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Chapter 3: Sun Rising
Even popped a pill or two
To feel like a honky-tonk star. --Jason Ringenberg, "Broken Whiskey Glass"
For fans whose primary connection to country music was through their radios, 1956 was a great year. Aside from Elvis, folks could hear genre-shattering new songs like "Why Baby Why" by Red Sovine and Webb Pierce and assertive returns to the hard country of two decades earlier like "Cash on the Barrelhead" and "I Don't Believe You've Met My Baby" by the Louvin Brothers. The year's biggest country hit was Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," a tremendous heartbreak ballad written and, to a lesser degree, performed in the mold of the late Hank Williams. The song had been written by Price's guitar player while he was drunk, after his wife left him. This was a year in which the record companies allowed the country audience to respond to the unadorned stuff, a situation that gave Sun Records a shot. (One could argue that without Sun, the major labels in Nashville never would have loosened up enough to release such songs and promote them as hits.)
Broke and half-crazy after the long car ride from Ferriday, Jerry Lee and Elmo arrived at the Sun Recording Service one afternoon in September 1956 and learned that Sam Phillips was not around and was not expected for several days. Jack Clement, a former dance instructor and Sam's staff engineer/creative consultant/court jester, was there; but he was dubious about listening to unwashed talent that walked in off the street and tracked up the floors. As a result of Sun's recent success--since Elvis, Sun had recorded Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many other new stars--Clement had to sift through a considerable amount of garbage when it was his turn to mind the store. After Phillips had to sell Elvis Presley's recording contract to RCA in 1955 and Sun became famous as Presley's original label, the number of Elvis wanna-be's who showed up demanding that they were every bit as noteworthy as the Hillbilly Cat increased exponentially. Unfortunately all that many of them had in common with Elvis was their truck-driver sideburns.
However, Sun would not exist were it not for such unannounced hungry kids. The label had scored its first two non-Elvis Number One country hits that year, Cash's "I Walk the Line" and Perkins's "Blue Suede Shoes," thanks to music that came to it. Phillips may have been a genius in directing talent, but it was always talent that found him. He could work up a hit, but he was no talent scout in the traditional sense, like a Ralph Peer or a Don Law. Everything about the place was casual. When Roy Orbison sold his song "Claudette" to the Everly Brothers, who scored a major hit with it, he did so by simply singing it for them and writing its words on the top of a cardboard box.
First Elmo promoted Jerry Lee, and then his son stepped forward to announce that he could play piano like Chet Atkins played guitar. This sounded bizarre to Clement, but Jerry Lee knew what he was talking about. None of his heroes, the three "fuckin' stylists" who had preceded him, were piano players. Al Jolson was a singer; Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were singers and guitarists. Jerry Lee wanted to sound like a guitar player on his piano; he wanted his piano to talk in a different language, the tongue Rodgers and Williams so effortlessly spoke.
Intrigued by Jerry Lee's strange boast and his taunting goatee, a recent addition that would soon vanish, Clement pointed the wavy-haired kid toward the studio spinet. The Killer banged out spirited versions of the George Jones number "Seasons of My Heart," Hank Thompson's "Wildwood Flower," and a few other of the year's country hits. Clement was impressed, but he also impressed on Jerry Lee his belief that the country market was shrinking, thanks to Elvis, and that if he wanted to record at Sun he would have to come up with some rock-and-roll songs. This made no sense to Jerry Lee, who did not separate blues, country, rock and roll, or 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. Clement encouraged Jerry Lee to write a rock-and-roll song and return soon, but Elmo's son left Sun disappointed and confused. Before they embarked on the long drive back to Ferriday, Elmo and Jerry Lee tried out some other Memphis companies, most notably the crumbling Meteor label, but could not find a snug fit anywhere.
Within days of reasserting himself in Ferriday, Jerry Lee rummaged through his memory and devised his rock-and-roll tune. He was again living with his parents and sisters, separated for at least the second time from Jane. Her sister Jewell was raising Jane and Jerry Lee's second son, Ronnie Guy, because the infant looked so unlike Jerry Lee, Jr., or Sr., that the Killer insisted that he was not the father.
The song was "End of the Road." It was dark like a blues song, rocking like a boogie-woogie; it had everything. For some uncharacteristic reason, Jerry Lee planned to relax in Ferriday for a few months and then return to Memphis, but this plan changed when his cousin on Elmo's side, J. W. Brown, whom Jerry Lee had never met, passed through town on his way home to Memphis. Brown, ten years older than his cousin, wanted to start a band and he had heard that Jerry Lee could play piano. Was he interested? Jerry Lee rode back to Memphis with J. W. and was welcomed to his cousin's home by J. W.'s wife, Lois, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Myra Gale.
Jerry Lee and J. W. met with Phillips, everybody sized up everybody else, and on November 14, 1956, Clement supervised Jerry Lee's first Sun session. J. W. was a bystander that night, being too new to the bass to be of much use yet. Aside from Jerry Lee, the only other musicians at the session were Clement's studio stalwarts: guitarists Roland Janes and Billy Lee Riley, and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. Riley played only one note at the end of one song, so the session was essentially a three-piece date. Although this was the first time Jerry Lee had recorded with accompaniment other than himself, the session sounds like a complete band with no holes, no tentativeness. Two hundred miles east in Nashville, producers like Owen Bradley and Billy Sherill were discovering how many strings and horns and background vocals they could drop on a song and still have something under it that was recognizable as country music; at Sun the method was to discover how little one needed to put across a song. Direct expression was what mattered most.
Jerry Lee was anxious to record the song he had written at Clement's direction, "End of the Road," and that is where the band started. The opening piano figure was honky-tonk à la Moon Mullican, and there was a palpable amount of echo glued on his voice as he sang, "The way is dark/Night is long/I don't care if I ever get home/I'm waiting/At the end of the road." The echo on his vocal as well as its natural deepening gave it more presence than it had exuded on the KWKH demonstration acetate two years earlier.
Slapback echo was an integral part of the Sun recording formula, from bluesmen like Little Junior's Blue Flames through Elvis's angular sides to the more recent rock and rollers like Roy Orbison, and it suited Jerry Lee better than most. But, as with the KWKH cuts, "End of the Road" indicates that Jerry Lee arrived at Sun with his method and his repertoire already set. (Recent research by Colin Escott suggests that the released version of "End of the Road" may in fact have been recorded at a later session, but there is strong evidence that some version of the tune was recorded that night.)
Next up was "Crazy Arms," the Ray Price smash of a few months previous, and it was essentially a duet between Jerry Lee and Van Eaton. Roland Janes's acoustic bass was so far off-mike it was barely audible, and Billy Lee Riley played only one guitar note at the very end of the song. He was in the bathroom for most of the performance and returned to twang once, unaware that Clement was recording the take. "Crazy Arms" was traditional country, and Van Eaton did not exactly swing. However, even the laziest disk jockey who heard it, mostly because it was already a notable number and therefore was the song from the session picked to be a single, could tell that this was something new. It was as delightful and inexplicable a mixture of American musical forms as the one that Elvis had worked up with Scotty Moore and Bill Black in the same studio two years earlier.
