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As with Elvis, the myth of Jerry Lee Lewis looms larger than his music. "The Killer" should be famous for only one thing: his more than 30 years of music. Instead, he is famous to most because he enjoyed two early rock'n'roll hits with suggestive titles, because he ruined his career by marrying an underage cousin, and because he's one of the few early rock'n'roll titans who isn't dead yet. He has suffered through years of indifference from a modern pop-music industry he helped build. He has lived through a flop film allegedly based on his life that treated him and the culture that formed him as jokes. He appears in the tabloids not for his records, but for business judgments so wrongheaded that they are matched only by his romantic miscalculations. People get so high on the myth of Jerry Lee that may forget the guys sings and plays piano.
Jerry Lee's true story is found far more in his bold, unquenched music than in his ultimately common deeds. It is his music that tells the greatest truths. Long after he passes on and the tabloids pick at his bones ("Killer's Ghost Disrupts Graceland Tour," the headlines will read), his music will remain. Long after his life story is supplanted in some people's minds by Dennis Quaid's faithless portrayal in Great Balls of Fire, his greatest records will still reveal mystery after mystery. Jerry Lee Lewis lived his life through his music, and many of the peaks of that life are found on this set, the first compact disc compilation of his work that draws from his recordings for three prominent labels: Sun, Smash/Mercury, and Elektra.
"There's only been four of us," many have reported Jerry Lee boasting. "Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That's your only four fuckin' stylists that ever lived."
The youngest of that elite group of American-music originals was born poor on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, a medium-sized city in the east center of the state, near the Mississippi border. The larger Louisiana city Alexandria beckoned more than an hour's drive away; the nearest comunity of any city was Natchez, just across the great Mississippi river. Jerry Lee was the second son born into the troubled marriage of Elmo and Mary Ethel ("Mamie") Lewis. Elmo was a cotton farmer who had been knocked to his knees by chronically poor harvests and then to the dry ground by the Great Depression. One of Elmo's few means of escape was his collection of Jimmie Rodgers 78s; through his father, Jerry Lee became a dedicated fan of the Singing Brakeman. Mamie gave an impetus to Jerry Lee's love for church music (via the Assemblies of God) as well as his deep ambivalence about the ideas expressed through that music. The plainspoken blues of Rodgers and the effortless grace of sacred music continue to define the two extremes of the Killer's music.
For Jerry Lee, music was a way out of poverty. A relative's piano introduced him to ambition, and hearing Hank Williams on the Louisiana Hayride radio show solidified his intentions. When Jerry Lee connected immediately with the breadth of Williams's music, it was not only because he heard someone he liked, it was also because he heard someone he wanted to be. Wherever Jerry Lee is playing tonight, it's likely that a Williams standard like "You Win Again" will be a high point in his set.
Jerry Lee's public debut was at a 1949 Ford dealership opening (witnesses argue over whether he played "Hadacol Boogie" or "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee O'Dee"; the latter became a stalwart of his live shows). By the time he was 15, already playing Natchez clubs, he earned himself a 20-minute Saturday-night slot on the city's station WNAT, where he played Jimmie Rodgers songs, other countrified blues, and a smattering of gospel. By then, Jerry Lee's familiarity with the wild side of life had begun to terrify his fundamentalist-minded mother, and he enrolled in the Southwestern Bible Institute, in Waxahachie, Texas. He did not last long. His attention span snapped quickly, and the faculty did not take well to his sneaking out to bars or inserting boogie-woogie riffs into hymns. Within three months, he was expelled and returned to Ferriday.
By the end of 1954, Jerry Lee's second marriage was in trouble. He had ended his first union unilaterally, without bothering to get any approval from the state of Louisiana, or from his wife Dorothy Barton, an oversight that would one day cause him much grief. Jane Mitcham, wife No. 2, met Jerry Lee at church. She sold sewing machines and had given birth to Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. in November. But Jerry Lee Sr.'s mind was elsewhere, having discovered Elvis on the radio and set his mind on Sun Records, Elvis's Memphis label. After a pair of false starts (Slim Whitman rejected his Louisians Hayride application; Chet Atkins is said to have told him to learn how to play guitar), Jerry Lee and Elmo worked Elmo's hens hard, pulled a record number of eggs out of them, and used the money to finance a trip to Memphis to show Sun Records head Sam Phillips how great Jerry Lee was.
