Friday, December 26, 2008

Classic Song Chronicles: Kris Kristofferson’s "Help Me Make it Through the Night"

Simultaneously erotic, lonely and altogether heartbreaking, Kris Kristofferson’s landmark “Help Me Make it Through the Night” has been recorded by hundreds of major artists ranging from Kris himself, to Johnny Cash, to Gladys Knight, to Elvis Presley.
The legendary and influential singer song-writer wrote the song in a highly unusual place, as Kristofferson recalled in the essential book on Elvis Presley songwriters, "Writing for the King" with, “I wrote the song when I was still flying petroleum helicopters out in the Gulf of Mexico. I wrote it out there on one of those lonely oil rigs where we lived at for a week at a time. It was a good way to deal with the loneliness out there…” It is that loneliness that comes through the most in the song’s haunting lyrics of a man so desperate for a night of human contact that he is literally willing to ‘let the devil take tomorrow’ for it.
Kris’ version first appeared on his seminal self-titled 1970 album that would alert the world to his considerable skills as an interpreter of his own material. "Help Me Make it Through the Night", ironically and controversially, first became a hit for a woman when country singer Sammi Smith recorded it for her album named after the song also in 1970. Smith’s version was a smash hit and landed at number one across the country charts and was seen as a major leap forward for many conservatively minded radio stations and listeners, as it helped correlate country music with the sexual revolution that was sweeping the country in the early seventies.

Kristofferson’s favorite version of the song was recorded shortly after Smith’s when Elvis Presley recorded a splendidly laid back and chillingly heartfelt take in
1971. Kris said of Elvis in "Writing For The King" that, “I found out that Elvis recorded it when I was on the road” and that even though “all my heroes were recording my stuff” that “To have Elvis record your song was amazing.” Kris recalled the first time he heard Elvis’ eerie take later with, “I was in Bob Beckham’s office at Combine Music in Nashville when I first heard Elvis’ version of "Help Me Make it Through the Night", We played it and it was just like being at church…the fact that it was Elvis singing your song was an honor…I like everything that Elvis did. I just liked his approach.” Not totally sure why Elvis picked the song, Kris finally decided that, “Certainly it’s a situation he could have identified with. I mean, 'Help me make it through the night', I’m sure he could have identified with that emotion.”

The song became one of the most recorded of the seventies and appealed to country, pop, soul and rock fans. It even appealed to director John Huston, who used it to great effect in his 1972 feature Fat City, a film in which Kris appeared.
Some of the most notable version include this wonderful rendering by Gladys Knight and the Pips for the mid seventies:

And here is Johnny and June Cash singing the song famously as a duet:

Kris himself has continued to make the song a staple of his own live shows and this performance of it on the Old Grey Whistle Test with Rita Coolidge remains a particular favorite:

A humorous anecdote about the song came out recently courtesy of Criterion’s excellent Two Lane Blacktop set, on which director Monte Hellman interviews Kris. Kris recalled that during Bob Dylan’s recording session of his legendary Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid Soundtrack, a film in which Kris starred as The Kid, director Sam Peckinpah drunkenly interrupted it one night telling Dylan he wished he would stop what he was doing and lay down something like “Help Me Make it Through the Night.”
Despite all of the versions, Kris seems to remain proudest of Presley’s and would say in Writing for the King that, “It’s one of the highlights for me to have had Elvis cut one of my songs…I would have never dreamed that Elvis would sing one of my songs (and) with so much soul. I feel a lot of gratitude for that.” Elvis would record two other Kris Kristofferon songs in the seventies, “For the Good Times” and “Why Me Lord” before his untimely death in 1977. The mind boggles at the kind of collaborative work the two could have done as songwriter and interpreter had things worked out differently.


Neil Sarver said...

This is a brilliant song, thanks for the commentary.

I can't help but like Kristofferson's version best. The whole Kristofferson album is absolutely brilliant, and should be essential listening for all human beings.

I certainly do love the Elvis version, and there is an unusual level of casual emotional honesty in his reading of "I don't want to be alone". Elvis is certainly always emotionally honest in his performance, but rarely does he sound so much like he's just turning to a trusted friend a casually revealing something about himself.

Watching Johnny Cash and Kris Kristofferson each doing it as a duet is interesting, as they're both clearly doing seduction mode, and their seduction qualities are so entirely different.

Kotto said...

damn, coolidge is a sexy gal.

great post. i was especially pleased with the 2 lane blacktop reference - it may be my favorite american film (at the very least, it's in my top 5). my post on it will give you an idea why i love it so much.

have a great new year jeremy! keep crankin' em out

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks so much guys,
I really enjoy doing music related posts here and typically they don't get many reactions so I appreciate these.

Totally agree on that album. I think it is a real stunner. Several of his seventies lps rank in the overlooked classics section for me...the guy's out of sight.
Liked reading your comments on Elvis' version as well. It's hardly ever mentioned, but I have always loved it, and love his delivery.

Thanks Kotto,
I finally just got the new Criterion set for X-Mas and think it is one of their best. It's one of my favorite films as well and I look forward to checking out your post on it. Agreed on Rita too.

Thanks again..

Kotto said...

random question: have you picked up the most recent kubrick box set? i know it came out a while back but that there were issues with the eyes wide shut disk. i wanted the set for the widescreen versions of his work, but i'm wondering if they've worked out the kinks. any idea?

btw, i just finished watching "let the right one in" and once i absorb what i just saw, i'm planning a post for it. if you haven't watched it, check it of the year's best.

Jeremy Richey said...

Hey Kotto,
I am really excited to see Let the Right One In. I will look forward to your post...

I do have that Kubrick set but to be honest with you I haven't watched the EWS disc. Hopefully mine is okay, as that is one of my favorite films from him...I can say that The Clockwork Orange discs and extras are just out of sight...just splendid. I do wish they would have included the missing films from the original set like Lolita, Lyndon and Strangelove. I suspect and hope there will be a Vol.2.
Thanks again...

Samuel Wilson said...

Any acknowledgment of Fat City is greatly appreciated. It's a great 70s film from an old master, and the song is certainly apropos. Thanks for posting.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Samuel...I haven't seen Fat City in a long time and need to revisit it.

Kotto said...

if you're interested, my post on let the right one in is finally up

Ned Merrill said...

Definitely one of my "desert island" tunes. I spent a little while downloading almost all the versions available on iTunes. Love the way Huston used it in FAT CITY, which remains one of the best entries in the New Hollywood canon even if it was made by an old Hollywood master. And, yes, Kristofferson's interview on the TWO LANE disc is a winner. He remains one of the coolest cats to emerge from that era.

I didn't notice any mention of Bryan Ferry's version in your article, Jeremy. Surely, as a Roxy Music fan, you appreciate his take.

Jeremy Richey said...

Thanks Ned,
I'm absolutely horrified that I left out Ferry's version. I just totally blanked on it while I was writing this...and yes, it is one of my favorite versions.