You find you’re back in Vegas with a handle in your hand
I consider myself a risk-averse person. I’m not comfortable getting involved in risky investments or placing bets where anything really bad can happen. Playing games of chance — midway games, roulette, Blackjack — is just not my idea of a good time.
Many millions take a different view. To them, gambling in Vegas or on football games is the height of entertainment, but for me, I’m so afraid of the possible disastrous result that I can’t get excited about the possible favorable result. So it’s not fun, and it’s not a good use of my entertainment dollar.
But we all gamble at some point in our lives. We gamble when we make outdoor plans on days when it might rain. We gamble on getting to the plane departure on time even though there’s a pretty good chance that traffic will cause delays. Perhaps most notably, we gamble our hearts on a romantic relationship when there may be evidence that the other person may not be entirely honest.
Songwriters love the topic of gambling. A brief search of songs from the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s and ’80s produced several dozen big hits and deep tracks that address the exhilarating highs and excruciating lows of gambling. Some mourn the fate of the gambling addict who can’t quit even when he has lost everything.
I’ve selected a baker’s dozen classic songs about gambling, from rock to blues to country to swing, and another dozen or so “honorable mentions,” and all are included in a Spotify playlist at the end of the piece.
I’ll wager you enjoy these tunes!
“Go Down Gamblin’,” Blood, Sweat and Tears, 1971
This was actually the first “rock band with jazz horns” to make out big, preceding Chicago by a year or two. With Canadian David Clayton-Thomas as front man, BS&T struck gold in 1969 with three huge hit singles — “You’ve Made Me So Very Happy,” “Spinning Wheel” and “And When I Die.” Funny thing, though — neither rock fans nor jazz fans never quite accepted them because their attempts at merging the genres were often awkward and unappealing. “Go Down Gamblin’,” a rocker that stalled at #32 in 1971, began the disintegration of the band’s original lineup and their commercial success as well. But it has a great lyric by Clayton-Thomas about a guy who loses at gambling but has been lucky at love: “Down in a crap game, I’ve been losin’ at roulette, /Cards are bound to break me, but I ain’t busted yet /’Cause I’ve been called a natural lover by that lady over there…”
“Lady Luck,” Kenny Loggins, 1977
In 1971, Loggins was assigned to producer Jim Messina for his first LP. Messina ended up playing guitar, singing and writing songs as well, so the LP was aptly titled “Kenny Loggins With Jim Messina Sittin’ In.” That turned out to be the genesis of a successful five-year career arc as Loggins and Messina before Loggins finally released his true solo debut, the splendid “Celebrate Me Home,” in 1977. The opening track, “Lady Luck,” is a captivating Loggins tune with lyrics by John Townsend of Sanford-Townsend Band. Townsend tells the tale of a man who left his “lady luck” for another woman and consequently lost his luck at gambling as well: “7-11 he rolled, and all his life was a golden gamble, /You’d see him reeling it in when the odds were high, /Something supernatural, a charlatan, a mastermind, or some lucky lady, or some jealous lady, /Kiss your lucky lady goodbye…”
“Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man,” Bob Seger System, 1968
Long before “Night Moves,” “Against The Wind” and the string of Top Ten LPs and other hit singles he charted with The Silver Bullet Band in the 1976-1987 period, Bob Seger was an up-and-coming rock singer-songwriter out of the heartland city of Detroit, Michigan. In 1968, he assembled a band he called the Bob Seger System and, right out of the box, he scored a #17 hit on the US charts with “Ramblin’ Gamblin’ Man.” It has a standard ’60s rock song structure, carried by relentless organ and a 4/4 beat. Little known fact: Singing backup and adding acoustic guitar to the track was Seger’s young pal Glenn Frey, who would soon be a founding member of The Eagles. Seger’s lyrics on this tune are simple: “I’m out of money…and I must run…” The narrator likes to gamble, but he’s got to ramble, and at only 13. Whether it’s because he can’t pay his debts is unclear.
