One of the goals of great songwriting is to write songs that are so compelling that the listener can see the song’s plot unfold, like a movie, in their mind’s eye. For country icon Kenny Rogers, not only is his best-known signature song — 1978-released “The Gambler” — a story song that eventually became a feature film, but it’s also proof of the staying power of truly gripping stories in music.
“The Gambler” wasn’t a sudden aberration in Rogers’ legendary career, though. Back when he was the lead singer of rock and roll, R&B, folk, and country band The First Edition, Rogers’ first mainstream smash came from a cover of Waylon Jennings’ Vietnam veteran heartbreak tale as a song, “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town.” The song was a Top-40 American country hit but crossed over as a Top 10 Hot 100, Adult Contemporary, and a global smash.
Fast-forward to 1978, and Kenny Rogers was five years past The First Edition and in the midst of a solo career that, following 1977’s “Lucille,” was finally starting to catch steam. However, songs from his follow-up albums Daytime Friends and Love or Something Like It had yielded a similar level of a country-to-crossover splash.
Kenny Rogers was 40 years old when he recorded “The Gambler.” It wasn’t necessarily a part of an album cycle for a now-graying performer many deemed just past his prime. Songwriter Don Schlitz wrote the song in August 1976 while on a shift as a computer operator.
“I wrote most of it in my head,” he tells American Songwriter. I thought it was an interesting story, but it was a throwaway. So I spent about six weeks trying to figure out what was gonna happen after the chorus. I finally settled on the eight lines of the last verse,” Schlitz continues. He also adds that this included what he calls his “[French short story writer] ‘Guy de Maupassant’ ending,” wherein the story has no real conclusion, and it’s assumed the gambler dies.
Before Rogers sang “The Gambler,” other country veterans who were well aware of the potential power of a story song gave an attempt at singing it. Notably, Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash — whose roots in the genre extended back a quarter-century, sang it. However, because the song lacks a definitive conclusion, imparting definitive energy on the song is difficult. Is there joy for “The Gambler” when he folds ’em and walks away? Or is it a melancholic anthem tied in the moroseness of the moment? Both Bare and Cash’s versions are more recitations of the lyrics and lack a certain verve. However, something in Kenny Rogers’ creative DNA allowed him to take the song to the next level and create his signature tune.
If anything, Kenny Rogers’ youthful obsession with soul stars like Sam Cooke informed his career with a constant erring towards wanting to infuse all of his reads of lyrics with soul and gravitas. Thus, for “The Gambler,” Rogers’ ability to tell the story of the song’s protagonist with a level of resolute, gruff honesty created the protagonist as something of a three-dimensional character — something that artists like Bare and Cash did not accomplish. Thus, while their versions of “The Gambler” were not so successful, Kenny Rogers’ version of “The Gambler” was a No. 1 country hit that crossed over into the Hot 100 in the top 20. Moreover, it won him the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance.
Moreover, the song took Rogers’ initial dabbling in the film industry to another level of impact. Before 1978, Rogers had started hosting variety show-style made-for-TV specials with CBS. However, given the song’s massive success and broad appeal, Kragen & Company, who had earlier produced Rogers’ CBS TV specials, decided to shoot a feature-style film on 35mm film in the midst of hot springs, streams, fumaroles, natural gas seeps, and volcanic domes in Northern New Mexico. If ever wanting proof of how profoundly a story song can connect to a producer’s dramatic imagination, take a look at CBS’ 1980-debuted film take on “The Gambler.” Kenny Rogers’ first starring role certainly does everything to establish him as a music-to-move superstar worthy of awareness.
When the film was broadcast on CBS, it achieved the highest rating of any TV movie shown in two years on the network. Plus, it received Emmy nominations for Outstanding Cinematography for a Limited Series or Special and Outstanding Film Editing for a Limited Series or a Special. As well, its success spawned four made-for-TV film sequels that aired over the course of 15 years.
Regarding serendipitously finding the song and its success and impact upon his career, Rogers noted the following to Rolling Stone in 2014: [“The Gambler”] was a career-building song. 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.”