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Firsts to Know: Kenny Rogers

by Jim Casey
(Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Firsts are important. A great American once said, “If you ain’t FIRST, you’re last.” We happen to agree. To celebrate being first, we’ve got 10 Firsts to Know about the legendary Kenny Rogers. Why not 11, you ask? Because going to 11 is for rock stars—and we’re all about country music.

1. First Name: Kenneth Donald Rogers

Kenneth Donald Rogers was born in Houston, Texas, on August 21, 1938. While his first name isn’t disputed, his middle name is. Kenny’s birth certificate noted “Donald” as his middle name, but his family called him Kenneth “Ray.” He’s just Kenny to us . . . or Kenneth if we’re feeling formal, like in his high school yearbook.

2. First Band: The Scholars

When Kenny was in high school in the mid-1950s in Houston, Texas, he and his classmates formed a four-part harmony band, The Scholars. Kenny was listed as “first tenor.” The group actually cut a few songs and appeared on Dick Clark’s American Bandstand.

3. First Edition: Kenny Rogers & the First Edition

Kenny played in several groups in the 1960s, including the Bobby Doyle Three, the New Christy Minstrels, and the First Edition. By 1969, the latter rebranded as Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. Melding the sounds of country, rock, and psychedelic pop, the group found success on the charts in the late ’60s with “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” “But You Know I Love You,” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” We’ll revisit “Just Dropped In” at No. 9, El Duderino.

4. First No. 1 Single: ‘Lucille’

After Rogers departed the First Edition in 1976 to pursue a solo career, he released his debut album, Love Lifted Me Up, the same year. It was considered a minor success, with the title track reaching No. 19 on the Billboard Hot Country Songs chart. Later that same year, Kenny dropped his self-titled sophomore album. The album’s second single, “Lucille,” became his first No. 1 on the country chart, while reaching No. 5 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart.

5. First Grammy: 1978

Kenny scored his first—of three—Grammy Awards in 1978 for Best Country and Western Vocal Performance – Male for “Lucille.” By the way, he bested Larry Gatlin (“I Don’t Want to Cry”), Ronnie Milsap (“It Was Almost Like a Song”), Waylon Jennings (“Luckenbach, Texas”), and Jerry Jeff Walker (“Mr. Bojangles”) in the category. Not exactly lightweights, Dude.

6. First Signature Song: ‘The Gambler’

It takes moxie to think you can record a song better than three future Country Music Hall of Fame members. But Kenny Rogers had gumption. Don Schlitz (Hall of Fame, 2017) penned “The Gambler” in 1976. Bobby Bare (Hall of Fame, 2013) recorded “The Gambler” on his 1978 album, Bare, but Bobby’s version never caught on. Schlitz recorded the song himself in 1978 and it charted at No. 65. Johnny Cash (Hall of Fame, 1980) recorded “The Gambler” on his 1978 album, Gone Girl, but it failed to generate much notoriety. Finally, in November 1978, Kenny put his pipes on the tune and made it a mainstream success. Kenny’s signature song reached No. 1 on the country chart and earned him another Grammy for Best Country and Western Vocal Performance – Male.

7. First Stream: Dolly

No, we’re not talking about streaming on Spotify or Pandora. In the early 1980s, Rogers climbed the charts with a number of duets, including “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” with Kim Carnes and “We’ve Got Tonight” with Sheena Easton. But Kenny struck gold Platinum with his 1983 duet with Dolly Parton, “Islands in the Stream.” The song became Kenny’s second No. 1 on the all-genre Billboard Hot 100 chart, following 1980’s “Lady,” which was penned and produced by Lionel Richie. According to the RIAA, “Islands in the Stream” is Kenny’s best-selling single in the U.S., moving more than 1 million units. Of course, “Islands in the Stream” became another signature song for Rogers.

8. First Roast: Seinfeld

Who doesn’t love rotisserie chicken? In 1991, Kenny co-founded a series of chicken-based restaurants, Kenny Rogers Roasters. The chain flourished with hundreds of restaurants throughout North America and Asia. While the last Kenny Rogers Roasters in the U.S. closed in 2011, the chain lives on in Indonesia, the Philippines, and Dubai. Of course, Kenny Rogers Roasters became part of pop culture lexicon in a 1996 episode of Seinfeld that features Kramer becoming addicted to the chicken: “Hey, stay away from the chicken. Bad, bad chicken, mess you up.”

9. First Cult Classic: The Dude

We’d be remiss if we didn’t mention the role Kenny’s “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” played in the 1998 cult-classic, The Big Lebowski. After The Dude (Jeff Bridges) gets drugged by Jackie Treehorn at his garden party, he embarks on a psychedelic dream sequence to the soundtrack of “Just Dropped In.” “When it came out, they told me it was the only time in movie history that they ever used a song from the first note to the last note,” said Rogers to Country Weekly magazine in 2016. “They usually used pieces of songs, but they played it all the way through. I went to see the movie and thought, ‘Wow, that does say what [The Dude] is feeling.’ It was an interesting movie and the song fit perfectly.”

10. First in Class: Country Music Hall of Fame

When Kenny Rogers passed away in 2020 at the age of 81, his trophy case was packed. He recorded 24 No. 1 hits, 11 No. 1 albums, and 25 Top 10 country albums. Kenny won three Grammy Awards, eight ACM Awards, and six CMA Awards. He received the Willie Nelson Lifetime Achievement Award at the 2013 CMA Awards. Kenny was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 27, 2013. “It is the pinnacle of all of my success,” said Kenny during his induction speech.