|For Kenny Rogers, "The Gambler" Was A Winning Hand
It's rare when the title of a hit song becomes the singer's name, but that's what happened when
Kenny Rogers released "The Gambler" over 40 years ago in 1978.
Written by Don Schlitz, "The Gambler" became a No. 1 hit on Billboard's country chart for Mr. Rogers and
reached No. 16 on the pop chart. Mr. Rogers and Mr. Schlitz both won Grammy Awards for the song. Recently
Mr. Schlitz and Mr. Rogers looked back at writing and recording this song. . .
In 1973 after three semesters at Duke University, I dropped out at age 20 and boarded a bus from Durham,
N.C. to Nashville. I had just $89 in my pocket. I wanted to be a songwriter. I took a job as a computer operator
at Vanderbilt University. i worked the graveyard shift, from 11 pm to 7 am.
In the morning after work, I'd sometimes head off to the office of Bob McDill, one of the best songwriters in
Nashville. He had agreed to see me regularly to hear my songs, critique them and give me advice. It was my
first real break. One day in August 1976, when I was 23, I was in Bob's office and told him I was having trouble
cranking out songs. Bob showed me as open-D tuning on the guitar, so all six strings played a D-major chord.
By strumming three different chords using that tuning, Bob created a drone sound that was an ideal backdrop
for writing songs. I walked a mile back to my studio apartment on Fairfax Avenue. Along the way, those three
chords and that drone sound stuck in my head. I started writing lyrics to a song. The strumming sound in my
head sounded like a train. So I wrote about a young guy on train who meets an older gambler.
By the time I arrived home, I had the song's story and most of the lyrics done in my head - all except for the
last eight-line verse. I titled the song "The Gambler." My 10th grade English teacher had emphasized the
importance of a title. The idea for the gambler my have been inspired by my father, who had died a couple of
years earlier. My dad wasn't a gambler. He was a Durham, N.C.,, policeman and a great man. I wanted the song
to feel like one of our talks, in which he stressed the importance of making good choices. I began to bang out the
lyrics on my dad's L.C. Smith manual typewriter. I cast the gambler's advice in poker terms, but I didn't have a
time period in mind. I typed out the first chorus first:
"You've got to know when to hold 'em / know when to fold 'em / know when to walk away / and when to run /
You never count your money / when you're sittin' at the table / There'll be time enough for countin' / when the
Then I wrote three verses - starting with the young man's narration about meeting the gambler:
"On a warm summer's evenin' / on a train bound for nowhere / I met up with the gambler / We were both too tired to sleep."
The second verse is about the gambler noticing that the young man is struggling with a problem:
"Son, I've made a life / out of readin' people's faces / Knowin' what the cards were / by the way they held their eyes."
The third was about the gambler giving the young man some advice:
"If you're gonna play the game, boy / you gotta learn to play it right."
I wrote the music at the same time I wrote the words. When I played "The Gambler" for songwriter Jim Rushing, along with a bunch of my other incomplete songs,
he said, "That's the one you ought to finish." It took six weeks to come up with the last eight-line verse:
"And when he finished speakin' / he turned back toward the window / Crushed out his cigarette / and faded off to sleep / And somewhere in the darkness / the
gambler, he broke even / But in his final words / I found an ace that I could keep."
I played "the Gambler" for everyone who would listen. Jim introduced me to Paul Craft, who had a publishing company with Audie Ashworth, who produced J.J.
Cale. Paul was close with singer Bobby Bare and told him about "The Gambler." Bobby recorded it. But the great Bobby Sherrill, his producer, didn't think it was
strong enough for a single. So it remained on Bobby's album that came out in April 1978.
I first heard "The Gambler" at a studio in Nashville in the spring of '78. My producer, Larry Butler, was looking for songs with hit potential for my next album. Larry
played me Bobby Bare's version. As I recall, he also played me a demo that Johnny Cash made of the song, but after hearing Johnny's version, I realized I was in
over my head. Johnny had a way with a song. A lot of people can tell the same story, but stylistically, each artist gives a song its own identity. I had to come at the
To me, the song's story sounded as if it took place on a train traveling through the Old West. I also liked the music's rollicking cadence. We decided to give it a try.
Kenny gave it life. It's his song now - and it's how I hear the song whenever I play it on my guitar.
As I recorded my vocal that day, Ray Charles came to mind. I had seen Ray in concert when I was a young boy in Houston. From then on, I knew exactly what I
wanted to accomplish in life. Years later, I had an opportunity to collaborate and perform with Ray. That was a dream come true because it brought me full circle
with my childhood aspiration.
Ray was a mentor to me for many years, whether he knew it or not. While singing about the older gambler giving advice to the younger man on the train. I was
thinking about Ray.
Take a ride on that train with "The Gambler" . . .