Kenny Rogers scored the defining hit of his career when he released “The Gambler” in 1978, but he was not the first artist to record the song. Another well-known star cut it before him, and another legend recorded it at the same time he did, while yet another all-time icon passed on the song entirely … after Rogers tried to give it to him.
Songwriter Don Schlitz had been struggling in Nashville for a couple of years when he wrote “The Gambler” in 1976. He was working the graveyard shift as a computer operator during the period when he got the inspiration for the song that would change his life and earn an indelible place in pop culture.
Schlitz was walking back to his apartment from the Music Row office of his mentor, songwriter Bob McDill, when he got the idea for the song, he recalls to American Songwriter.
“In that 20 minutes I wrote most of it in my head,” he says. “I didn’t write a last verse, had no idea what was gonna happen, thought it was an interesting story but it was a throwaway. I spent about six weeks trying to figure out what was gonna happen after the chorus.”
He finished the song by implying the death of the title character, though it’s not directly stated. He began pitching it around Nashville, but was met with resistance due to the song’s unusual structure and subject matter.
“Nobody would touch it,” Schlitz recalls, but finally Bobby Bare cut the song, releasing it in April of 1978. His version from Bare was a straighter reading of the material, without the dramatic flair Rogers would eventually impart, and it was not released as a single.
Schlitz also cut the song himself in 1978, and his earthy take reached No. 65, though it’s mostly forgotten today.
“The Gambler” came to the attention of Larry Butler, who was simultaneously producing new albums from Kenny Rogers and Johnny Cash. He recorded the song in very different versions with both artists, and in the end, a recurrence of Cash’s well-documented struggle with drugs may have cost him a hit on one of the most impactful songs of that era.
According to Rolling Stone, Cash was under the influence of drugs and distracted at the recording session for “The Gambler.” He gave a perfunctory performance that is obvious in the final product and argued with Butler over how much he disliked the song, and the result is a take on the material that is surprisingly dull, juxtaposing a monotonous instrumental track and a vocal performance that is partly spoken-word recitation.
Rogers, by contrast, gave a spirited vocal performance over an arrangement that introduces tension into the narrative, featuring an unexpected modulation before the second verse and a dramatic breakdown call-and-response that brings the story to life so vividly that it’s as if the listener is inside the train car, rolling through the night as the scene takes place.
Butler gave Rogers’ label the nod to release his definitive rendition of “The Gambler” as a single, and Rogers made it the title song of his new album, releasing the song as the lead single on Oct. 9, 1978, in advance of the album. Cash included the song on his Gone Girl album, which he released within days of Rogers’ new project that November, but most fans don’t even know that he ever recorded the song.
Rogers’ recording of “The Gambler” reached No. 1 on Billboard‘s Hot Country Songs chart, No. 3 in adult contemporary and No. 16 on Billboard‘s mainstream Hot 100 chart, and The Gambler album earned a Grammy nomination for Album of the Year, while the single scored a nomination for Record of the Year.
Rogers won a Grammy for Best Country Vocal Performance, Male for “The Gambler,” and the song has gone on to become his signature song, even spawning a string of TV movies in which Rogers brought the character to life on screen.
Incredibly, Rogers himself nearly missed out on the career-changing song. Willie Nelson admits he passed on “The Gambler” when Rogers tried to pass the song along to him.
“We were somewhere, I don’t know, and he was like, ‘I think you should do it,’ and he played it for me and I said, ‘You know, I think it’s a great song, but I don’t think I’m going to do it,’ because at the time, I was doing a song every night called ‘Red Headed Stranger’ which has 100 verses in it,” Nelson recalled on the Today show in July of 2020. “I just didn’t want to do another long song, so he said, ‘Okay, I will record it myself,’ so he did.”
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