Kris Kristofferson (born 22 June 1936 in Brownsville, Texas, United States) is a singer/songwriter and actor. He is known for such hits as "Me and Bobby McGee", "For the Good Times", "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down", and "Help Me Make It Through the Night". Kristofferson is the sole writer of most of his songs, and he has collaborated with various other figures of the Nashville scene such as Shel Silverstein. In 1985, Kristofferson joined fellow country artists Waylon Jennings, Willie Nelson and Johnny Cash in forming the country music supergroup The Highwaymen. In 2004 Kristofferson was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
Kristoffer Kristofferson was born in Brownsville, Texas, to Mary Ann (née Ashbrook) and Lars Henry Kristofferson, a U.S. Army Air Corps officer (later a U.S. Air Force Major General). His paternal grandparents immigrated from Sweden, and Kristofferson's paternal grandfather was an officer in the Swedish Army. When Kristoffer was a child, his father pushed him toward a military career. Like most "military brats", Kristofferson moved around frequently as a youth, finally settling down in San Mateo, California, where he graduated from San Mateo High School. An aspiring writer, Kristofferson enrolled in Pomona College in 1954. He experienced his first dose of fame when he appeared in Sports Illustrated's "Faces in the Crowd" for his achievements in collegiate rugby union, football, and track and field. He and fellow classmates revived the Claremont Colleges Rugby Club in 1958, which has remained a Southern California rugby dynasty. Kris became a member of Kappa Delta at Pomona College, graduating in 1958 with a BA, summa cum laude in Literature. In a 2004 interview with Pomona College Magazine Kristofferson mentioned philosophy professor Frederick Sontag as an important influence in his life.
After leaving the Army in 1965, Kristofferson moved to Nashville. He worked at a variety of odd jobs while struggling for success in music, burdened with medical expenses resulting from his son's defective esophagus. He and his wife soon divorced.
He got a job sweeping floors at Columbia Studios in Nashville. There he met Johnny Cash, who initially accepted some of Kristofferson's songs but chose not to use them. During Kristofferson's janitorial stint for Columbia, Bob Dylan recorded his landmark 1966 album Blonde on Blonde at the studio. Though he had the opportunity to watch some of Dylan's recording sessions, Kristofferson never met Dylan out of fear that he would be fired for approaching him.
He also worked as a commercial helicopter pilot at that time for a south Louisiana firm called Petroleum Helicopters International (PHI), based in Lafayette, Louisiana. Kristofferson recalled of his days as a pilot, "That was about the last three years before I started performing, before people started cutting my songs … I would work a week down here for PHI, sitting on an oil platform and flying helicopters. Then I'd go back to Nashville at the end of the week and spend a week up there trying to pitch the songs, then come back down and write songs for another week … I can remember 'Help Me Make It Through The Night' I wrote sitting on top of an oil platform. I wrote 'Bobby McGee' down here, and a lot of them ."
In 1966, Dave Dudley released a successful Kristofferson single, "Viet Nam Blues". In 1967, Kristofferson signed to Epic Records and released a single, "Golden Idol"/"Killing Time", but the song was not successful. Within the next few years, more Kristofferson originals hit the charts, performed by Roy Drusky ("Jody and the Kid"), Billy Walker & the Tennessee Walkers ("From the Bottle to the Bottom"), Ray Stevens ("Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down"), Jerry Lee Lewis ("Once More with Feeling") Faron Young ("Your Time's Comin'") and Roger Miller ("Me and Bobby McGee", "Best of all Possible Worlds", "Darby's Castle"). He achieved some success as a performer himself, following Johnny Cash's introduction of Kristofferson at the Newport Folk Festival. Kristofferson had previously grabbed Cash's attention when he landed his helicopter in Cash's yard without prior arrangement and gave him some tapes.
Kristofferson signed to Monument Records as a recording artist. In addition to running that label, Fred Foster also served as manager of Combine Music, Kristofferson's songwriting label. His debut album for Monument in 1970 was Kristofferson, which included a few new songs as well as many of his previous hits. Sales were poor, although this debut album would become a success the following year when it was re-released under the title Me & Bobby McGee. Kristofferson's compositions were still in high demand. Ray Price ("For the Good Times"), Waylon Jennings ("The Taker"), Bobby Bare ("Come Sundown"), Johnny Cash ("Sunday Morning Coming Down") and Sammi Smith ("Help Me Make It Through the Night") all recorded successful versions of his songs in the early 1970s. "For the Good Times" (Ray Price) won "Song of the Year" in 1970 from the Academy of Country Music, while "Sunday Morning Coming Down" (Johnny Cash) won the same award from the Academy's rival, the Country Music Association in the same year. This is the only time an individual received the same award from these two organizations in the same year for different songs.