Broke and half crazy after the long ride from Ferriday, Jerry Lee and Elmo arrived at the Memphis Recording Service one afternoon in September 1956 to learn that Phillips was out of town. Jack Clement, Sam's staff engineer and court jester, was dubious about listening to unwashed talent that walked in off the street and trashed the floor, but was intrigued by Elmo's claim that Jerry Lee could play piano like Chet Atkins played guitar. Clement let Jerry Lee play and was duly impressed, but he also impressed on Jerry Lee his belief that the country-music market was shrinking, thanks to Elvis, and if he wanted to record at Sun, he would have to come up with some rock'n'roll. This made no sense to Jerry Lee, who did not separate blues, country, rock'n'roll, and gospel any more than he differentiated between his behavior in church and in the back seat. For him, it was all part of the same thing. But he returned to Ferriday and wrote his rock'n'roll tune, "End of the Road," dark like a blues, rocking like a boogie-woogie. A few weeks later, J.W. Brown, a cousin (and musician) whom Jerry Lee had never met, passed through Ferriday on his way home to Memphis and brought Jerry Lee home with him. Jerry Lee was welcomed into his cousin's home by J.W.'s wife Lois and their 12-year-old daughter Myra Gale.
Jerry Lee and J.W. met with Sam Phillips, everybody bluffed everybody else, and on November 14, 1956, Jack Clement supervised Jerry Lee's first Sun session. They started with an echo-laden version of "End of the Road" and then moved on to "Crazy Arms," a Ray Price smash of a few months earlier. Credited to "Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano," a single coupling the two flopped, and for a time Jerry Lee contented himself as a session player. One night, while he accompanied Carl Perkins, Elvis and Johnny Cash showed up, and the Million Dollar Quartet entered history.
In return for his accompanist work, Jerry Lee got several more of his own sessions. One of them, early in 1957, featured Clement promoting "It'll Be Me," a song he said he wrote while sitting on the toilet. During the session, Jerry Lee and his small band unveiled a song that they had attempted previously with Clement and had subsequently worked hard on the road, "Whole Lotta Of Shakin' Going On." They played it at Sun the same way they played it on stage: intent, disquieting, unrelenting. Jerry Lee crashed into the song as if through a bedroom window. "Come on over baby [or was it "Come all over baby"?]/Whole lotta shakin' going on!" he announced as he pushed hard against the groove. He rocked furiously, but the words came out smooth and easy. The lyrics boiled down to a demand for sexual attention, but this was no mere plea. Jerry Lee sang it as if surprised that he had stumbled across someone as beautiful and desirable as he. Onstage, with aching slowness, he would run his fingers through his greasy, blond locks as he delivered the number. When parents in the '50s claimed rock'n'roll was evil, they were talking about records like this.
By July, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" had exploded. Trade-paper reviewers heralded the tune but noted that it did not fit into any one category. Aided by striking performances on The Steve Allen Show and American Bandstand, the song eventually topped two Billboard charts and reached #3 on a third, a rare feat in 1957 and an unimaginable one in the genre-fractured '90s.
Throughout autumn 1957, Jerry Lee searched for his second smash. He found it in "Great Balls of Fire," by Otis Blackwell, who had provided Elvis with "All Shook Up" and "Don't Be Cruel." Blackwell's tune provoked a now-legendary God-versus-the-Devil in-studio argument between Jerry Lee and Sam Phillips' it also provoked an outstanding performance. Its imagery was salacious; Jerry Lee's delivery was gleefully obscene. The song features only Jerry Lee and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. The staccato piano solo starts off with some tossed-off sweeps and peaks with upper-key poundings that challenge Van Eaton's snare drum for the prize of Biggest Noise in the World.
Because Jerry Lee had already established himself with one multiformat smash, "Great Balls of Fire" scaled the charts more quickly than its predecessor, topping the country chart and hitting #3 R&B. It reached #2 on the pop list.
Jerry Lee did not record again until after the first of the year; his touring schedule was that hectic. In Memphis, he was otherwise busy, finally calling it quits with Jane. Without J.W.'s or Lois's knowledge or approval, on December 12, 1957, Jerry Lee and his cousin Myra drove south to Mississippi and were married. Sam Phillips insisted the wedding be kept quiet. To ensure that fans considered Jerry Lee Good Country People, Phillips started plugging the b-side of "Great Balls of Fire," a hard-country version of Hank Williams' "You Win Again."
1958 was thrilling, full of outrageous performances (especially the blues leer "Big Legged Woman"), another Blackwell-penned smash ("Breathless"), and collaborations with significant new talent (Charlie Rich). Like Elvis before him, Jerry Lee had discovered that his music could satisfy almost everyone on an infitinte number of levels.
Then the bottom fell out. Over unanimous objections, Myra accompanied Jerry Lee on a British tour, was found out by the Fleet Street press, and, voila!, scandal. The revelation that at least one of Jerry Lee's previous marriages had not been legally terminated surfaced soon thereafter, and the entourage returned the the U.S. without performing most of the booked shows. In the center of the storm, Jerry Lee did not understand what had happened to him personally or professionally. The 21-year-old's apparent nonchalance toward marriage meant that he did not think he had done anything wrong by any of his wives: his insular, innocent attitudes about the record industry made him believe that this was a small matter that would soon evaporate. However, the terrific "High School Confidential" stalled on the pop chart almost immediately; the follow-up, "Break Up," failed to crack the Top 50. Phillips tried everything. He had Jerry Lee and Myra remarry publicly, he had Jack Clement cut a novelty break-in single about the brouhaha, and on and on. Nothing worked. Except for a version of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," Jerry Lee would not enjoy another Top 40 hit at Sun.
