Forever No. 1 is a Billboard series that pays special tribute to the recently deceased artists who achieved the highest honor our charts have to offer — a Billboard Hot 100 No. 1 single — by taking an extended look back at the chart-topping songs that made them part of this exclusive club. Here, we honor the late Kenny Rogers by diving into his first No. 1 hit, the Lionel Richie-penned ballad “Lady.”
It was 1980. Punk had detonated, disco was dying, new wave was on the ascent, and Kenny Rogers was playing with house money. Five years prior, he had shaken off the dissolution of his folk-rock concern to reach the top of the country charts, again and again. Turns out people enjoyed Kenny Rogers & The First Edition just fine; but Kenny Rogers, they loved.
Like most country A-listers of the time, he had a regular duet partner in Dottie West and a place on television to stretch his legs. But instead of a variety show — the format had succumbed to saturation — he starred in the 1980 CBS movie The Gambler, drawn vaguely from his 1978 Don Schlitz-written Country Songs No. 1 of the same name. Rogers had a knack for the story song, that peculiar genre that inspires execs try to turn four-minute tales into 90-minute films. “The Gambler” was followed by “Coward of the County,” which was followed by Gideon, a cowboy concept album co-written by Kim Carnes. It featured “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” a Carnes duet that was Rogers’s third single to hit the top five on the pop, AC, and country charts. He nearly made it through disco scot-free. Things were looking real good for Kenny.
But Rogers was leery of being pigeonholed. His mailbox was bursting with demos of stagecoach-and-sagebrush sagas, most of them terrible. Still, from all angles, he was at an apex. A greatest-hits collection was scheduled for the fall, and it required padding. He’d been keeping tabs on a Motown funk act that had, over the previous couple years, shown a startling aptitude for soft pop. Not the quiet storm of weekend R&B radio: pure, uncut adult contemporary. Through EMI America president Jim Mazza, Rogers reached out to the architect of the Commodores’ new sound: Lionel Richie. Intrigued by the possibility — and by the potential payday of a Kenny Rogers best-of record — Richie boarded a plane to Las Vegas to sit at a battered backstage piano and sing the first (and, to that point, only) verse of “Lady”.
Looking back on the result in his 2012 memoir Luck or Something Like It, Rogers savored the fact that “[a] black guy from R&B and a white guy from country had created a color-blind hit.” But that wasn’t quite true: Rogers was less a country singer than an entertainer: a born performer with the personality necessary to mold the material at hand. His 1957 debut single was rock ‘n’ roll and doo-wop filtered through his Houstonian twang; after that, he spent a number of years as a jazz bassist before joining the folk group New Christy Minstrels. Richie was similarly malleable. He grew up in Alabama, singing in the Tuskegee Institute’s choir, observing his grandmother, a classical pianist, and listening to soul and country on the airwaves. When the Commodores auditioned for Motown, Richie sang “Wichita Lineman.”
“Lady” is wired much the same way as “Lineman”: melancholy and plaintiveness intertwining. Richie was starting to operate in the softer, less heralded (but lucrative) registers of pop: the tones of adult contemporary, soap opera themes, string-soaked showcases. He knew that a Kenny Rogers hit, fairly or not, would have more reach than a Commodores hit. But Rogers would have to meet his composition more than halfway. He had, essentially, shifted his band’s own No. 1 hit “Still” to a minor key. (Both songs start with the word “Lady”.) A worrying piano ostinato taps the table; an electric guitar sighs out the window. A string section is assembled largely to voice chords. The sense of romantic isolation is overwhelming; when the rhythm section finally steps into the room, it’s like Rogers tore down the curtains.
A lesser singer would have sunk into the maudlin furnishings. Rogers, though, was a supreme interpreter. He neither hectors his lost love nor luxuriates in the pain. On each line, he reveals a small devastation, showing just a hint of grain in his vocal. The back half finds Rogers finally singing from his heels a bit, but he never threatens to tip. He navigates a text that’s a thicket of conversational asides, switches from melancholy to wistfulness and back again, and lets Richie’s forlorn arrangement have the last word. He’s out in under four minutes.
“Lady” was the sound of two men taking a flyer on each other, and themselves. Up to this point, Rogers’s solo career had been tracked by one producer, Larry Butler. In February of 1980, largely due to his work with Rogers, Butler had won the Grammy for producer of the year, still the only Nashville producer to do so. Though clearly a young hitmaker, Richie had never produced a session before Kenny asked him to helm “Lady.” (In interviews decades later, the two would cackle at the memory of Richie stopping the recording to write a second verse in the bathroom.) Released to radio in the fall, the song topped the AC and Country charts, and on the chart dated Nov. 15th, 1980, it replaced Barbra Streisand’s “Woman in Love” atop the Hot 100 — where it would reign for six straight weeks. Rogers’ next album, 1981’s Share Your Love, was produced by Lionel Richie.
The song’s success hastened the Commodore’s decision to launch his own blockbuster solo career. On Billboard’s 1981 year-end Hot 100, the top three entries belonged to Carnes (“Bette Davis Eyes”), Richie (“Endless Love” with Diana Ross) and Kenny Rogers’s “Lady”. Whether or not he fully realized it, Rogers had charted a course out of country pop. Barnburners like the Charlie Daniels Band and smooth operators like Pure Prairie League weren’t long for crossover success. Down-home dilettantes — at one point, Tom Jones wore a hat on three straight album covers — would soon be shoving their boots back under the bed.
But in the age between arena rock and MTV, Kenny Rogers was part of the pop firmament. Suburban discos turned into urban cowboy honky-tonks, while back home a thousand basements hummed with DIY energy. But they were all just counter-programming to the agreeable omnipresence of Rogers and his peers.