In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
This is the first time this has happened: A Number Ones column written about a guy whose death is still fresh in our shared memory. When Rogers died a few weeks ago, the song that I immediately reached for — the song that I think most people reached for — was “The Gambler,” a perfect piece of music. But while “The Gambler” might be Rogers’ signature song, it wasn’t anywhere near his biggest hit. “The Gambler” was a country chart-topper, but it was, by Rogers’ standards, only a moderate crossover, peaking at #16 on the Hot 100. Rogers’ actual biggest hit hasn’t lingered in the cultural consciousness the way “The Gambler” has, but it might be a better example of the kind of omnivorous talent that Rogers really was.
Plenty of country songs have appeared in this column, and plenty more will in the years ahead. But Kenny Rogers still stands as one of the most admirably shameless pop hitmakers in the entire history of country music, a genre not exactly known for its sense of shame. Kenny Rogers was a show-business survivor who had a decades-long hitmaking career and who moved fluidly between genres and modes of expression. He’s most famous as a country star, a glowing greybearded grown-man heartthrob who always seemed to project a certain rich-guy wisdom. But Rogers was an entertainer. He would do anything that would entertain. “Lady” is a demonstration of just how strong his entertainer instincts were.
On “Lady,” Rogers teamed up with songwriter and producer Lionel Richie, still one of the leaders of the Commodores at the time. Richie came from soul and funk, but he became famous for writing and singing smash easy-listening ballads like “Three Times A Lady” and “Still.” “Lady” took both Rogers and Richie out of their respective worlds, helping to transform both of them into adult-contemporary conquerors.
Before making “Lady,” Kenny Rogers had a long and proud history of wandering from genre to genre. Rogers was 42 by the time he scored his first #1, and with his majestic grey mane and beard, he looked older than that. In the decades before “Lady,” Rogers had done just about everything. Growing up in Houston, Rogers won his first talent show in 1949, and he released his first single, a doo-wop ballad called “That Crazy Feeling,” in 1958. For a few years in the early ’60s, Rogers played bass in a jazz trio called the Bobby Doyle Three. Then, in 1966, Rogers joined the New Christy Minstrels, the folk group that had helped launch a bunch of famous singers, including “Eve Of Destruction” singer Barry McGuire, Byrds co-leader Gene Clark, and Rogers’ future duet partner Kim Carnes. (Carnes will eventually appear in this column. McGuire and Clark already have.)
Rogers got tired of playing bass in the New Christy Minstrels pretty quickly. A year after he joined the group, Rogers and three other New Christy Minstrels left to form a psych-rock band called the First Edition. The First Edition scored a big hit with the 1967 psych-rock banger “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” now known to many of us as the Big Lebowski dream-sequence song. (“Just Dropped In” peaked at #5. It’s an 8.) The First Edition — then known as Kenny Rogers & The First Edition — moved in a more definitively country direction when they recorded 1968’s “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town,” a heart-wrenching story-song that the country great Mel Tillis had written a few years ago. On “Ruby,” Rogers’ narrator is a disabled veteran pleading with his wife not to cheat on him. That song will mess you up if you let it. (“Ruby” peaked at #6. It’s a 9.)
The First Edition went a few years without making any hits, and they broke up in 1976. Rogers went solo and immediately dove into country, which was the right move for him. After spending time in doo-wop, jazz, folk, and psychedelia, Rogers understood that country music was his ideal vehicle. Rogers’ voice was a full, sensitive, craggy baritone, capable of hinting at gravitas without diving into melodrama. He hit big in 1977 with the guilt-ridden infidelity song “Lucille,” a country chart-topper that peaked at #5 on the Hot 100. (It’s an 8.) Pretty much everything that Rogers released between 1978 and the mid-’80s hit huge on the country and adult contemporary charts, and plenty of them were top-20 hits on the Hot 100, too. Starting in 1980, Rogers also starred in a series of made-for-TV movies based on “The Gambler.” They made five of those films before the franchise was done. Rogers was based in country, but he was a genuine cross-cultural phenomenon.
In 1980, Rogers had only been putting out solo singles for a few years, but he’d already done well enough to merit a greatest hits album. That greatest-hits collection eventually sold 24 million copies and became the biggest-selling country compilation album of all time. Rogers wanted a new song for the album. He’d been watching what Lionel Richie was doing with the Commodores, and he wanted one of those sweetly devotional love songs for himself.
