“If winters were just three days long
And all the rest were springs
I might feel up to writing songs
As sweet as Sammi sings.”
I said that.
Three years ago, on February 12th, the great country singer Sammi Smith died. Her songs are filled with melancholy and sophisticated grit. She had the unique talent to make you listen to the lyrics. Like with all great singers, you first don’t notice how great a singer she is. Because she puts the song first, not herself.
She makes sure that the listener takes the point of view of the song’s protagonist. In her first and biggest hit, the Kris Kristofferson penned “Help Me Make It Through The Night” (1970), Sammi Smith literally draws you into the mind and skin of a woman who longs for tenderness:
I don’t care what’s right or wrong, I won’t try to understand
Let the devil take tomorrow, cause tonight I need a friend
“He’s Everywhere” is a song about the emptiness and longing after the breakup; “For The Kids” tells the story of a divorce. Both songs manage to handle their topics without being sentimental. Sammi Smith gives you real feelings, there aren’t any ersatz feelings.
She delivers another great version of a Kris Kristofferson song with “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down”. Someone stumbles into Sunday morning with a hangover and suddenly is overwhelmed with sadness and loneliness:
Then I crossed the empty street
And caught the Sunday smell of someone fryin’ chicken
And it took me back to somethin’
That I’d lost somehow somewhere along the way
Sammi Smith was born on August 5th 1943 in Orange County, California and started singing in clubs when she was eleven years old. She married early and had several children; one of her children is country singer and actor Waylon Payne. Her career didn’t take off until she signed with the newly founded independent label “Mega” in 1970. She stayed with the Mega label until it shut down in 1976. Then she stayed with Elektra for a while and later signed with several smaller labels.
The only recommendable CD that’s around is “The Best of Sammi Smith” (Varése-Sarabande). Unfortunately there are only 16 songs, but the sound quality is good and it comes with a informative booklet. You can buy it on Amazon.
There’s another CD called “Help Me Make It Through The Night – The Memorial Album” with 25 songs (Acrobat Music). But the sound quality is awful, and so is the booklet with its blurred pictures. Let’s hope that some reissue label puts out a Sammi Smith CD-box soon. She deserves it.
Obituary: Girl Hero Sammi Smith
*Kris Kristofferson’s quote and the Sammi Smith picture are from the back cover of the LP “Help Me Make It Through the Night” (Mega M31-1000)