The conventional wisdom about Jerry Lee's career after the London fiasco is that it never truly recovered. The more complicated and less romantic truth is that although it took years for Jerry Lee to reestablish himself commercially on record, only a few months passed before he was able to once again make a good living on the road, which became his home. From July 1958 to August 1963, when his elongated contract with Sun finally ran out and he graduated to Mercury's Smash subsidiary, Jerry Lee recorded some mind-expanding music in an unlimited number of styles.
His final recordings for the label pointed out his future, although no one knew it at the time. Songs like "One Minute Past Eternity," "Invitation to Your Party," and "I Can't Seem to Say Goodbye" were exemplars of how to go big production and still keep things relatively soulful. Jerry Lee sang these numbers with an adult mix of regret, assurance and defiance. He took uptown and brought it down home.
Sun couldn't talk radio into playing the titanic talents of Jerry Lee and for several years Smash/Mercury couldn't either. The Killer cut great record after great record. The best are "I'm on Fire," a tough response to the British Invasion, and two live albums, The Greatest Live Show on Earth, which was, and Live at the Star Club, which was even more raucous. (Go figure.) Jerry Lee was a live star again, in England as well as the U.S., but his records weren't hits again until Mercury executives Eddie Kilroy and Jerry Kennedy took control.
By January 1968, Kilroy and Kennedy had decided that contemporary country was the vehicle that would carry Jerry Lee back to a success worthy of his talent. He was too old to be a rock'n'roll star; it semed a likely gambit. More than any other form of American pop music, coutnry is about family and community. The country audience expects its favored performers to be like family members, and most families have a prodigal child. By accepting recalcitrant performers, country fans remake their families. Kilroy and Kennedy knew that for Jerry Lee to make a dent in the country charts, he would have to ask to become part of the family again.
Kilroy and Kennedy argue still over who produced the January session that yielded a magnificent version of Jerry Chesnut's "Another Place Another Time." Whoever was at the helm brought Jerry Lee back up to the charts (#4) and as up to date in country as Elvis's TV special the same year made the long-lost Hillbilly Cat a releveant rocker again. Jerry Lee's singing was as pure as George Jones', as direct as Buck Owens', as deep as Merle Haggard's. For the first extended time in a studio since he left Sun, Jerry Lee was working and inspired. He promptly made his usual abrupt u-turn, playing Iago in a rock'n'roll version of Othello, but then went back to cutting inevitable hits like Glenn Sutton's "What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)." an archetypal honky-tonk ballad to which Jerry Lee contributed an incredibly involved vocal, drawing emotion out of the title's punch line without falling into the prime vice of honky-tonk ballads: self-pity. Again, the mixture of up-to-date production and time-worn lyrical concerns couldn't miss.
Jerry Lee still toured a great deal, though by the next royalty period he would be able to cut down his schedule from six nights a week to five. That summer, he cut another tough Sutton tune, "She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left of Me)." Jerry Lee burrowed into the song, another wet-eyed ballad that verged on the edge of self-pity, and pushed it all the way to #2. The powers at Smash/Mercury may have been disappointed that the single did not cross over to pop, but fans were pleased because the lack of pop action proved that the song was true country. With songs like this and "To Make Love Sweeter For You," a cynic might argue that these country ballads came too easily to Jerry Lee, that the performances were merely facile. But these songs are tense, not easy, and the emotion that these ostensibly sweet ballads spit out is terror. "To Make Love Sweeter For You" became Jerry Lee's first #1 on the country chart since "Great Balls of Fire."
Eventually, of course, these ballads did deteriorate into formula, and the return of fame and fortune did not ease Jerry Lee's worried mind. In 1970 his marriage to Myra ended; in April of the next year his mother Mamie died, leaving him without his prime counsel in his religious struggles and precipitating a brief playing-out of those struggles. Age crept into his records, although occasionally he transcended his problems, as on the gate-jumping "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone." It's an extaordinarily approachable Western-swing number, to which Kenny Lovelace contributes a wild fiddle break. Jerry Lee introduces the band members, including himself, with nothing but admiration and fraternity in his well-worn voice. It was the friendliest moment he ever allowed himself on record. You had to dig deep into Jerry Lee's records of the early '70s so find such cherished moments, but they were there.