“Deal,” Jerry Garcia, 1972
Garcia, the man known as “Captain Trips,” the spiritual leader, guitarist, singer and songwriter for The Grateful Dead, was an enormously influential musician who enjoyed and performed a broad range of musical styles with the band and in various side projects during his 30-year career from the mid-’60s until his death in 1995. On his first solo record, “Garcia” (1972), he reverted to a “barroom rock and roll” sound on the wonderful opener, “Deal,” co-written with his longtime lyrics collaborator Robert Hunter, who espoused a “take your time, be prepared for anything approach to life: “I been gamblin’ hereabouts for ten good solid years, /If I told you all that went down it would burn off both of your ears, /Goes to show you don’t ever know, /Watch each card you play and play it slow, /Wait until that deal come round, don’t you let that deal go down, no, no…”
“The King of Hearts,” Procol Harum, 1991
I find it outrageous that Procol Harum, arguably the true pioneers of the British progressive rock genre (1967-1977), still haven’t been inducted in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame while their many successors (Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes) all have. In 1991, four founding members — singer/pianist Gary Brooker, organist Matthew Fisher, guitarist Robin Trower and lyricist Terry Reid — reunited to write and record a strong group of new songs for “The Prodigal Stranger,” which didn’t chart well but sparked a successful tour in the US and Europe. My favorite track is “The King of Hearts,” carried by Brooker’s soulful vocals and great lyrics by Reid: “Yes I played the King of Hearts, put my cards out on the table, /I thought the odds were in my favour, /But she laid the Ace of Spades, and I wound up where I started, /The King of Hearts no more, but the King of the Broken-hearted…”
“Draw of the Cards,” Kim Carnes, 1981
It took ten years between Carnes’s debut LP in 1971 and the runaway commercial success she achieved with her “Mistaken Identity” LP and its international #1 single “Bette Davis Eyes.” Her first taste of fame came in 1979 with her song “Don’t Fall in Love With a Dreamer,” a Top Five duet with Kenny Rogers, followed by her cover of Smokey Robinson’s “More Love” the same year. Although “Bette Davis Eyes” got most of the attention on “Mistaken Identity,” I’ve always been partial to “Draw of the Cards,” a modest #27 single carried by swirling organ/synthesizer that is “intoxicating in its creepiness,” as one critic put it. The lyrics emphasize how big a part luck plays in games of chance: “Drop the cards, watch the eyes, /Down and dirty, let ’em ride… /Ace is high, deuce is low, /Take the first, the rest should go, /And it’s all in the draw of the cards…”
“Losing Hand,” Ray Charles, 1953
Early in his career, before his mainstream hits like “What’d I Say,” “Georgia On My Mind,” “Hit the Road Jack” and “Unchain My Heart,” Ray Charles cut his teeth on traditional blues tunes. In 1953, in the same recording session that produced his first chart success, “Mess Around,” Charles recorded a smoldering slow blues tune called “Losing Hand” by Jesse Stone (known for writing the rock classic “Shake, Rattle and Roll”). Stone might’ve been the first to compare a losing poker hand to a failed relationship: “While I was playing fair, baby, you played a cheating game, /I know you don’t care, but I love you just the same, /I thought I’d be your king, baby, yes and you could be my queen, /But you used me for your joker ’cause I thought your deal was clean, /The way you did me pretty baby, I declare I never understand, /I gambled on your love, baby, and got a losing hand…”
“Luck Be a Lady,” Frank Sinatra, 1965
Veteran Broadway composer Frank Loesser came up with “Luck Be a Lady” in 1950 for the musical production of “Guys and Dolls.” It has since become a standard, with notable recordings by Frank Sinatra, Barbra Streisand, Brian Setzer and Seal. In the play, the bold gambler Sky Masterson tries to put one over on Sarah Brown, a straight-arrow woman who runs the local mission, but he finds himself developing real feelings for her. He makes a last-ditch bet in hopes of winning back her affections, and in the song, Loesser characterizes “Luck” as a woman who’s flighty and disloyal, with Sky begging her to be on his side (and stay by his side) that evening: “A lady doesn’t leave her escort, it isn’t fair, it isn’t nice, /A lady doesn’t wander all over the room and blow on some other guy’s dice, /So stick with me, baby, I’m the guy that you came in with, /Luck, be a lady tonight…”
“Viva Las Vegas,” Elvis Presley, 1964
Jerome Felder, who used the stage name Doc Pomus, wrote the lyrics while collaborator Mort Shuman came up with the melody for this vivacious rocker that served as the title song for one of Presley’s many film vehicles of the 1960s. Despite its cardboard plot and quickie production schedule, “Viva Las Vegas” was a big box office hit, thanks to co-star Ann-Margret, with whom Presley enjoyed genuine sexual chemistry, and the single reached #29 in the US. The lyrics summarize the fun-loving appeal and excitement of the gambling options to be found in the Vegas casinos: “Oh, there’s blackjack and poker and the roulette wheel, /A fortune won and lost on every deal, /All you need’s a strong heart and a nerve of steel… /I’m gonna give it everything I’ve got, /Lady luck, please let the dice stay hot, /Let me shoot a seven with every shot, /Viva Las Vegas…”
“The Turn of a Friendly Card,” Alan Parsons Project, 1980
For his fifth LP, Parsons and his collaborator Ian Woolfson put together a song cycle centered around the theme of gambling and its addictive dangers. In addition to the hit singles “Games People Play” and “Time,” the album includes a five-song suite that includes such tracks as “Snake Eyes” and “Nothing Left to Lose.” The highlight for me is the two-part title piece, which features Chris Rainbow on lead vocals. The lyrics capture how the thrill of gambling can devolve into a feeling of uncomfortable dread that can’t be escaped: “There are unsmiling faces and bright plastic chains, and a wheel in perpetual motion, /And they follow the races and pay out the gains with no show of an outward emotion, /And they think it will make their lives easier, for God knows up ’til now it’s been hard, /But the game never ends when your whole world depends on the turn of a friendly card…”
“Gambler’s Roll,” Allman Brothers Band, 1990
After being inactive for much of the 1980s, the Allman Brothers Band came storming back in the 1990s with great new albums and sold-out tours. The 1990 LP “Seven Turns” kicked things off nicely, with strong songs like Gregg Allman’s “Good Clean Fun” and Dickey Betts’ “Seven Turns.” The group had been reinforced with the addition of guitarist Warren Haynes and pianist Johnny Neel, who combined forces on a seething slow blues tune called “Gambler’s Roll.” Allman’s weary blues voice delivers the lyrics like no one else can, commiserating about the sorry plight of the gambler and the woman who loves him: “Cold wind blows a young girl’s world apart, she bet it all on the jack of hearts, /Gained her freedom but lost her soul on a gambler’s roll… You know the gambler he rides on a fool’s train, tradin’ silver for gold, /Oh, but his luck will change, time takes its toll on a gambler’s roll…”
“The Dealer,” Stevie Nicks, 1979/2014
When Fleetwood Mac were riding at their highest, Nicks was writing a lot of songs, more than could be squeezed onto the group’s albums because Christine McVie and Lindsay Buckingham had plenty of songs too. When the Nicks tune “The Dealer” was recorded but then rejected for inclusion on 1979’s “Tusk,” it emboldened her decision to begin a concurrent solo career. She ended up releasing seven successful audio albums between 1981 and 2011 but never found space for “The Dealer” until she re-recorded it and many other shelved tracks for her 2014 LP “24 Karat Gold: Songs From the Vault.” Its lyrics describe how she saw herself as the dealer in her own life’s card game, but she made mistakes: “Ooh, I was the dealer, and it wasn’t hard, /I was the mistress of my fate, I was the card shark, /If I’d looked a little ahead, I’d’ve run away…”
“The Gambler,” Kenny Rogers, 1978
Rogers had tasted fame and fortune with his ’60s band The First Edition, who scored hits with pop psychedelia (“Just Dropped In”) as well as pop country (“Ruby, Don’t Take Your Love to Town”). By the late ’70s, he was one of country music’s biggest stars, with multiple Top Five albums and singles on the country charts as well as occasional crossover success on the pop charts. “Lucille” reached #5 in 1977, followed by the Don Schlitz tune “The Gambler” at #16, which became one of Rogers’ signature songs. The lyrics impart a life lesson and a cautionary tale: “You’ve got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, /Know when to walk away, and know when to run, /You never count your money when you’re sittin’ at the table, /There’ll be time enough for countin’ when the dealin’s done…”
“There’s a Place in the World For a Gambler,” Dan Fogelberg, 1974; “Ooh Las Vegas,” Gram Parsons, 1973; “Lily, Rosemary & the Jack of Hearts,” Bob Dylan, 1975; “Gambler,” Whitesnake, 1984; “Easy Money,” Billy Joel, 1983; “Shape Of My Heart,” Sting, 1994; “I Feel Lucky,” Mary Chapin Carpenter, 1992; “Gambler’s Blues,” Otis Rush, 1969; “Tumbling Dice,” The Rolling Stones, 1972; “Desperado,” The Eagles, 1973; “The Card Cheat,” The Clash, 1981; “When You’re Hot, You’re Hot,” Jerry Reed, 1971; “Roulette,” Bruce Springsteen, 1980/1998; “Do It Again,” Steely Dan, 1972.