Kenny Rogers had dedicated nearly 60 years of his life to the music industry, so it’s no longer a surprise when he built a pretty massive music library. One of his most iconic songs was “The Gambler,” which won him the Grammy award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980.
“On a warm summer’s eve, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with the gambler…” it begins. But did you know that he did not write that famous line? Kenny Rogers wasn’t even the first person to record that song.
It Was Only Kenny Rogers Who Made “The Gambler” A Commercial Success
The song was written by songwriter Don Schlitz in August 1976 when he was only twenty-three years old. “I wrote it while walking home from a meeting with my mentor, Bob McDill [writer of songs by Waylon Jennings, Anne Murray, among others]. I walked from his office over on Music Row to my apartment, and in that 20 minutes, I wrote most of it in my head,” Schlitz revealed. “I didn’t write a last verse, had no idea what was gonna happen, thought it was an interesting story, but it was a throwaway.”
It took Schlitz about six weeks to finish the entire song. However, it took him two years of shopping the song all over Nashville before country music singer Bobby Bare recorded it on his album Bare. But Bare’s version didn’t catch on, and the song was never released as a single, so Schlitz recorded it himself.
To the songwriter’s dismay, his version failed to chart higher than No. 65. Other musicians took notice and recorded the song in 1978, this includes Conway Twitty’s son, Michael Twitty, and Johnny Cash, who put it on his album Gone Girl. But it was only Kenny Rogers who made the song a mainstream success. His rendition was a No. 1 Country hit and even made its way to the Hot 100 at the time when country songs hardly crossed over.
“The Gambler” Made A Big Impact in Kenny Rogers and Don Schlitz’s Careers
In an interview with Rolling Stone in 2014, Kenny Rogers referred to “The Gambler” as “a career-building song.”
This song definitely made a big impact on both Kenny Rogers and its writer Don Schlitz. Rogers, at that time, was already on a roll from the success of “Lucille” and his work with Dottie West. He already had three No. 1 Country hits under his belt, but it was “The Gambler” that gave him the title track to his biggest-selling album.
The song also landed Kenny Rogers into the small screen. In 1980, Rogers appeared in an American western television film, The Gambler, as Brady Hawkes, a fictional old-west gambler. It turned out to be the highest-rated TV film of the year. Kenny Rogers even reprised the character in four more made-for-TV movies, the last called Gambler V: Playing for Keeps in 1994.
As for Don Schlitz, he was able to quit his day job as a computer operator and became a full-time songwriter. Some of his most notable songs include “On the Other Hand” by Randy Travis and “He Thinks He’ll Keep Her” by Mary Chapin Carpenter.
Don Schlitz also won a Grammy for Best Country Song for “The Gambler.” But the funny thing is, Schlitz has never been a gambler. Rogers revealed that the song “is not about gambling.” The country singer said: “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.”
The music video for “The Gambler” is also as iconic as the song itself. Kenny Rogers, dressed in Western-themed clothing, sings to the camera while seated at a poker table. Watch the music video below.