In 1981, Kenny Rogers Finally Achieved Top Tier Crossover Success

Countrified pop stardom meeting with rugged good looks in country's mainstream moment led to "The Gambler"'s breakthrough

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.

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