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From the KORD writers:

How Kenny Rogers hit the jackpot with ‘The Gambler’

“All the songs I record fall into one of two categories, as a rule,” Kenny Rogers once said. “One is ballads that say what every man would like to say, and every woman would like to hear. The other is story songs that have social significance.” The 1978 country-pop crossover classic “The Gambler” fits squarely into the second category: songwriter Don Schlitz’s painterly evocation of strangers on a train to nowhere brilliantly combines the trappings of old-west melodrama with the stark wisdom of a zen koan, spinning a larger-than-life tale that remains the pinnacle of Rogers’ career.

Rogers was more than just “The Gambler,” however: he was also an actor, photographer and entrepreneur. Rogers, the fourth of eight children, was raised in the San Felipe Courts, a public housing project in Houston’s Fourth Ward. “My dad wasn’t in the business, but he played fiddle,” Rogers told Rolling Stone in 2014. “All of his brothers and sisters played some instrument, so we used to get in the cab of a pickup truck and ride up to Apple Springs, Texas, where all my aunts and uncles would get on the front porch and play music. I used to sing in the church choir and at school, but my interest actually started when I was 12 years old and went to see Ray Charles in concert. It was like an epiphany. People laughed at everything Ray said, they clapped for everything he sang. I thought ‘Boy, who wouldn’t want to do that?’ I didn’t even know I could sing at the time. I just loved the honesty of his music.” You can hear Charles’ profound influence on Rogers’ own sandpaper-soul stylings, first captured for posterity on the 1956 Dot Records single “The Poor Little Doggie,” credited to the Scholars, the doo-wop quartet he formed in high school. “That Crazy Feeling,” a solo single cut for the tiny Kix label, followed a year later; when the song caught on in Houston, New York City-based Carlton Records licensed the master for national distribution, and while it did not reach the Billboard Hot 100, Rogers was invited to perform on ABC television’s hit musical showcase American Bandstand.

Kenny Rogers, Mike Settle, Thelma Camacho, Terry Williams and Mickey Jones of “Kenny Rogers & The First Edition” portrait 1967. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

While attending the University of Texas, Rogers met fellow Houston native Bobby Doyle, a former member of a doo-wop group called the Slades, which narrowly missed the Billboard Top 40 with 1958’s “You Cheated.” Together they formed a jazz group, the Bobby Doyle Three, with drummer Don Russell. Rogers soon dropped out of school to play music full-time, contributing high harmony and stand-up bass to the trio’s 1962 Columbia Records debut In a Most Unusual Way. After the Bobby Doyle Three dissolved in 1965, Rogers signed to Mercury Records to record a rock-adjacent cover of the jazz standard “Here’s That Rainy Day” before heading out for Los Angeles, where he joined the New Christy Minstrels. When singers/guitarists Mike Settle and Terry Williams quit the long-running folk band to form their own project, the First Edition, Rogers tagged along, and with the additions of operatically-trained vocalist Thelma Camacho and drummer Mickey Jones (who played behind Bob Dylan on his historic 1966 tour of Australia and Europe), the group signed to Reprise to cut its 1967 debut single “I Found a Reason.” The Mickey Newbury-penned follow-up “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” an acid-rock cult favorite featuring session ace Glen Campbell on lead guitar, peaked at number five on the Billboard charts in 1968 — for Rogers, the first of many Top Ten hits.

The First Edition resurfaced a few months later with “But You Know I Love You,” which rose to number 19 on the Hot 100. Nashville superstar Bill Anderson covered the song in 1969, reaching number two on the Billboard country charts, and Dolly Parton covered it again in 1981, two years before she and Rogers topped the pop and country charts with their duet “Islands in the Stream.” Upon Camacho’s departure, the group was renamed Kenny Rogers and the First Edition ahead of 1969’s Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town. The title track, penned by Mel Tillis, showcases Rogers’ uncommon gift for interpreting narrative ballads: in this instance, he inhabits the persona of an impotent, wheelchair-bound war veteran forced to endure the agony of witnessing his wife leave the house night after night to see other men. “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town” climbed to number six on the Hot 100 as well as reaching number 39 on the country charts, a harbinger of things to come; however, after the blistering, sexually-charged rocker “Something’s Burning” fell just shy of the pop Top Ten, the group’s chart fortunes declined, and in 1971 they signed on to host their own primetime variety series Rollin’ on the River, which aired in syndication across the U.S. and Canada. Rogers and the First Edition again attempted to reignite their career by appearing as the fictional band Catweazel in the made-for-TV movie The Dream Makers, but by the end of 1974, Rogers was in such dire financial straits that he was forced to partner with instructional publisher Alfred Music to hawk “Quick-Pickin’ ‘n Fun-Strummin'” home guitar courses on television and in print. 

