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Frank Sinatra was born in Hoboken, New Jersey, and was a dyed-in-
the-wool city boy. Kris Kristofferson, one of the greatest songwriters of all time,
was born in Brownsville, Texas, and grew up to be what Americans
call “an army brat”. His father was an officer in the United States
Army Air Corps (he was to become a 2-star general), and the family
moved from base to base as dictated by the military authorities.
So what’s the connection between Old Blue Eyes and Rhodes
Answer: Well, it was something Francis Albert said, and Kris
read, that prompted Kristofferson to write what many music insiders
call his masterpiece.
Here’s how it came about: while working as a helicopter pilot
Kristofferson came across an Esquire interview with Sinatra.
It revealed that when asked what he believed in, part of Sinatra’s
answer was, “whatever helps me make it through the night.”
That phrase struck a cord with Kristofferson. The chopper pilot
with the complex brilliant mind loved words and ideas. As a high
school student, he had won a prize, and acclaim, for his short story
writing ability. He loved the poetry of William Blake. He was a more
than useful football player, and was a Golden Gloves boxer.
At Pomona College he focused on creative writing, got a degree
in English literature, and was awarded a Rhodes scholarship to study
at Merton College at Oxford University, where he got a masters.
During his teenage years he had developed a passion for country
music, and whilst at Oxford he began to try his hand at writing
country songs. Under the name Kris Carson, he performed at a few
local gigs. But at the back of his mind he had ambitions of becoming a
However, because his father and mother hoped he’d pursue a
military career, he joined the United States Army. The army taught
him how to fly helicopters, and then posted him to Germany.
Naturally aware of his academic qualifications in the field of
literature, they gave him an early promotion to the rank of captain,
and ultimately the offer of a literature lecturer’s job at West Point
Kristofferson declined the offer, resigned from the army, and set
his eyes set on a career as a country songwriter/singer. He worked
for a while as a helicopter pilot, and flew helicopters for companies
servicing offshore oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico. That, and his declared
intention of trying to become a recognised songwriter/singer,
infuriated his parents.
They disowned him. Indeed because of a scathing letter his
mother wrote to him saying he had always been a tremendous
disappointment, that he had rejected everything she and Kris’s father
stood for, and that she was ashamed of him, he would, towards the
end of his life, tell an interviewer, “God knows my mother was an
asshole. And my old man was gone most of the time.”
In between helicopter jobs he took himself off to Nashville with
aims and hopes of making it in country music. He’d work for a week
at piloting, and the next week spend in Nashville where he’d hang
around music publishers’ offices and recording studios. He worked in
one of the latter as a janitor, emptying ashcans and wastebaskets, and
He spent hours pitching his songs in Nashville. No one was
interested at first, and he once landed a helicopter in Johnny Cash’s
garden with the aim of attracting Cash’s attention.
And then came the incident of reading the Esquire interview
with Frank Sinatra, when the phrase “help(s) me make it through the
night” leaped out at him.
Kristofferson wrote the song sitting on the platform of an oil rig
out to sea in the Gulf of Mexico, gazing at the stars. Strumming a 12-
string guitar, he found that the song came to him “pretty quickly.”
Back in Nashville he did what he always did — made demo tapes
and handed or sent them around to singers and their agents. One of
those to whom he spoke about the new song was Bobby Bare, and
Bobby liked it enough to cut a recording of it.
Shortly afterwards, appearing in a show in Philadelphia, Bobby
got talking to one of the artistes who was also on the bill — Sammi
Smith from Oklahoma. She was 27 years of age, was relatively
unknown, hadn’t yet made the big time. She told Bobby about a new
song that she felt “had some potential.” It was “Help Me Make It
Through The Night.”
For Sammi Smith, it became a monster hit. It won her a Grammy
for Best Country Vocal Performance — Female. Her performance on
the song is still regarded by some as one of the finest in country
music. Sadly, she died in 2005 at the age of 61. (R.I.P.)
Bobby Bare’s recorded version was held back, and he admitted
later that he thought it perhaps wouldn’t have been the enormous hit that Sammi’s was.