogers would make the pop top 40 until 2000.

 

VIDEO: Kim Carnes and Kenny Rogers “What About Me?”

That’s not to say the rest of the decade was a wash for him, though; it just means his crossover peak had ended. And to be fair, by 1985, no country records were crossing to the pop charts anymore. That year’s The Heart of the Matter was produced by, I’m not making this up, George Martin, and featured a pair of country chart-toppers, the marvelous “Tomb of the Unknown Love” and the marvelously horny “Morning Desire.” 1986’s They Don’t Make Them Like They Used To is a bit of a mess, produced mostly by yacht rock stalwart Jay Graydon, and is most notable for featuring a song written for Rogers by Prince under the pseudonym Joey Coco. “You’re My Love” is a curveball from Prince, a fairly unexceptional pop ballad with backing vocals from El DeBarge; it was never released as a single and thus didn’t chart.

I Prefer the Moonlight, Rogers’ 1987 album, features no fewer than five producers and 15 songwriters, but is somehow successful nonetheless. It spun off a trio of singles making it to the top six of the country chart, including Rogers’ only hit duet with a man, the superb “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” sung with Ronnie Milsap. The song, written by Kim Carnes, had been recorded by Carnes as a duet with Barbra Streisand three years prior, and flopped soundly. But in the hands of Rogers and Milsap, this pair of masterful singers made magic, and hit #1 country; it would be Rogers’ last visit to the top for more than 12 years.

 

VIDEO: Kenny Rogers and Ronnie Milsap perform “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine” at the 1987 CMA Awards

His last album of the decade, 1989’s Something Inside So Strong, was a fairly unfocused record, featuring duets with everyone from Anne Murray to Ronald Isley, and only earned Rogers one top 10 country single. The ‘90s weren’t particularly kind to the superstar, as he bounced from label to label, his hitmaking days seemingly behind him, and after early 1992 didn’t even make the country singles chart again for seven years. At the end of ‘99, however, Rogers self-released the album She Rides Wild Horses and not only charted again, but shocked the country world, hitting #1 at the age of 61 with “Buy Me A Rose,” featuring guest vocals from Alison Krauss and Billy Dean. The song also, incredibly, clawed its way (thanks to single sales) to #40 on the Hot 100.

Kenny Rogers died on Friday, March 20, at the age of 81. He hadn’t hit the top 40 of any Billboard singles chart since 2006, but was still rightly revered as a legend. Since his chart heyday, we’ve seen artists such as Shania Twain and Garth Brooks rack up massive crossover hits — but in the case of Twain, nowhere near as many hit pop singles as Rogers (nine trips to the pop top 40), and Brooks has actually never had a hit pop single, focusing his all-conquering efforts on the album charts. Rogers was, without question, and remains, the king of country-pop crossover, and did so while never losing sight of his core, country audience. May the man many called “the Gambler” rest in peace. 

 

 

Thomas Inskeep

Rock and Roll Globe contributor Thomas Inskeep is a pop critic with three different music blogs, and a former contributor to Stylus, Seattle Weekly, and SPIN. He lives in Santa Cruz, CA. Follow him on Twitter @Thomasinskeep1.

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