Can you imagine a talent as great as Kris Kristofferson working as a janitor at a recording studio?
The legendary artist and songwriter behind iconic songs like “Sunday Morning Comin’ Down,” “Me & Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night” took quite the road to country music stardom.
A Rhodes Scholar at Oxford University, Kristofferson got a Bachelor’s of Philosophy degree in English literature before joining the United States Army. He would complete Ranger school and become a helicopter pilot (a skill that would serve him well later in his music career), but after completing a tour in Germany, Kristofferson decided to leave the military and move to Nashville to pursue a career in songwriting.
As anybody who moves to Nashville for a career in the music business knows, it’s not as easy as just showing up and becoming a superstar – even for somebody as talented as Kris Kristofferson.
Burdened with debt from paying for his young son’s medical bills, Kristofferson took a job working as a janitor at Columbia Records. And it was this job that eventually gave him the opportunity to get the attention of one of the biggest names in country music, Johnny Cash.
Kristofferson would meet June Carter and ask her to give his demos to Johnny Cash, but they often ended up in a pile with all of the other demos he was being pitched.
Eventually though, the janitor managed to set himself apart as a songwriter and finally got the Man in Black’s attention. In fact, Cash was such a fan that Kristofferson recalls one time that Cash refused to go into a recording session unless Kristofferson was in the room.
It all started with Kristofferson being banned from Johnny’s recording sessions:
“I almost got fired one time because a couple of songwriters crashed the session, and they were trying to pitch him a gospel album. And for some reason the woman who was the secretary to the producer blamed me for letting them in there and tried to get me fired.
And so the next night my boss came down and said “I don’t think you should go to John’s session tonight,” which was heartbreaking for me because I lived for those recording sessions.
But I understood it.”
But Cash wasn’t happy to find out that Kristofferson wouldn’t be sitting in on the recording session:
“I hid down in the vault of the recording studio and was erasing tapes down there or doing some kind of busy work, and John appeared down there in the basement.
He said “I understand you’re not coming to the session.”
I said “No, I’ve got a lot of work to do down here, I can’t.”
He said “Well I just wanted to tell you I’m not gonna record until you come up there.”
So I had to go up and sit on the floor.”
Yeah, I’d say that if Johnny Cash says he’s not going to record until you’re in the studio, it doesn’t matter what anybody else says: You get to the studio.
Kristofferson says the experience was “uncomfortable,” because the same woman who tried to get him fired was also in the studio:
“And here I was, the janitor, and I’m sitting on the floor and this woman who tried to get me fired was watching me the whole session. It was the most uncomfortable I’ve ever been in my life.”
But Kristofferson says the whole experience was just an example of who Cash really was: Somebody who wasn’t afraid to stand up for the little guy.
“But I thought it was the measure of the man. He’s always stood up for the underdog.
And that’s something I’ve tried to live up to. He’s been a good example.”
It’s hard to think of a prolific songwriter like Kris Kristofferson as ever being “the underdog.” But back in those days, he was just the janitor at the record label – yet Johnny Cash recognized his greatness so much that he insisted the janitor join him in the recording studio.
Kris Kristofferson Landed A Helicopter In Johnny Cash’s Yard
According to an interview from Cowboys & Indians, Kristofferson credits Nashville with saving his life:
“I think if it hadn’t been for Nashville. I probably would have ended up going to Vietnam, because I’d been in the Army.
I was definitely not doing what I thought I was supposed to do. And I think I probably would have ended up a hopeless alcoholic or something.”
Kristofferson’s cousin plugged him into the music scene, but he really wasn’t having much success and took the job as a janitor at Columbia records.
Working at the record label, he would often times run into artists like George Jones, Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash, but these music stars weren’t exactly in the market to collect songs from the guy sweeping the floors.
He later took a job as a helicopter flight instructor with the National Guard, but when he wasn’t piloting down in the Gulf, he was still pitching songs around Nashville.
Landing His Helicopter At The Cash House
Perhaps his most infamous helicopter ride was when he landed the thing in Johnny Cash’s yard in an attempt to try and get some of his demo tapes in Cash’s hands.
According to Cash, Kris landed with a beer in one hand and the demo in the other, walked up to him half drunk, gave him the demo of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and “Me & Bobby McGee,” and left the same way he came.
However, Kristofferson doesn’t quite recall the story the same way that Cash described it.
In fact, according to Kris, Johnny wasn’t even there:
“Well, I admit, that did happen, but that didn’t do me any good, landing on John’s property. He wasn’t even there in the house at the time.
I think he told the story that I got out of the helicopter with a beer in one hand and a tape in the other. But he wasn’t even in the house.
And I never would have been drinking while flying a helicopter.”
June wasn’t home either…
Kris used to give demos to June for Johnny to listen to, but unfortunately for Kris, when June would play demos for Johnny, he ended up throwing most of them in the lake.
“She wasn’t there either… but you know what? I never was going to contradict either one of them.”
Either way, the helicopter stunt was enough for Johnny to take notice. Cash was a fan of “Sunday Morning Coming Down” and played the song live shortly thereafter. He even invited Kris to perform with him at the Newport Folk Festival.
He eventually recorded it, it became an absolute smash, and the rest is history.