In 1971, Janis Joplin, who dated Kristofferson for some time until her death, had a number 1 hit with "Me and Bobby McGee" from her posthumous Pearl. When released, it stayed on the number one spot on the charts for weeks. More hits followed from others: Ray Price ("I'd Rather Be Sorry"), Joe Simon ("Help Me Make It Through the Night"), Bobby Bare ("Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends"), O. C. Smith ("Help Me Make It Through the Night") Jerry Lee Lewis ("Me and Bobby McGee"), Patti Page ("I'd Rather Be Sorry") and Peggy Little ("I've Got to Have You"). Kristofferson released his second album, The Silver Tongued Devil and I in 1971; the album was a success and established Kristofferson's career as a recording artist in his own right. Soon after, Kristofferson made his acting debut in The Last Movie (directed by Dennis Hopper) and appeared at the Isle of Wight Festival. In 1971, he acted in Cisco Pike and released his third album, Border Lord; the album was all-new material and sales were sluggish. He also swept the Grammy Awards that year with numerous songs nominated, winning country song of the year for "Help Me Make It Through the Night". Kristofferson's 1972 fourth album, Jesus Was a Capricorn initially had slow sales, but the third single, "Why Me", was a success and significantly increased album sales.
Kristofferson earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford University, where his college was Merton. While at Oxford he was awarded his Blue for boxing and began writing songs. With the help of his manager, Larry Parnes, he recorded for Top Rank Records under the name Kris Carson. Parnes was working to sell Kris as "a Yank at Oxford" to the British public; Kris was willing to accept that promotional approach if it helped his singing career, which he hoped would enable him to progress towards his goal of becoming a novelist. This early phase of his music career was unsuccessful.
In 1960 Kristofferson graduated with a BPhil in English literature and married an old girlfriend, Fran Beer. Kris, under pressure from his family, ultimately joined the U.S. Army and achieved the rank of Captain. He became a helicopter pilot after receiving flight training at Fort Rucker, Alabama. He also completed Ranger School. During the early 1960s, he was stationed in West Germany as a member of the 8th Infantry Division It was during this time that he resumed his music career and formed a band. In 1965, when his tour of duty ended, Kristofferson was given an assignment to teach English Literacy at West Point. Instead, he decided to leave the Army and pursue songwriting. His family disowned him because of this decision and they never reconciled with him. They saw it as a rejection of everything they stood for, in spite of the fact that Kristofferson has said he is proud of his time in the military, and received the AVA (American Veterans Awards "Veteran of the Year Award" in 2003. Kris has stated that he was greatly influenced by the poet William Blake while at Oxford, who had proclaimed that if one has a God-given creative talent then one should use it, or else reap sorrow and despair. Kristofferson sent some of his compositions to a friend's relative, Marijohn Wilkin, a successful Nashville, Tennessee, songwriter but when he arrived in the town to see Sam Phillips of Sun Records his shoes were, according to Philips, "falling off his feet."
Also during this time, Kristofferson met singer Rita Coolidge. They married in 1973 and released an album titled Full Moon, another success buoyed by numerous hit singles and Grammy nominations. However, his fifth album, Spooky Lady's Sideshow, released in 1974, was a commercial failure, setting the trend for most of the rest of his career. Artists such as Ronnie Milsap and Johnny Duncan continued to record Kristofferson's material with much success, but his distinctively rough voice and anti-pop sound kept his own audience to a minimum. Meanwhile, more artists took his songs to the top of the charts, including Willie Nelson, whose 1979 LP release of Willie Nelson Sings Kris Kristofferson proved to be a smash success.
In 1979, Kris Kristofferson traveled to Havana, Cuba, to participate in the historic Havana Jam festival that took place between March 2–4, alongside Rita Coolidge, Stephen Stills, the CBS Jazz All-Stars, the Trio of Doom, Fania All-Stars, Billy Swan, Bonnie Bramlett, Mike Finnegan, Weather Report, and Billy Joel, plus an array of Cuban artists such as Irakere, Pacho Alonso, Tata Güines and Orquesta Aragón. His performance is captured on Ernesto Juan Castellanos's documentary Havana Jam '79.
