“You’ve got to know when to hold ’em/Know when to fold ’em” might be one of the most recognizable choruses of the last 50 years. Even people who don’t know the song “The Gambler,” know those lines.
On March 20, the world learned of the death of the singer most associated with those words, Kenny Rogers, who passed away at the age of 81. As with a star of his caliber, his death was greeted with a major outpouring of condolences across the celebrity world and lengthy obituaries in most major news outlets. Very few publications mentioned the one tidbit we here at Cover Me are most interested in: the fact that Rogers’ version of “The Gambler” was a cover.
The song is so heavily associated with Rogers, that when I tell people it’s a cover they look at me with disbelief. After all, Rogers did not just sing “The Gambler,” he was “The Gambler.” It was not only his career defining hit, but also his nickname, and the title character of a made-for-TV movie series that he starred in. If any other singer can make that claim about a cover, then I am not aware of it.
“The Gambler” was the brainchild of Don Schlitz, who in the ‘70s worked as a computer operator while trying to break into Nashville as a songwriter. In 2018, when Rogers’ version was added to the Library of Congress National Recording Registry, Schlitz gave an interview in which he detailed the song’s evolution. According to Schlitz, Rogers was the sixth artist to record the track.
The first to record it was Bobby Bare, a major country star in the ‘60s and ‘70s who had hits like “Detroit City” and “500 Miles Away from Home.” He included the song on his album Bare. Listening to Bare’s version today, it feels more like alt-country, with a heavy acoustic intro and Bare’s drawly delivery.
When Bare’s label decided not to release it as a single, Schlitz and his publisher continued to promote the song to other artists. It was subsequently recorded by Hugh Moffatt and Conway Twitty’s son Michael Twitty, who performed under the name Charlie Tango. Schlitz even released his own rendition, which went to number 65 on the country charts. “We ended up with three versions of the same song on the top 100 at one time, including the one I did,” said Schlitz. “But the song was getting noticed in town. People liked it. I didn’t know this at the time but sometimes you just know that something is going to be a hit for somebody, you don’t know who, but sometime…”
Towards the end of 1978, both Rogers and Johnny Cash cut renditions of the track within the same week. Cash included his version on his album Gone Girl, but Rogers’ version was the one that struck chart gold. Rogers’ career was on the upswing after he scored major country hits with “Lucille” and “Every Time Two Fools Collide.” In December 1978, Rogers released it as the title track to The Gambler album, which featured a photo of him dressed up in old-time casino garb on the cover.
The song’s success transformed him into a global superstar. It went to number one on the country charts, number 16 on the pop charts and earned Rogers a Grammy award for best male country vocal performance. Almost immediately, he parlayed his new mega-fame into an acting career; between 1980 and 1994 he starred in five made-for-T.V. movies in the The Gambler series.
So why did Rogers’ version become hit where the others did not? Schlitz credits, “that magical voice of his. You knew it was him who was singing.” Even though Rogers was only 40 when he recorded it, he had an almost grandfatherly quality to him with the thick grey beard and deep voice. As he sings, you almost imagine sitting around a campfire hearing a story that was told just for you.
In the four decades since its release, trends in country music have come and gone, but Rogers’ song has endured.
As with any country singer, Rogers sang numerous cover songs throughout his career. Some became hits, and others have remained deep cuts. Here’s a selection of a few other notable covers that Rogers recorded “Through the Years.”
Kenny Rogers & the First Edition – Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In) (Jerry Lee Lewis Cover)
One does not usually equate Rogers with psychedelic anything. In 1967, as the frontman for the First Edition he scored his first major hit with this track about getting high. The song was originally recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis. With an acid-rock groove and dreamy keyboards, the tune is closer to sounds of the Byrds than anything one associates with “The Gambler.”
Kenny Rogers & the First Edition – Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town (Mel Tillis Cover)
If there’s a moment when Kenny Rogers became Kenny Rogers: the storytelling country balladeer, it would likely be the First Edition’s cover of “Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love To Town.” The song, penned by Mel Tills, recounts the story of a wounded veteran who watches his wife seek solace in the arms of other men. His delivery is both heartbreaking and a little disturbing, as he captures the narrator’s physical and emotional pain. It remains a haunting listen more than five decades after its release, especially as Rogers sings: “She’s leaving now cause I just heard the slamming of the door/The way I know I’ve heard it slam one hundred times before/And if I could move, I’d get my gun and put her in the ground.” Rogers would continue to perform the song for the rest of his career.
Kenny Rogers – Abraham, Martin and John/Precious Memories (Dion Cover)
In the mid ‘70s after the breakup of First Edition, Rogers began pursuing a career as a solo country artist. On his first country album, Love Lifted Me, he included this cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John.” Rogers played up the song’s religious qualities by fusing it with the gospel standard “Precious Memories.” Rogers kept the arrangement simple, starting with an acoustic guitar, then adding some light strings. It’s mainly his voice that does the heavy lifting, giving the song a timeless quality that fits in well with the rest of his catalog.
Kenny Rogers and Dottie West – Baby I’m-a Want You (Bread Cover)
Rogers’ duets with Dolly Parton are legendary, but she was one of the many female artists he partnered with throughout his career. In 1978, Rogers and fellow country singer Dottie West scored a hit with “Every Time Two Fools Collide.” On the album of the same name, they included this cover of Bread’s soft-rock favorite “Baby I’m-a Want You.”
Kenny Rogers and Sheena Easton – We’ve Got Tonight (Bob Seger Cover)
After the success of “The Gambler,” Rogers had many of the world’s A-list songwriters lining up to write material for him, including the Bee Gees (“Islands in the Stream”) and Lionel Ritchie (“Lady”). He still had hits with cover songs, too. In 1983, he and pop singer Sheena Easton paired up for this emotionally charged cover of Bob Seger’s classic “We’ve Got Tonight.”
Kenny Rogers – Ol’ Red (George Jones Cover)
On his 1993 album If Only My Heart Had A Voice, Rogers tapped into his hard-rockin’ roots with this cover of “Ol’ Red.” The song about a prisoner who plays matchmaker for his warden’s dog was originally recorded by George Jones in 1990. With this cover, Rogers strays away from soft rock and goes full electric, showing that the Gambler still had a few aces up his sleeve. These days the song is mostly associated with Blake Shelton, who released a cover in 2002. Shelton followed Rogers’ lead into the restaurant business (remember Kenny Rogers Roasters?) and opened a chain of high-end, southern-flavored eateries known as Ole Red. For country artists, it would seem “the secret to surviving” is to always have additional revenue sources, no matter whose song you’re recording.
Coolio featuring Kenny Rogers – The Hustler
Rogers performed “The Gambler” alongside many other artists over the years, including the Muppets and Phish. In 2001, the rapper Coolio tapped Rogers to both sing lyrics from “The Gambler” appear in his 2001 video for “The Hustler.” “The Gambler” simply could not be contained by one genre.