Kenny Rogers – Collaboration King of the ‘80s; How he changed the careers of so many others that decade…

(March 22, 2020).  Before the current era of “featured” artists, where everyone and their brother has been a guest on someone else’s record, there was pop and country superstar Kenny Rogers in the 1980s – the artist who arguably scored more top 40 hits with other big name artists than anyone else during that decade.

Rogers, the gentle-but-husky-voiced country music legend who scored dozens of No. 1 hits (and many more top tens) on the Billboard country charts plus a bunch of hits that reached the pop list, died Friday night in Sandy Springs, Georgia.  He was 81.

Kenny Rogers: August 21, 1938 – March 20, 2020.

Rogers had built a substantial career in the late 1960s fronting the psychedelic-leaning country-rock group The First Edition.  They had two pop top-tens with “Just Dropped in (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” plus several other top-40 hits.

Rogers had even more success in the late 1970s with a string of solo Number One country hits that also crossed over to the pop top ten, including big sellers like “Lucille,” “She Believes in Me,” “You Decorated My Life” and “Coward of the County,” plus his deceptively lower-peaking signature tune “The Gambler” (No. 16 in 1979).

But it was arguably what he accomplished in the 1980s that made him the household name he ultimately became. 

At the dawn of that decade, Rogers, who was already in his 40s by the time the ‘80s started, found a way to turn what had been a promising but slowly building music career into a trajectory to superstardom: collaborate, collaborate, and – if that wasn’t enough – collaborate some more!

Kenny Rogers shared his talents with so many different artists from so many genres during the ‘80s that his name quickly became a household word – not just to country music fans, but to pop and – dare I say – even soul music fans during his heyday.  It was a formula that often yielded career-changing results for the other artists involved, too.

And he started using that formula right out of the gate in early 1980 with his first true single release of the decade.  

Hot on the heels of the success of his last single of the ‘70s, “Coward of the County,” which peaked on the pop charts at No. 3 in the winter of 1980, Rogers released his first duet – the No. 4-peaking “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer” – in March 1980 with rising solo star Kim Carnes.

Later that year he teamed with Lionel Richie – then still the lead singer of the soul/pop group The Commodores – who wrote and produced “Lady” for Rogers.  

That million-selling ballad raced to the top of the pop charts, debuting in early October 1980 and climbing to No. 1 on the Hot 100 just six weeks later.  It also gave Rogers his first soul chart single, peaking at No. 42 on Billboard’s Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs list (then known as Hot Soul Singles).

Kenny Rogers (left) and Lionel Richie in the early 1980s

Those partnerships with Carnes and Richie were game changers for both artists.  Carnes would follow “Dreamer” with her first solo top ten later that year (a remake of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love”) and Richie’s first venture outside of the Commodores (with Rogers) prompted him to seriously consider leaving the group, which he did a year later.

Ironically, Carnes (“Bette Davis Eyes”) and Richie (“Endless Love” with Diana Ross) would release the two biggest hits of 1981, with each spending nine weeks at No. 1…both being songs that arguably would not have happened had it not been for each artist’s connection to Rogers the year before.

And Rogers wasn’t finished working his magic with other artists.  

In early 1981, he teamed with Dottie West, the country singer whose career he’d sparked three years earlier when the two recorded “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” the first of their three No. 1 duets on the country charts.  

The song they did in 1981 was “What Are We Doin’ In Love,” the last of those three country No. 1s that also found its way to the pop top 20, becoming West’s first and only such hit.

Kenny Rogers and Dottie West receiving duo of the year awards at the CMAs in 1978

Later in 1981, Rogers went back to the Lionel Richie well and asked the prolific singer/songwriter to produce his entire next album, Share Your Love.  Richie, who was ever closer to leaving the Commodores, obliged.  What resulted was Richie’s first full production away from his group, and the final catalyst to him officially becoming a solo artist a few months later.  

Share Your Love featured an interesting collaboration in the title track.  Soul legends Gladys Knight & the Pips contributed very prominent backing vocals on the gospel-esque song “Share Your Love With Me,” as did the song’s producer Lionel Richie.  Although the background singers were uncredited on the label, the song did return Knight & the Pips to the pop top 40 for the first time in six years.

Share Your Love also featured two other milestone hits for Rogers – both produced by Richie.  The first single, “I Don’t Need You,” peaked at No. 3, tying Rogers’ second-biggest solo effort (“Coward of the County”).  And the third single, the beautiful ballad “Through the Years,” became another Rogers signature tune, perhaps second only to “The Gambler” in that category.

In 1983, Rogers had his most unlikely of collaborations, one that was another career injection for the other artist involved. 

