Born: August 21, 1938;

Died: March 20, 2020.

KENNY Rogers, who has died aged 81, took country music to the masses, much to the disgust of many country purists and music critics of a certain age. He had Number One hits in the mainstream singles charts in both the US and UK. Two of his hits, The Gambler and Coward of the County, spawned television movies, in which he starred.

With his long, silver hair and neatly trimmed beard, he was almost as familiar a figure as Johnny Cash in his all-black garb. But where Cash was rough and battered, Rogers was smooth, even if his lyrics and indeed, his life, suggested he had been battered almost as much by fate as the Man in Black. His voice was gentle, wistful and sad, his delivery unhurried.

Rogers fathered the first of his five children in a single teenaged tryst. By the mid-1960s he had been married three times and was playing bass guitar in a group in which he felt uncomfortable because he was the oldest, so he grew his hair long, grew a beard, and wore sunglasses and an earring.

The First Edition were going nowhere until Rogers moved in front of the microphone. They had a 1967 US Top Ten hit with a crazy, psychedelic trip of a song called Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In). People did not realise just how cool this song was until 30 years later when it was used as the soundtrack for the most surreal fantasy scenes in the 1998 Coen Brothers film, The Big Lebowski.

The First Edition became Kenny Rogers and the First Edition. They moved into country with a song about hard luck, love, adultery and all that other country stuff, and only Rolf Harris and his Two Little Boys kept Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town from being the 1969 Christmas Number One in the UK.

Coming out at the time of the Vietnam war, it was the story of a soldier, who has come home crippled and understandably bitter about a wife who is carrying on an affair with someone else – “If I could move, I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.” This was not middle-of-the-road; that would come later. Rogers was often at his best as the narrator on story songs.

Kenneth Ray Rogers was born in 1938 in Texas, the fourth of eight children in a family that was Irish on one side, with a little Native American on the other. “We were poor people,” he once said. He may have been poor, but he was no archetypal poor farm-boy. He was born in Houston and grew up in “the projects”. His father, an alcoholic, was a carpenter, his mother a hospital auxiliary.

He played in a doo-wop group at school, then professionally with a jazz band and as a session musician. He joined the New Christy Minstrels as a singer and double-bass player. They were a well-established folk music ensemble. The First Edition were essentially a breakway from that group, initially with Thelma Camacho, who had trained as an opera singer, as lead vocalist.

Rogers eventually went solo and Lucille topped the UK charts in 1977, with its self-pitying chorus from a man whose eponymous spouse has left him “with four hungry children and a crop in the field”. He narrates the song in the role of a man who picks up the wife in a bar, and then her husband comes in with his little speech. Although Lucille and the narrator go to a hotel room the husband’s words come back to him and he cannot go through with the liaison.

In The Gambler (1978), an old man shares his philosophy of life with a fellow traveller before passing away in the night. In Coward of the County (1979), Tommy grows up without a father, who died in prison after getting his son to promise to walk away from trouble. Tommy does until the day the three Gatlin boys violate his wife. They laughed at him when he walked into the bar where they were drinking. “When Tommy turned around they said, ‘Hey look, Old Yeller’s leaving’/But you could’ve heard a pin drop when Tommy stopped and locked the door.”

I was at primary school when Ruby came out and I still remember how sniffy the New Musical Express was about Rogers. This was not outlaw country, but he took country music, country-pop, whatever you want to call it, to a massive audience and into arenas before Garth Brooks did.

In the 1980s he had more international Number Ones, including Lady, and Islands in the Stream, a duet with Dolly Parton, written by the Bee Gees. He did not write his greatest hits but made them his own. He could be schmaltzy, but it seemed so heartfelt.

A man once ostracised by serious music fans was belatedly embraced by a new generation. Rogers once said that his fans were all born before the 1960s or after the 1980s. In 2013 he played at Glastonbury and that same year he was belatedly inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He is survived by his fifth wife, Wanda, and by five children.