Clement was pleased with "End of the Road" and "Crazy Arms," but he had time to kill and wanted to hear how broad Jerry Lee could go. The Ferriday fireball responded with "You're the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven)," his favorite sentimental-yet-effective Gene Autry ballad. Jerry Lee's version was less sentimental and more effective. He held his vocal notes for a longer time than necessary; that, along with a dash of falsetto that he sprinkled into the mix, lent the slightest air of camp to his performance. In his first night as a professional recording artist, Jerry Lee was already making fun of himself, laughing at himself. The performance was less than masterful, but no one can listen to it and argue that Jerry Lee was not enjoying himself. His brief solo danced up and down, and Janes's improvised solo showed him going for something different from a Sun's guitarist's Scotty Moore-derived norm. These three players--Lewis, Janes, and Van Eaton--were beginning to find common ground, beginning to develop into a real band.
The last song they attacked that night, Ted Daffan's World War II hit "Born to Lose," was a midtempo ballad of regret that provided Jerry Lee with a vehicle for some profound singing that transcended the tale of self-pity and compensated for when he forgot the words. Janes's wobbly background guitar and brief solo had a touch of Les Paul, and Jerry Lee's boogie-woogie piano solo emphasized his left-hand rhythm dexterity.
Although Phillips deemed only two songs from this session worthy of release ("End of the Road" was the flip side of the "Crazy Arms" single; neither side charted), these four cuts persuasively outlined Jerry Lee's concerns as a musician. Even the ballads rocked along steadily, he straddled multiple styles and showed no interest in conforming to morés, and he played each song in full. There were no fadeouts. The songs ended exactly as they would in front of an audience.
Jerry Lee left that evening convinced he was going to be a big star. He telephoned Ferriday and talked Jane into moving in with him at J. W. and Lois's home. Cousin Myra volunteered to babysit for Junior.
Jack Clement left that night sure that he had found Sun a new session piano player. Phillips agreed. "I can sell that," he said when Clement played him a tape of "Crazy Arms," even before Jerry Lee started singing. "Why'd you let the guy get outta here that other time?" They decided to credit him on the record as Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano.
Imminent stardom notwithstanding, Jerry Lee needed to make a living. The Browns' attempts to secure him day jobs were fruitless, so he checked his rapidly expanding ego and allowed himself to be used as a session man for Sun. He got a call the morning of December 4, 1956, from Jack Clement. If he played on a Carl Perkins session that day, Phillips would pay him fifteen dollars. Jerry Lee was there.
Perkins, a native of Jackson, Tennessee, an hour and change east of Memphis, was the greatest of the Elvis wanna-be's who were drawn to Sun, and he was one of the few rockabilly singer/guitarists who developed a lanky style that was not a regurgitation of Presley's salad recordings. Even more than Presley's, Perkins's Sun recordings defined rockabilly. "They took a light from the honky-tonk/Put the gleam in your eye," Perkins howled in "Honky-Tonk Gal," one of his earliest recordings, neatly encapsulating rockabilly's concerns and fears. Rockabilly, that reckless, primal thrash of honky-tonk country-and-western, was all about conflict: between rural and urban, between barroom adventure and home comfort, between the extremes Ernest Tubb described in his hit, "Saturday Satan, Sunday Saint," The honky-tonk gal Perkins adored was both his joy (hot stuff) and his pain (no longer a demure housewife); the conflict of rockabilly personified. Perkins treated this dilemma the way any self-respecting rockabilly cat would. He blazed out fiery riffs and drove through the quandary in fifth gear. He'd deal with the consequences of his rampage some other time. Even in the giddy thrill of taking his Gibson guitar for an unexpected joy ride, he knew that somewhere down the road there would be a price to pay.
Rockabilly was about release, but its release always had limits. That was the form's country birthright, and that was what made Perkins different from Presley, a rockabilly cat who expanded into straight pop and, in doing so, uprooted. A pure pop Perkins was unimaginable. This is what set him apart from Presley and what prevented him from achieving Elvis-like success. Elvis, for all his indisputable greatness, sold out in every way imaginable. Perkins, even in his most banal country-pop settings, never surrendered.
Like most of the first-generation rockabillies, Perkins started off considering himself country. His gracious, quavering tenor carried some magnificent country-and-western ballads, among them the bare-boned "Turn Around," his first Sun recording, and "Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing," as understated an expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis as one would expect of Hank Williams himself. But Perkins's meat was his rockabilly, in which he repeatedly drove full speed to the end of his world, leaned over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knew he must, pulled back and carefully headed home.
Several months before his sessions featuring Jerry Lee, Perkins had recorded his greatest uptempo composition, "Dixie Fried." The song was as close as any rockabilly performer came to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashed like the barroom-fight switchblade the tale chronicled. His voice swayed with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist, someone much more like Jerry Lee than the more mannered Perkins. "Let's all get Dixie fried," he screamed, shattering any pretension to caution, let alone civilized behavior. The violence in the lyric and the performance escalated as the song smashed into its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have had the gleam of a honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye was fixed on home, where he prayed his honky-tonk gal had returned.
The songs Perkins had brought to Sun on December 4 were as diverse as Jerry Lee's concerns. Straight-ahead rockabilly raised its head in "Put Your Cat Clothes On" and "Your True Love." Jimmie Davis's "Sweethearts or Strangers," Wynn Stewart's "Keeper of the Key," and Fred Rose's "Be Honest with Me" were pure country. "Matchbox" was an uncredited rewrite of Blind Lemon Jefferson's blues number of the same title. Jerry Lee played the studio's upright spinet, which Clement had recently augmented by plunging thumbtacks into the string hammers. He then placed the microphone underneath the piano. Clement's alterations gave the piano a fuller, more spacious presence, making it sound more like the grand piano that Phillips still refused to buy. (There is some evidence that Clement did not install the tacks for several months to come.) It was not a new trick--ragtime pianists were familiar with the method--but for Jerry Lee it gave its chords and lead lines more bounce. He fit in well with Perkins's band: his brothers Jay Perkins on guitar and Clay Perkins on bass, and W. S. Holland on drums.
The date ran longer than Jerry Lee's had. They cut at least twenty-two versions of the six tunes. As the session began to wind down, the reception area in front of the studio gradually became more crowded. Smokey Joe Baugh, a fellow Sun performer who had released a novelty version of "The Signifying Monkey," walked in unannounced, as did Johnny Cash and his wife, Vivian, with their eighteen-month-old baby, Roseanne. Someone opened the door between the reception area and the studio, and the session turned into more of a party. Then Elvis Presley, the most famous man in the Western world, arrived with a showgirl named Marilyn Evans, arguably the only positive aspect of his first, otherwise disastrous, appearance in Las Vegas. Johnny Cash smiled for the newspaper cameraman (Sam Phillips knew a photo opportunity when he saw one) and left to go shopping. The crowd moved into the studio and Jack Clement kept the tapes rolling.
