Kris Kristofferson reflects on a remarkable career

Wade Tatangelo
The Republic
Columbus, IN

BRADENTON, Fla. — Kris Kristofferson threw it all away.

So many times.

That's why his life story remains more compelling than any of his timeless songs or the memorable characters he has played on screen.

Yeah, a Kristofferson biopic should make for a first-rate film some day.

A Golden Gloves boxer with top grades at Pomona College in California, Kristofferson earned a Rhodes Scholarship to study literature at the University of Oxford in London.

But after he graduated, he joined the U.S. Army, became a helicopter pilot and rose to the rank of captain. He volunteered to fight in Vietnam, but the Army assigned him to teach English at West Point.

Kristofferson resigned his commission.

He traded in a promising military career to try making it as singer/songwriter in Music City.

He paid the bills doing commercial helicopter work and emptying ashtrays in Nashville studios.

And the former clean-cut athlete started drinking heavy and popping pills.

His janitor job put him in contact with Johnny Cash, who shot down every song the guy sweeping floors offered him — until Kristofferson landed a helicopter in Cash's back yard.

That got The Man in Black's attention.

Cash eventually recorded Kristofferson's stirring hangover hymn, "Sunday Morning Coming Down."

It hit No. 1, crossed over to the pop chart and won the Country Music Association's Song of the Year Award in 1970.

"I pitched John every song I wrote when I was working as a janitor, and he was real supportive but never cut anything," Kristofferson said when called at his Hawaii home. "When he cut that, he blew me away. It became record of the year and I never had to go to work again."

Cash also got Kristofferson to open for him at the Newport Folk Festival in 1969.

"That started my whole performing career," said Kristofferson.

Before Cash cut "Sunday Morning Coming Down," the struggling songwriter hung out at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge — which still serves drinks, mostly to tourists — behind the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. During Kristofferson's days there in the 1960s, patrons included Patsy Cline, Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings, Tom T. Hall, Mel Tillis and Roger Miller.

Original owner Tootsie Bess, a singer/comedienne, was famous for her generosity — and apparently had a unique way of clearing the room after last call.

"Tootsie was just such a great person," Kristofferson said. "She ran a tab on everybody in the business — some famous and many not — but I think I was the only guy who always paid my tab because I had my job as a janitor."

The 74-year-old unleashed a gravelly laugh: "She used to go around at midnight — I think that's the latest clubs could stay open then — and go around with a hat pin and stick it in people's (behinds)."

Another hearty chuckle from Kristofferson and then: "I can't remember ever being stuck."

Janis Joplin recorded Kristofferson's most famous song, "Me and Bobby McGee," and her version became a No. 1 pop hit, posthumously, in 1971. Kristofferson and Joplin had dated before she died of a heroin overdose in Hollywood.

Kristofferson wasn't far from where she passed away when he first heard Joplin's riveting rendition of the song he had written while flying helicopters.

"Her producer Paul Rothchild played it for me and I couldn't even listen to the whole thing," Kristofferson said. "I remember being in L.A. and walking the streets trying to get myself together.

"I had never heard her sing it. We'd been together for what seemed like a long time, and I read in The Tennessean she sang it at a show, but when I heard the song it just tore me up.

"I figured I was gonna hear it a lot, that it would be a hit single, so I thought I better listen to it enough to get used to hearing it."

For the entire article, please visit: