Kenny Rogers, Country Music Icon, Dead at 81

The award-winning singer died on Friday from natural causes.

Kenny Rogers, the GRAMMY and CMA Award-winning country music icon, who sold over 100 million albums and released two dozen No. 1 singles, has died at age 81.

Rogers' family announced the news on his website and social media platforms, sharing, "The Rogers family is sad to announce that Kenny Rogers passed away last night at 10:25PM at the age of 81.  Rogers passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family."

"In a career that spanned more than six decades, Kenny Rogers left an indelible mark on the history of American music. His songs have endeared music lovers and touched the lives of millions around the world. Chart-topping hits like 'The Gambler,' 'Lady,' 'Islands In The Stream,' 'Lucille,' 'She Believes In Me,' and 'Through the Years' are just a handful of Kenny Rogers' songs that have inspired generations of artists and fans alike," the statement continued.

The family added that they are currently planning a small private service "out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency." However, they "look forward to celebrating Kenny’s life publicly with his friends and fans at a later date."

"Kenny was one of those artists who transcended beyond one format and geographic borders," said Country Music Association CEO Sarah Trahern in a statement about Rogers' death. "He was a global superstar who helped introduce Country Music to audiences all around the world. I had the pleasure of working with him over the years and I’ll always remember his graciousness and kind heart. He has left us with his music, some of which will go down as the most memorable performances in Country Music history. Our condolences go out to his family and friends at this sad time."

From velvet suit jackets and wide-collared shirts, to his perfectly-coiffed beard and baritone vocals, Rogers was a true showman who always dressed the part.

The music legend cemented his place as one of the best-selling country artists in history with a catalog of crossover hits that include “Lady,” “Lucille,” "Coward of the County,” “The Gambler,”  “Every Time Two Fools Collide," "She Believes In Me,” “Love Will Turn You Around,” "Through The Years,” and “Crazy.”  

Outside of music, Rogers landed acting gigs in dozens of TV movies, and made guest appearances on hit shows like Touched By an Angel and How I Met Your Mother

The "Money Isn't What Really Matters" singer built a multi-million dollar fortune in the entertainment business, but his upbringing was far less extravagant. Rogers was born in Houston, Texas, on Aug. 21, 1938, and was the fourth of eight children. To make ends meet, his father, Floyd, took on various jobs while his mother, Lucille, worked as a nurse's assistant. As Rogers recalled in a 2012 interview, the family also relied on public assistance to survive financial hardship. 

“We were on welfare most of my childhood,” said Rogers. “If not welfare, some type of federally supported system. And we lived in a federal housing project 'til I was about 12 or 13.”

Rogers attended the famed Wharton Elementary School and fell in love with music in childhood. He reignited the passion in high school, launching his first band with a group of fellow students. In 1956, Rogers graduated from Houston's Jefferson Davis High School, becoming the first person in his family to earn a high school diploma.

After graduating, The Gambler tried his hand at rock ’n roll, jazz and psychedelic rock genres, prior to making the move into country music. He rotated between several different music groups until he found a good fit with The First Edition, in 1967. The group disbanded a decade later and Rogers embarked on a solo career, releasing his debut album, Love Lifted Me, in 1976.

Within a year of going solo, Rogers had already landed his first No. 1 pop single (“Lucille”) and topped the country album charts with his self-titled sophomore LP. In 1978, Rogers unveiled The Gambler, his most successful release during that decade. The album sold five million copies, powered by the title track, which topped Billboard's country charts and earned Rogers a GRAMMY for Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The single also spawned a string of TV films of the same name.

Rogers released two more albums, 1979’s Kenny and 1980’s Gideon, before teaming with Lionel Richie who penned “Lady,” Rogers' first No. 1 crossover single, which simultaneously topped the country, R&B and pop charts. Richie also produced the 1981 album, Share Your Love, which spawned three Top 20 pop hits for Rogers.   

Having a knack for finding the perfect collaboration proved to be a winning combination for Rogers as he turned to Bee Gees singer Barry Gibb to produce 1983’s Eye See in The Dark. The double-platinum album featured the classic Dolly Parton duet, “Islands in the Stream.”

In his final interview with ET, the country superstar credited the duet as the highlight of his career. 

“I don’t know how you can do that and not have it be the most exciting thing that ever happened to you.” Rogers told ET in April 2018. “When Dolly [Parton] likes you, then no matter what she says --  because she doesn’t think about what she’s saying -- it comes from love. And if you take it that way, you can’t be offended by it.”

While his more than 30-year friendship with Parton was strictly platonic, Rogers wasn't initially lucky in the love department. He married five times, first to Janice Gordon in 1958. Although the marriage lasted only two years, the couple welcomed a child together not long after they wed.  

Rogers married his second wife, Jean Rogers, in 1960 and welcomed a child. He divorced again and tied the knot for a third time in 1964, marrying Margo Anderson, with whom he had one child. The pair divorced in 1976 and Rogers went on to wed actress, Marianne Gordon, the following year. The former couple had one child together and remained married until 1993.  

Rogers was later ordered to pay Gordon $60 million, in one of the most expensive celebrity divorces on record. In 1996, Rogers married his fifth wife, Wanda Miller. The pair share twin sons and were happily in love until Rogers’ death.  

Speaking to ET in 2017, Rogers pondered the idea of retiring and spending more time with his wife and kids. 

"Wanda and I have been talking about whether we want to get a place on the lake and a boat and that kind of thing," he said. "I said, 'You know, that'd be great for two weeks and then we'll be fed up with the boat and be stuck with it.' So, I don't know. We have to wait and see."

Over his four decades in music, Rogers recorded over 60 collaborative and solo albums. He won three GRAMMYs, six CMA Awards and 11 American Music Awards.

In 2000, Rogers made music history as the oldest recording artist to top the country charts by way of the single, “Buy Me a Rose.” (Willie Nelson dethroned him in 2003.)  He continued touring throughout the new millennium and earned an induction into the Country Hall of Fame in 2013. Two years later, Rogers officially announced his retirement with the farewell tour, The Gambler’s Last Deal. The country superstar was forced to cancel the final concerts in 2018, due to health issues. 

"I didn't want to take forever to retire," Rogers said in a statement at the time. "I've thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to say farewell to the fans over the course of the past two years on 'The Gambler's Last Deal' tour. I could never properly thank them for the encouragement and support they've given me throughout my career and the happiness I've experienced as a result of that."

In 2019, Rogers was hospitalized for dehydration. The country legend remained at the Georgia hospital to "complete physical therapy to get his strength back" before being discharged. In a statement posted to his Instagram account, Rogers assured fans that he "planned on sticking around through the years to come." 

Rogers is survived by his wife and five children.