Kris Kristofferson, Johnny Cash and “Sunday Morning Coming Down”

Last time I wrote about the song Fog on the Tyne which was actually a suggestion from one of my blogging buddies as it followed on nicely, in meteorological terms anyway, from my previous post which was about the song Misty by Ray Stevens. Lo and behold, just when I needed some inspiration, down from the “cloud” (I am restoring all my files onto a new computer) came a series of old pictures of my late father-in-law who was a Geordie by birth and who had worked as a young man, right in the centre of Newcastle, in an office overlooking the River Tyne.

The other suggestion I had received as to what song could follow on nicely from Misty was from Lynchie, a regular visitor to this place, who informed me that Ray Stevens had been the first person to record the Kris Kristofferson-penned song Sunday Morning Coming Down in 1969. I was a bit nervous about stepping on toes however as our Chain host over at Dubious Towers produces an excellent weekly country music thread with that same title – An homage to the song and its writer. As he just seems to have just found his blogging mojo again however after a surprisingly common bout of January blues, I rather hoped he’ll let me off. Lo and behold, what suddenly descended from the “cloud” yesterday afternoon but an mp3 of the Johnny Cash version of Sunday Morning Coming Down that I didn’t even remember I had – This post was meant to be!

Mr Kristofferson is someone I have long admired – Back in the ’70s he appeared in many films (Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid, Convoy, Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore, A Star Is Born) and for some reason he was one of the actors I took a real shine to. I have always had a penchant for a man with a beard (although not necessarily today’s hipster style), and he did sport a very rugged look back then. What I have now discovered is that not only did he write some of the most iconic songs from that era but he was probably one of those guys who would have succeeded in whichever path in life he chose. A top scholar, an accomplished athlete, a US Army captain, a helicopter pilot, a novelist, an actor and a singer/song-writer.

Having just checked, I find it incredible that he never once appeared in the British music charts in his own right, despite the fact that so many of his songs did make an appearance when sung by other people – For the Good Times by Perry Como and Help Me Make It Through the Night by Gladys Knight and the Pips amongst others. He definitely did make an appearance for several weeks in a row however on 1977’s TOTP as he was Barbra Streisand‘s love interest in the film A Star Is Born – Much smooching was done during the filmed recording of the song Evergreen which was a massive hit for her that year. (Yes, my 16-year-old self was definitely smitten with Mr K in that one.)

But this was supposed to be a post about the song Sunday Morning Coming Down and as we have now ascertained Kris Kristofferson wrote it and Ray Stevens was the first person to record it, but when Johnny Cash did a version in 1970 it reached No. 1 on the country chart and won the Country Music Association Award for Song of the Year. The story is that Kris, who was working as a janitor at the time for Columbia Records in Nashville mainly to get a foothold in the industry, flew his National Guard helicopter right onto Johnny’s front lawn in order to deliver the demo tape in person. That was the turning point for him however as once Johnny took the song on, and made it his own, Kris was quoted as saying that he never again “had to work for a living”.

As for how I came to have a copy of the song in my digital library – That would be because a few years ago I had not so much a mid-life crisis but all of a sudden I became besotted with country music. It started off with acquiring Glen Campbell CDs but I then progressed to compilations of Greatest Country Hits and just about anything else I could laythkq77euh3 my hands on, which of course included a Johnny Cash CD containing the song Sunday Morning Coming Down. Before then I had mainly known Johnny from his more light-hearted songs such as One Piece at a Time and A Boy Named Sue but also from the film I Walk The Line and the documentaries about his concerts held in the various state penitentiaries across America. Perhaps you have to be of a certain age to truly appreciate country music, and likewise, in order to really emote the lyrics in the songs you need to have a modicum of life experience, which by the time I came to appreciate Johnny he truly would have had.

The clip here is a great one as not only do we have Johnny but also Kris singing the song, making it a duet. The preamble is something they used to do quite a lot of on these sort of shows, and can be a bit cringifying, but it does lead in to an excellent performance.