Kristofferson and Coolidge divorced in 1980.
In 1982, Kristofferson participated (with Willie Nelson, Dolly Parton, and Brenda Lee) on The Winning Hand, a double album consisting of remastered and updated performances of recordings the four artists had made for the Monument label during the mid-1960s; the album reached the top-ten on the U.S. country album charts. He married again, to Lisa Meyers, and concentrated on films for a time, appearing in The Lost Honor of Kathryn Beck, Flashpoint, and Songwriter. The latter also starred Willie Nelson. Kristofferson was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Original Song Score. Music from Songwriter (an album of duets between Nelson and Kristofferson) was a massive country success.
Nelson and Kristofferson continued their partnership, and added Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash to form the supergroup The Highwaymen. Their first album, Highwayman was a huge success, and the supergroup continued working together for a time. The single from the Album Highwayman also titled Highwayman was awarded the ACM's single of the year in 1985. In 1985, Kristofferson starred in Trouble in Mind and released Repossessed, a politically aware album that was a country success, particularly "They Killed Him" (also performed by Bob Dylan), a tribute to his heroes, including Martin Luther King, Jr., Jesus, and Mahatma Gandhi. Kristofferson also appeared in Amerika at about the same time; the miniseries was controversial, hypothesizing life under Communist domination.
In spite of the success of Highwayman 2 in 1990, Kristofferson's solo recording career slipped significantly in the early 1990s, though he continued to record successfully with the Highwaymen. Lone Star (1996 film by John Sayles) reinvigorated Kristofferson's acting career, and he soon appeared in Blade, Blade II, Blade: Trinity, A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, Fire Down Below, Tim Burton's remake of Planet of the Apes, Chelsea Walls, Payback, The Jacket and Fast Food Nation.
The Songwriters Hall of Fame inducted Kristofferson in 1985, as had the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame in 1977. 1999 saw the release of The Austin Sessions, an album on which Kristofferson reworked some of his favorite songs with the help of befriended artists such as Mark Knopfler, Steve Earle and Jackson Browne. In 2003, Broken Freedom Song was released, a live album recorded in San Francisco].
In 2004, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. In 2006, he received the Johnny Mercer Award from the Songwriters Hall of Fame and released his first album full of new material in 11 years; This Old Road. On April 21, 2007, Kristofferson won CMT's Johnny Cash Visionary Award. Rosanne Cash, Cash's daughter, presented the honor during the April 16 awards show in Nashville. Previous recipients include Cash, Hank Williams, Jr., Loretta Lynn, Reba McEntire and the Dixie Chicks. "John was my hero before he was my friend, and anything with his name on it is really an honor in my eyes," Kristofferson said during a phone interview. "I was thinking back to when I first met him, and if I ever thought that I'd be getting an award with his name on it, it would have carried me through a lot of hard times."
In July 2007, Kristofferson was featured on CMT's "Studio 330 Sessions" where he played many of his hits.
On June 13, 2008, Kristofferson performed an acoustic in the round set with Patty Griffin and Randy Owen (Alabama) for a special taping of a PBS songwriters series to be aired in December. Each performer played 5 songs. Kristofferson's included "The Best of All Possible World's," "Darby's Castle," "Casey's Last Ride," "Me and Bobby McGee," and "Here Comes that Rainbow Again." Taping was done in Nashville.
Kristofferson released a new album of original songs entitled Closer to the Bone on September 29, 2009. It is produced by Don Was on the New West label. Previous to the release, Kristofferson remarked: "I like the intimacy of the new album. It has a general mood of reflecting on where we all are at this time of life."
On November 10, 2009, Kristofferson was honored as a BMI Icon at the 57th annual BMI Country Awards. Throughout his career, Kristofferson's songwriting has garnered 48 BMI Country and Pop Awards. He later remarked that "The great thing about being a songwriter is you can hear your baby interpreted by so many people that have creative talents vocally that I don't have."
In December 2009, it was announced that Kristofferson would be portraying Joe in the upcoming album Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, a collaboration between rock singer John Mellencamp and novelist Stephen King.
On May 11, 2010, Light in the Attic Records is releasing demos that were recorded during Kristofferson's janitorial stint at Columbia. "Please Don't Tell Me How the Story Ends: The Publishing Demos" is the first time these recordings have been released and includes material that would later be featured on other Kristofferson recordings and on the recordings of other prominent artists, such as the original recording of "Me and Bobby McGee".