Country music legend Kenny Rogers dies at 81

·4 min read
A three-time Grammy winner, Kenny Rogers was known for a string of hits including "The Gambler," "Lucille" and "Islands in the Stream" (AFP Photo/SUZANNE CORDEIRO)

A three-time Grammy winner, Kenny Rogers was known for a string of hits including "The Gambler," "Lucille" and "Islands in the Stream"

A three-time Grammy winner, Kenny Rogers was known for a string of hits including "The Gambler," "Lucille" and "Islands in the Stream" (AFP Photo/SUZANNE CORDEIRO)

Los Angeles (AFP) - Country music legend Kenny Rogers, who helped bring the genre into the mainstream during a career spanning six decades, has died at the age of 81, his family announced.

With hits like "The Gambler," "Lucille" and the duet "Islands in the Stream" with Dolly Parton, the three-time Grammy winner left an indelible mark on American music.

"Rogers passed away peacefully at home from natural causes under the care of hospice and surrounded by his family," the family said in a statement late Friday.

The family was planning a small private service "out of concern for the national COVID-19 emergency."

Tributes poured in from across the world of showbiz.

"You never know how much you love somebody until they're gone," Parton said.

"I've had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend."

The Grand Ole Opry, the long-running country music concert institution, tweeted: "Tough times just got a little tougher. Thanks for the music that'll ease our souls today and for years to come, Kenny Rogers."

Rogers, who sold tens of millions of records worldwide, had 20 albums go platinum, according to his website.

"I've never considered myself a great singer, but I do have a certain way as a storyteller," he told the Irish Examiner in 2013.

"I've been very lucky in finding many great songs that have had a staying power, and have lingered longer in the heart."

Released in 1978, his album "The Gambler" was a huge international hit, going multi-platinum. The title track became his signature song.

"I do two kinds of songs," he told NPR in 2015.

"There's story songs that have social significance, or they're ballads that say what every man would like to say and every woman would like to hear."

One of those emotional ballads was "Lady," written by Lionel Richie and released in 1980. It was an instant crossover hit.

In 1985, he sang a solo on "We Are The World," the Grammy-winning star-studded charity single to raise money to help alleviate famine in Africa.

- 'I don't gamble' -

Rogers starred in a series of made-for-television movies based on "The Gambler" through the 1980s and 1990s, but he liked to joke that he wasn't much of a gambler himself.

"I learned a long time ago, I can't win enough money to excite me, but I can lose enough to depress me," he told NPR. "So I don't gamble."

He played his final concert at Nashville in October 2017, where he was joined by Parton, his long-time friend and collaborator, and Richie.

In April 2018, Rogers scrapped the final dates of his farewell tour due to health concerns.

"I didn't want to take forever to retire," the singer said.

"I've thoroughly enjoyed this opportunity to say farewell to fans over the course of the past two years," he said, adding that he could "never properly thank them for the encouragement and support they've given me throughout my career."

Born in a housing project in Houston, Texas, Rogers started his career in the late 1950s and quickly became active in rockabilly, jazz and other genres that he brought into his country style.

He went on to have 24 number one hits and was a six-time Country Music Association award winner.

In 2013, Rogers was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, which said he had "parlayed a distinctive, husky voice and laid-back sex appeal into durable superstardom."

His easygoing ballads and constant touring won him pop appeal, as did his popular takes on Christmas standards.

Rogers also came to prominence through his appearances in films and on television programs including "The Muppet Show."

He even ventured into the fast-food business in the 1990s, co-founding Kenny Rogers Roasters, a chain of chicken restaurants.

The chain is no longer operational in the United States, but is still active in Asia. It prominently featured in an episode of "Seinfeld."

In 2012 he published a memoir recounting the ups and downs of his long career: "Luck or Something Like It."

Married five times, he is survived by his wife Wanda and five children, including twin boys.