The country music world lost one of its biggest ever male stars in 2020 when Kenny Rogers passed away at his Georgia home. Inevitably, a whole host of tributes poured in for the man who also enjoyed success as an actor, producer and businessman. But it was the heartfelt eulogy from his “Islands in the Stream” duet partner Dolly Parton that had everyone reaching for the tissues.
Rogers had been largely absent from the spotlight in the two years leading up to his death. The star had been forced to cut short his The Gambler’s Last Deal farewell tour in 2018 due to ill health. His final live performance came at Nashville’s Bridgestone Arena in October 2017 where he was accompanied by a whole host of star names including Billy Currington and Lionel Richie.
In March 2020 the news emerged that Rogers had died aged 81 at his home in the Georgian city of Silver Springs. The singer’s family revealed that they’d been present at the time he passed away from natural causes. They also confirmed that Rogers had been receiving hospice care prior to his death.
Keith Hagan, who had been Rogers’ publicist for 15 years, wrote in an official statement that his client would be sorely missed. He said, “Kenny Rogers left an indelible mark on the history of American music. His songs have endeared music lovers and touched the lives of millions around the world.”
Sadly Rogers’ family weren’t immediately able to give him the send-off they would have liked. However, they revealed that they’d still be initially organizing an intimate service to mark his passing. And the singer’s nearest and dearest also stated that they’d be planning a more public celebration of his life in the future.
From “Coward of the County” to “She Believes in Me,” Rogers scored many Top Ten hits during his enduring career. But he’ll perhaps best be remembered for “Islands in the Stream,” his 1983 duet with Dolly Parton. Of course, the chart-topping single wasn’t the first or the last time that the country legends had worked together.
Rogers and Parton forged a friendship in the home of country music, Nashville, long before they became household names. And they continued to help each other’s careers from then on. In the 1970s, the latter landed her very own syndicated show but was struggling for guests. Luckily, she knew exactly to whom to turn.
In a 1990 chat with news agency Associated Press, Parton discussed the moment that Rogers came to her rescue. She said, “Kenny was a big star, and I couldn’t get any people on my show. Kenny said, ‘I’ll do it,’ and I’ll never forget it. He’s always been there for me as a friend.”
The pair’s paths crossed again in the early 1980s with a little help from a Bee Gee. Barry Gibb had gifted Rogers a track called “Islands in the Stream,” but the singer was left unsatisfied with its recording. To save the song, Gibb suggested turning the solo number into a duet and with none other than Dolly Parton.
By sheer luck, Parton was actually in the same studio building at the time. And after being tracked down by Rogers’ manager, the buxom blonde agreed to collaborate. Rogers told People magazine, “She came marching into the room, and once she came in and started singing, the song was never the same. It took on a personality of its own.”
And the rest is country music history. “Islands in the Stream” reached the top spot on both sides of the Atlantic on its 1983 release and has since become a karaoke favorite. In 1986 Parton admitted, “We didn’t plan it. People just put us together because they liked us together. We did that one song and out of that came years of concerts and friendship.”
The huge success of the song left many clamoring for even more Parton and Rogers collaborations. The country duo ensured they kept such fans happy by heading back into the studio to record a festive album just a year later, Once Upon a Christmas. And the pair weren’t done there, either.
In 1985 the duo released the single “Real Love” and followed it up five years later with “Love is Strange.” Parton then penned a track, “Undercover,” for Rogers’ 2003 album Back to the Well. And then in 2014 they both picked up a Grammy Award nomination in the Country Duo/Group category for “You Can’t Make Old Friends.”
And the pair haven’t been afraid to talk about how much they admired one another over the years. While appearing on Parton’s 1980s TV show, Rogers discussed how their similar spiritual beliefs and upbringings had helped to bring them closer together. He then described the host as a “very special person who has a very special place in my life.”
In a 2013 interview with Southern Living magazine, Rogers was asked about his most cherished memory of his fellow country icon. He recalled the moment when they were in the recording studio working on what would be their last duet. Parton suddenly embraced him before quipping, “Kenny, I think you should know. I could never sing at your funeral.”
A chuckling Rogers then continued, “I went, ‘So we’re assuming I’m going first?’ But I love her for that. You never know what she’s going to say, but it always comes from love.” Of course, many people have wondered whether this love has ever developed from platonic to something more romantic.
In 2013 Gayle King remarked, “We all want you to get together,” when Rogers visited the CBS This Morning set. The Grammy winner reminded the host that both he and Parton were married to different people. “Why would you want us to get together?” a smiling Rogers queried, much to the amusement of the show’s anchors.
King was then informed by Rogers that he and Parton had occasionally engaged in some flirting that had been entirely “harmless.” But he was also keen to state that there had never been any substance to the constant rumors. He added, “Dolly and I have been accused of having an affair for the last 30 years. And we never did.”
The nature of Parton and Rogers’ relationship also cropped up when they joined TODAY’s Dylan Dreyer for a chat in 2017. And they were both in playful mood. When asked by the TV show host why they’d never got together, Rogers replied, “First of all, she’s hard to look at for me.” Parton responded, “I’m not his type.”
Rogers continued to take the question entirely unseriously, adding, “I’m a believer that tension is better if you keep it than if you satisfy it. And then secondly, she said no to me.” Parton then attempted to give a more mature answer, revealing, “You know what, we were almost like brother and sister. And it would almost be like incest. So we just never went there.”
Parton then reflected on why she thought her friendship with Rogers had lasted for so long. She said, “We’re so much alike. We know the same people. We laugh at the same kind of jokes. I tell jokes and I tell him not to tell that I told the joke.”