Another welcome break from the usual was a dripping cover of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace," a fine reconstructed second-generation rock'n'roll take with a very strong vocal, in spite of what sounds like 50 too many people on the cut. Roy Dea, who was at the session, remembered: "There were 15 string players and an arranger. Out of nowhere, Jerry Lee called for 'Chantilly Lace.' The arranger said he didn't have the charts and Jerry Lee said, 'We're just running it down. Don't worry about the mules. Just bring the wagon.' The string arranger just about had a heart attack. Jerry Lee cut it once, took off his turtleneck sweater, played it back, and then played it again. He said, 'That turtleneck was chokin' me.' It was Jerry Lee's biggest country record [#1 for three weeks]. It proved Sam Phillips was right in the first place. Everything with Jerry Lee Lewis that works is spontaneous. It's not in the lyrics or the melody written by the writer. It's how Jerry Lee does it."
Two other high points for the label remained. The Session, a Killer-meets-his-famous-disciples album, featured a bloody take of Charlie Rich's "No Headstone on My Grace" and a few other highlights, chief among them a version of "Be-Bop-a-Lula" as Howlin' Wolf might have cut it.
The overtly insane Southern Roots was recorded virtually nonstop latre in 1973 by Huey Meaux over three days and nights in Memphis. The MG's minus Booker T. were the core band, making this return to Memphis recording more Stax- than Sun-based, and the trick worked. Recording conditions were chaotic: Musicians, family members, delivery boys, ex-girlfriends, and people just off the street wandered around, pushed engineers out of the way, and slept on the floor. Produer Meaux encouraged all to whoop it up. The unwieldy sessions yielded the most spirited and sustained studio album of Jerry Lee's career. A filthy Mack Vickery tune, "Meat Man," epitomized Southern Roots. The song was full of vivid sexual boasts, delivered furiously and convincingly. it was the first time in the studio since his glory days at Sun that Jerry Lee sounded truly free. Alas, it was too wild and the single and album quickly found their way into cutout bins.
Jerry Lee's post-Southern Roots recordings for Mercury are uneven at best, but he still had one more great comeback left in him. By the end of 1978, Jerry Lee had found a new recording sponsor in the Nashville arm of Elektra Records. Upon signing, Elektra executives promptly told him that they would not record him in Nashville. They were going to change the environment. During a four-day blowout in the Filmway/Heider Studio in Hollywood, Jerry Lee recorded the terrific Jerry Lee Lewis, which yielded "Rockin' My Life Away."
Mack Vickery's "Rockin' My Life Away" was a wonderful autumnal rocker that immediately became Jerry Lee's statement of purpose and all-purpose theme song. The sparkling lyrics vacillated between the obscure and the bizarre, but the feel was right.What did those words mean? The first line of the song, after all, was "14, 25,40, 98," and the lines rolled out of Jerry Lee's mouth as if they had some deep meaning. In fact, Vickery had conceived of the song as a Specialty-era Little Richard-style rocker, with the first line scooping up tension like a quarterback calling signals before a play. But in Jerry Lee's music, how something is said is far more important than what is said, which is part of why "Rockin' My Life Away" was so intense and enjoyable. "Watch me now," Jerry Lee shouted before his solo, and in a few seconds he erased five years of bad memories.
With Elektra, as on Smash, Jerry Lee took over with ballads in his two succeeding LPs."Thirty Nine and Holding" was an autobiographical tale of both Jerry Lee's imagined self and the audience that stuck and aged with him. It earned its #4 placing on the country chart. But the performance from these Eddie Kilroy sessions that cut the deepest by dar was an excavation of the pop standard "Over the Rainbow." There had been several versions of the song by the likes of Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Larry Clinton, and Glenn Miller (all in 1939, the year of The Wizard of Oz), but they were all versions by people who sounded young, alive, in possession of the fortitude to track down the metaphorical pot of gold. In Jerry Lee's version, the narrator was an old man. His voice showed its cracks, hinted at its long-ago triumphs, sounded bitter, and searched for a reason to hope. Jerry Lee was only 45 years old when he recorded this song, but he looked and sang at least a decade beyond that. If Jerry Lee had retired after "Over the Rainbow," one could have stated that his mission had been complete. He started at the end of the road, traveled placed no one had ever seen before, and was now wise enough to accept that the rainbow was unattainable.
Alas, real life does not provide the closure of great art. Jerry Lee didn't retired then; he probably never will. Jerry Lee is still rockin', sometimes strongly, sometimes erratically. He appears every now and then in the tabloids for the usual reasons. Some of his '80s albums were quickie paydays; opthers, like his rerecordings for the soundtrack of the otherwise-useless Great Balls of Fire, scorched. Some nights he's the greatest performer you've ever seen or heard; other nights he doesn't even try. Jerry Lee Lewis endures into the '90s on his own terms. And as the music on this collection demonstrates, there's never been anyone like him.