Jerry Lee, Carl, and Elvis had all turned to a music career to avoid the dead ends they saw elsewhere--none of them wanted to relive his daddy's life--but they embraced music in the first place because it was a mystery they could love, explore, and through their pursuits find more reasons to love. All of them first discovered music in church, so it is no surprise that the common ground they found when they started harmonizing was sacred music. Jerry Lee's mother damned him for playing secular music; Carl sang about knife fights; and Elvis had just been called everything short of the antichrist because of his wild performances, but gospel music was the first thing they thought to sing together. Their connection to it was that natural. Fluid, fervent versions of songs like "When God Dips His Love in My Heart, "Just a Little Talk with Jesus," "Down by the Riverside," and "Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand" spiraled out of them in a relaxed, spontaneous rush. Perkins's band supplied the artless accompaniment, and even Marilyn Evans joined in. The song selection gradually drifted to hits of the day, among them Charlie Singleton's "Don't Forbid Me," which noted antirock singer Pat Boone had just defanged in a cover version. Elvis said that the song had been written for him, that an acetate of it had been "over my house for ages, man. I never did see it, so much junk lyin' around." Everyone laughed.
Jerry Lee was anxious to show off in front of Elvis and he had Phillips play an acetate of "Crazy Arms" for him. Elvis told Robert Johnson, the reporter from the local paper that Phillips had called in, "That boy can go. He has a different style, and the way he plays piano just gets inside of me." A gentleman, Elvis offered to stand up and let Jerry Lee play the piano. "I've been wanting to tell you that," Jerry Lee said, smiling, and gestured Elvis off the bench. "Scoot over!" Elvis and Carl laughed, but it was clear that Jerry Lee wanted them to be his audience.
Talk turned to Chuck Berry, their fellow performer and songwriter whose work all of them treasured. They played multiple snatches of Berry's "Too Much Monkey Business" and "Brown-Eyed Handsome Man" until they got the words right and then argued which song was better. Elvis clued in the assembled to working in Las Vegas. He spoke of seeing Billy Ward and the Dominoes in one of the show rooms. The Dominoes' lead singer was a kid named Jackie Wilson who could do a devastating Elvis impersonation, and Elvis parodied Wilson imitating him doing "Don't Be Cruel" and "Paralyzed." It was loving mimicry; Elvis had seen in Wilson a talented fan who could make him rethink his own performances of songs he had already turned into smash hits. The trio sang the rockabilly anthem "Rip It Up," Elvis enjoying an alternate version of its first line: "It's Saturday night and I just got paid, uh, laid." These were priceless moments, an opportunity for a man in the public eye to jettison the sex-symbol nonsense and just play. For a long time this session was known as the Million Dollar Quartet; but even marked down 25 percent as the result of Cash's absence (it was first thought that he had stayed and played), this was a bargain.
Elvis was cordial, but he had to move on. In singles and pairs, everyone left until only Jerry Lee remained. Unaccompanied, he replayed much of his first session: "Crazy Arms," "End of the Road," and "You're the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven)," as well as a brief instrumental with the telling title "Black Bottom Stomp." Eventually there was no one left for him to play to, so he stopped.
"How'd it go?" his cousin Myra asked him when he returned home late that night.
* * *
Clement quickly booked Jerry Lee for three more sessions over the next two weeks. Returning a favor, he accompanied Billy Lee Riley on a session that yielded "Flyin' Saucer Rock and Roll," one of the most ludicrously lovely of all rockabilly screams. Riley was the ostensible star, but Jerry Lee fought for room, ending the song with a hammering chord that he sustained after everyone else had finished playing. It was Jerry Lee' first session in which he saw Sam Phillips exert himself. A few days later, he played piano for Sun's best-selling artist, Johnny Cash; a week after that he watched Hayden Thompson huff and puff.
Jerry Lee excelled on others' recordings, but it was his own music that challenged him most. Soon after the first of the year, Jerry Lee was allowed to record for himself again. The nonhit status of "Crazy Arms," which had entered no national chart, had not led Phillips to feel he needed to rush out a follow-up. He must not have been particularly taken by this second session, for none of it was released during Jerry Lee's tenure with Sun, but anyone with any faith in Jerry Lee could hear that he was moving toward his breakthrough.
For someone who was being encouraged to rock out, the sentimental "Silver Threads Among the Gold" was a strange choice to begin the session. Guitar interjections provided relief from Van Eaton's occasionally monotonic drumming, but Jerry Lee reached a comfortable altitude and cruised. He inserted the odd vocal and piano flourish to amuse himself; he was at ease and in control, perhaps puzzled that he was not a millionaire. The Eddy Arnold country weeper "I'm Throwing Rice (At the Girl I Love)" was even farther from rock and roll. Jerry Lee sounded older than his years (which made sense, considering his overfamiliarity with weddings). The rhythm was nearly a waltz, and Jerry Lee's solo punctured the tune's lyrics, as did the slyness with which he delivered the lines: "She was my gal/He was my pal/She liked him better somehow/I'll step aside/After I kiss the bride." It was the vocal equivalent of the sneer.
The Floyd Tillman cover, "I Love You So Much It Hurts,' proceeded similarly. It took a line or two for the vocal melody to coalesce, and that vocal breathed life into the ballad's cliched lyric. The piano solo meshed with primitive, near-martial drums; Roland Janes's guitar was unheard. Yet this sounded full. "Deep Elem Blues," a Shelton Brothers composition about the Dallas red-light district with which Jerry Lee was familiar from his Waxahachie days, was more like what Clement was after. Jerry Lee swooped into the speedy number, reminiscent of Elvis's version of "Milkcow Blues Boogie," and the drums lent this a phenomenal kick. Jerry Lee's singing was giddily all over the place; he nearly overmodulated in the style of Little Richard, whose souped-up rhythm-and-blues style the Killer greatly admired. Van Eaton's drums were more subservient, appropriately so, on the Leadbelly standard "Goodnight Irene." Janes's rhythmic style "typed" out the suicide note implied in the words, and Jerry Lee was deep into those lyrics, unless appearing deep into them when he was merely performing was part of his genius. He moved to double time halfway through and climaxed with the verse, "Sometimes I live in the country--yeah!/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I take a cruel notion/To jump in the river and drown."
Jerry Lee was driving to hell at ninety miles an hour, and Jack Clement was loving it. (A second version was more choppy, less intense, and never sped up). Phillips later dressed it up with extraneous overdubs and tacked it onto an album.) Next up was "Honey Hush," a scorching rocker in which Jerry Lee's playful voice mimicked Gene Vincent's. Janes's guitar break was a shotgun wedding of Chuck Berry to Scotty Moore, and Jerry Lee shouted as though he thought he was playing before two thousand people. A ferocious coda ended with Jerry Lee warning, "Shut up yer mouth!"
Jerry Lee was proving himself to Clement that night, demonstrating that he could take on anything. The standard "Crawdad Song" was fast, wild, and echoey. The studio was a party now, with much screaming in the background by the sidemen. Janes's one-note solos were nothing much, but Jerry Lee sang as fast as he could without running out of breath. "Dixie" was fine as source material for Jerry Lee's southernness, but otherwise it was an inconsequential instrumental. Perhaps he had some time to kill while Janes ate a hamburger; the same goes for "The Marine's Hymn," except that Janes had returned to his guitar. "That Lucky Old Sun," which was recorded either that night or soon after, was just voice and piano, and it was shocking in its naked expression of emotion. It was a tremendous ballad of defeat; the aching lyric held out heaven as an escape but expressed ambivalence as to who might inhabit it. As Jerry Lee would eventually say when he stumbled upon anything he considered remotely profound, "think about it."
