How 'The Gambler' Was Nearly Willie Nelson’s Hit

May 30, 2024 - News

Willie Nelson turned down the opportunity to record Kenny Rogers’ #1 hit, The Gambler, and news publication Country Music Nation has reminded us of the what-could’ve-been story.

American songwriter Don Schlitz wrote The Gambler in 1976. The song had multiple iterations before Kenny Rogers performed it in November 1978.

Schlitz shopped the song around for two years before Bobby Bare recorded it. The Gambler was then recorded by Johnny Cash and featured on his Gone Girl album. However, it wasn’t until Kenny Rogers released it in November 1978 that The Gambler became a crossover success.

Not only did the song hit #1 on the Country Chart, but it also crossed over to the Pop Chart – a rarity in 1978. Rogers’ The Gambler saw him win the Grammy Award for Best Male Country Vocal Performance in 1980.

In 2020, shortly after Rogers’ passing, Willie Nelson revealed that Rogers originally offered him The Gambler, but he turned it down.

Speaking with TODAY’s Jenna Bush Hager, Nelson said, “He tried to get me to record The Gambler. He said, ‘I got this song here; I think you should do it.’ And he played it for me, and I said, ‘It’s a great song, but I don’t think I’ll do it…’”

On why he rejected the offer, Nelson explained that he was already performing the wordy The Red Headed Stranger every night and didn’t want another long song added to his repertoire.

That song already “has 100 verses in it, and it’s a long song,” he said. “And I said, I just don’t want to do another long song, and I can’t quit doing Red Headed Stranger. So, he said, ‘Okay, I’ll record it myself.’ And so, he did, and there it is.”

Bush Hager asked if he regretted not claiming The Gambler, to which Nelson responded, “No, that was Kenny’s song all the way.”

It’s a bit of an old story worth revisiting, no? It’s worthwhile as Rolling Stone ranked The Gambler as the 21st-best country song in its recent list of 200 Greatest Country Songs of All Time. You can check out the list in its entirety here.

Last June, the Wanda Rogers-curated and executive produced Kenny Rogers posthumous album, Life Is Like A Song, was released.

Rogers passed away in March 2020 of natural causes at the age of 81. The album was released in memory of Rogers to honour him and his musical legacy.

Life Is Like A Song was Rogers’s first non-holiday studio album in a decade and his only non-compilation/non-reissued full-length album to be released on vinyl since 1991.

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