Remember When Johnny Cash Recorded Kenny Rogers’ ‘The Gambler’?
"The Gambler" is one of Kenny Rogers' signature hits, and an all-time country music classic. But did you know that another country legend also recorded the song in a very different version? Johnny Cash actually released his own recording of "The Gambler" the same year that Rogers made it into a hit.
Songwriter Don Schlitz was working the night shift as a computer operator at Vanderbilt University in 1976 when he wrote "The Gambler," according to Rolling Stone. He pitched the song around Nashville for several years before Bobby Bare became the first singer to cut it, but his version was unsuccessful.
Rogers was on a hot streak that included "Lucille" and "Love or Something Like It" when he recorded "The Gambler" on June 16, 1978. His producer, Larry Butler, was simultaneously producing Cash's Gone Girl album during that period, and he encouraged Cash to also record "The Gambler," which he did on July 6, 1978.
As Rolling Stone reports, Cash was once again struggling with drugs at the time, and he was high and distracted during the recording session, giving a perfunctory performance that is obvious in the final product and arguing with Butler over how much he disliked the song. The result was a track that simply doesn't come anywhere near to capturing the magic of the song as Rogers' better-known version does, with Cash giving an odd, partly spoken-word performance over a backing track that is relatively monotonous and does not serve the material well. Listen to Cash's little-known rendition of "The Gambler" below:
Butler ended up giving Rogers' label the go-ahead to release his version of "The Gambler" as a single, and Rogers made it the title song of his new album, releasing the song as a single that October. He released his career-altering The Gambler album on Nov. 15, 1978.
Rogers' definitive rendition of "The Gambler" reached No. 1 on Billboard's Hot Country Songs chart, No. 3 in adult contemporary and No. 16 on Billboard's mainstream Hot 100 chart, and its parent album was nominated for a Grammy for Album of the Year, while the single was nominated for Record of the Year.
Rogers won a Grammy in the category of Best Country Vocal Performance, Male for his rendition of "The Gambler," and the song has gone on to become one of his most recognized signature songs, even spawning a string of TV movies in which Rogers brought the character to life on screen.
Cash wasn't the only country icon to miss out on 'The Gambler." In a recent interview, Willie Nelson admitted he passed on "The Gambler" when Rogers suggested he cut it because the song had too many verses, and he didn't want another long song in his set at the time.
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