Kristofferson in the 1970s

Was there a multi-talented and hotter performer than Kris Kristofferson in the 1970s? Maybe Barbra Streisand, and they would team up later for a very successful film and album.

Kristofferson was everywhere during the decade and he appealed to a cross-section of audiences.  Women loved his good looks and his devilish attitude.  Men wanted to be him.  He wasn’t a hippy, but he had long hair and unpretentious manner.  Rednecks liked him because he a country artist who sang about hard times and real life.  He had been in the army, flew helicopters and studied in England on a Rhodes Scholarship, and spent the late 1960s working odd jobs while trying to peddle his songs.  The guy had lived the life he sang about.  What could be more authentic for country music?

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We know how he first came to our attention, as a songwriter of “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Sunday Morning Coming Down,” songs perfect for America in 1969. His songs were made hits by performers like Johnny Cash, Ray Stevens and Janis Joplin. Kristofferson knew his singing voice was limited, but his matinee idol good looks and songwriting prowess catapulted onto the musical scene.

Kristofferson, his first album, was released in 1970 to a range of reviews. Many of these songs were already known, but his versions are an interesting juxtaposition. His singing skills are limited and rough by his own assessment, but there’s an honesty and and weariness in his performances.

The Silver Tongued Devil and I (1971) The second album followed to greater commercial success than his debut. These were more songs of life’s adventures and struggles, though dressed up a bit more than the more matter of fact performances of his first effort. “Loving Her Was Easier (Than Anything I’ll Ever Do Again)” was the notable hit, even making it into the top 20 of the pop chart.

Country albums were huge sellers in those days so like even bigger country names, Kristofferson was on the road continuously playing one-nighters. He had been married and a father of two children during the 1960s, now was on his own and living the life of a working singer-songwriter, attaining success, but doing it the hard way, and enjoying it.

Border Lord (1973) continued his series of songs about hard lessons in life. This album failed to achieve the success of his first albums. The need to record and tour, was ratcheting up the pace of his life, and he had been using up his sack of best songs, so there was pressure to not only write enough for a new album, but to surpass classics like “Me and Bobby McGee.”

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Kristofferson and co-star Karen Black

Almost immediately, Hollywood came calling. After a cameo in The Last Hero, his second film, Cisco Pike (1972), co-starring Gene Hackman, cast him as a musician not having much luck, turns to dealing weed and is blackmailed by a corrupt cop. Kristofferson’s character was very much the anti-hero, a role that was close to home for his first major film.

Jesus Was a Capricorn (1972) A better received album than his last one, and even a top country single, “Why Me.” Elvis liked this song, recorded it and playing it in concert. Rita Coolidge, featured on the album cover, had been singing on Kristofferson’s last several albums. Coolidge was developing her own singing career and had been involved with a number of musicians before Kristofferson, although more in the rock world.

Full Moon (1973) A duet album with new wife Coolidge, mostly love songs, less country and more pop. Produced by Coolidge’s producer and released on her label.

Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) Directed and co-written by Sam Peckinpah, a story about lawman Garrett (James Coburn) after his old friend Billy the Kid (Kristofferson).  The film was a modest hit as battles between Peckinpah and the studio seemed to doom the film.  Kristofferson is very charismatic as Billy the Kid, although a bit old for the part.  He plays it with playful swagger, enjoying the killing and the enigma that went with the character.  The film is jam-packed with character actors and non-actors like Bob Dylan and Coolidge. Dylan contributed the soundtrack.  Kristofferson would play a lot of anti-establishment roles, bad boys, which only enhanced his reputation.

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Kristofferson and Bob Dylan

Blume in Love (1973) A quirky, off-beat love story. Man loves woman, man losses woman, man wants woman back.  Very simple story.  Written and directed by Paul Mazursky, starring Kristofferson, George Segal and Susan Anspach, it is a love triangle.  These are good, but unsure characters who spend the movie figuring out what they want and trying to regain it.  Mazursky specialized in these off-kilter character films, about people attempting to get their shit together.  Kristofferson is one side of the triangle, who is involve with a recently divorced older woman.  He plays a musician not yet successful musically, but trying to be with love.

Spooky Lady’s Sideshow (1974) A Kristofferson solo album. He used Coolidge’s producer and recorded it in L.A. instead of Nashville. The reviews and chart performance were disappointing. The songs were downbeat and visited familiar ground of booze, drugs and failure. As dressed up as the production was, it couldn’t hide threadbare songs, which would haunt Kristofferson for most of the decade.

Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia (1974)  A major dud, usually mentioned as Peckinpah’s worst film.  Kristofferson has a small, but unusual role, he plays one of two unsavory bikers who want to rape the girlfriend of the film’s protagonist, Warren Oates.  The film’s premise is to find Alfredo Garcia, and return his head to a Mexican crime boss for a ton of loot.  Kristofferson has very little screen time and comes to a violent end. In years following the release, the film has gained a Quentin

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Bring Me the Head of Alfredo Garcia

Tarantino type cult following for it’s violence and grim view.

Breakaway (1974) The second duet by Kris and Rita. More covers and love songs. Produced by Kristofferson’s Nashville producer. The album was less successful than their first effort.

Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore (1974) This was one of Martin Scorsese’s first films and it turned out to be a huge artistic and commercial success.  Kristofferson has a secondary role and comes into the film later.  This film was the basis of the long-running television sitcom, but it was a successful film, winning Ellen Burstyn a Best Actress Academy Award.  Kristofferson plays a musician who falls in love with Alice, in her quest to become a singer.  His character is a decent guy, who finds grounding and tries to make a lasting relationship work with Alice, who wasn’t looking for anything permanent.  Kristofferson did a competent job in a film with very good performances by Burstyn, Diane Ladd, Valerie Curtin, Harvey Keitel and others.

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Who’s to Bless and Who’s to Blame (1975) Another solo album, back to L.A. to record this one. Top production, but not well received. Kristofferson refused to believe that movies were diluting his focus. He didn’t record the upbeat songs as a solo artist that he did with Coolidge. He returned to the familiar hard life focus of his usual writing.

The Sailor Who Fell From Grace With the Sea 1976) Perhaps Kristofferson’s oddest film selection of the period. He plays an officer on a ship who develops a relationship with a woman where his ship is docked.  Later, he decides to settle down with the woman, but her jealous young son has other intentions.  Sarah Miles co-stars.  The film has some erotic scenes that were played up by a Playboy photo shoot that created big problems between Kristofferson and wife Rita Coolidge.  He later admitted an affair with Miles. The film has a cult following but was not a major hit when released.  It is more of an artsy film in look and subject matter.  Even a non-hit did not hurt Kristofferson’s career, it just made him a more intriguing actor by the diversity of film roles he accepted.

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Sarah Miles and Kristofferson

Vigilante Force (1976)  Maybe this looked good on paper or the money was hard to resist, but this is Kristofferson’s worst film of the decade.  He is a Vietnam vet who is hired to restore a working class town from thugs, but they end up using their power to their own advantage.  A cheap action film, not much to see here.

His next album, Surreal Thing (1976) was an attempt to be part of the successful “Outlaw” trend developing in country music.  He recorded the album in L.A., not Nashville.  Reviews and sales were no better than his last album and he even re-recorded two songs released at the beginning of his career. He was recording at a faster pace than he was writing, and the quality of his songs weren’t making it with either critics or the public.

A Star is Born (1976) This was the second remake, teaming the two hottest musician/actors around.  Kristofferson is the boozy, self-destructive rock and roll star on his way down the career ladder as the Streisand character is discovered by him and quickly surpasses him.  Directed and co-written by Frank Pierson, the film has a huge hit and a best selling album.  Kristofferson had his moment, but was overshadowed by Streisand, and he was playing a rock and roll singer, which he was not one.  Country was not hugely popular yet, so he could not play his genuine genre.  Kristofferson looks good and digs in to have some fun as the downward spiraling star.  He earned a Golden Globe Award for Best Actor.

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The soundtrack for A Star is Born (1976) was number one on the pop chart and sold four million copies. Kristofferson appears on several of the songs, but this is really Streisand’s album as she is featured on more songs, co-wrote several (Kristofferson has no writing credits here) and was co-producer.  Her boyfriend, Jon Peters, produced the film.  The film and album increased Kristofferson’s image, mostly as an actor, not so much as a recording artist.

Semi-Tough (1977) Kristofferson, Jill Clayblurgh and Burt Reynolds.  Line up the fans outside the box office for this football love triangle.  Written by film veteran Walter Bernstein from a best seller by Dan Jenkins and directed by Michael Ritchie, this film had all the ingredients of hit before the first frame of film was shot.  The film was a satire but not a very good one.  Kristofferson and Reynolds are basically the same character, they are so much alike, taking a light-hearted story and having fun with it.  Like cotton candy, light, sweet, but not any real value.

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Kristofferson, Jill Clayburgh and Burt Reynolds

Easter Island (1978) was an attempt to move into the commercial lane, with more upbeat love songs.  His film success was not rubbing off on his recording career. It was a better effort, but did not yield the success of Kristofferson’s outlaw contemporaries.

Convoy (1978). Directed by Sam Peckinpah and co-starring Ali McGraw, Burt Young and Ernest Borgnine, a film about renegade truckers and the CB radio.  The film, with similarities to Smokey and the Bandit, cashed in with a ready-made audience of country fans, CB enthusiasts, anti-establishment rebels and fans of the participants.  The film made back several times the cost of the budget in profit.  This was not great art, but it kept Kristofferson’s star high in the sky.

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Natural Act (1978) was the last Kris and Rita duet album. Slickly produced, the album failed to capitalize on Coolidge’s strong popularity, she had surpassed her husband in album sales and chart success.  There was no passion on this album which might have reflected where they were in their marriage, which ended the following year.

Shake Hands With the Devil (1979) was both a commercial and critical failure. It could have been subtitled, “Once More, Without Feeling,” because it was bland, poorly made and most of the songs were retread or rejects of earlier albums.  This was a poor way to end the decade, with a record which was the opposite of his debut effort of nine years earlier.

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Unfortunately, 1980 would bring the film disaster, Heaven’s Gate, which literally killed several careers and sunk United Artists, the studio financing this bomb.  Kristofferson was able to largely avoid the damage.  His film career in the next decade would cool down as he moved to more eclectic roles.  As a recording artist, he drifted toward joint projects with Willie Nelson, The Highwaymen and others. The 1980s was a time to rebuild and refocus his life.  He had a new marriage, was free from alcohol, and the bright light of Hollywood dimmed.


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