This was a canny and cynical move. Rogers knew exactly what he was doing. Talking to Billboard at the time, Rogers said, “The idea was that Lionel would come from R&B and I’d come from country, and we’d meet somewhere in pop.” This is exactly what happened. Richie flew to Las Vegas and played Rogers an unfinished demo of “Lady.” Rogers had recorded all of his post-First Edition records up until that point with producer Larry Butler, but he wanted Richie to produce “Lady.” It was Richie’s first time producing for anyone other than the Commodores. During the sessions, Richie disappeared into a bathroom for a while to write a second verse for the song.
In a way, “Lady” is remarkable for how unremarkable it is. It could’ve been a big deal for stars from the worlds of country and R&B to find a way to meet in the middle. Instead, Rogers and Richie turned out to be natural collaborators, and nothing about “Lady” sounded forced. The end product reminds me a bit of “Over And Over,” the 2004 Nelly/Tim McGraw collaboration that peaked at #3. “Lady,” like “Over And Over,” could’ve noisily announced its intentions to fuse two seemingly-opposing modes. (“Over And Over” is a 7. Nelly will eventually appear in this column.) Instead, like “Over And Over,” it’s simply a gentle and graceful ballad from two guys who ultimately make their own kind of sense together.
When he started writing “Lady,” Richie briefly considered keeping the song for himself. (Richie says that his lawyer talked him out of it, convincing Richie that the song would become a whole lot bigger with Rogers singing it.) Richie didn’t really switch up his style at all to fit Rogers. Very little about “Lady” — maybe the soft guitar noodles, maybe the subtle twang in Rogers’ voice — is outwardly country. Instead, it’s a straight-up middle-of-the-road Richie ballad, almost comically similar to “Three Times A Lady” and “Still.” The lyrics are vague and drippy love-song nothings: “My love, there’s something I want you to know/ You’re the love of my life/ You’re my lady.” But it’s more than that, too.
In itself, “Lady” isn’t what I’d call a special song. But the finished product is a case study in the way a singer can elevate a song. Lyrically, there’s nothing dark or conflicted about “Lady.” It’s simply a full-throated declaration of love. But Rogers delivers it in a heavy, tired voice, adding all sorts of emotional dimensions to the thing. Rogers sounds melancholy and wounded and maybe guilty. His delivery suggests more story than we’re hearing in the story. Maybe Rogers’ narrator has fucked around. Maybe he’s pleading because he needs to win somebody back. Maybe what we’re hearing is the fear of losing someone. More likely, it’s a seduction technique: Rogers speaking softly enough to draw someone in.
Kenny Rogers knew how to use his sex appeal on a song like “Lady.” This is an interesting feat, given that Rogers basically looked like a skinny Santa Claus. And yet Rogers made it work. The vocal performance on “Lady” is casually devastating. On the verses, Rogers is quiet and wracked, almost speak-singing. In the chorus, as the strings swell up, Rogers’ voice become bigger and fuller, and he nails all the big notes. But the song’s quiet moments are the ones that stick with you. Even if he’d kept the same arrangement and the same inflections, Richie could’ve never made “Lady” as intense as Rogers did.
By the time Rogers made “Lady,” Nashville country had a long tradition of adding syrupy strings to ballads, giving them the widest pop appeal they could find. With “Lady,” and with a few of his other ballads around the same time, Rogers took that countrypolitan sound and used it to become a bit of a soul singer. “Lady” was the rare song that got play on country, soul, and adult-contemporary radio. In Billboard, it landed on all three charts. On the Hot 100, “Lady” was #1 when Dallas aired its “Who Shot JR?” episode and when John Lennon was murdered.
Out of “Lady,” Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers became lifelong friends. Richie produced Rogers’ next album, 1981’s Share Your Love, and they kept working together for years afterward. Both of them will appear in this column again.
BONUS BEATS: Here’s Saigon’s video for the 2005 mixtape track “True Story,” which is built from a “Lady” sample:
BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s “Lady” soundtracking a perfectly ridiculous Steve Carrell/Kristen Wiig scene from the 2013 film Anchorman 2: The Legend Continues:
BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Lionel Richie and Kenny Rogers recorded a new version of “Lady” together on Richie’s 2012 album Tuskegee, and the also performed it together at a 2012 Richie tribute show on CBS. Here’s video of that performance: