Kenny Rogers died on Friday, March 20 at 81. The Country Hall of Fame singer first met his longtime friend Lionel Richie in 1980, not long after he had his first hits as a solo artist with “Lucille” and “The Gambler.” Rogers didn’t write songs. (In his entire career, he only released two songs with his own songwriting credit.) But, as he liked to say, he “knew how to pick ‘em.”
“I’ve always said there’s one word synonymous with ‘hit,’” Rogers said in 2013. “And that’s familiarity. It’s not going to be a hit until everyone knows it — not just recognizes it but can sing it.” Richie would write him a hit that people would sing all over the world.
In 1980, Richie was still with the group the Commodores and Rogers was looking for a power ballad. “I had written ‘Lady’ for the Commodores, and they didn’t want it,” Richie tells PEOPLE exclusively. “’Kenny wants to have the song,’ they told me.” Two weeks later, the song was finished. “When ‘Lady’ came out, it was an explosion onto the music scene.” A No. 1 hit — and an unlikely friendship — was forged. “It was a mutual admiration society.”
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Richie began to lean on Rogers as a mentor — a relationship that would continue for the next four decades. Richie says the pair was the “oddest of odd couples. Abbott and Costello, Laurel and Hardy, whatever you want to call it. That was us.”
He began to think of Rogers as an older brother. Richie credits Rogers thanking him for writing ‘Lady’ from the stage of the American Music Awards as the beginning of his own solo career.
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Kenny Rogers and Lionel Richie
“Everything that happened in my life, truthfully, from that moment on, had a Kenny Rogers stamp on it. I couldn’t have asked for a better mentor. When I was going through everything, leaving the Commodores, trying to be a solo artist, trying to figure out what that means — he was that guy.”
Richie says Rogers would give him his brand of straight talk. “’Listen Lionel, this is what’s going to happen, this is what you’re going to feel,’” he would tell Richie. “Everything I thought was the end of the world, he would start laughing. And would ask him, ‘Why are you laughing? I am telling you something dire.’ And he said, ‘I’m from Houston, Texas. I’m from a poor family. You don’t know what hardship is.'”
“Kenny had the ability to just laugh through absolute disaster,” Richie says, who traveled with the man known to many as The Gambler, even sharing the story of wild sailing trip in the Bahamas with Jimmy Kimmel in 2018. “He made everything in my life, up until his death, just an enjoyable ride, man. Kenny was all about love.”
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For more on the lasting legacy on Kenny Rogers, pick up the latest issue on PEOPLE, on newsstands Friday.