At the risk of infuriating his many fans, I have to confess that I’ve never been able to really warm to the singing of Kris Kristofferson. I understand that his tortured vocal style might be appropriate to the angst-ridden songs he’s written, but I really think that it’s the songs themselves that will form the basis for his legacy. His songwriting has been nothing less than revolutionary, and has helped transform country music.
Songs such as “For the Good Times,” “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” and “Me and Bobby McGee,” have solidified his place in songwriting history, but my favorite is one that caught my attention years ago, and it ended up as the signature song for another singer.
The song is “Help Me Make It Through The Night,” and although I’m sure the message in the song might well have mirrored Kristofferson’s own tortured life, in my opinion – and that of the record-buying public – his recording of the song takes a back seat to that of Sammi Smith. (However, I do like his duet with then-wife Rita Coolidge in the video below.)
Jewel Fay “Sammi” Smith was California born but had a hardscrabble childhood in the rural Southwest, skipping school and trying to sing professionally while still a pre-teen. She was married at 15 and – after 4 children – divorced her husband and headed to Nashville, hoping to break into the music scene.
She managed to work her way into a recording contract and had a couple of moderate sellers, but was still scrambling in 1971 when she found a new song to try. She recorded “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” but with changes to the lyrics that gave the song a woman’s viewpoint. It rocketed to the top of the country charts, crossed over and became a pop best-seller, and ended up as a Grammy winner for her.
Sammi was a solid country star for years, but never hit it that big again. She also had some success writing songs, including “Cedartown, Georgia,” a tune that ended up as a best-seller for Waylon Jennings. It was just one of many collaborations between the two, and in fact she joined in with Waylon and Willie Nelson as part of the “outlaw” faction of country music, even moving to Dallas to be near them.
She continued writing, singing and performing for many years, her husky voice continuing to entertain well into the 1980’s, when her last hit, “Love Me All Over,” was recorded. Eventually retiring from performing, she moved to Oklahoma and died in 2005, but will always be remembered by many for her talent.