When asked about their all-time favorite duet together, Parton replied, “I really love ‘You Can’t Make Old Friends.’ We love that because it’s so personal to both of us.” The star also mentioned their signature hit before Rogers chimed in, “I think the memories play a big part in “‘Islands [in the Stream].’ I think when you look back on anything, it’s kind of the impact it had on you and your life at that time.”
The long-time buddies were speaking ahead of Rogers’ farewell All in for the Gambler show. And Parton, who was also performing at the concert, admitted she had mixed feelings about the night. She told Dreyer, “I don’t think I feel as scared and as empty as some of the fans do, because Kenny and I are friends, and I imagine that we can go visit and maybe once in a while light into a little bit of a song or two.”
Of course, Parton sadly didn’t get the chance to visit her regular singing partner on many more occasions. For less than three years after the pair shared the stage for the final time, Rogers passed away. Parton shared her shock at the news with her Instagram followers and delivered a heartfelt tribute to her longtime comrade.
In her unmistakable Southern accent Parton began her post, “Well, I couldn’t believe it. This morning when I got up and turned on the TV… they told me that my friend and singer-partner Kenny Rogers had passed away.” Sitting in front of her piano, Parton then offered some spiritual words of comfort.
“And I know that we all know Kenny is in a better place than we are today,” Parton added. “But I’m for sure, he’s going to be talking to God sometime today if he ain’t already. He’s going to be asking him to spread some light on a bunch of this darkness going on here.”
An emotional Parton continued, “But I loved Kenny with all my heart. My heart’s broken and a whole chunk of it has gone with him today. And I think, I can speak for all his family, friends, and fans when I say that I will always love you.” This was, of course, a reference to the iconic song Parton wrote and that was later covered by Whitney Houston.
The Country Music Hall of Famer concluded her heartfelt social media tribute by showing followers a framed picture of herself and Rogers. She then addressed her old friend directly, telling him, “God bless you, Kenny. Fly high, straight to the arms of God. And to the rest of you, keep the faith.”
Parton also captioned the video, “You never know how much you love somebody until they’re gone. I’ve had so many wonderful years and wonderful times with my friend Kenny, but above all the music and the success I loved him as a wonderful man and a true friend. So you be safe with God and just know that I will always love you, Dolly.”
Of course, plenty of other major country stars took to social media to pay their respects. Billy Ray Cyrus posted a photo of himself and his daughter Miley posing with both Rogers and Parton on Instagram. He captioned it, “No one bridged the gap between country and pop more often and better than Kenny Rogers. He will be missed.”
Reba McEntire also shared a photo of herself on Instagram with the late star complete with the message, “Kenny, go rest high on that mountain. Please tell mama and daddy hi for me. Thank you for your friendship and your love. We are going to miss you but we are so happy you’re singing with the angels in heaven.”
Keith Urban decided to pay tribute to Rogers in song. The Australian also roped in his wife Nicole Kidman to perform a cover of “The Gambler.” Urban said, “I grew up playing a lot of his music… and, I mean, it’s hard to narrow down to one song… but his solo songs. So many great ones… and I wanted to do this one, probably the most iconic around the world.”
The Voice U.S.A.’s Blake Shelton also spoke highly of the iconic vocalist in a heartfelt tweet. The TV show judge wrote, “I can’t express on Twitter the impact Kenny Rogers the artist and the man had on me. He was always very kind and fun to be around. Rest In Peace Gambler.”
Travis Tritt took to the same platform, too, to offer his condolences. He wrote, “Kenny was a friend who helped me in so many ways early on. He was always funny, kind and full of advice. Kenny’s legacy of great music will live on forever. My deepest condolences to Wanda and family.”
Tritt was, of course, referring to Rogers’ fifth wife Wanda Miller. She and Rogers had walked down the aisle together in 1997 and the pair later welcomed twin sons into the world. The country star is also survived by three other children from his previous marriages. Parton, meanwhile, has been married to Carl Thomas Dean since 1966.
And one of Rogers’ four ex-wives Marianne Gordon also paid tribute to the star in an interview with Closer Weekly magazine. She said, “For 17 of 21 years, every day, he was so sweet. I always felt his total focus was on me. If anyone wanted anything from him, he was looking me in the eye and said, ‘Whatever she wants to do.’”
Gordon also opened up about why she felt their marriage fell apart, adding, “I think that when he turned 50, I didn’t have his full attention any more. But it looked like he still wanted me here. His life is such an open book and after two years he felt this craving, this longing. He said he felt like he was having a midlife crisis. He felt like his career was fading.”
Rosemary’s Baby actress Gordon was also keen to state that Rogers’ longtime friendship with Parton was never an issue in their marriage. She said, “I never felt uncomfortable at all.” However, Gordon, who was married to Rogers from 1977 until 1993, joked that she wouldn’t have been surprised if Parton had once made a move.
Gordon admitted to Closer Weekly, “It’s entered my mind because he [Rogers] always said she [Parton] thought like a man.” The mother of the late country singer’s third child went on to clarify, “I don’t mean it badly. Dolly is a fun girl.” Gordon also believes that even if Parton had made a move, Rogers would have turned her down.
Indeed, Gordon told the magazine that she never had any problem trusting her ex-husband when it came to his high-profile friendship. She added, “Kenny said, ‘I like her as a friend and we have a great thing on stage. We’d lose it. There is sexual tension and teasing each other and it would screw it up.’”