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On The Fringe
Arguably, Sammi Smith is one of the most underrated country music artists of all time. Many consider Sammi’s style to be `outlaw’ but, as were many of her recordings, her greatest hit was undeniably `countrypolitan’. The song, `Help Me Make It Through The Night’, is a legendary country music classic, hailed by Country Music Magazine as No.23 on the chart for the Top 100 Country Songs Of All Time.
Jewel Fay Smith was born in Orange, California on 5th. August 1943. Her father was a serviceman and, consequently, `Sammi’ moved around considerably, predominantly living in the States of the southwest. One could say that Sammi began her adult life at a very early age. She left school at the age of 11 and, at 12, was working professionally in the nightclubs of the southwest, essentially singing the pop songs of the time. Some say that Sammi developed her sensual husky voice from the smoky club atmosphere. Sammi married at an early age too. Sammi’s first marriage, at age 15, produced three children.
In 1967, Sammi was `discovered’ by Marshall Grant, Johnny Cash’s bass player. Encouraged by Cash, Grant and songwriter Gene Sullivan, and despite a recent divorce, Sammi Smith moved to Nashville in an endeavour to further her career. Her first record contract was with Columbia Records with whom she produced `So Long Charlie Brown, Don’t Look For Me Around’ in 1968 and `Brownsville Lumberyard’ in 1970. Both were minor hits. Sammi toured with Waylon Jennings and, in 1970, signed with Mega Records.
However, Sammi had met Kris Kristofferson at Columbia Records. Kristofferson - noted for his writing of many country hits including `For The Good Times’, `Me and Bobby McGee’, and `Sunday Morning Coming Down’ - had written a song called `Help Me Make It Through The Night’. After an initial minor hit at Mega, Sammi recorded Kris’ song. Not only did this song help Sammi make it through her days and nights but it was to become one of the greatest country and `countrypolitan’ hits of all time.
`Help Me Make It Through The Night’ hit No.1 on February 13, 1971. It sold over two million copies, gaining Sammi the requisite gold record, and was ranked as the No. 37 best song of 1971 (any genre) in Casey Kasam’s Top 40, 1971 Year End Countdown.
Sammi Smith had hit the top. She was named 1970 CMA Top Female Vocalist, and won the 1971 Grammy for the Best Country Vocal Performance - Female. The vehicle for Sammi’s success - `Help Me Make It Through The Night’ - was named CMA 1971 Single of the Year. The hit gained Sammi Smith international renown and Sammi toured Britain and the US to follow up the success of the recording.
Ironically, such success was not welcomed by the record company, Mega, as the company had been established for tax write off purposes. However, Sammi had further hits with Mega including: `I’ve Got To Have You’, `Today I Started Loving You Again’, `For The Kids’, `The Rainbow in Daddy’s Eyes’ and `Then You Walk In’, but she admitted they weren’t the same quality as `Help Me Make It Through The Night’. Moreover, Sammi turned to songwriting during this period and, in 1971, wrote `Cedartown, Georgia’ for Waylon Jennings and her song `Sand-Covered Angels’ was recorded by Conway Twitty.
In 1973, Sammi joined the `Outlaw Movement’ of Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson when she moved to Dallas to join and perform with them. The relationship lasted many years. Waylon thought so much of Sammi’s performances that he nicknamed her `Girl Hero’. The feeling must have been mutual as Waylon is the name Sammi chose for her son from her second marriage.
Sammi was signed by Elektra Records in 1975, for three years - to 1978. In that time, she made the charts with `Days That End in Y’, `Loving Arms’, and her tribute to Marilyn Monroe -`Norma Jean’. In 1979, Sammi recorded `What A Lie’ with Cyclone Records and, in 1980, she recorded hits at Sound Factory including `I Cry When I’m Alone’ and `Cheatin’ Is A Two Way Street’. `Love Me All Over’ was a hit for Sammi in 1986 - her last.
Little is known of Sammi since the mid 80’s. It is known, however, that Sammi has worked for Apaches. Part Apache herself, Sammi adopted two Apache children and has established a scholarship to help provide for budding Apache doctors and lawyers. Sammi also led `Apache Spirit’, a band comprised solely of native Americans. More recently, in 1995, an album embracing Sammi’s greatest hits was released - `The Best of Sammi Smith’. Significantly, the album comprises substantial `countrypolitan’ content.
Few artists have enjoyed the success that Sammi has with `Help Me Make It Through The Night’. The song is a country `classic’ and has placed the name `Sammi Smith’ to the forefront in the annals of `countrypolitan’ music. Sammi’s style has even been used as a comparison yardstick for modern artists such as current country vocalist, Shelby Lynne (The Nashville Scene 2/14/2000). As evidenced by her achievements in the early ‘70s, Sammi Smith can truly be ranked among the `greats’ of `countrypolitan’ music.
Written by Michael D'Arcy. May 2001, Countrypolitan.com.
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