It is 40 years since “The Gambler” was first penned by South Carolina-born Don Schlitz. Numerous artists have recorded the track, but no version is more famous than the one released by Kenny Rogers in 1978. It went on to sell almost 800,000 copies and form an enduring legacy not just on country, but on music as a whole. The song has peculiar origins but has left a lasting footprint on the South.
On a warm summer’s eve; on a train bound for nowhere.
It’s one of the great opening lines for any country song, but the beginnings of “The Gambler” weren’t quite as smooth as the track’s first few bars. The song was originally penned by Don Schlitz, a South Carolinian who moved to Nashville to pursue a career in music. He got a job as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University and worked nights while shopping his songs around the Nashville studios in the day.
Eventually, Schlitz got his break. Thanks to some connections at Capitol Records, he recorded his own version of “The Gambler” and set the single for release. It charted at a respectable 65, but it wasn’t long before the track was re-recorded.
“The Gambler” was presented to famous country music producer Larry Butler, who liked the song enough to encourage a couple of his acts to put it on their next albums. Those two acts just happened to be Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers, with the latter releasing his 1978 album The Gambler a month before Cash did.
“I got a funny feeling,” Butler apparently said to Rogers, “that if you do this, you will become the Gambler.”
His words certainly rung true as Rogers’ single went on to become a huge success. It shot straight to No. 1 in the country music charts and even broke the top 20 of the pop charts, a rare feat for the time. To date, the track has sold close to 800,000 copies and continues to be one of Rogers’ most enduring hits.
I met up with the gambler; we were both too tired to sleep.
“The Gambler” is a narrative song that tells the story of how the singer met up with an old gambler on a train. The two strangers get to talking, and the old man gives the narrator some life advice, which he learned through years of playing cards.
It’s a nice story, but does it actually ring true to real life?
“At that point in my life, I’d never been on a train,” the songwriter once explained in an interview.
“It’s a song, a story, and somehow the combination of Kenny’s persona and the droning melody and the fact that it broke all the rules at the time (too long, no love interest, not exactly a great dance record, it took too long to get to the chorus) … made it a record that is more than a songwriter should ever expect.”
At its core, “The Gambler” is a classic song of love and life. The advice given by the old man is just as much about life as playing cards. It’s about making the best of the hand you’re dealt, which is perhaps why the track has resonated with so many people down the years.
And in his final words; I found an ace that I could keep.
“The Gambler” enjoys a lasting legacy even today. For Rogers, the song became a persona. “Kenny Rogers as The Gambler” was a 1980 television movie, which starred the singer as his on-screen alter ego. Multiple sequels followed with the adventures of Brady Hawkes concluding with the 1994 movie “Gambler V: Playing for Keeps.”
Unsurprisingly, the song continues to have an effect in the gambling industry. According to trusted online casino sites, they rank “The Gambler” as one of the best examples of casino life in music, and it has proven popular with poker players too.
Every gambler knows; That the secret to survivin’; Is knowin’ what to throw away; And knowin’ what to keep; ‘Cause every hand’s a winner; And every hand’s a loser.
It’s good advice to any gambler looking to cash in. Players should know that every hand can be a winner if they play their cards right.
The song’s influence can also be felt in wider culture. It has appeared in multiple television adverts, as well as being sung by characters on shows like “King of the Hill” and “The Office.” Rogers even made an appearance on “The Muppet Show,” where the track is re-enacted with a little help from The Muppets and puppeteer Jerry Nelson.
Even after 40 years, the legacy of “The Gambler” still lives on. After being penned by Don Schlitz (pictured) back in 1976, the track reached new heights with its re-recorded versions by Johnny Cash and Kenny Rogers. The song formed a new persona for the latter, which led to television appearances and a movie series. The song’s lyrics and message resonate with both gamblers and the general public even today.