Scottish singer Sheena Easton had achieved major success in 1981 with a No. 1 smash (“Morning Train”) and a No. 4 hit (“For Your Eyes Only”).  But each of her four successive singles after “Eyes” peaked lower than their predecessors (No’s. 15, 30, 57 and 64, respectively) all in 1982, signaling that she was either running out of steam or, worse, becoming a one-year-wonder.  

It was at the end of December 1982 and in  early January 1983 that Rogers teamed with Easton for a remake of Bob Seger’s classic rock ballad “We’ve Got Tonight.”  The tune, which featured the sharply contrasting vocals of a gruff, understated Rogers and a very high-pitched, but purely toned Easton, returned the Scottish lass to the pop top ten in March and became her first No. 1 single on the country music chart.

But, more than that, it saved Easton from falling into pop music’s abyss and gave her career the spark that saw her score nearly half a dozen more top tens and even reach the soul chart during the ensuing years.  (She’s also still the only female singer to have top-three hits on the pop, soul, country and adult contemporary charts in Billboard).

Yet it was who Rogers teamed up with later in 1983 that would prove to be the most memorable of his partnerships.

Late that summer, Rogers released a duet with superstar and legend Dolly Parton that would become both artists’ second No. 1 pop hit and their biggest seller.  “Islands in the Stream,” the smooth mid-tempo ballad written by The Bee Gees (Barry, Robin and Maurice Gibb) and produced by Barry Gibb with The Bee Gees’ longtime producers Karl Richardson and Albhy Galuten, shot to No. 1 on both the pop and country charts and was the only platinum-certified single of 1983 with two million copies sold (the platinum sales criterion at the time).

It could even be argued that The Bee Gees benefitted more from this musical union than either Rogers or Parton had, considering the Brothers Gibb hadn’t had a top 10 hit on their own since 1979 and both Parton and Rogers were at the peak of their careers. “Islands In the Stream” would be the last No. 1 pop single for all parties involved.

Dolly Parton and Kenny Rogers forged a friendship that would last through the years.

Of course, Rogers and Parton would continue their entertainment partnership throughout the decade, with another No. 1 single on the country charts (“Real Love”) and a Christmas TV special that generated one of the few Yuletide-themed songs to reach the Hot 100 during the ‘80s, their duet “The Greatest Gift of All.”

But Rogers wasn’t done there.

In 1984, he recorded as part of a trio with pop star and former duet partner Kim Carnes plus the late soul crooner James Ingram on the top-20 hit “What About Me?.”  Along with giving Carnes her first top 20 hit since “Bette Davis Eyes” three years earlier, “What About Me?” returned Rogers to the Hot R&B/Hip-Hop Songs chart (a place where Ingram regularly dwelled) and made each member of the trio one of few artists who had top-40 chart success as a soloist, as part of a duet and as a trio.  

Furthermore, Rogers was one of even fewer people to chart in those three configurations and as part of a group (First Edition).

Then, as if all of that wasn’t enough, in early 1985, Kenny joined 44 other A-list artists (and some B-listers) billed as USA for Africa for the charity single “We Are the World.”  The song quickly became the fastest-selling single of the ‘80s, earning a quadruple-platinum certification within weeks of its springtime release and topping multiple charts, including both the soul and pop lists. 

Rogers got a prominent placement on the song’s first verse and that was probably all it took to give “We Are the World” its placement on the country music charts that spring, where it peaked at No. 76.

Ironically, “We Are the World,” the granddaddy of all collaborations, would be Rogers’ last pop top-40 hit of the 1980s – solo, duet, group or otherwise.

He would go on to record more collaborations, including a No. 1 country hit with fellow superstar Ronnie Milsap and the song “Make No Mistake, She’s Mine,” which topped the country chart in 1987.  

And in 2000, he formed another trio with Allison Krauss and Billy Dean on the song “Buy Me A Rose,” which also topped the country chart and returned Rogers to the pop top 40 for the first time in 15 years.

Since then, Rogers reaped several rewards for all his accomplishments, including an induction to the Country Music Hall of Fame and a Lifetime Achievement award from the Country Music Association, both in 2013.

They were well-deserved, of course, but if there were ever an award for Collaboration King – particularly in the 1980s before artists regularly got together and the term “featuring” became ubiquitous – that trophy would have to have Kenny Rogers’ name engraved in big platinum letters…not just for what it did for his career, but what it did for those who worked closely with him.

Dolly Parton probably said it best upon hearing the news of his passing on Saturday: 

“I know that we all know that Kenny is in a better place than we are today, but I’m pretty sure he’s going to be talking to God some time today, if he ain’t already, and he’s going to be asking him to spread some light on a bunch of this darkness going on here.”

Kenny Rogers spread plenty of light on the careers of fellow artists while he was on this side and for that, as well as his stellar solo career, he will be missed. 

R.I.P. Kenny Rogers (1938-2020), you were a legend among legends. 


R.I.P. Kenny Rogers (1938-2020)

DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff!  You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.

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