Jerry Lee soon got his first taste of touring, and by the time he returned to Sun to woodshed a few weeks later, his trio--James, Van Eaton, and the newly dexterous J. W. Brown--were far better acquainted. This evening's work was another tour-de-force journey through whatever styles Jerry Lee could think of, with a big surprise at the end.
Jerry Lee looked back almost a century with James Bland's "Hand Me Down My Walking Cane." By now the pumping introduction was familiar, as was the echo-drenched vocal and his swift solo. He continued his attempt to walk both sides of the line with the improvised lyric, which had blues structure, gospel import, and somehow came out country-rock. A few takes of "You're the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven)" were not as fresh as the earlier version but were perhaps a bit more playfully executed.
Then he surprised Clement with a tune he had written. Except for "End of the Road," Jerry Lee was not committed to songwriting, so this was something special. "Lewis Boogie" was a tad more tentative than the released take he recorded several months later, but it was still inarguable. The self-mythologizing lyrics (which dismissed other performers, among them Elvis, whose success and showgirl companion often burned in his mind) were perfect: "Cruise on down to old Natchez town/That's where that Presley boy says 'you ain't nothin' but a hound'/But now you take my boogie/It keeps you in the groove/Until your sacroiliac begins to shiver and move/It's called the Lewis Boogie/In the Lewis way." The rappers of three decades later could take a cue from its range and specificity. Jerry Lee sang whatever came to mind, but what he was really saying over and over was "I won't be denied."
Jerry Lee was in the mood to take shots at Elvis, and one way to do that was to cover a song associated with Presley and do it better. That was the idea behind a version of Leon Payne's "I Love You Because," and it did not succeed. There could be no more echo on this vocal unless it had been recorded at the Grand Canyon, which made it distracting. Jerry Lee nodded toward Elvis's version and grabbed the song, yet he was marking time, showing off, which was not without a massive charm. Much better was a take of "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love With You)," the first of Jerry Lee's many unparalleled interpretations of Hank Williams songs. Clearly this was a favorite of his; he immediately burrowed to the center of the song and gathered strength from all around him. Unlike many of his unrequited-love ballads, there was no hint of camp here. Jerry Lee knew this song mattered and let his solo skid and scrape across the drums. Not to break the mood, Jerry Lee followed it with another Williams composition, "Cold, Cold Heart," which was done just as well if a bit lighter, though Jerry Lee's full-throated singing overruled all objections.
The rest of the session, until the band arrived at the final tune, yielded nothing near that level. Spade Cooley's "Shame on You" was spry but played too quickly; Jerry Lee's timing was off. He tossed in an untamed solo right after the first chorus, but it barged in too soon to be effective. Janes's guitar solo rocked up Les Paul, but that was not much of an accomplishment. Floyd Tillman's "I'll Keep on Loving You" was acceptable uptempo country. "You Are My Sunshine" was forthright, hardened Jimmy Davis, and Jerry Lee's sprightly performance countered its death-oriented lyric. "Tomorrow Night" was dirty and not much else; several takes of the Dominoes' "Sixty Minute Man" revealed nothing save Jerry Lee's enduring ability to put across a speedy boast at whim. That out of their system, the band began to pick up some power. "It All Depends (Who Will Buy the Wine)" was a strong, resigned drinking ballad that Jerry Lee would return to for decades, and the loose "I Don't Love Nobody" was archetypal fast-country Jerry Lee. "Let me have one!" he cried, and indulged himself in a monstrous solo.
With the marathon session running near an end, Jerry Lee called for a song he remembered from his Wagon Wheel days that his group had recently begun playing onstage, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." They played it as a rocker with a prominent guitar, but Jerry Lee was still figuring out what he needed to do to transform the tune into something different from what it was when he first heard it. It was energetic, but not spectacular. He ended the night promising to work on it some more.
Sessions for Carl Perkins and Ray Harris followed, as did another opportunity for Jerry Lee to figure out "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." They had often played it in their live shows, and by mid-February it sported a much stronger arrangement. By this time, Jane and Junior had moved out of the Brown house for good, and Myra and Senior were starting to look at each other with different intentions.
Clement was anxious to hear what the band had done with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," but he was more interested in having Jerry Lee record a song he had written, a rocker called "It'll Be Me," which he was sure would be a smash. Clement said he had dreamed up the song while sitting on a toilet; by the time he presented the tune to Jerry Lee, he had removed the original lines: "If you see a turd in your toilet bowl/It'll be me/And I'll be looking for you." The new lyrics referred to a lump in a sugar bowl.
Clement worked the quartet hard on the song, more than half a dozen full takes. The song took form over the many performances. The first take started with off-beat drums that kept the song off-kilter and a piano solo that was mostly a series of ascending and descending chords. A guitar solo spiraled around and drew back, but did not travel far. Another version kicked off a capella, but deteriorated into a shuffle. Exploratory versions followed, Jerry Lee gradually discovering the essence of the cleaned-up song.
Repeated listening to multiple takes of anything can be daunting, but take after take after take of "It'll Be Me" is fascinating, mostly because it reveals that even if he was trying, Jerry Lee in his Sun prime was unable to attack a song exactly the same way twice. He slipped in a rumbling multioctave solo here, hastened the tempo there, forgot to take piano solos sometimes because he was enjoying Clement's words so much.
"That's a hit," Clement said. "Now what do you want to do for the flip?" They took a pass at Gene Autry's "Ole Pal of Yesterday," a fine example of how Jerry Lee rocked up midtempo country, but they moved on quickly. Everyone in the band was pretty sure that "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" was destined to be a hit; live, it was a killer, so to speak.
They played it at Sun the same way they played it onstage: 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, and leaned hard into a groove toward which even his hardest previous performances did not begin to hint. He rocked furiously, but the words came out smooth and easy. The lyrics boiled down to a demand for sexual attention, but this was not a mere plea. Jerry Lee sang it, knowing he was beautiful, knowing he was desirable, as if surprised that he had stumbled across someone half as beautiful and desirable as he. Onstage, with aching slowness he would run his fingers through his greasy, wet blond locks as he delivered this song. He knew he was spectacular, he knew that the woman he addressed was spectacular, and he dared her to be worthy of him. When parents in the fifties claimed that rock and roll was evil, they were talking about records like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." "Ain't fakin'," Jerry Lee sang, and that's what worried people about him and his ilk.
When Jerry Lee barged into his piano solo, Van Eaton's drums took a bar to catch on--he was that transported by Jerry Lee's performance. Janes's guitar solo was assured; more importantly, it provided temporary relief from Lewis's lasciviousness. Jerry Lee sang, "We got kickin' in the barn/Whose barn?/What barn?/My barn!" and careered into the most frankly lecherous breakdown in fifties rock and roll (no small achievement). "Easy now," he commanded, and the band played just as hard, a little more quietly. He talked now. 'Let's get real low one time," he ordered. "All you gotta do, honey, is just kinda stand in one spot. Wiggle around just a little bit. That's when you got somethin'." The mood was taut, tense. He knew he had won, so he called the band back and he swooped in for the kill, shouting the final chorus as though he knew it would be the last of his life. He knew he had conquered his listener, and the song ended with a shout of satisfaction rarely heard in public. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going on" was about forbidden ideas coming to the surface; it was, in Jerry Lee's mind, the sound of sex.
