Kenny Rogers had quite a music library, but his most iconic song was The Gambler. “On a warm summer’s eve, on a train bound for nowhere, I met up with the gambler…” it starts.
However, Rogers didn’t write the famous tune. That honor goes to Don Schlitz, a songwriter. In addition, Kenny wasn’t even the first person to record the song. According to American Songwriter, Johnny Cash and Bobby Bare sang it too, as did Schlitz. But it was Kenny Rogers who made it famous. Here’s the Johnny Cash version of The Gambler in case you’re curious:
What’s the meaning of the song? What’s the story behind it? Over the years, Schlitz has spoken about it.
Here’s what you need to know:
Schlitz Wrote the Song in His Head While Walking Home From a Meeting, Envisioning His Father’s Advice
“I wrote it in August of ’76,” Schlitz told American Songwriter, “walking home from a meeting with my mentor, Bob McDill [writer of songs by Waylon Jennings, Anne Murray and others]. I walked from his office over on Music Row to my apartment, and in that 20 minutes I wrote most of it in my head. I didn’t write a last verse, had no idea what was gonna happen, thought it was an interesting story but it was a throwaway. I spent about six weeks trying to figure out what was gonna happen after the chorus.”
What was the last 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.”
Schlitz elaborated on the creative process in a lengthy interview with The Wall Street Journal. He said that, on the day he came up with the song, McDill showed him “an open-D tuning on the guitar, so all six strings played a D-major chord” because he was having trouble coming up with songs. As he walked back to his apartment, he started writing the words to a song, using the sound that McDill had shown him.
He thought 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.” This hadn’t really happened. In fact, Schlitz had never been on a train, according to the Wall Street Journal. “I was an avid reader and had a pretty good imagination,” he explained to the newspaper, adding that he really wasn’t a poker player either, but he played it in high school a bit. That gave him the terminology he needed to make the song authentic.
As for the title, Schlitz explained to The Wall Street Journal that the concept of the gambler character on the train was inspired by his own dad, a police officer. “I wanted the song to feel like one of our talks, in which he stressed the importance of making good choices,” he said.
For his part, Rogers told The Wall Street Journal that, when he heard the song, to him, it was “as if it took place on a train traveling through the Old West.” He also made his own contribution. He “moved up the chorus to create a break in the story,” he told the newspaper.
An article on the Library of Congress described the importance of The Gambler to both men. “For Rogers and songwriter Don Schlitz, ‘The Gambler’ was a story song that marked important milestones in both men’s careers,” it says.
Schlitz’s father had died two years before. “All I can figure is that this was my way of dealing with my relationship with my father. He was the best man I ever knew. He wasn’t a gambler. I’m not a gambler. He was my dad. That’s what the song is to me, and whatever it is to anyone else is fine,” Schlitz said, according to the document.
“For Schlitz, then a hopeful songwriter working the graveyard shift in Vanderbilt University’s computer center to support himself, the hit took him to the top tier of Nashville’s songwriting community. Rogers had already broken through, not only with ‘Lucille,’ but also with two more #1 country crossover smashes: ‘Daytime Friends’ (1977) and ‘Love or Something Like It’ (1978),” the Library of Congress document states.
The Gambler was different. It was even turned into TV movies. Rogers went on to have “16 more #1 solo performances and seven #1 duets with stars including Sheena Easton, Ronnie Milsap, Dolly Parton, and Dottie West,” LOC says.
“Kenny Rogers is, of course, one of music’s most successful and enduring artists,” said Kyle Young, CEO, Country Music Hall of Fame and Museum. “His uncanny song sense and impeccable singing resonated across the genre lines that he took delight in ignoring. The antithesis of a gambler, he thought deeply and acted deliberately with every career decision, and those decisions brought to light the songwriting talents of Hal Bynum, Mickey Newbury, Don Schlitz and many more. Though he was by any definition a superstar, he lived a life of service to songs, writers, and, above all, listeners.”
READ NEXT: Kenny Rogers’ Wife Wanda Miller.