Sunday Morning Coming Down by Johnny Cash:

So, “What’s It All About?” – It seems you should never be dismissive of any genre of music as one day you might just suddenly “get it” and you have a great new world to explore. As for Mr Cash’s voice, it was a deep calm bass-baritone which you just don’t often hear in music nowadays. I find it ironic that I always knew him best for his humorous songs, considering he built a whole persona around being “The Man in Black” – Sombre, serious and frankly quite scary.

As for Kris, unlike Johnny he is still with us, and rumours are afoot that he may even appear at Glastonbury this year which would be truly amazing. I am partly amazed by this because I know he is exactly the same age as my little mum and somehow I just can’t imagine her gracing the stage at Glastonbury. What she can do however is read this blog and it has become a feature of our Friday evenings together, when I go to visit. I really don’t think she quite understands the whole concept of “blogging” and why should she?Sharing your innermost thoughts, with complete strangers, across every corner of the globe is indeed a bizarre concept but one that can bring great enjoyment, so I for one intend to keep going!

Until next time….

Sunday Morning Coming Down Lyrics
(Song by Kris Kristofferson)

Well, I woke up Sunday morning
With no way to hold my head that didn’t hurt.
And the beer I had for breakfast wasn’t bad,
So I had one more for dessert.
Then I fumbled in my closet through my clothes
And found my cleanest dirty shirt.
Then I washed my face and combed my hair
And stumbled down the stairs to meet the day.

I’d smoked my mind the night before
With cigarettes and songs I’d been picking.
But I lit my first and watched a small kid
Playing with a can that he was kicking.
Then I walked across the street
And caught the Sunday smell of someone frying chicken.
And Lord, it took me back to something that I’d lost
Somewhere, somehow along the way.

On a Sunday morning sidewalk,
I’m wishing, Lord, that I was stoned.
‘Cause there’s something in a Sunday
That makes a body feel alone.
And there’s nothing short a’ dying
That’s half as lonesome as the sound
Of the sleeping city sidewalk
And Sunday morning coming down.

In the park I saw a daddy
With a laughing little girl that he was swinging.
And I stopped beside a Sunday school
And listened to the songs they were singing.
Then I headed down the street,
And somewhere far away a lonely bell was ringing,
And it echoed through the canyon
Like the disappearing dreams of yesterday.

Ray Stevens, “Misty” and the Story of a Song

My last post was about the Roberta Flack song featured in the film Play Misty for Me and in the comments boxes, Rol, whose excellent My Top Ten blog is one I visit often, threw down the gauntlet and asked, “Any chance of a follow-up post on Misty itself, by Ray Stevens? If you don’t, I will!”.

After watching the film again the other night, it confirmed for me that the version of Misty that was requested so often (tring, tring, …”Play Misty for me”) by mad-stalker-woman Jessica clintWalter, was not indeed the one by Ray Stevens (as it wouldn’t have been recorded for another four years), nor by Johnny Mathis who did a very romantic version in 1959, but in fact the original instrumental composed by jazz pianist Erroll Garner. Mr Garner was born in Pittsburgh in 1923 and started playing piano at the age of three. He came from a very musical family all of whom played piano but he never did learn how to read music and always played by ear. I give you the original Misty, composed in 1954 (the familiar part starts at 0:30).

And here is where I made a brand new discovery – I mainly know Johnny Mathis from his mid ’70s offerings I’m Stone In Love With You and of course When A Child Is Born, the big 1976 Christmas No. 1 hit. At that time Johnny always looked as if he’d just got off the golf course but in the late ’50s and early ’60s he was apparently the “Master of The Love Ballad” or more crudely put, “The King of Necking Music”. Despite being an outstanding athlete, he chose music as a career and amazingly Sinatra and Presley are the only male artists to have sold more albums. It should come as no surprise therefore, that when Johnny Burke wrote lyrics for the previously instrumental Misty, Johnny Mathis would be the very person to record this new version which became a big hit for him in 1959.

