Forty-two years ago today (Nov. 15, 1978) was a life-altering day for Kenny Rogers: It was on that date that the singer’s multi-platinum-selling album The Gambler was released. Rogers was already one of the most successful male vocalists in country music by the time he released The Gambler, but the record catapulted him to superstar status, becoming a worldwide hit and even launching a string of TV movies.
Rogers had kicked around the music business for decades before finding success as a country singer, as a member of the New Christy Minstrels, then as the frontman for the First Edition, who scored hits with “Just Dropped in (to See What Condition My Condition Was In)” and “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” But by his late 30s, he was thrice-divorced, his band had broken up, and he was deeply in debt, with no prospects for work. So, Rogers re-invented himself by going to Nashville, where he signed a recording deal as a solo artist.
Over the course of five albums, Rogers scored hits including “Lucille,” “Daytime Friends,” “Sweet Music Man” and “Every Time Two Fools Collide.” But in a song called “The Gambler” — written by a young Nashville writer named Don Schlitz — he found his career single. The title track of The Gambler, which became Rogers’ fourth No. 1 hit, made the now-country icon into a worldwide star.
“I think I’ve had songs that were bigger in sales,” he notes, “but none that were bigger in identity for me. I go to Korea, and people say, ‘Oooh, “The Gambler.”‘ And it’s really sweet. It’s really cute. I think those are career-making songs.”
Rogers was not the first artist to record “The Gambler;” rather, Schlitz himself had recorded it, as had Bobby Bare. Johnny Cash also recorded “The Gambler,” though his version was not released until Rogers’ rendition had become an enormous hit.
Rogers’ longtime producer, Larry Butler, produced “The Gambler” and the The Gambler album, which also contained tracks by top Nashville writers such as Mickey Newbury and Alex Harvey; Rogers himself wrote the closing track, “Morgana Jones.” Songs like “King of Oak Street” and ‘”I Wish That I Could Hurt That Way Again” have become fan favorites — and the latter became a hit for T. Graham Brown in 1986 — and the 11-track album also includes the chart-topping hit “She Believes in Me.”
Thanks to the success of “The Gambler and “She Believes in Me,” The Gambler was an instant success. The project landed at No. 1 on Billboard‘s country chart and made it to the Top 20 on the pop albums chart as well. In 1979, Rogers won a Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance for “The Gambler.”
The Gambler also started Rogers on a new career path: The singer took on his first acting role, performing as gambler Brady Hawkes in the 1980 film Kenny Rogers as the Gambler, based on the success of the record. The TV movie was so successful that Rogers filmed four sequels.
Rogers, now in his 80s, has released more than 20 additional studio albums since “The Gambler” and has been inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. He retired from the road in 2018.
The Gambler album is available for purchase on Amazon.
This story was originally written by Gayle Thompson, and revised by Annie Zaleski.
See Kenny Rogers’ + More Country Stars’ Yearbook Pictures: