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.