In 1976, Johnny Cash had what would be his last-ever solo Number One single with the novelty tune, “One Piece at a Time,” a return to the familiar boom-chick-a-boom sound of his earliest hits. By the next year, however, the globally recognized entertainer was struggling with drug abuse, a problem that had plagued him at the height of his popularity in the late Sixties and early in the Seventies, until second wife June Carter Cash took steps to help straighten him out. Although he continued to record, and even appeared in a made-for-TV movie, early in 1978, the rest of the year proved extremely challenging as he tried to maintain the momentum of that final Number One hit. Enter songwriter Don Schlitz, producer Larry Butler and a song that, by many accounts, might have had an entirely different journey had drugs not been in the picture.
In the summer of 1976, Don Schlitz was working the graveyard shift as a computer operator at VanderbiltUniversity, and shopping his songs around nearby Music Row during the day. During a meeting with Bob McDill, who would soon have a Number One with “Amanda,” cut by Waylon Jennings, the veteran songwriter showed Schlitz a special guitar tuning, inspiring him to write the ghostly tale of a mysterious character simply known as “The Gambler.” In April 1978, Bobby Bare released “The Gambler” on his LP Bare but it slipped by almost unnoticed. Two months later, on June 16th, Kenny Rogers, who was enjoying crossover success with hits including “Lucille” and “Love or Something Like It,” recorded his version, which is, of course, now considered the definitive rendition of the tune and one he parlayed into a series of “Gambler”-centric TV movies.
Rogers‘ cut of the song, however, wasn’t released until October, and in the meantime, Cash, who was recording an LP called Gone Girl for Columbia Records, was encouraged by the album’s producer, Larry Butler, the same Larry Butler who would produce Rogers‘ hit, to take a chance on the song. Butler had already produced Cash’s I Would Like to See You Again album, released in April 1978, then returned to the studio on July 6th, 39 years ago today, recording “The Gambler” for the Man in Black’s next project. The results were lackluster, according to Cash biographer Robert Hilburn, who quotes longtime Cash bassist Marshall Grant as saying, “He kept going into the bathroom and every time he’d come out, he would be a little higher.” Cash gave a listless performance and uncharacteristically argued with Butler over his dislike of the song, causing Butler to eventually send word to Rogers‘ label that they might want to go ahead and release his version as a single. Cash considered it a betrayal, according to manager Lou Robin.
The record-buying public, meanwhile, weren’t too invested in Cash’s material at that point either. When Gone Girl was released in December 1978, two months after Kenny Rogers spent three weeks at Number One with his iconic smash hit, the LP earned less-than-favorable reviews and didn’t even chart. All three of its singles missed the Top Twenty as well. Thankfully, in 1983, Cash checked into the Betty Ford Clinic to address his addiction to amphetamines. He would soon have another Number One single, this time as a member of the superstar quartet, the Highwaymen, with pals Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Waylon Jennings.