"With all that Kenny has made in his life, he like me, was brought up very poor," Dolly Parton says of her beloved friend in the Biography: Kenny Rogers special

By Darlene Aderoju
April 13, 2020 10:00 AM
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Credit: Ebet Roberts/Redferns

The late Kenny Rogers was a music legend and beloved country star — but like many Americans, his upbringing was plagued with financial hardships.

On March 20, he died of natural causes surrounded by family, his loved ones confirmed in a statement. He was 81. He is survived by his wife Wanda Miller and his five children Kenny Jr., Christopher, Jordan, Carole and Justin.

Rogers earned three Grammys, 18 American Music Awards and he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame over the course of his decades-long career. During his last on-camera appearance before his death, the late music icon opened up about some of the adversity he overcame throughout his life. PEOPLE has the exclusive first look at never-before-seen footage from his final interview in the Biography: Kenny Rogers special, which premieres Monday, April 13 at 9 p.m. local time on A&E.

“My father played fiddle, and all his brothers and sisters played instruments,” Rogers recalled in the documentary. “They would all get on the front porch and play, and all the family would sit out in the yard.”

Kenny Rogers

The special chronicles Rogers’ iconic life from humble beginnings in his childhood to his rise to fame. His brother Roy and sister Sandy along with fellow stars including Dolly Parton, 74, Lionel Richie, 70, Chris Stapleton, 41, Reba McEntire, 65, Little Big Town, Lady Antebellum and Jamey Johnson, 44, pay tribute to the country music legend in the documentary which features behind-the-scenes footage from his 2017 star-studded farewell concert All in for the Gambler — his career culmination show in which each musician performed.

“You don’t do something for 70 years and just walk away from it,” the star said in reference to his tribute concert.

Kenny and wife Wanda Miller Rogers
| Credit: Joshua Timmermans

“With all that Kenny has made in his life, he like me, was brought up very poor,” Parton says of her beloved friend. “We understood that world, and how much we wanted things.”

Rogers was behind 120 hit singles. “Any time you think that he might be down and out, he was the comeback kid,” Parton said of Rogers. “I’d forgotten myself how many great hit records that Kenny had.”

Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
| Credit: Wally Fong/AP/REX/Shutterstock
Kenny Rogers and Dolly Parton
| Credit: Joshua Timmermans

Rogers’ siblings recall some of their financial struggles. “We were poor, there’s no doubt about that,” his brother Roy says of their family. “We struggled, you know, but we had faith that we would make it through,” his sister Sandy says.

The Rogers family was raised in the projects of Houston. “Kenny, I think from a very early age, is acutely aware that his life in the projects is not like just a few blocks over where somebody has a nice sprinkler system and a lawn. You don’t have that in the projects,” country music journalist Robert K. Oermann, 72, says of the singer.

Though they were living in low-income housing, Sandy says everyone in their neighborhood had formed a community in which “everybody got along” and “everybody knew everybody.”

Kenny Rogers
| Credit: Paul Natkin/Getty

“It was always music, he had uncles that played. He himself was highly musical,” Oermann says. Sandy says the star “sang all the time” and shared that she believes singing was always his true passion — ultimately, his musical talent became his golden ticket into a better life.

Rogers is missed by many, including one of his best friends Richie. “Today I lost one of my closest friends 💔,” he wrote on Instagram when news of Rogers’ death broke. “So much laughter so many adventures to remember, my heart is broken. My prayers go out to Kenny’s Family🙏.”

Hillary Scott of Lady Antebellum — whose mother toured with the late musician as a backup singer and who later opened for Rogers with her own band — remembers the late artist as “truly the greatest.”

She previously told PEOPLE: “He was an incredible gift to the world through his decades-long career. Our family got to know his generosity, his kindness and his brilliance firsthand. My mom toured with him for years and Lady Antebellum got to open up for him in Switzerland, but he also opened so many doors for us on tour in Europe. His family and all of his friends are in my prayers as they grieve.”

Longtime friend Parton also shared her emotional thoughts at the time of Rogers’ death. “I know that we all know that Kenny’s in a better place than we are today, but I’m for sure he’s going to be talking to God some time today if he’s ain’t already, and going to be asking him to spread some light onto this darkness going on here,” she said. “But I loved Kenny with all my heart and my heart’s broken and a big ol’ chunk has gone with him today.”

The Biography: Kenny Rogers special on the entertainer’s incredible life airs on A&E Monday, April 13 at 9 p.m. local time.