Typically, for mainstream pop stars, the road to extraordinary excellence is rather quick. Make a hit, reach number one, and from there, the television programs, action figures, and trappings of crossover acclaim appear in short order. However, in 1981, Kenny Rogers was a prematurely white-haired 43-year old country star who, in that genre, was already a 20-year veteran and well-entrenched as a chart-topping country icon. Thus, Rogers, by the end of the year, being a pop icon, seems highly unlikely on paper. However, in 1981, he became America’s most bankable and beloved pop superstar because of an impressive blend of moments where the artist at one time known as “Hippie Kenny” struck while the iron was hot on multiple levels.
Foremost, leading into 1981, Rogers had worked with former Commodores lead singer Lionel Richie on 1980 mega-hit “Lady,” a bonus track on his all-country Greatest Hits album. The chart-topping Blending Rogers’ forever desire to mimic classic soul artists like Sam Cooke with piano-driven pop very much aimed at the “Yacht Rock” fanaticism of the era, plus some strong songwriting chops from the tandem. Lionel Richie had originally pitched this song to the Commodores and they turned it down. Later, as Rogers’ recording, it reached number-one on Billboard’s Hot 100, Hot Country, and Adult Contemporary charts — it became the biggest selling hit single for him as a solo artist.
This crossover achievement was important. In 1973, Rogers had already — at the end of his time working with The First Edition — had branched into acting in made-for-TV films. By 1981, he’d started acting in films for CBS. This, the same CBS that in the early 1970s had debuted long-running hillbilly lampooning laugh-in Hee Haw, and by 1978 had started airing the wildly popular prime time soap opera Dallas. A year prior, in 1980, Rogers starred in a CBS film adaptation of his 1978 Grammy-winning hit “The Gambler.” The film was a big rating success, and according to Grelun Landon and Irwin Stambler’s Country Music: The Encyclopedia, received the Eddie Award for Best Edited Television Special, as well as two Emmy nominations: Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Special and Outstanding Film Editing for a Limited Series or a Special. The film also spawned a franchise, four sequels having been filmed over the course of the following 15 years.
As far as his touring schedule, Rogers had an arena tour scheduled in early 1981, capitalizing off “Lady”’s gold-selling success and his visibility via The Gambler. Regarding one of this tour’s events in Augusta, GA, then Augusta-Richmond Civic Center, Larry Rogers commented to the Augusta Chronicle upon Rogers’ 2020 passing, “When you get somebody of the caliber of Kenny Rogers, you’re going to sell out. There never was any question about it.” To wit, the same article also notes that “hopeful ticket buyers with raised umbrellas patiently waiting in heavy rain for the box office to open at 8 a.m. [because] the only way to buy concert tickets were by phone or in person. Within six hours, more than 6,700 of the available 8,722 tickets had been sold for the premium price then of $13 and $15.” Adjusted for modern-day inflation, those are first-day ticket sales of nearly $300,000.
As well, 1981 saw Rogers work, in full with Lionel Richie, on Share Your Love, his 11th studio album. Multiplying “Lady”’s success — a goal of their pairing — occurred as nine million albums sold later, songs including “I Don’t Need You” (Billboard Hot 100 peak at #3), “Through the Years” (Billboard Hot 100 peak at #13), and “Share Your Love with Me” (Billboard Hot 100 peak at #14) are amongst Rogers’ canon of classics. In the liner notes of his 2006-released compilation album The Number One Hits, the legendary country artist referred to the album as “one of [his] favorite albums of his career containing many of [his] favorite songs [he’d] ever recorded.
On the film front, Rogers saw yet another one of his hit singles — this time, 1979’s “Coward of the County” — be adapted to film for CBS. Rogers starred in the Dick Lowry-directed film as Reverend Matthew Spencer, the fire and brimstone preacher uncle of the song’s eventually heroic protagonist Tommy Spencer. Impressively, the film met with critical acclaim, spawning a 30-year television and film acting career.
By the end of 1981, Rogers released a Christmas album that reached the top 10 on the country charts. As well, he was working on material like “Love Will Turn You Around,” a single that also doubled as a song from Rogers’ mainstream film debut in race-car driver action-romance film Six Pack, which earned more than $20 million at the United States box office. Plus, he had started work on Kenny Rogers as The Gambler: The Adventure Continues, the second film in his previously mentioned quartet of films based on his 1978-released signature song.
Of course, by 1983, he’d both headlined a made-for-HBO concert, as well as sang “Islands In The Stream” with Dolly Parton. By 1985, he was a member of the ensemble choir USA for Africa that sang the benefit anthem “We Are The World.” Even more, by 1991, he — alongside former KFC CEO and former Kentucky governor John Y. Brown Jr. — co-founded Kenny Rogers Roasters, a chain of rotisserie chicken-based restaurants that remains in operation, in Asia of all places, to this day.
When soulful, countrified pop stardom meets with rugged, salt-and-pepper good looks in the midst of mainstream media longing for country music and its culture to be more prevalent than ever before, Kenny Rogers’ dynamic 1981 occurs. To borrow from his signature song, holding a second longer before running from the table allowed him to count his money and achievements when the dealing was done.