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Kris Kristofferson

In common with many singers who’ve successfully gravitated to Hollywood stardom, KRIS KRISTOFFERSON is something of a multi-dimensional talent; a one-time Oxford scholar and teacher as well as an army veteran and boxer. He initially drew recognition as a Nashville-based songwriter, simultaneously shaking up the country establishment and charming the music world with classic, pioneeringly pared-down material for the likes of JOHNNY CASH and JANIS JOPLIN. Literate, laconic and liberal, Kris helped steer country music away from the middle of the road and on to a far more interesting path. While hardly the most gifted of singers, his laid-back style was perfect for the kind of freewheeling rebel image he liked to portray (he certainly won top prize for references to getting stoned; hardly a typical Nashville topic) and, like his hero DYLAN, the man’s songs were ripe for interpretation.
Born Kristoffer Kristofferson, June 22, 1936, Brownsville, Texas; the son of Mary Ann and U.S. Army Air Corps officer Lars Henry Kristofferson, his grandparents were of British/European/Swedish stock. On graduating from San Mateo High School, California, in 1954, the aspiring wordsmith spent time at Pomona College, where he won awards for his respective essays, The Rock and Gone Are The Days. Kris was also a keen athlete and featured in Sports Illustrated’s “Faces in the Crowd” for his all-rounder achievements in Track & Field, American Football and Rugby Union. And with his Bachelor of Arts degree in 1958, he earned himself a Rhodes scholarship to Oxford, England, where he graduated with a B.Phil in English literature. While studying within its Merton College confines, he was duly awarded with a Blue in boxing, whilst a brief spell as “Kris Carson” under the wing of Top Rank Records mentor/manager Larry Parnes remained fruitless.
The budding songwriter followed in his father’s footsteps when he joined the U.S. Army, where he rose up the ranks to Second Lieutenant and captain; he was now married to long-time sweetheart, Frances Mavia Beer. Kris was then stationed in West Germany as a helicopter pilot, but in 1965 his tour of duty ended with an assignment to teach English lit at West Point. His decision to quit the army to relocate to Nashville caused his family to disown him.
Pursuing his dream of songwriting, Kris held down various jobs to support himself; including a spell as a janitor at the Columbia Studios, though medical expenses for his son’s defective esophagus resulted in domestic arguments with his wife and, ultimately their divorce in 1969.
Having befriended country legend JOHNNY CASH through a meeting with JUNE CARTER, Kris the commercial helicopter pilot was given his first break after the “man in black” heard a demo of his `Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’, a song that duly won him Songwriter of the Year at the Country Music Awards.
From 1967 to 1969, having Dave Dudley secure a minor hit with `Viet Nam Blues’, KRISTOFFERSON’s inaugural solo single for Epic Records, `Golden Idol’ (b/w `Killing Time’, didn’t get past the promo stage. But that was countered by a raft of his work finding its way to country/pop charts ROY DRUSKY (`Jody And The Kid’), BILLY WALKER & The Tennessee Walkers (`From The Bottle To The Bottom’, RAY STEVENS (`Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’), FARON YOUNG (`Your Time’s Comin’), JERRY LEE LEWIS (`Once More With Feelin’), and of course country maverick ROGER MILLER on three occasions (`Me And Bobby McGee’, `Best Of All Possible Worlds’ and `Darby’s Castle’).
Stepping up to the plate as a solo artist in his own right after CASH introduced him at the Newport Folk Festival, Monument Records – with producer Fred Foster in tow – released the singer/songwriter’s debut LP, simply titled KRISTOFFERSON (1970) {*9}. Although sales were initially moderate, the set caught the attention of both country and pop critics as the fabled “outlaw” movement began to coalesce around CASH, WILLIE NELSON, WAYLON JENNINGS and a few others. Over the course of the next year, running up to the LP’s re-position in the Top 50 as ME AND BOBBY McGEE (on the strength of JANIS JOPLIN’s chart-topping version), country songstress Sammi Smith also flew high with `Help Me Make It Through The Night’ (a soon-to-be smash for GLADYS KNIGHT & THE PIPS), RAY PRICE `For The Good Times’ and of course, JOHNNY CASH’s re-take of the hangover narrative, `Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down’. What hard-boozing Kris’s versions lacked in romanticism and range, there was no doubting his passion and conviction in his role of archetypal post-hippie loner.
This album was certainly a kick up the rear for the stale C&W market, and proved in time to be a catalyst for the genre’s survival. Around the same time as the said re-issue’s resurgence, Kris’s second album, the near Top 20 THE SILVER TONGUED DEVIL AND I (1971) {*8}, finally saw him racking up sales in his own right. WAYLON JENNINGS had already borrowed the man’s work for his “The Taker / Tulsa” set (including the title track, `Sunday Morning…’ and Kris’ own Top 30 breaker `Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)’, whilst the aforementioned `Jody And The Kid’ had supplemented the careers of both ROY DRUSKY and ROGER MILLER.
Also in 1971, at the behest of his pal Dennis Hopper, KRISTOFFERSON travelled to Peru where the “Easy Rider” star was shooting an experimental western entitled “The Last Movie”. While the film’s notorious critical and commercial failure put paid to Hopper’s budding directorial career, it furnished the bearded, raggedly photogenic singer-songwriter with his first film part (as himself), as well as his first attempt at film scoring. It wasn’t long before he’d snagged his first leading role by way of cult drama “Cisco Pike” (1971). Playing a faded, drug-haunted rock star blackmailed by Gene Hackman’s crooked cop, Kris also got a chance to saturate the soundtrack with songs from his most recent album, a handful of which appeared on a specially issued EP.
In the meantime; although his stock with the critics had gone down, KRISTOFFERSON fired back with BORDER LORD (1972) {*6}. And criticised for his bit-part roles for his fictional fallen women (many were prostitutes), the Top 50 set’s saviour was surely that minor hit opener, `Josie’, `Little Girl Lost’ and `Somebody Nobody Knows’, got lost somewhere in translation.
Bolstered by a title track that “owed to John Prine” (via `Grandpa Was A Carpenter’), the album JESUS WAS A CAPRICORN (1972 {*6} was another to resonate with the outlaw country community. As well being pictured on the sleeve with wife-to-be, singer RITA COOLIDGE (whom he married in ’73), the bearded KRISTOFFERSON covered Larry Gatlin’s `Help Me’, alongside his own #1 country hit (and US hp#16) by way of the faith-inflected `Why Me’.
Combining his solo career with film work, Kris made another appearance as a singer in Paul Mazursky’s marital comedy, “Blume In Love”. He met his aforesaid wife Rita on the set of his most high-profiled movie up to now; taking the country outlaw aspect into the revisionist realms for 1973’s “Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid”; alongside James Coburn, Jason Robards and soundtrack contributor BOB DYLAN.
In among collaborative LPs with COOLIDGE: FULL MOON (1973) {*6} and 1974’s critical and commercial flop, BREAKAWAY {*4}, KRISTOFFERSON continued cutting his own solo albums to diminishing returns; namely SPOOKY LADY’S SIDESHOW (1974) {*4}, WHO’S TO BLESS AND WHO’S TO BLAME (1975) {*5} and SURREAL THING (1976) {*3}.
For the previous few years, a prolific Kris had bolstered his celluloid CV no end by appearing in another of Sam Peckinpah’s flicks: “Bring Me The Head Of Alfredo Garcia” (1974), before his breakthrough role opposite Oscar-winner Ellen Burstyn in Martin Scorsese’s Hollywood debut, “Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore” (also 1974). Despite the film’s success, KRISTOFFERSON chose to concentrate on his aforesaid flagging music career prior to returning to the big screen alongside Sarah Miles in steamy drama, “The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With The Sea” (1976) and as a Vietnam vet in “Vigilante Force” (1976).
Yet it would be his role alongside BARBRA STREISAND as a frozen-nosed rock star on the skids, which would define the man’s movie career. A STAR IS BORN (1976) {*3} was a massive box office success, while the No.1 soundtrack – to which Kris contributed a clutch of solo tracks (including minor hit `Watch Closely Now’), alongside the duets with Barbra – sold by the millions. To be fair, the man’s onscreen demons were propping up a mirror to his real life travails, and his tortuous, hangdog trawl through `Crippled Crow’ (and songs penned by outsider scribes) was real car-crash stuff, coming close to the ghoulish fascination of NEIL YOUNG’s `Tonight’s The Night’.
KRISTOFFERSON nevertheless continued to act, drawing some laughs even, alongside Burt Reynolds in American Football satire, “Semi-Tough” (1977), and as everyone’s favourite trucker, Rubber Duck, in Sam Peckinpah’s CB radio drama, “Convoy” (1978). Meanwhile, his solo career had taken a commercial dip via EASTER ISLAND (1978) {*6}, NATURAL ACT (1978) {*4}: his pre-divorce set with COOLIDGE, and worst of all SHAKE HANDS WITH THE DEVIL (1979) {*3}.
1981’s TO THE BONE {*6} did restore a momentary return to form, though the man was now seeping street-cred by the bucket-load. However, with an appearance in Michael Cimino’s infamous, studio-busting failure, “Heaven’s Gate” (1981), and a starring role in flawed Jane Fonda vehicle, “Rollover” – whose tagline `the most erotic thing in their world was money’ hardly inspired confidence, though it suited his critical rollercoaster ride.
1984 saw Kris back on form, if not fully, in forgotten drama “Flashpoint” (1984), then alongside WILLIE NELSON in Alan Rudolph’s music biz drama, “Songwriter” (1984) – for which he shared the soundtrack – but that returned him to the tattered troubadour persona of his early movies and took his career full circle. A starring role in Rudolph’s “Trouble In Mind” (1985) was also well received, and while he spent most of the remainder of the decade working on TV westerns, Kris did make an unlikely appearance in the Pee Wee Herman comedy, “Big Top Pee-Wee” (1988) and sci-fi dud, “Millennium” (1989).
In keeping with the outlaw theme, there was high praise and recompense in his decision to team up with buddies WAYLON JENNINGS, WILLIE NELSON and JOHNNY CASH in the first `Highwayman’ albums in 1985; a sophomore selection also hit the Top 100 in early 1990, whilst `The Road Goes On Forever’ (1995), maintained a loyal support.
During the aforementioned late 80s recording spell, KRISTOFFERSON had managed to ink a deal with Mercury Records, who would give him the scope to oust both REPOSSESSED (1986) {*3} and the ill-fated left-wing political concept THIRD WORLD WARRIOR (1990) {*3}, however the “Help Me Make It Through The Night” star was finding it tough.
Having just spoken out about America’s involvement in Nicaragua, KRISTOFFERSON began the 90s with a starring role in a Spanish biopic of guerilla hero, (Augusto C.) “Sandino”. Less inspiring were a series of forgettable roles in the likes of “Night Of The Cyclone” (1991), “Original Intent” (1992), “Paper Hearts” (1993), “Knights” (1993) and others (many of them for TV), although things finally began looking up again with his role as a preacher in American Civil War drama, “Pharaoh’s Army” (1995) and also with his memorably nasty turn in John Sayles’ highly-acclaimed “Lone Star” (1996), which rejuvenated his film career and led to a number of high-profile parts.
Sadly subjected to the fringes, KRISTOFFERSON was still writing songs, and with producer DON WAS there was a return to the fray with an album almost shelved: A MOMENT OF FOREVER (1995) {*6}. Saved from the can by Texas label, Justice, when Karambolage lost its distribution deal, studio kingpins Jim Keltner, Benmont Tench, Waddy Wachtel, Daniel Timms, Reggie Young and others, augmented the singer on poignant picks of the litter, `Worth Fighting For’, `Johnny Lobo’, `Shipwrecked In The Eighties’ and a GUY CLARK collaboration, `Under The Gun’.