Rogers finally split from the First Edition in 1976, signing to United Artists and teaming with producer Larry Butler to record his debut solo album, Love Lifted Me, at Nashville’s Jack Clement Recording Studio. The LP reached number 28 on the country charts, buoyed by the title track, an updated reading of a 1912 gospel hymn. Later that same year Rogers issued his self-titled sophomore effort, which produced two hit singles, beginning with a Top 20 cover of Leon Ashley’s haunting 1967 country chart-topper “Laura (What’s He Got That I Ain’t Got),” a story song told from the perspective of a desperate and disturbed husband who discovers his wife is cheating with another man. The follow-up, Roger Bowling and Hal Bynum’s “Lucille,” completed Rogers’ reinvention as a country music star: this time, he assumes the point-of-view of a Toledo, Ohio bar patron in lust with the title character, a beautiful but broken woman stuck in a dead-end marriage. When Lucille’s mountainous husband tracks her down, he chastises her for abandoning him “with four hungry children and a crop in the field” and for leaving him heartbroken — words that echo in the narrator’s head after he and Lucille arrive at their rented hotel room. “Lucille,” released in January 1977, soared to number one on the Billboard country singles chart and number five on the Hot 100, topping the pop charts in 12 countries worldwide on its way to selling more than five million copies. 

Rogers and Butler reunited in 1978 to begin work on The Gambler. The title track was authored by Don Schlitz, an aspiring Nashville songwriter earning his living working the graveyard shift at Vanderbilt University as a computer technician. “In the morning, after work, I’d sometimes head off to the office of Bob McDill, one of the best songwriters in Nashville,” Schlitz told The Wall Street Journal in 2018. “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 at Bob’s office and told him I was having trouble cranking out songs. Sitting behind his desk with his guitar, Bob showed me an 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. After I left Bob’s office that morning, 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 the lyrics to a song. The strumming sound in my head sounded like a train. So I wrote about a young guy on a train who meets an older gambler. I’d never been on a train before, but I was an avid reader and had a pretty good imagination.”

Portrait of American Country musician Don Schlitz as he poses at the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville, Tennessee, December 1, 1994. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

Schlitz proceeded to bang out the lyrics to “The Gambler” on his father’s L.C. Smith manual typewriter. The song’s unnamed narrator, a young traveler too troubled to sleep, befriends an aging card sharp who instantly sizes him up and offers life advice in exchange for a drink of whiskey. The young man hands over the bottle and a cigarette, and the gambler shares his secrets in the only language he understands:  

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em,
Know when to walk away, know when to run.
You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table.
There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done. 

Schlitz shared “The Gambler” with songwriter friend Jim Rushing, who in turn introduced him to Paul Craft, co-founder of Nashville publishing firm Black Sheep Music. Audie Ashworth, Craft’s business partner, produced a demo version of “The Gambler” with Schlitz on vocals and guitar, and although both Craft and Rushing proceeded to pitch the song up and down Music Row, no one would agree to record it. “So Paul introduced me to Merlin Littlefield, who worked at ASCAP,” Schlitz told the WSJ. “Merlin sent my demo to Larry Butler, and Audie sent the demo to local radio stations. Paul was close with singer Bobby Bare and told him about ‘The Gambler.’ After he played him my demo, Bobby recorded it. But the great Billy Sherrill, his producer, didn’t think it was strong enough for a single. So it remained on [Bare], Bobby’s album that came out in April 1978.”

Kenny Rogers performing at the Palomino in 1977. (Photo by Jasper Dailey/Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Butler passed Bare’s version of “The Gambler” to Rogers while searching for suitable material to follow “Lucille.” “As I recall, [Butler] also played me a demo that Johnny Cash made of the song,” Rogers told The Wall Street Journal. “Larry was going to produce Johnny’s recording a few weeks later. I liked 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 song differently. 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. I left the arranging to Larry. He had the song open with an acoustic guitar solo. I liked that. He also modulated the key up a step at the start of the fourth verse, to shift gears and add a little drama. As I recorded my vocal that day, Ray Charles came to mind. Ray was a mentor to me for many years, whether he knew it or not. Some of that came through on ‘The Gambler.’ While singing about the older gambler giving advice to the younger man on the train, I was thinking about Ray.” 

United Artists released “The Gambler” on Nov. 15, 1978. The single, which features on backing vocals Rogers’ longtime friend and country trailblazer Dottie West as well as the incomparable Jordanaires (the longtime support quartet behind Elvis Presley), rocketed to the top of the country charts and reached number 16 on the Hot 100, an impressive achievement at a moment in time when country hits rarely crossed over to pop radio. “The Gambler” not only won Rogers the 1980 Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance, but it also inspired no fewer than five made-for-TV westerns, beginning with 1980’s Kenny Rogers as The Gambler. The Houston Gamblers, which entered the ill-fated United States Football League in 1984, were named after the song, and former Major League Baseball pitcher Kenny Rogers was nicknamed “The Gambler” for no reason other than sharing the same moniker as its singer. “The Gambler” even inspired professional investor and Fox News pundit Jonathan Hoenig to sing its praises for SmartMoney, noting “while there’s a big difference between trading and gambling, investors can certainly benefit from the sage advice given throughout the song’s lyrics.”  

