Kris Kristofferson A Sex Symbol at 70

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Kris Kristofferson headshot, country singer
AP

Kris Kristofferson remembers the first time he was ever on stage. It was while he was in kindergarten. He performed with his back to the audience.

"My mother said, "That was horrible."

The rest, as they say, may be history, but also a mystery to him.

"How I got from there to being up on the stage in front of thousands of people, I don't know," he admits laughing.

Destiny or not, stardom happened. Kris Kristofferson has written hit after hit, "Sunday Morning Coming Down," "Help Me Make It Through the Night," and "Me and Bobby McGee."

He earned a place in the country music hall of fame, and has a whole other career in movies, starting in the 1970's, playing sexy lead roles in "Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore" opposite Ellen Burstyn and "A Star Is Born" with Barbra Streisand. For that performance, he won a Golden Globe.

CBS's Tracy Smith caught up with Kristofferson at the Bitter End, where he played his first New York gig some 35 years ago. Now, as he approaches his 70th birthday, Kristofferson has another movie coming out and he has a new studio album called "This Old Road."

But there's the mystery again. He doesn't even consider himself a good singer.

"I don't think anybody thinks I'm a good singer."

He also has an unstar-like blend of modesty and honesty. Is it that quality that makes him such a sex symbol to women?

"How do I answer that without sounding like a total egotist?

Watch what happened when Tracy dared to call his lyrics poetry.

"Watch me go over backwards here in a minute."

The truth is Kristofferson's been student of poetry since he was a teenager. He was actually a Rhodes Scholar, and earned a master's degree in English lit in 1960. After graduation, he flew helicopters in the army, and five years later was about to start a teaching job at West Point when he took a life-changing detour.

"I spent a couple of weeks in Nashville just hanging out with songwriters, and fell in love with it.

"My mother was pretty embarrassed about me going in that direction. She said, 'Nobody over the age of 14 listens to that kind of music, and if they did it wouldn't be anybody we'd want to know.'"

But mother didn't know best. He landed a job in a Nashville recording studio, working his way from the ground up.

"It was called studio setup man, but it was a janitor. I emptied the ashtrays and supplied the tapes and stuff, cleaned up the studio."

But he didn't empty the ashtrays of just anyone. It was people like Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash. In fact, Cash, who went out of his way to talk music with the young janitor, became Kristofferson's lifelong idol.

"It showed me the measure of the man. It meant he was everything I'd hoped he'd be."

Desperate to have Johnny record one of his songs, he showed up on Cash's front lawn. It's a story Cash loved to tell, and did with wife June Carter at his side, on his 1970s television program, "The Johnny Cash Show."`

"I was trying to attract his attention."

And it worked. Cash's recording of "Sunday Morning Coming Down" won the country music association's song of the year.

Kristofferson suddenly was thrust from the shadows and started performing on his own. His most important early performance came at the hands of the man in black. Again and again, it happened on "The Johnny Cash Show." While it's tempting to say a star was born, under that cool façade, Kristofferson says, he was scared to death.

"It's a very vulnerable position you're in when you're a songwriter singing your own songs."

Maybe he didn't like singing them, but others sure did, most famously, Janis Joplin. It wasn't until after Joplin died from a drug overdose in October 1970 that Kristofferson first heard her recording of his song.

"She had hooked it. It was a very emotional experience for me at the time. Ii thought it was so sad."

Joplin's version of "Me and Bobby McGee" hit number one on the billboard charts. He may have written it, but Janis made it her own.

That year, Kristofferson was nominated for five Grammy awards and was featured on the "David Frost Show" to promote "Help Me Make It Through the Night," which went on to win country song of the year. Life should have been easy. Instead, he was drinking a lot.

"Probably at least a bottle and a half of whiskey a day. Maybe more."

By the mid 70s, he started to worry it would kill him. So he cleaned up his act.

"I didn't completely clean up right away. But I quit drinking like that."

It was too late to save his marriage to singing partner and second wife Rita Coolidge. By 1980, they'd divorced. Three years later, he married Lisa Meyers. They have 5 kids and live in a remote part of Hawaii. Their neighbor is longtime friend and golfing buddy, Willie Nelson.

Soon, Kristofferson and Nelson left the island and hit the road. They were joined by Waylon Jennings and Johnny Cash. They became The Highwaymen.

"I always looked up to all of them, and felt like I was kind of a little kid who had climbed up on Mount Rushmore and stuck his face out there."

Kristofferson continued recording solo albums, but it was his acting that stood out, with diverse roles in "Lone Star" and "A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries." Later, he played the character Whistler, along side Wesley Snipes, in the "Blade" trilogy, and won a new generation of fans.

In addition to his new album, "This Old Road," there's another album coming out later this year, a tribute to Kris on his 70th birthday, with recordings by everyone from Emmylou Harris to Oscar winner Russell Crowe.

Kristofferson has jammed several lifetimes into seven decades, but whether you see him as a songwriter, singer, actor, poet, sex symbol, to him, it just doesn't matter.

"Whether you're a success in the eyes of the world or not won't matter if you're doing what you love to do and doing it honestly and with your whole spirit and heart. Then I think that's a good as it gets."