I’ve noted before in this series that country music knows how to make a good narrative out of an under four minute song. We’ve also discussed songs that were somehow adapted into movies but Kenny Rogers’ “The Gambler”, the single and title track off his sixth album, actually led to a series of TV movies with Rogers as a traveling Gambler getting pulled into various adventures. It’s easily one of his biggest and most well known hits.
However, songwriter David Schlitz, a computer programmer back in 1978, had a tough time getting it out there. Both Bobby Bare and Johnny Cash made a cut and you’d think that if Johnny Cash of all people couldn’t make your song work (though it should be noted this was during his drug using period and Cash actually disliked the song, so those factors may have affected his performance) it must be doomed. Rogers on the other hand took a…sorry…gamble, and the result was worth the risk.
Though the character Rogers plays in the movies is a gambler it’s not clear if his character in the song is. He could have just been a guy on a train getting some final advice from an old man who spoke in terminology he understood, that of card games. The writer notes that it’s not even clear that the gambler dies at the end, though with the line “…the gambler he broke even, but in his final words…” it’s easy to assume that’s what actually happened, and most of us do. It’s also not clear that the gambler is necessarily talking about playing cards as his advice, while using terms associated with poker (being the card game of choice in Old West stories, where the movies took place but the song could just as easily have been in 1978 since even today there are “professional gamblers”), could be applied to life. One psychologist I came across during my research attempted to do just that. Sometimes in life you do have to know when to fight, when to stop, and when to get out of it altogether. Life itself is a series of gambles that can bring success or failure. Maybe that’s why the story connects even with those of us who don’t play poker…like the songwriter.
The final success of the song allowed Schlitz to quit his programming job with Vanderbilt University and become a full-time songwriter. The song was a tribute to his father, who also wasn’t a gambler so I’m not sure what drew him to this concept. For Rogers, it was his third hit and his success would continue in music and acting. He even offered the song to Willie Nelson first, who already had a longer song called “Red Headed Stranger” and felt he couldn’t commit to it. Both Schlitz and Rogers would win a Grammy for the song. I took a listen to Cash’s version and frankly I can see why despite Cash’s skills as a balladeer the Kenny Rogers version works better. I guess it just took someone who connected to the song. Check it out for yourself.
While Cash is a good storyteller he just doesn’t seem to connect to the song the way Rogers did, because again he didn’t like it. Like I say in other media, not every great creator can make every idea work.
I have to leave this off on probably my favorite version of this song. For an episode of The Muppet Show with Rogers as the guest-star he performed with a Muppet version of the gambler, Jerry Nelson serving as muppetter and making the song a sort of duet.