Musicians Kenny Rogers (left) and Larry Butler holding their awards at the Grammy Awards, in the Shrine Auditorium in Los Angeles, February 1980. (Photo by Fotos International/Archive Photos/Getty Images)

“The Gambler” was just the beginning of Rogers’ reign at the forefront of the pop culture consciousness. First he teamed with Dottie West for a series of duets, sold-out concert tours and network television specials, a collaboration that yielded country standards like “Every Time Two Fools Collide,” “What Are We Doin’ in Love” and “All I Ever Need Is You.” (In a 1978 press release, Rogers also credited West with solidifying his popularity and credibility among Nashville audiences.) Rogers next partnered with Kim Carnes, still a year away from her pop blockbuster “Bette Davis Eyes,” for the duet “Don’t Fall in Love with a Dreamer,” which reached number three on the Billboard country charts and climbed to number four on the pop Hot 100. That same year, Rogers topped both charts with “Lady,” written and produced by Lionel Richie — his first production work outside the Commodores. Richie also helmed Rogers’ 1981 album Share Your Love, best remembered for “Through the Years,” which spent 11 weeks in the Top 40 and topped Billboard’s Adult Contemporary charts. The hit title track of the 1982 full-length Love Will Turn You Around performed double duty as the theme song of Rogers’ first feature film, the NASCAR comedy-drama Six Pack, and in 1983 he covered Bob Seger’s “We’ve Got Tonight” as a duet with Scottish pop singer Sheena Easton, once again topping the country charts. 

From left, singer Dottie West and American musician Kenny Rogers perform at the Rosemont Horizon (later renamed the Allstate Arena), Rosemont, Illinois, May 17, 1980. (Photo by Paul Natkin/Getty Images)

By the time Rogers and Dolly Parton recorded “Islands in the Stream” with producer Barry Gibb, who originally intended the song (authored with siblings/Bee Gees bandmates Robin and Maurice Gibb) for Motown legend Marvin Gaye, pop radio’s interest in country music was beginning to fade after spiking three years earlier with the release of the Hollywood hit Urban Cowboy, widely credited for vaulting Rogers, Parton, Johnny Lee, Mickey Gilley and others to mainstream renown. (After “Islands in the Stream,” it would be another 17 years before a country song, in this case Lonestar’s 2000 hit “Amazed,” reached number one on the Hot 100.) Rogers nevertheless remained a force on the country charts, and in 1985, he was one of 45 artists (including, at long last, Ray Charles) who recorded the worldwide charity single “We Are the World” to support hunger victims in Africa. Kenny Rogers’ America, his first collection of photos, was published in 1986, followed a year later by Your Friends and Mine; in 1991, Rogers also joined forces with former Kentucky Fried Chicken CEO John Y. Brown Jr. to launch Kenny Rogers Roasters, a chicken and ribs chain that eventually expanded to more than 425 locations worldwide. The company entered Chapter 11 bankruptcy in March 1998, and after a series of ownership changes, the brand operated principally in Asia as part of Malaysian conglomerate Berjaya Corporation Berhad. Kenny Rogers Roasters is perhaps best remembered today for playing the titular role in “The Chicken Roaster,” the eighth episode of the eighth season of NBC’s landmark sitcom Seinfeld.

Sheena Easton and Kenny Rogers record at Capitol Records circa 1983. (Photo by Lester Cohen/Getty Images)

Rogers recorded 65 albums and sold more than 165 million records during his career, finally earning induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame in 2013, two years before he announced his farewell tour, titled (what else?) The Gambler’s Last Deal. Rogers headlined his final concert in Nashville on Oct. 25, 2017, where all-star guests ranging from Kris Kristofferson to Lionel Richie to the Flaming Lips celebrated his life and career. Dolly Parton was on hand as well, joining her longtime duet partner one last time for renditions of “Islands in the Stream” and 2013’s “You Can’t Make Old Friends” in addition to serenading him with a performance of her signature solo hit “I Will Always Love You.” Rogers died March 20, 2020 while in hospice care; he was 81. 

“I’m still not sure why my version [of ‘The Gambler’] caught on as it did. I was a relatively new solo artist then, so I guess people were paying closer attention,” Rogers said two years before his death. “Somewhere along the way, the song’s title became my nickname. People still call me ‘The Gambler.’ Funny thing is I’m not much of a poker player. Or a gambler.” 

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