* * *
Jerry Lee returned to the road, where "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" climaxed his performances as the single began its run up the three major singles charts: rhythm-and-blues, country-and-western, and pop. Soon after it was recorded, Jack Clement played the studio take of the song for Sam Phillips, who decided to gamble his company on it, pressing several hundred thousand copies of the disc before he sold a single one. Phillips was confident he had found his new Elvis. Although he told everyone who would listen that he did not for one second regret selling Elvis's contract to RCA, Sam was jealous--personally and financially--that Elvis's superstardom occurred only after leaving his tutelage. Not only could Jerry Lee mess around with familiar forms and yield something new, he was, like Elvis, good-looking and charismatic. Phillips cherished the Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison records he was making, but he sensed that none of them was bold enough to grab a microphone and refuse to relinquish it no matter what. He knew that Jerry Lee had what it took; he knew that Jerry Lee was cocky enough to make it happen. Sam found Jerry Lee's craziness comforting.
Much has been said about the "crazy" or "nutty" atmosphere at Sun and how the colorful characters broke all sorts of musical and cultural rules there because they acknowledged none. All that is true, but the fact remains that this craziness or nuttiness had a significant downside, one that led many of the regulars there into fits of depression, extended substance abuse, and, in some cases, arbitrary violence. The "It" in Jerry Lee's family, and the "It" in a disproportionate numbers of the families that gave Sun its greatest performers, was mental illness. The music at Sun changed pop music and enlivened the lives of many listeners, but it did so at great cost to its originators.
Jerry Lee fit in at Sun because he was personally as well as musically off-kilter. Phillips saw him as someone with that magical combination of talent and senselessness. As he said of "Crazy Arms," he could sell that, if he could keep the boy from Ferriday on a leash. He might have worried a bit more if he had known the feelings Jerry Lee and his kid cousin were beginning to acknowledge for each other.
While Phillips prepared to unleash "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" on an unsuspecting world, Jerry Lee kept recording. Sessions in the spring and summer of 1957 yielded a wide variety of material, but not another immediately recognizable smash or even another single except for a new version of "Lewis Boogie" that surpassed the earlier model. Jerry Lee recorded several versions of Hank Williams's "You Win Again," including a very fast take that proved that the song did not respond well to being rocked up. Jerry Lee sped through the song's drama and pathos; perhaps it was recorded at the beginning of a session, just a warm-up. Several months later he recorded a ballad version that was as slow and felt as the earlier take had been sped-up and affected. His inspiring, acute singing made it the definitive version of a top-flight song.
"Love Letters in the Sand" strutted along pleasantly, but it was more along the lines of Pat Boone, who presently and inexplicably scored a hit with it. A similar thirties pop tune, "Little Green Valley," had a more prodding beat and was much more fun. "Pumpin' Piano Rock" arrived with an initial solemn piano chord, and effect that quickly bored Jerry Lee as he created instant boogie-woogie. The words, which he wrote, are not worth repeating, although they are a more effective stab at a statement of purpose than those he emitted throughout the seventies and eighties. However, it did feature a wonderful spinning solo that proved that Jerry Lee could not be confined by a bad song, even if it was a dud that he wrote.
Perhaps miffed that his pet song had wound up on the wrong side of Jerry Lee's next single, Jack Clement ordered up several new versions of "It'll Be Me," this time intended for inclusion on Jerry Lee's first LP. Except for a bizarre drums-and-guitar introduction that was so out of place that it worked and some tempo changes, the new versions were similar to the older takes.
If producer Clement got what he wanted out of these sessions, so did band leader Jerry Lee. In his last session before the success of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" changed his life, he led Janes and Van Eaton--J. W. was out making some honest money as an electrician--into his past, calling for song after song that he had loved back in Ferriday. Once again, his childhood favorites formed the basis of the songs he chose to perform professionally. "All Night Long" was a combination of half a dozen country standards. The piano work was a prime updated Moon Mullican impersonation, and the vocal paid attention to detail à la Chuck Berry. In the end, the song was simply an excuse for Jerry Lee to push out a great new solo. "Old Time Religion" was rocked up faster than fast gospel, Jerry Lee's falsetto and the background yells, probably by Clement, making it sound somehow dirty. One listen to this solo and it is obvious what got him kicked out of Waxahachie. The New Orleans journey was "When the Saints Go Marchin" In," another religiously oriented tune that Jerry Lee turned into a pop song with a wonderful crammed solo.
The next number, Jimmy Rodgers's "My Carolina Sunshine Girl," made it clear that in his early days Jerry Lee simply could not play a country song straight. He could only play it like himself, and that had nothing to do with what was happening in Nashville at the time. "Long Gone Lonesome Blues" was the rare Jerry Lee cover of a Hank Williams composition that did not click at all, but he ended the session with two top-rank rockers. A tumbling, ferocious "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee" brought Jerry Lee back to that Ferridy Ford dealership. "Singin' the Blues," a Marty Robbins hit, was speedy and bluesy. Jerry Lee was so excited by the number, or his performance of it, that he could not stop fully at its dramatic pauses. He stretched the song into a honky-tonk strut that suited him. As had become the rule in his recordings, he held sway over the tune.
By July, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" had exploded. The antirock forces were making the usual complaints. The Alabama White Citizens Council set the agenda with the statement: "The obscenity and vulgarity of the rock-and-roll music is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven down to the level with the nigger." Most critics were less honest when they expressed their fears. Jerry Lee was even worse than Elvis, many of them argued, because not only did the Ferriday Fireball move, but the songs he played while he moved left much less to overactive teen imaginations. And Jerry Lee's stage show was raucous. He would jump to his feet, leer at the audience, roll his tongue, and kick his piano stool into the wings. He would play the piano with his feet and his fists; sometimes he would jump atop the expensive grand piano a hall had rented. Usually accompanied only by J. W. on bass and Russell Smith on drums, he compensated with sheer energy and intensity the lack of additional pieces. He acknowledged no bounds.
Jerry Lee's music, his antics, and the fact that this eccentric was striking against (depending on one's viewpoint) morés or deeply held beliefs about how to behave all helped "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" up the charts. Trade paper reviewers heralded the tune but noted that it did not fit into any one category, country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues, or straight pop. Aided by striking performances on "The Steve Allen Show" and "American Bandstand," the song succeeded in all categories, eventually topping two of the three Billboard singles charts and getting as high as Number Three on the third, a rare feat in 1957 and an unimaginable one in the genre-fractured nineties. The differences that supposedly kept country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues, and pop songs on separate radio formats never made sense to Jerry Lee. He loved any kind of music, so long as it moved him in one way or another. So it makes sense that when he figured out what he was best at on "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," an unclassifiable melange of all the forms he adored, fans representative of all markets responded.
