Originally created 03/03/05

Sultry singer Sammi Smith was female pioneer in country music



Sammi Smith's death on Feb. 12 barely rated mention in the national media even though her 1970 recording of Help Me Make It Through the Night sold more than 2 million copies.

There is no telling how many guys wanted to offer their services after hearing Ms. Smith's bedroom voice softly pleading, "Yesterday is dead and gone, and tomorrow's out of sight. And it's sad to be alone. Help me make it through the night."

It was named single of the year for 1971 by the County Music Association and also earned Grammy Awards for Ms. Smith and for the song's writer, Kris Kristofferson.

Fans and fellow country entertainers remember her as one of the best country vocalists of the 1970s, with her sultry ballads topping country music charts long before similar-style ballad singers Barbara Mandrell and Crystal Gayle.

Those who have heard her remakes of Loving Arms, City of New Orleans and Today I Started Loving You Again and her original recordings of Days That End in Y, Saunders' Ferry Lane and The Rainbow in Daddy's Eyes know they are superior to most of the recordings on the charts today.

Ms. Smith died at 61 in Oklahoma City. Her life was the stuff of which hit movies are made: She was born in 1943 in Orange, Calif., dropped out of school at age 11, started singing in bars at age 12, and married at 15, with her first marriage producing three children.

Her big break came In 1967 when she was discovered by Johnny Cash's bass player, Marshall Grant. She moved to Nashville, Tenn., and earned a contract with Columbia Records (also Cash's label), where she recorded several moderately successful singles.

While at Columbia she struck up a friendship with a studio janitor, Kris Kristofferson. That friendship came in handy when she was signed with small-label Mega Records in 1970, about the same time as Mr. Kristofferson gained notice when his song Sunday Morning Coming Down was recorded by Ray Price.

On Feb. 1, 1974, she performed at Bell Auditorium in a show that headlined Johnny Paycheck and also featured bluegrass stars Jim & Jesse McReynolds.

By that time, she also had become a respected songwriter herself. Waylon Jennings recording her song Cedartown, Georgia, and Conway Twitty recorded Sand-Covered Angels.

She even was identified with the "Outlaw movement" consisting also of Mr. Jennings, Mr. Krisfofferson, Tompall Glaser and Jessi Coulter.

Based on the success of her Mega singles, she was signed by Elektra Records in 1975 for which she recorded for three years and turned out some excellent work, including her single Norma Jean, a tribute to Marilyn Monroe - definitely not your usual subject for a country music single.

DON RHODES HAS WRITTEN ABOUT COUNTRY MUSIC FOR 34 YEARS. REACH HIM AT (706) 823-3214 OR DON.RHODES@MORRIS.COM.