It’s a testament to how a big a deal Kenny Rogers is that his death yesterday at the age of 81 has successfully snuck its way through all the Coronavirus-related headlines. And Kenny Rogers was – for over 50-years – a very, very big deal.
This is a man who sold over 100-million records, who starred in 10 films, who topped the US country charts more than 20 times, but was also such a presence on the popular music landscape that he placed a couple of dozen songs in the Billboard top 40 too.
Some of those songs are as famous and indelible as a pop song can get; think The Gambler, think Lady, think Islands In The Stream.
The latter was written by the Bee Gees for Kenny’s 1983 double-platinum album Eyes That See In The Dark. A duet with Dolly Parton that’s almost as much a part of weddings as “I do”, Islands In The Stream isn’t merely one of the defining duets of the 80s, it’s reportedly the biggest country-crossover hit of all time.
But what of the rest of the album? The Gibb brothers didn’t just give Kenny one cracker of a tune and leave him to figure out the rest, they delivered a full LP’s worth of first-rate songs. Indeed, the Barry Gibb demos for Eyes That See In The Dark are so strong that many diehard Bee Gees fans rate it as the greatest solo Gibb album that never was.
As is stands, the official Kenny album of those demos is among the absolute finest LPs of the 39 official releases Kenny had.
Sure Islands In The Stream is the standout, but from the Gatlin Brothers-assisted country-singalongs of Buried Treasure and Evening Star, to the mournful beauty of the pop ballads You And I and Hold Me, it’s clear the Gibbs were at or near the absolute top of their game as tunesmiths-to-order*.
The other unmissable track on Eyes That See In Dark for me has always been Midsummer Nights. With the unexpected chord changes that were so often the hallmark of Gibb songs, what could otherwise be a fairly standard tale of “lonely days” that give way to the romance of “midsummer nights” chugs away to something a whole lot more special with an addictive, unusual overlapping melody. It’s quietly brilliant, as the Gibbs so often were, and Kenny sells the song with the authenticity that made him a star.
That authenticity was the key to his remarkable, multi-decade career. This wasn’t a performer with intimidating good looks, nor was this a singer with either a prodigious songwriting talent nor an elastic vocal range. Instead this was someone you believed, someone you warmed too, someone for whom storytelling was a gift, and someone you kept wanting to listen to. And keep listening we will.
RIP Kenny, you did good.
* Islands In The Stream was the 16th and final US#1 hit that the Bee Gees wrote between the years 1971-1983, with nine as performers and a further seven as songwriters. This is more than any other songwriting team during this 12-year period.