Jerry Lee bought a home for his parents, a black Cadillac for himself (in both cases, the first of many), and kept recording for Phillips. He appeared at 706 Union several times in September 1957, searching for another "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" that would help him sustain his newfound income of several thousand dollars a week. At least one session early in the month was so relaxed that nobody expected anything to come from it. The jump blues "Rockin' with Red" was just a messaround, with on-the-spot lyrical additions "She rocks me to the east/She rocks me to the south/My baby, she's got a big mouth." Jerry Lee must have taken a shine to "Matchbox" while he worked it up with Perkins's band. His version was sprightly enough and featured some superior singing, but there was no place for Jerry Lee to go with the tune that Perkins hadn't already taken it. "How was that?" he asked at the end of the take. Jerry Lee gave another Sun-identified track, Warren Smith's "Ubangi Stomp," an excellent rocking treatment, all dramatic stops and starts, although his piano was buried except for his solos; and the lyrics remain among rock and roll's most blatantly racist.
"Rock 'n' Roll Ruby" was a Warren Smith tune written (or bought) by Johnny Cash in one of that country giant's more awkward attempts to fit the rockabilly mold. Jerry Lee had fun with it, his high-register singing sometimes wandering into falsetto, but this was not a serious attempt at a hit. He graced the Roy Orbison hit "Ooby Dooby" with the same introduction he gave to "Ubangi Stomp" and came on even harder. It was a superb version of the sweet rocker; Jerry Lee's rough voice was more appropriate for the number than Orbison's smooth tenor. "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" was an early Elvis recording of regret that Jerry Lee probably chose to prove that he could outdo Elvis, which on this song he could not. Otis Jett's stumbling drumming did not help either.
The most far-ranging Sun tune explored in these sessions was a Roy Orbison composition, "So Long I'm Gone," that had been a hit for Warren Smith. The relatively uptempo version moved fast and went nowhere. Jerry Lee was clearly not involved with the number, but the song itself exemplified much of what made the country music recorded at Sun Records different from that cut for the more established Nashville labels. At Sun, as for Jerry Lee, wild rockabilly and polite country were part of the same continuum, as surely as Saturday nights rolled into Sunday mornings. In either category, Sam Phillips invariably sought out unencumbered, passionate, plainly stated performances. He wanted a mood to establish itself the second a song began and then intensify and ignite.
Phillips's Nashville contemporaries were adding scads of strings and bus loads of backup singers to sweeten songs for the uptown crowd, but Phillips sensed that frankness was gaining an edge over forced sophistication. He arrived at this method partly by ingenuity and partly by necessity. After all, fewer musicians on a session meant fewer people to pay. Because there were less players to shift around, Phillips and his flock could experiment with different treatments of the same tune.
Warren Smith recorded two radically dissimilar versions of "So Long I'm Gone" that go a long way toward telling the grand story of how country spawned rockabilly. The words were the same in both versions, but the attitudes could not have been farther apart. Smith was best-known as a second-tier post-Presley rocker, but his country version of "So Long I'm Gone" foreshadowed his move into straight country-and-western after he left Sun. On that slow version, Smith collapsed into regret, missing the occasional guitar strum, mortified that he has to leave his philandering lover. On his fast rockabilly variation he triumphed, a hardened man determined to beat adversity. He's out the door; he's bound for glory. His fast "So Long I'm Gone" sounded like freedom, nearly as much so as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On."
* * *
Through autumn, Jerry Lee searched for his second "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." Jack Clement thought he had found one in "I'm Feeling Sorry." His confidence in the sturdy country strut was justified, but it was due mostly to his having written it. On September 10, 1957, Clement guided Jerry Lee, J. W. Brown, Roland Janes, and Jimmy Van Eaton through more than a dozen takes of "I'm Feelin' Sorry," in a variety of tempos and configurations. Some lines Jerry Lee attacked with glee, like "I know you're blue/But, baby/I'm bluer." Listening to these endless versions shows how many angles from which Jerry Lee could attack a song: respectful, showboating, giddy, you name it.
Two other songs put down at the session hinted at Jerry Lee's limits at the time. "Turn Around" was more evidence that he could not cover Carl Perkins as definitively or easily as he took on songs identified with some others. But "Mean Woman Blues," an Elvis hit earlier in the year, was a rocker as broad, though not as deep, as "Whole Lotta Shakin" Going On." "I ain't bragging/It's understood/Everything I do/I sure do it good," he sang, finally finding an appropriately overt lyrical outlet for his unending self-assurance. He started soloing virtually as soon as the song began, and his pleasure in delivering double-entendre lines like "I like a little coffee/I like a little tea/Jelly, jelly is the thing for me" was infectious. It was a worthy successor to "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," breakdown and all, but it was too similar to be immediately differentiable.
Sam Phillips arrived at Jerry Lee's next session with a new song he had received from a New York songwriter named Otis Blackwell, who had provided Elvis with "All Shook Up" and "Don't Be Cruel," called "Great Balls of Fire." Phillips had cut a deal for a Jerry Lee song to appear in Jamboree, a film about a fractured love that was forgettable even before anyone had seen it. He sensed that being associated with a film--any film--might be a sure-fire and cost-effective way to launch a hit record. Blackwell had thought to offer Jerry Lee "Great Balls of Fire" after seeing the Killer shake on "The Steve Allen Show." Again it is noticeable that Phillips did not approach Blackwell. Still, Phillips cut a version for Jamboree, which the film's producers accepted, but neither Phillips nor Jerry Lee was satisfied with that take for single release, so on October 6 they tried again (this time with tacks audibly on the piano).
It was that night, trying to tame "Great Balls of Fire," that Jerry Lee heard the voice of his mother taunting him and rebelled against the song he suddenly considered to be pure evil. Phillips was personally supervising the session; he knew he was only a few takes away from another smash on the scale of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," so he pushed back. The conversation that was going on inside Jerry Lee's head turned external, and he took Mamie's part.
"You can save souls!" Sam barked deep into their dispute.
"No! No! No! No!" Jerry Lee shouted back as the argument arched toward a crescendo.
"Yes!" Phillips hollered.
"How can the devil save souls?" Jerry Lee countered at an even louder volume. "What are you talking about?"
Jerry Lee soon relented, aware that he would not be resolving this particular mystery tonight, and hurled himself into the song. Several takes later, he was much less agonized by his choice of material. "I do like to eat it," he said and made a slurping noise. "I hope you ain't puttin' that on tape. Shit, I'd give up the ship. You ready to cut? You ready to cut? You ready to cut 'Great Balls of Fire'? What am I gonna eat? I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some." At the end of the take he announced, I'm about to gag." He had traveled the road from piety to lust in only a few minutes, and the song he was shouting provided the link.
The final take of the evening was clearly the performance worth releasing. After four staccato chords, Jerry Lee sang out of the top of his head: "You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain/Too much love drives a man insane/You broke my will/But what a thrill/Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!" The imagery was salacious; the delivery was even more gleefully obscene. If "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" was a song that promised sex, "Great Balls of Fire" delivered. Some of the lyrics and vocal interjections, like "Oooh/Feels good" and "You're kind/So fine," were as overtly sexual as Jerry Lee could get and still slip onto the radio. Roland Janes and Billy Riley must have been at the restaurant next door during this take, which featured only Lewis and drummer Van Eaton. Jerry Lee's solo started with some tossed-off sweeps and peaked with upper-key poundings that challenged Van Eaton's snare drum for the contest of Biggest Noise in the World. Many fans, critics, and performers have speculated as to who won the Lewis/Phillips argument that night. One listen to "Great Balls of Fire" reveals that it was Jerry Lee Lewis fans who won.