But this was supposed to be a post about the Ray Stevens‘ version of the song and at last I am getting round to it. Although Ray Stevens had been a very successful, multi-talented entertainer from the early ’60s onward, I probably only knew him from his early ’70s comedic novelty songs. There was Bridget the Midget (Queen of the Blues) in 1971 and then The Streak in 1974 released on the back of that very unusual fad of running naked through sporting venues. Fortunately, British bobbies’ helmets at that time were well designed for containing those body parts best kept under wraps, but still amused the crowds at Twickenham, Wimbledon and even at a Winter Olympics curling final (brrr…).

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In 1975 Ray Stevens decided to record a very countrified, up-tempo version of Misty which was a bit of a departure for him after so many novelty records. He was however born in Georgia in 1939 (still with us, I have just checked) and became a producer and studio musician in Nashville, so it would have made sense for him to go down that route especially as during the mid-70s country music had kind of become mainstream. Looking back at the charts of 1975, around a quarter of the records were by people whose names ended in a “y” or an “ie” – Tammy, Dolly, Johnny, Kenny, Billie, Charlie and so on. Yes, country-pop as a sub-genre had come of age, even outwith the US, and I think a lot of it was down to the fact that for the first time in ages, people of my parents’ generation had new music they could identify with and enjoy. Maybe it was different in the cosmopolitan cities, but where I came from in Scotland venues were packed out with people keen to watch their American country stars of choice perform songs that were set in the Appalachians, in Tennessee or Kentucky. Very apt really as these songs were written by the offspring of the Scottish, Irish and other Celtic immigrants who played well-known traditional instruments, such as fiddles, banjos, harmonicas and acoustic guitars.

Misty by Ray Stevens:

Ray Stevens‘ version of Misty is the one I know best and whenever I hear that intro I know exactly what is going to come next – That first line about being so love-struck you’re “as helpless as a kitten up a tree”. Yes, we’ve all been there, but fortunately not for some time in my case (the helpless kitten part). I’m not sure if Erroll Garner or Johnny Mathis would have approved of this version, but it was certainly the most commercially successful here in the UK and won a Grammy Award in the category of Music Arrangement of the Year. Ray was never as well-known here as in his native US but I have just had a bit of a déjà vu moment where I am reminded of watching him appear on the Andy Williams Show back in the late ’60s. He was a regular as it turns out, but at the time I would have been just far too preoccupied with that very good-looking band of Osmond brothers who also used to appear regularly, performing their very polished barbershop routines.

So, “What’s It All About?” – Not sure how well I’ve risen to the challenge of writing about this song, but I have enjoyed revisiting Misty and finding out so much more of its back story. I know Rol would have probably approached it differently but hey, this is how I do things here at WIAA? so hopefully whoever drops by will find something of interest. The question now is, do I continue to ask for suggestions on what song to write about next? I think this approach is sufficiently different to what we do on The Chain, so for one more post only, please enter suggestions in the comments boxes below to a song that links to Misty by Ray Stevens and I’ll see what I can come up with – A challenge indeed!

Misty Lyrics
(Song by Erroll Garner/Johnny Burke) 

Look at me
I’m as helpless as a kitten up a tree
Ah, I’m walkin’ on a cloud
I can’t understand, Lord
I’m misty holdin’ your hand

Walk my way
And a thousand violins begin to play
Or it might be the sound of your “hello”
That music I hear, Lord
I’m misty the moment you’re near

You can say that you’re leadin’ me on
But it’s just what I want you to do
Don’t ya notice how hopelessly I’m lost
That’s why I’m followin’ you

Ooh, on my own
Should I wander through this wonderland alone, now
Never knowin’ my right foot from my left
My hat from my glove, Lord
I’m misty, and too much in love

You can say that you’re leadin’ me on
But it’s just what I want you to do
Don’t ya notice how hopelessly I’m lost
That’s why I’m followin’ you

Ooh, on my own
Should I wander through this wonderland alone, now
Never knowin’ my right foot from my left
My hat from my glove, Lord
I’m misty, and too much in love

(Misty) too much in love
(Misty) too much in love
(Misty)
(Misty) too much in love…