How Kenny Rogers and Don Schlitz gambled and changed country music forever
The song had a huge impact on both Rogers and Schlitz's careers. 'The Gambler' would go on to be his biggest-selling album and spawned a 1980 TV movie 'Kenny Rogers as The Gambler' starring Rogers
Kenny Rogers' passing is a tragedy for many, including his family and friends, his many adoring fans, as well as the long list of young aspiring country musicians who were inspired to follow their dreams.
Rogers' impact on the music industry, especially on country music is undeniable. But it's his song 'The Gambler' that stands out the most from his extensive catalog of work.
'The Gambler' was written by Nashville songwriter Don Schlitz and tells the story of a conversation the narrator has with an old poker player on a train. The veteran gives the narrater some life advice in the form of poker metaphors, including the lines "You've got to know when to hold 'em, know when to fold 'em," which would go on to be one of Rogers' most famous lines. The song was written by Schlitz in honor of his late father. "He wasn't a gambler," Schlitz explained, adding "...the song was my way of dealing with the relationship that I had with him."
That might seem oddly confusing since neither Schlitz nor his late father were gamblers. But that's where the metaphors are important. The song, at its core, isn't about a card game at all - it's about learning how to handle what life throws at you, including knowing when to "hold 'em," or hold on to what you've got because it'll make you a winner, and when to "fold 'em," or let go of what you know is most likely a losing game.
Schlitz's tribute to his father using poker metaphors went on to become such a huge hit, it was covered by a variety of artists - most notably, Kenny Rogers. It's hard to imagine he had to struggle to get the song picked up. Schlitz wrote the song when he was only 23 years old and working as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University. He credits songwriter Bob McDill as his mentor and has said he wrote most of 'The Gambler' while he was walking home from McDill's office. He took another six weeks to complete the story he was writing, ending it with the old poker player drifting off towards the end, seemingly dying in his sleep.
But the track would take over two years to become the hit we know it as today. After two years of shopping the song around, Schlitz finally got Bobby Bare to record a version of it for his album 'Bare', but the song did not catch on. Schlitz then recorded it himself, but it only reached No. 65 on the charts. Even Johnny Cash did a version in 1978 as part of his album 'Gone Girl'. But when Kenny Rogers finally took the song on in 1978, it became a massive No. 1 country hit, even making its way onto the 'Hot 100' and other pop charts - a feat rarely achieved by country songs back then. The song was included as the title track on Rogers' album 'The Gambler' for which the singer won the 'Best Male Country Vocal Performance' Grammy award in 1980.
Schlitz would later appear in a 2006 documentary on Rogers' career called 'The Journey' to praise the contributions of Rogers and producer Larry Butler to the song, adding that "they added several ideas that were not mine, including the new guitar intro".
The song had a huge impact on both Rogers and Schlitz's careers. 'The Gambler' would go on to be Rogers' biggest-selling album and even spawned a 1980 TV movie 'Kenny Rogers as The Gambler' starring Rogers as Brady Hawkes, a seasoned poker player, and Bruce Boxleitner as his apprentice. This turned out to be the highest-rated TV film that year, leading to Rogers reprising his role in four more made-for-TV movies until the last one in 1994. The franchise also gave rise to 'The Gambler' slot machine that became a popular fixture at casinos of the time.
As for Schlitz, he was finally able to quit his job working the graveyard shift and become a full-time songwriter.