Born Jewel Fay Smith on August 5, 1943, in Orange, CA; divorced; children: six. Addresses: Record company--Varese Sarabande Records, 11846 Ventura Blvd., Ste. #130 Studio City, CA 91604, website: http://www.VareseSarabande.com/.
In 1971 Sammi Smith was propelled into the spotlight when her rendition of Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It through The Night" became a megahit. Although she was a country artist, the song climbed to number eight on the Billboard pop chart where it remained for eleven weeks. The song helped Smith win a Grammy as Best Female Country Vocalist for 1971, but the attention was short-lived, leading many to forget her earlier accomplishments and ignore her productive career throughout the 1970s. Smith's eclecticism, ranging between the outlaw country of Waylon Jennings and the crossover country of Dolly Parton, likewise left her without an identifiable niche. "Arguably, Sammi Smith is one of the most underrated country music artists of all time," wrote Michael D'Arcy for the Countrypolitan website.
Jewel Fay Smith was born on August 5, 1943, in Orange, California. Her father was in the military and the family moved frequently, living for short periods in Texas, Colorado, and Arizona. They settled in Oklahoma, and Smith entered show business as a young girl. "I don't know how I got started," she told Irwin Stambler in the Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, "but I was working at a club called Someplace Else [in Oklahoma City] six nights a week when I was eleven." She sang rock 'n' roll and pop, and only later drifted toward country music. She left school at eleven, worked professionally in nightclubs at 12, and married at 15.
In 1967 Smith gave Johnny Cash's bass player, Marshall Grant, a performance tape, and he helped her sign with Columbia Records. She moved to Nashville the same year following a divorce, and recorded "So Long Charlie Brown, Don't Look for Me Around" in 1968 and "Brownsville Lumberyard" in 1970. Although both songs became minor hits, Columbia dropped her contract three years later. She then signed with Mega, an independent label, and reached the top 30 with "He's Everywhere." It was during this time that she recorded a number of demos written by a Columbia studios janitor named Kris Kristofferson. Smith and Mega recorded and released Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It through the Night," which quickly rose to number one on the country music chart.
As David Cantwell noted in Heartaches by the Number: Country Music's 500 Greatest Singles, the song expressed a direct sexuality that was unusual for its time, with Smith singing: "Take the ribbon from my hair." This stood in stark contrast to the original, sung from the male point of view, which read: "Take the ribbon from your hair." The budding feminist movement also gave the song a broader social importance.
Unfortunately, Mega was too small to promote Smith's follow-up singles properly, and her star rose and fell with "Help Me Make It through the Night." She continued to record solid material nonetheless, and placed a number of singles on the country charts during the remainder of the 1970s. Between 1972 and 1976 she charted 16 times, reaching number 13 with "I've Got to Have You," 16 with "The Rainbow in Daddy's Eyes," nine with "Today I Started Loving You Again," and ten with "Then You Walk In."
Smith also wrote a number of songs that became hits for others, including "Cedartown, Georgia" for Waylon Jennings, and "Sand-Covered Angels" for Conway Twitty. She also wrote "When Michael Calls," which she recorded on the B-side of "Help Me Make It through the Night." Unfortunately, Mega's fortunes declined rapidly, and the company folded in 1976. Although Smith remained an active performer, the loss of her label, combined with the desire to spend more time with her children (four of her own, and two adopted), led her to take her career at a slower pace.
In 1973 Smith moved to Dallas, Texas, the home of her close friends Waylon Jennings and Willie Nelson. Her new home was also close to the burgeoning Austin music scene, leading many to see her as part of the outlaw country insurrection. She moved to Globe, Arizona, a few years later, where she became involved with programs benefiting the San Carlos Apache Reservation (she was part Kiowa-Apache, and both of her adoptive children were Apache). Her involvement led to the organization of a country music program to benefit the reservation, which led in turn to the construction of a new school. A number of well-known country artists, including Johnny Cash, Mickey Newbury, and Johnny Rodriguez, performed at the school's first charity event.
Following Mega's collapse, Smith signed with Elektra and recorded As Long as There's a Sunday in 1976 and Mixed Emotions in 1977. "Her husky, sultry voice showed to good advantage in all," wrote Stambler, "and her career began to pick up momentum." The title track reached the country top 50, followed by "Loving Arms" and "Days That End in Y." Smith recorded New Winds--All Quadrents in 1978, an album that included "Norma Jean (Marilyn Monroe)," "I Ain't Got No Time to Rock No Babies," and "Lookin' for Lovin'." Stambler wrote, "The 1978 success ... was the most interesting since her 1971 blockbuster." By the end of the 1970s, however, her deal with Elektra had fallen apart. Smith signed to the Sound Factory, and hit the charts in 1980 with "I Just Want to Be With You" and with "Cheatin's a Two-Way Street" the following year. Although she recorded less frequently during the 1980s, she charted one last time with "Love Me All Over" in 1986, before dropping out of the music business.
In retrospect, Smith is primarily remembered for "Help Me Make It through the Night," an assessment that downplays her songwriting, well-recorded albums, and advances in an industry dominated by male singers. These slights were partially rectified in 1996 when Varese released Best of Sammi Smith, a 16-song collection beginning with her most familiar song before offering a broader survey of her talent. These songs reveal a fresh take on familiar classics like "City of New Orleans," "Long Black Veil," and "Today I Started Loving You Again." "The collection restores her reputation by putting those Mega sides back in print... ," wrote Stephen Thomas Erlewine in All Music Guide, "proving that Smith was one of the most interesting female country voices of the '70s."
by Ronnie D. Lankford Jr
Sammi Smith's Career
Arrived in Nashville, TN, 1967; signed with Columbia Records, 1967; signed with Mega, 1970; released "Help Me Make It through the Night," 1971; charted 16 times between 1972 and 1976, including "As Long as There's a Sunday" and "Days That End in Y"; signed with Elektra Records, mid-1970s; recorded for Cyclone and Sound Factory, and charted with "Love Me All Over," 1986.
Sammi Smith's Awards
Grammy Award, Best Country Vocal Performance, Female, for "Help Me Make It through the Night."
- Selected discography
- Lonesome Capital, 1971.
- Something Old, Something New, Something Blue Mega, 1972.
- Toast of '45 Mega, 1973.
- Today I Started Loving You Again Mega, 1975.
- As Long as There's a Sunday Elektra, 1976.
- Mixed Emotions Elektra, 1977.
- New Winds--All Quadrents Elektra, 1978.
- Girl Hero Cyclone, 1979.
- Best of Sammi Smith Varese, 1996.
- Stambler, Irwin and Grelun Landon, Encyclopedia of Folk, Country & Western Music, St. Martin's Press, 1983.
- "Best of Sammi Smith," All Music Guide, http://www.allmusic.com/ (February 26, 2004).
- "Sammi Smith," Countrypolitan, http://www.countrypolitan.com/prof0501.php (February 26, 2004).