Sometime in 1971, I got home from work and found a case of expensive wine from someone named Bill Parsons at my front door. Well, the only Bill Parsons I had ever met was the guy who supposedly had written and sung the country/rock crossover hit All American Boy over ten years earlier. But, I didn’t think he’d remember me; and why would he be sending me wine from all over Europe? So, I tracked him down to thank him and we got talking about music. It turns out, Bill was not the person who sent the wine; more importantly, he wasn’t even the guy who wrote or sang All American Boy (he lip-synced it on American Bandstand). His buddy, country music legend (and story-teller) Bobby Bare had written and recorded the major hit. Because Bobby was going into the Army and couldn’t perform for a while, he let Parsons take credit for the whole thing.
The song All American Boy told the story of how easy it was to become a rock-and-roll star. “Git ya a guitar and put it in tune, and you’ll be rockin’and a-rollin’ soon.” That line of lyrics reflects my opinion of most pop musicians. Chuck Berry once told me backstage after complimenting him on his creativity, “There’s nothing new under the sun” (a quote from Ecclesiastes in the Bible, I think). Learn the basic drum beat or a three chord guitar pattern and a few guitar riffs, make yourself look different, add a few innovative movements on stage, copy some pop music every musician already knew, add a couple of new licks, and you could have a hit if you knew the right people.
Of the hundreds of famous musicians I’ve met over the years, I would only brag about meeting a dozen of them. Most knew nothing about the fundamentals of music, couldn’t even read a musical score, couldn’t trace their own name and wouldn’t have enough sense to come in out of the rain unless it were to get high. There are exceptions from the 1950-70’s like McCartney, Stevie Wonder, Chuck Berry, Ray Charles, Fogerty, Willy Nelson, Bernstein, Ellington, Ernest Tubb, etc., who were very smart and talented.
But, I think the most overlooked is Kris Kristofferson. His melodies (that used some unusual notes for their time) and his lyrics are masterpieces. Sure, he’s probably best known for his hit Me and Bobby McGee, but just listen to the heartfelt lyrics of Help Me Make It Through The Night or Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down. Think about the words: “There’s nothin’ short of dyin’ half as lonesome as the sound of a silent city sidewalk and Sunday mornin’ comin’ down” or “Come and lay down by my side ‘til the early mornin’ light cause’ I don’t want to be alone…help me make it through the night.” A little more poetic than “wop-bop-a-loo-mop-a-lop-bam-bam,” I would say!
Kris, whose parents didn’t approve of his musical career, was a college rugby star, graduated summa cum laude as a member of Phi Beta Kappa, then (like Bill Clinton) earned a Rhodes Scholarship to Oxford where he earned a Master’s Degree in English. He served his time in the military as a pilot in Viet Nam while most of the music crowd was avoiding the draft. He was even a professor at West Point. The list of Kristofferson’s songs is immense and the percentage that was covered by other artists is extraordinary. He made a lot of musicians famous. He may not have been the best singer or movie actor, but he is a true American classic songwriter and citizen.