It’s the one song even non-country fans know by heart, and its namesake album was released 36 years ago today.
Kenny Rogers had already enjoyed 20 years of musical success before releasing The Gambler on November 14, 1978. But the album — and especially its title track — led to the season singer’s career skyrocketing to a whole new level. “The Gambler” quickly became Rogers’ signature hit, after its chart-topping, award-winning, television miniseries-inspiring success. In fact, the song is what allowed the Texas native to add “actor” to his resume, as he played the lead role in the namesake TV series.
“That was a career-building song,” says Rogers. “Don Schlitz wrote it, and what’s funny is that he’s never been a gambler. In fact, the song’s not about gambling; it’s a metaphor for life and picking yourself up. He just happened to hear that line when he was walking down the street one day and it stuck with him. It was brilliant.”
Apparently Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash thought so, too. They both recorded it before Rogers, but the “Lucille” singer was the first to make it a hit. Schlitz took home the Grammy for Best Country Song in 1979 for “The Gambler,” while Rogers won Best Male Country Vocal Performance. The LP was the 1979 CMA Album of the Year winner, and also spawned the chart-topper “She Believes in Me” — one of Rogers’ many country-pop crossover hits.
The Gambler has sold more than 35 million copies worldwide. That counts for about a quarter of Rogers’ total album sales.