Because Jerry Lee had already established himself with one multiformat smash, "Great Balls of Fire" scaled the three Billboard charts more quickly than its predecessor, eventually reaching Number One on the country-and-western charts, Number One on the rhythm-and-blues charts, and Number Two on the pop charts. Danny and the Juniors' extremely white doo-wop "At the Hop," with its ersatz-Killer piano, denied it the triple crown. Jerry Lee's performances of the number on three national television shows--"The Steve Allen Show," "American Bandstand," and "Patti Page's Big Record TV Show"--hastened the advance. On radios and televisions across the land, people heard the battle between the spiritual and the secular music that raged within Jerry Lee, and it sounded to them like rock and roll.
Jerry Lee's attempt to sing pop music and not be evil suggested a similar battle being fought around the same time by the gospel-turned-country duo, Ira and Charlie Louvin, the Louvin Brothers. The brothers had recorded together for more than a decade and were at their peak in 1957. The two dived into despair like no other pair in country; it was no accident that they titled their greatest album Tragic Songs of Life. The bare-bones arrangements on even their hits were built around a terse string band, pared to the marrow, careful not to muscle in front of the words, which scrutinized the many intersections of religious fervor and reckless abandon.
The Louvin Brothers had grown up as poor in Alabama as Jerry Lee was in Louisiana. Gospel was their first love, but their talents were broader, and executives at their label, Capitol Records, knew it. After they scored their first major country-and-western hit in 1955 with "When I Stop Dreaming," they had to fight to get Capitol to acquiesce to even occasional sacred recordings. But, unlike Jerry Lee, their country songs were as buttoned-up and reverential as their more explicitly religious numbers. "We were hard country," Charlie Louvin said a generation later. "We never did record a dirty lyric. For my part, I don't think anyone could find a good, clean country love song offensive. If they could, they're serving somebody I haven't heard of."
For the Louvin Brothers, the transition was easy because they moved between songs of religious devotion and songs of romantic devotion. There was a precedent in country music for performers like them. For Jerry Lee, who bounced between the poles of "When the Saints Go Marching In" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," the road was more treacherous and far less frequently traveled.
Jerry Lee did not record again until after the first of the year; his touring schedule as part of various packages, Sun and otherwise, was hectic. In Memphis he was busy otherwise, finally calling it quits with Jane, in their eyes if not those of the courts. Without J. W. or Lois's knowledge or approval, on December 12, 1957, he and his cousin Myra drove south to Mississippi and were married. The family was shocked. Some said that Myra was much too young for Jerry Lee; strangely, some implied the exact opposite. Sam Phillips heard about the wedding and insisted it be kept quiet. Just to make sure that people considered Jerry Lee a good country boy, Phillips started plugging the B-side of "Great Balls of Fire," the ballad version of "You Win Again," hard country at its most acceptable to that conservative audience.
* * *
In the first half of 1958, Jerry Lee spent most of the time either on the road or in the studio. He was living like a star, buying cars and motorcycles, spending money as if the enormous royalty checks would arrive forever with the same frequency. He brought some of his star arrogance to his January sessions, but he also brought his star talent.
Fresh from having spent a pleasant afternoon at a motorcycle shop with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee called for "Go Go Go," one of Roy's most propulsive rockers, which the Killer redubbed "Down the Line." The first few versions were conversational, Jerry Lee feeling out the song and transporting it from Roy's world to his own. He changed some key lyrics and kept charging at it. "Wait a minute, I'm pooped out," he said between two of the eight takes. By the time he captured the song, he was putting on a show, daring the assembled to "Look-a-here!" before he bolted into a raucous solo. Billy Riley's proto-surf guitar owed more to another Orbison song, "Domino," than it did to "Go Go Go," but it still fit fine.
Another song they worked at was "I'm Sorry I'm Not Sorry," a tune identified with Carl Perkins, a strong country weeper with prominent, strutting drums and a cold-hearted attitude in its lyrics that stunned. On Hank Ballard's rhythm-and-blues hit, "Cool Cool Ways," which had been called "Sexy Ways" in its original incarnation, Jerry Lee sang extra hard to make up for the softer title. The song's breakdown section referred directly to its superior predecessor, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," and the song ended with sexual taunts that insured it could not be released. Jack Hammer's "Milkshake Mademoiselle" was considered as a follow-up to "Great Balls of Fire." Its teen-oriented lyrics would have fit in well on pop radio, but Jerry Lee's corrosive piano solo and wild singing, including a high-pitched scream, worked against the lyric and the tune was shelved after half a dozen tries.
The most successful song to emerge from the January sessions was another made-to-order contribution from Otis Blackwell, "Breathless," that yielded another multiformat hit: Number Four country-and-western, Number Three rhythm-and-blues, and Number Seven pop. The tune was less backwoodsy than what Jerry Lee usually brought to the studio, but the Killer was not about to argue with the work of the "little colored fellow" who had given him "Great Balls of Fire." Echo swirling around him, Jerry Lee's voice leaped out from the mix, howling the tale of sexual satisfaction with abandon.
One couplet in Blackwell's lyric stood out: "When you call my name/You know I burn like a wood in flame." Perhaps Jerry Lee was not paying attention to the words. If he had, he had a spectacular sacred-turned-profane image with which he could fuel another brief epistemological war with Sam. (Jerry Lee does not sing "burn" in the lyric quoted above. He sings "boin," a tossed-away syllable for Jerry Lee, but for little John Fogerty listening in northern California it was the key to a mystery of southern dialect that he would exploit in "Proud Mary" and several dozen other Creedence Clearwater Revival songs of similar caliber.)
With "Breathless" in the can, Jerry Lee flew to Australia with a package tour that included Buddy Holly, whom Jerry Lee adored, and Paul Anka, whom he terrorized. They stopped for the night in Hawaii, where Jerry Lee, guilty about neglecting Myra Gale, wrote her a rare letter that she preserved for decades and gave to Murray Silver. It read:
How is the most beautiful girl in all the world, fine I hope. Darling I sure do miss you, because I love you so so so much. How is everybody fine to I guess. Darling please take care of your self if anything was to happen to you I'd die and that's no joke. Oh Myra I love you with all my heart. Baby we're going to have such a beautiful life together, we're going to be so happy too. Myra if you ever done me wrong it would kill me, well I'd rather you would kill me. Well I no you woulden do me wrong would you darling. Myra I've let myself fall in love too much with you, don't break my heart. Darling this is the most beautiful place you ever seen But I can't enjoy it without you. I'll be home soon. May God watch over you, pray for me, your husband, Jerry Lee Lewis."
Jerry Lee's next Sun session was on Valentine's Day. Jerry Lee warmed up with the first songs that came to mind. The trio, consisting of Jerry Lee, J. W., and Van Eaton, turned in a barrelhouse version of Roy Brown's rhythm-and-blues smash "Good Rockin' Tonight" that featured a luxurious solo and Jerry Lee's plea that his beloved "meet me out behind the barn." He discarded as much of the original as he could, and, as was now becoming habit, evoked the breakdown of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," this time with the vow, "We're gonna take it down now, little mama."
