A Songwriter’s Story With “The Gambler”
A struggling songwriter in his early 20s. He would work the “graveyard shift” as a computer operator at Nashville’s Vanderbilt University. After a couple of hours’ sleep in the morning, he would shower, dress and wearily hit Nashville’s Music Row. This is a common type of story in the Music City, Nashville. However, this particular story belongs to Don Schlitz. He was a composer friend of Bob McDill.
On one particular visit of Don Schlitz to Bob McDill’s office, McDill demonstrated a new “open D” tuning on the guitar. Don Schlitz said in an interview:
“I was really fascinated with the droning sound of it. When I got back to my apartment, I sat down in front of a typewriter and wrote three songs in two hours.”
One of those songs Schlitz wrote that day was “The Gambler”.
However, Don Schlitz had left the song unfinished. In a few more weeks, he added the final eight lines and did cut a demo of the song. But, when no one would record it, his publisher printed up copies of the demo and released them on an independent label. Then, by chance, Capitol picked up the master and released it nationally.
WKDA was the only station in Nashville to give exposure to the record. Schlitz’s recording was eventually stalled nationally after reaching only No. 65 on Billboard’s country chart.
How It Ended Up as a Hit
Because of the airplay from WKDA, “The Gambler” started becoming noticed around town. It came to the attention of producer Larry Butler, who liked it immensely. So much so that he recorded it first with Johnny Cash. He campaigned for Columbia Records to release his recording as a single. Meanwhile, Butler had brought the song to Kenny Rogers as well.
After changing a couple of words and adding a key change, Kenny’s track was completed. It was quickly mastered and rushed onto the market in November 1978. When this happened, Columbia opted not to release Cash’s version. It was a bitter disappointment for him.
After a quick rise of only six weeks, Kenny Rogers’ record reached No. 1 on December 16th where it stayed for three weeks. It gave Kenny Rogers his fifth No. 1 country hit and a signature song that provided the basis for several TV and movies that led to two Grammy awards, two Academy of Country Music awards and a trio of Country Music Association trophies.