While Kris continued to take on sub-par movie-flick fare like “Fire Down Below” (1997), “Dance With Me” (1998), “Girls’ Night” (1998) and “Payback” (1999), these were balanced with more credible roles in superhero fantasy, “Blade” (1998), James Ivory’s “A Soldier’s Daughter Never Cries” (1998) and Sayles’ Alaskan-cum-desert island drama, “Limbo” (1999).
The close of the millennium meanwhile, found KRISTOFFERSON in fine fettle with the Atlantic Records-endorsed album, THE AUSTIN SESSIONS (1999) {*6}, a record featuring fresh versions of his classic tunes; backing vocals came through JACKSON BROWNE, MARC COHN, STEVE EARLE, ALISON KRAUSS, VINCE GILL et al.
Into the new millennium, Kris proved he was still one of the most versatile singer-turned-actors in the business; continuing to appear in hip indies such as Ethan Hawke’s directorial debut, “Chelsea Walls” (2001) – that had a score by JEFF TWEEDY – and Sayles’ political satire, “Silver City” (2004), as well as major studio efforts like the updated “Planet Of The Apes” (2001) and a brace of further assignments as Wesley Snipe’s imperturbable sidekick in the hugely successful “Blade” franchise.
While one could list the subsequent film parts of which Kris excelled (see IMDB for details), the singer/songwriter’s discography continued in fits and starts. 2003’s BROKEN FREEDOM SONG: LIVE FROM SAN FRANCISCO {*6} – recorded the previous July – was an oddity of a concert album for Oh Boy Records (a label owned by JOHN PRINE); it was indeed an ad hoc collection of stripped down songs gathered from the more obscure corners of KK’s huge song vault. Accompanied only by mandolin and bass, Kris performed an intimate, politically slanted set dusting down the likes of `Sky King’, `The Circle’ and `Sandinista’.
About to turn 70 and renewing his association with DON WAS (for New West Records), the socially-conscience Kris’s THIS OLD ROAD (2006) {*6} maintained his radical stance for the oppressed and the underdog. Its sparse beat was indeed tribal as he pointed out the injustices by his nation a la `Wild American’, `Pilgrim’s Progress’, `The Burden Of Freedom’ and `In The News’.
2009’s CLOSER TO THE BONE {*7} continued his search for redemption and solace. Always on hand to help his buddy Kris, guitarist Stephen Bruton sadly passed away shortly after this release, although old hats DON WAS, Jim Keltner and keyboardist Rami Jaffee accompanied him solidly enough. The songwriter’s subject matter concerned the loss of JOHNNY CASH (`Good Morning John’), the media bullying of SINEAD O’CONNOR (`Sister Sinead’) and one (`Hall Of Angels’) dedicated to the daughter that singer EDDIE RABBIT lost.
At 76 years of age, the title of Kris’s FEELING MORTAL (2013) {*6} was hardly surprising. What was surprising was that the singer was still out-surviving his peers; with the exception of the imperious country wrangler WILLIE NELSON. From his bygone days scribing songs alongside the great SHEL SILVERSTEIN (`The Taker’ was one such erstwhile joint nugget; `My Heart Was The Last To Know’ was featured here), KRISTOFFERSON added a nice concluding touch by paying homage to folk star, `Ramblin’ Jack’.
2014’s AN EVENING WITH KRIS KRISTOFFERSON – The Pilgrim; Ch 77 Union Chapel, London {*6} – recorded on 26th September 2013 – proved he was still an integral part of the music biz, whilst to mark his 80th birthday, THE CEDAR CREEK SESSIONS (2016) {*6} – reviving all his best tracks from that studio between June 23-25, 2014 – won Kris a Grammy nomination for Best Americana Album.
© MC Strong 2000-2009/GRD-LCS/BG // rev-up MCS Aug2019

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