In the late Sixties and early Seventies, Kenny Rogers, lead singer of the group First Edition, enjoyed success on the pop charts. It wasn’t until he went solo in 1975 that the bearded singer with the gravelly voice began routinely scoring country hits. His first chart-topper, 1977’s “Lucille,” was a Top Five pop hit as well, setting the stage for a career in which he established a strong foothold in both genres, as well as a regular presence in the ballad-heavy adult contemporary format at the same time.
In mid-December 1978, Rogers began a three-week run at Number One on the country chart with one of the greatest story-songs of all time. “The Gambler,” the otherwise unnamed focus of the song, is one of the passengers on “train bound for nowhere,” who teaches the song’s narrator some valuable life lessons before quietly taking his place at that great poker table in the sky.
The song was penned by Don Schlitz, a struggling writer in his 20s who worked the graveyard shift as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University, not far from Nashville’s Music Row. One day when Schlitz met up with veteran writer Bob McDill (soon to have a Number One with “Amanda,” cut by Waylon Jennings), McDill showed him a special guitar tuning. Fascinated, Schlitz then walked the couple of miles back to his apartment with most of the song written in his head. He put the finishing touches on it and even released the song himself, as did Conway Twitty’s son, Charlie Tango. The Schlitz version was on the charts (peaking at 65) in the summer of 1978, as was a cut by singer Hugh Moffatt. Other versions were recorded nearly simultaneously by Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash. Rogers’ producer, Larry Butler, took the song to Kenny, who eventually released it as the title cut to his album, released in November.
“I got a funny feeling,” Butler told the singer, “that if you do this, you will become the Gambler.” Which is precisely what happened. The song signaled the beginning of a whole new career for the Texas native, as Rogers would soon star in a series of “Gambler” films as character Brady Hawkes. The tune would also inspire a slot machine and, more recently, a comical GEICO insurance ad in which Rogers annoys his card-playing buddies by singing a snippet of the tune.
Perhaps the most inspired co-opting of the ubiquitous hit was its use in a segment of The Muppet Show in October 1979. The wacky episode — which also found Rogers dealing with oil traders in his dressing room — recreated the song’s storyline by pairing Rogers’ singing with three life-sized (and eerily human-looking) Muppets riding a train with him. Unlike the song, most of the Gambler’s lines in the Muppets version are spoken by the title character seated across from the singer. Although the original song was kept deliberately ambiguous with regard to the Gambler’s fate, many assumed he “broke even” by dying at the end. That scenario is played out in this version with the ghost of the Gambler rising up and echoing Rogers as he sings the familiar “know when to hold ’em and know when to fold ’em” lines.
Having taken its place among the greatest country songs of all time, “The Gambler” remains Rogers’ signature song and a live concert staple. While Schlitz would go on to write such country classics as “When You Say Nothing at All” and “Forever and Ever, Amen,” it was this song that earned him his first CMA award for Best Country Song (he famously accepted the honor during the telecast wearing a Knack t-shirt, the band at that time making waves with their debut hit, “My Sharona”). In addition to being a dressing-room anthem for England in the 2007 Rugby World Cup, in 2007 the song was remixed by rapper Wyclef Jean and Pharoahe Monch, with Rogers singing a new set of lyrics to the tune.
This story was originally published December 17, 2015.