Me and Bobby McGee is one of Kris Kristofferson’s most famous and widely covered songs, with everyone from Janis Joplin to Pink putting their own spin on it since 1969.
It’s often misinterpreted as Kristofferson’s love song to Joplin, because her bluesy rendition has overshadowed all other versions. She recorded the song right before her death in 1970 and it topped the US singles chart in 1971.
But the real inspiration for the song came from producer and co-writer Fred Foster, who was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame on October 16 along with Charlie Daniels and Randy Travis, and a young secretary named Barbara McKee.
Foster helped launch the careers of artists like Kristofferson, Roy Orbison, Willie Nelson and Dolly Parton. In the 1960s, Foster moved his record label Monument Records from Washington, DC, to Tennessee in a building owned by his friend and songwriter Boudleaux Bryant.
McKee, whose last name is now Eden, was a 29-year-old working as Bryant’s secretary and went by the nickname Bobbie.
“So I ran down about the fourth or fifth time this particular day and Boudleaux says, ‘I don’t think you’re coming to see me at all. I think you’re coming to see Bobbie,’” Foster said.
“It seemed like he liked to tease me a little bit and one day he said, ‘I am going to write a song about me and Bobbie McKee,” Eden said.
Kristofferson was one of Foster’s newest hires, a Texas-born athlete and Army veteran who loved William Blake. He had been trying to break through as a songwriter, even working as a janitor in a Music Row recording studio. After hearing some of his songs, Foster said he would only hire Kristofferson as a songwriter if he also signed a record deal.
“He was so intelligent, so gifted, so talented and he didn’t sound like anybody I had ever heard,” Foster said.
In 1969, Foster called up Kristofferson with the song title idea with the hook that Bobby was a woman. Kristofferson apparently took his own liberties, changing McKee to McGee, and invented a road song story about a pair of travellers who drifted apart. In Joplin’s version, she switched the genders and made Bobby a man.
Eden remembers the day that Kristofferson and Foster came into the office to sing her the song. Eden had never met Kristofferson before.
“Fred came in and said, ‘I want you to meet the real Bobby McKee and here’s Kris Kristofferson to sing your song for you,’” Eden said, laughing. “It was great! I loved it, of course. Kris said he couldn’t sing very good, but he’ll try. But I just thought it was the most fantastic song I had ever heard.”
The song caught fire immediately. Kristofferson played the song for Roger Miller, a country-pop singer who was the first artist to cut it in 1969, and made it a Top 12 country hit. Kristofferson released his own version in his debut album Kristofferson with Monument Records in 1970.
“Then I started hearing it on the radio and I would just go crazy every time I heard that song,” Eden said.
But the real turning point for the song was Joplin’s cover. Foster had no idea that Joplin had also cut the song for her posthumous 1971 album Pearl, until he talked to legendary producer Clive Davis, then president of Columbia Records.
“He drops the needle, and when that voice comes in, Busted flat in Baton Rouge, I nearly fell out of my chair,” Foster recalls. “And I was a Joplin fan, but I didn’t know that she could do anything but rock hard. When she got to the middle part of Me and Bobby McGee and she brought it down to the sweet and tender, I thought, ‘Man, what a loss.’”
At 85 years old, Foster is still an active producer and just produced a Ray Price tribute album for Willie Nelson, called For the Good Times, that was released in September.
“If I don’t know more at 85 than I did at 75, I am not learning very fast, am I?” Foster said. “I think I’m probably a better producer today than I have ever been.”