Kris Kristofferson is a giant in the world of songwriters. He became famous in the early 1970s and continues to gain admirers with stars like Janis Joplin, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley lending new life to his hit songs like "Me & Bobby
Kristofferson is also a prolific actor, performing in movies such as A Star Is Born, and was a Rhodes scholar, helicopter pilot, and a boxer at various points in his career. This Saturday, he'll reunite with his longtime touring band to headline the Southern Jam 2016 at Sunset Cove Amphitheater in Boca Raton.
"Funky" Donnie Fritts (piano) and Billy Swan (guitar/bass) worked with Kristofferson from the beginning, garnering mentions in the opening
We spoke with Swan and Fritts, also known as the Leaning Man of Alabama, by phone in advance of Saturday's Southern Jam show.
Fritts takes us back to the beginning: "We started in June 1970. By December, we were playing Carnegie Hall. That August, we played Isle of Wight [in England] with all the big names. Jimi Hendrix was on [that bill]. That was about two weeks before he died. It was him and big English acts like the Who."
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Fritts recalls the time he, Kristofferson, and movie director Sam Peckinpah took a trip to Mexico before filming 1973's Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid. That's when Peckinpah asked Fritts to be in the movie. "That was the biggest thrill of my life," Fritts says. "I love movies, especially Westerns."
Swan, on the other hand, toured with Kristofferson in 1970 and from 1974 until 1992, when he quit playing with a band. In 1973, Kristofferson took Swan to a music store and bought him an RMI organ and Vox amplifier as a wedding present. "That organ I wrote my biggest record on — that was 'I Can Help,'" Swan remembers. The song became a number-one pop and country hit in 1974.
As Swan says he's not really a keyboard player, he was surprised when session keyboardist Bobby Emmons (who recorded with Elvis Presley) asked him to play the part. "When we recorded it, it was the second take," he says, adding that studio owner Chip Young brought his puppy that day. "I would stand up and was shaking my leg to keep time, and that little German shepherd was pulling on my pant leg the whole time. That little German shepherd, Bowser, had a credit on that album — he didn't mess me up. I was so busy hoping I did the organ right."
Both Fritts and Swan admire the man they spent decades of their career playing with. Fritts calls Kristofferson one of the greatest songwriters — if not the greatest — who has ever lived. "Being so close to that kind of talent has meant a lot to my career," Fritts relates. Together, they wrote "Epitaph," shortly after their friend Janis Joplin died. "Kris was always a great person," Fritts adds. "He really cared about the audience, cared about us. I learned so much about being a great person from him. I think I needed a little of that then."
According to Fritts, both onstage and in the studio, Kristofferson was the easiest guy in the world to work with. "We did everything we could to make him sound good. He had these brilliant songs to play every night; I never got tired of playing any of them."
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Fritts also wrote songs with John Prine, a singer Kristofferson helped discover, and his songs have been recorded by Ray Charles, Bob Dylan, the Rolling Stones, Willie Nelson, Dusty Springfield, and Dobie Gray. "I've been blessed to have my songs recorded by some of my favorite artists," he says.
Swan says he started playing with Kristofferson by chance. Kristofferson mentioned a guitarist had backed out right before his gig at the Troubadour in Los Angeles. "I said, 'Look, Dennis Linde [who wrote the Presley hit 'Burnin' Love'] can play anything," Swan says. "Let's get him to play guitar, and I'll play bass.' Everything I did on the bass was 1-5, dum-dun, dum-dun. It worked out pretty good for Kris' songs — the simplicity. Donnie [Fritts] was playing simple parts."
Swan adds, "Kris' songs are really his lyrics and melodies. He can sit with the guitar and sing the songs. When we went out on the road, I think Kris wanted a little security having us, just having some friends there. We had a good time together. Everyone got along, and everyone was happy to be working for Kris... Kris is very humble, and I don't wanna say shy, in some ways. But he gets out there and does it. He says what he feels. He's honest. He doesn't want to hurt or insult anybody. I think a lot of him is in his songs."
Southern Jam 2016
With Kristofferson, Lucinda Williams, John Hiatt, Shawn Colvin, and Jessa. 2 p.m. Saturday, January 30, at Sunset Cove Amphitheater, 2405 Amphitheater Circle, Boca Raton. Tickets cost $55 to $75. Visit musicjamproductions.com or call 561-846-2899.