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Kenny Rogers: the campfire storyteller with cowboy croak who notched up 120 hit singles


Kenny Rogers

Kenny Rogers


Kenny Rogers

I knew something slightly weird was going on when I first saw Kenny Rogers, because The Muppets had - disconcertingly - grown hands in his company.

When he appeared on The Muppet Show to sing The Gambler in 1979, one of them used these disconcerting new appendages to light him a cigarette, before the beardy man sang a song instructing us kids how to shoot whisky, play cards for money, and pray to die in our sleep.

Kids' TV was definitely different back then and, as a creepy little Wednesday Adams of a child, I loved to sneak a peek between my fingers into the strange darkness of the adult world. I loved a good tune and a story that left space for the imagination to drift. There seemed to be something magical in the combination of straight-shooting country music and haunting narratives hovering around the fringes of the era's radio: Rogers' The Gambler and Glen Campbell's Wichita Lineman (1968) were my favourites.

Much of the credit for the greatness of The Gambler must go to songwriter Don Schlitz. But Rogers - one of the best-selling artists of all-time - was a proper campfire storyteller.

I loved his casual phrasing and the cowboy croak in his voice that suggested a man who had kept his counsel through long days on the trail, waiting until he had something worth saying.

No wonder that he was the one to take The Gambler into the charts, even though it had been recorded by Schlitz and other country artists before him.

Born in Houston, Texas, in 1938, Rogers was the fourth of eight children born to a carpenter and a nurse - perhaps that is where his vocal combination of craft and compassion came from.

His singing talent certainly didn't come from his deeply religious, kind and ambitious mother, who he often joked sang so badly that people would leave the room.

Although his mum was called Lucille, she wasn't the subject of his 1977 hit of that name, another great story song beginning: "In a bar in Toledo/Across from the depot/On a barstool, she took off her ring/I thought I'd get closer/So I walked on over ..."

Rogers' alcoholic dad wasn't very involved with him, and hurt him deeply into adulthood by failing to acknowledge his success.

"I think that one of the real tragedies in my life is that I never really got to know why my dad drank," he wrote in his 2012 memoir, Luck Or Something Like It.

Seduced by rock'n'roll, Rogers began recording in the Fifties, retaining a pop sound as he moved into country.

Music probably felt like a safer place to express his emotions than with other people: "Music, at least for me," he said, "is like a mistress, and she's a difficult mistress for a wife to compete with."

Over a career that yielded 120 hit singles of varying quality, he maintained an easy-going narrative appeal. I've always been fond of Sweet Music Man, which Rogers wrote on an airplane after bumping into Jessi Colter, the wife of Waylon Jennings.

Rogers could also be a bit ridiculous: those shades, that beard, and the shirts unbuttoned to the waist were impossibly cheesy. But the fact he never took himself too seriously was all part of the appeal.

Someone launched a website for Men Who Look Like Kenny Rogers. When asked about it, the real thing replied that his favourite was "Hot Tub Kenny".

More awkwardly - if more predictably for a Texan of his vintage - he was a big fan of Donald Trump. He famously married five times, later acknowledging that it was a pet goat that kept him "centred".

"Every woman I married, I really loved when I married her," he once said. "And I don't blame them for the marriage falling apart. I blame myself and my chosen field of music."

Yet he was great at partnering women in song: his low, unshowy rumble made a great backdrop for Tammy Wynette, Kim Carnes, Dottie West and Sheena Easton. Most famously, he sang Islands In The Stream with Dolly Parton.

Written by The Bee Gees, the platinum-selling 1983 smash took its title from a novel by Ernest Hemingway and was originally intended for Marvin Gaye.

In its cockle-warming way, the song is the perfect anthem for people stuck in isolation this week, its lyrics expressing our solidarity at a distance: "Islands in the stream/That is what we are/No one in between/how can be wrong... We ride it together, uh huh... We start and end as one."

Belfast Telegraph