Kenny Rogers’ death at age 81 has been mourned around the world, from Sandy Springs, Georgia, where he passed away this weekend surrounded by family and friends, to Houston, Texas, where he grew up in public housing and started his musical career, to Nashville, Tennessee, where he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. But no place on earth lamented the loss of the silver-bearded balladeer more heartically than the Caribbean island of Jamaica. Yes, you read that right.
“Jamaica has crazy love and respect for Kenny Rogers,” dancehall star Busy Signal told me via WhatsApp shortly after the iconic hitmaker’s death. “From me born me hear that.” Busy recorded an awesome Auto-Tune reggae version of “The Gambler” for the 2011 album Reggae’s Gone Country. This weekend he posted a clip of that song’s music video in tribute, hailing the late Kenny Rogers as a “great musical legend” who “inspire youths like myself.” The comments section quickly filled up with heartfelt testimonials from Kenny Rogers–loving Busy fans all over the world.
It’s no surprise that a song like “The Gambler” resonated with a youth like Busy, who knows all about surviving in a lifestyle where you’ve got to “know when to walk away and know when to run.” The dancehall legend Brigadier Jerry—who got caught up in a scene right out of a cowboy movie just last year—reworked Kenny Roger’s anthem “Coward of the County” into one of his signature numbers called “In The Ghetto” (which takes its name from the Elvis Presely song and also interpolates a touch of the Trinidadian singer Lord Creator).
No place on earth lamented the loss of the silver-bearded balladeer more heartically than the Caribbean island of Jamaica.
Cowboy movies have always been popular in Jamaican cinemas, inspiring the names of countless dancehall artists from Josey Wales to Lee Van Cliff and Lone Ranger. But it wasn’t just Kenny Rogers’ rude bwoy selections that found favor with Jamaican listeners. His mastery of cheesy pop songs made him a staple on the island’s sound systems, which have been known to blast pop gems like “Africa” by the Caucasian supergroup Toto, and keep reggae versions of hits by the Australian soft-rock duo Air Supply in heavy rotation.
Kenny Rogers had no clue what to expect when he was first booked on the Air Jamaica Jazz & Blues Festival. “I didn’t know anything about it until I went there,” he explained to a British reporter who asked why he was so popular in Jamaica. “We just assumed it was a show, until we got on the road and it took us four hours to get from our hotel to the concert because so many people were walking to the venue… I never assume people know my music—the minute you assume that you’re in trouble—and they knew every word. One of the most fun performances I’ve ever done. Jamaicans live music, they don’t just listen to it.”
As Busy Signal described the scene, Rogers “could barely hear himself because the entire crowd was singing line for line.” He would go on to perform several times on the island, where he also enjoyed vacationing and even opened a few Kenny Rogers Roasters restaurants. He found that Jamaican audiences knew his catalog so well they would often request songs that he rarely performed. During one show in Kingston, fans demanded he perform “Write Your Name Across My Heart,” which had been covered by the late Jamaican reggae star John Holt. According to the Jamaica Observer, “he sang the lyrics from a sheet of paper to rousing applause.”
I myself learned about Jamaica’s love for the country pop star during my first trip to Jamaica in 1985. I had booked a package deal for Reggae Sunsplash in Montego Bay, and was looking forward to seeing legends like Dennis Brown and Gregory Isaacs live for the first time. They did not disappoint, but that was the trip when I was bitten by the dancehall bug, hearing songs like “Greetings” by Half Pint, “Puppy Love” by Tiger, and Super Cat’s “Vineyard Party” for the first time. I ventured into the streets of Montego Bay searching for copies of these mind-blowing sounds, and managed to locate a record shop near Sam Sharpe Square. When I stepped inside I was shocked to find nothing but Kenny Rogers records displayed on the wall. Although I was able to find a cassette behind the counter with most of the local hits I craved, I never forgot the lesson about the eclectic taste of Jamaican music fans, who love nothing more than melodramatic stories set to memorable melodies. You could fill a whole mixtape or playlist of Kenny Rogers reggae cover versions, and somebody is probably working on one right now (some of my favorites are included at the bottom of this story).
A three-time Grammy winner who sold well over 100 million records during his lifetime, Rogers’ appeal was universal. Notorious among Grand Ole Opry purists for blurring the lines between country and pop, Rogers played stand-up bass in a jazz trio and joined the group First Edition whose breakout hit was a psychedelic rock song. “Islands In The Stream,” his duet with Dolly Parton, was written by The Bee Gees and inspired “Ghetto Superstar” by Pras, Mya and Ol’ Dirty Bastard. He was less a songwriter than a selector, picking hits well suited to his whisky-smooth vocals. He shared the selector’s spirit as well, never tiring of the thrill of the moment when you mash up the place. “I love that,” he once told an interviewer who wondered why he never grew tired of performing the same old hits night after night. “To come out onstage and know that at the end of the show, I’ve got ‘The Gambler’? That’s a weapon to me.”
Nevertheless, I scarcely expected to hear Kenny Rogers’ voice in the middle of Fully Loaded, one of Jamaica’s hardcore soundclashes. The year was 2000 and Wyclef Jean had brought out his Refugee Sound System to compete in Jamaica for the first time. Knowing they would be clashing against heavyweight sounds like King Addies and Tony Matterhorn, Refugee Sound came prepared with dubplate specials by Whitney Houston and Michael Jackson. “Every time I go into the studio, I don’t leave the studio without getting an international dubplate,” Clef boasted that evening.
But he never got a bigger forward than when he dropped the needle on this intro: “Yo this is Kenny Rogers chillin’ on the countryside with men like Wyclef, Jerry Wonder, Big Jack, Big Beast, and we’re gonna do something like this for ya.” As the first lines of “The Gambler” echoed through the air, a gun salute rang out in the night sky above Fort Clarence Beach. Then the beat dropped for Pharaohe Monch’s “Simon Says” and the place went crazy. Needless to say, Refugee Sound won the clash and Clef was so proud of that particular dubplate that he included it on his album The Ecleftic. Kenny Rogers’ favorite musical weapon had just killed another soundbwoy. And like the song says, “somewhere in the darkness, The Gambler he broke even.”
Sister Nancy – “Coward of the Country”
John Holt – “Write Your Name Across My Heart”
JC Lodge & Don Campbell – “Islands in the Stream”
Charly Black – “Write Your Name Across My Heart”
Dennis Brown – “Decorated My Life”
Wayne Wade – “Lady”
Marlon Clarke – “She Believes Me”