Jerry Lee probably was most familiar with "Good Rockin' Tonight" through Elvis's 1954 Sun Version, and more Elvis hits spilled out. He jumped into "Jailhouse Rock" driven by alcohol, ego, and defiance. Ditto with "Hound Dog and "Don't Be Cruel." He was showing off to himself, proving to himself that he was really the king of rock and roll, not that other guy. Other warm-up numbers included "Pink Pedal Pushers," the sort of high-school tune usually best left to its writer, Carl Perkins (except for the extremely suggestive line "she's got something her mom never had") and the Jimmie Hodges hillbilly hit of a decade before, "Someday (You'll Want Me to Want You)," a serviceable barroom ballad in which Jack Clement turned up the echo to eleven.
That out of the way, they moved to the possible-hit song in question. Sam Phillips was pleased with the way Jamboree had helped market "Great Balls of Fire," so he arranged for Jerry Lee to sing the theme to a juvenile-delinquent exploitation film, High School Confidential, starring Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren. It was a wild song, and it took Jerry Lee a few takes, of more than a dozen in total, to get started. This gives the lie to the myth that what happened at the Memphis Recording Service was all noble-savage spontaneity and artless genius. These boys worked hard at their songs, over and over and over, until they got it right. They were professionals.
"Wait a minute," Jerry Lee said after one false start. "I screwed up, I had my mind on something else--something I shouldn't've had my mind on. Let's cut it!" They did, and out came a roaring version, from the opening double entendre, "Open up honey/It's your lover boy me that's knockin'," through a pure honky-tonk piano solo highlighted by a transitional yell of, "dig dig dig dig dig hell hell," as Roland Janes's guitar took over. It was wilder than the released version, though not by much. The movie was a hit, as was the song: Number Nine country-and-western and Number Five rhythm-and-blues, although events that transpired between recording and release kept it down to Number Twenty-one on the pop charts. Also recorded around the same time, perhaps at the same session, was the ordinary rocker, "Put Me Down."
Jerry Lee hit the road again, playing some Alan Freed package shows as well as Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," where he performed live, not lip-synched, "Breathless," "You Win Again," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." At one show in New York, he was furious to learn that he was not the headliner, but rather he was second-billed behind Chuck Berry. Jerry Lee had enormous respect for Berry as a performer and songwriter, but his ego would not allow him to be second-billed to anyone. He delivered a show that was torrid even by his usual standards. One enduring rock-and-roll myth states that Jerry Lee lit his piano on fire at the conclusion of "Great Balls of Fire" and stalked off to the side of the stage to confront Berry. The story about lighting the piano on fire is all wet, but it is true that Jerry Lee stood face to face with Berry after he ended his set to thundering applause. "Follow that, nigger," he taunted and swaggered away. By Ferriday standards, Jerry Lee was not an all-out racist, but he knew the value of intimidation.
A few weeks later, Jerry Lee was much friendlier as he recorded a few more tunes for his first album. The obligatory Hank Williams compositions were the Cajun-flavored "Jambalaya," which the Louisiana boy rocked out, and "Your Cheatin' Heart," which was more scattered; in years to come Jerry Lee would record several superior versions of the latter number. Also played was another Williams-performed tune, "Lovesick Blues," on which a loose Jerry Lee had altogether too much fun. His piano was intentionally sloppy and he altered many of the lyrics.
The session did not yield much more releasable material. James Liddle's standard rocker, "Friday Night," was a poor cousin to "High School Confidential," though "Hello, Hello Baby," a Jerry Lee Lewis original, was a whooped-up blues that archivists will note as the first time he substituted his proper name for I in a lyric. In March 1958, that was not yet a lazy affectation. The standard "Frankie and Johnny" was never much of a song, even in the hands of Jimmie Rodgers, but Jerry Lee did perform it with some verve, and there is no Jerry Lee fan who does not get pleasure from hearing the noted philanderer sing, "My story has no moral/My story has no end/My story shows/There's no trusting none of these men."
What was by far the greatest performance recorded during the session was also by far the most unreleasable. "Big Legged Woman" was an oft-covered blues leer, and Jerry Lee unleashed a terrific version. The performance of the song Jerry Lee had heard back in Natchez was as lecherous as Myra's parents feared he could be, all single-entendre lyrics ("I bet my bottom dollar there ain't a cherry in the house"; "When I start drilling on you, baby/You're gonna lose your nightgown") and sleazy l's rolling off his tongue. This was young Jerry Lee at his most direct and terrifying, with falsetto screeches and a cry of "Don't stop me now, mama!" This was the closest Jerry Lee ever came to the Delta blues tradition of a randy rambler like Robert Johnson, and in its own way cut just as deep as Johnson's tales of sex, death, and fear.
"It's a hit!" Jerry Lee proclaimed after the song was over. He acted as if he did not understand why his comment was greeted by laughter. Two decades later, when "Big Legged Woman" finally appeared on a reissue LP, Jerry Lee professed to be embarrassed by it.
On April 20, the usual quartet stomped through several takes of "Put Me Down," in which for someone who was supposed to sound like he was being dumped, Jerry Lee was having a ball, as well as "Fools Like Me," a slow one co-written by Jack Clement that enlivened the clichés of self-pitying country, bad rhymes and all. "Carrying On (Sexy Ways)" was fine and hard-rocking, but by now it was apparent that no one knew what to rename the Hank Ballard number. "Crazy Heart," another tune identified with Hank Williams, was executed lightly and playfully.
The next night's session was more productive, after a few run-throughs of "High School Confidential" loosened up the quartet. A cascading attack on Floyd Tillman's "Slippin' Around," another Wagon Wheel favorite, featured two lead guitars by Billy Riley and Roland James and served as a perfect double-entendre vehicle for Jerry Lee. He sang as though he knew what it meant to "live in constant fear" on a number of levels. "I'll See You in My Dreams" was a jazzy instrumental meant to mark time, a piano-roll readymade, and "Real Wild Child" was a sterling hard rocker with lines like "We'll shake until the meat comes off the bone." The session eased to a conclusion with the Louis Jordan jump-band hit "Let the Good Times Roll." Jerry Lee's idiosyncratic version suggested the sound of a New Orleans barroom just before dawn.
Jerry Lee was scheduled to fly to London on May 22 to embark on a sold-out-in-advance British tour, and Sam Phillips squeezed in one more session before the jaunt. Jerry Lee played this date solo. It was refreshing to play alone. His growth since his first solo session when he had revealed himself in front of Slim Whitman was noteworthy.
Jerry Lee started with yet another Williams track, "Settin' the Woods on Fire," later overdubbed with guitar, bass, and drums. By 1958 Jack Clement had convinced Phillips to allow him and his buddy Bill Justis to start overdubbing strings and background choruses, but every single time this turned out to be superfluous at best and ruinsome to the original track at worst. It was comforting that not too much was overdubbed onto the released "Settin' the Woods on Fire." "Memory of You," an original Jerry Lee wrote on the flight back from Australia, was nothing special except for its sound of freedom. Solo, he had so much room to play with in the heavily echoed Sun studio that he insisted on cramming every space he could find with sound, just like his piano breaks. The same went for the Allen Toussaint scorcher, "Come What May." Alone in the studio, Jerry Lee shouted so no one's attention, including his own, lagged for even a moment.
"Break Up" was a contribution from a new singer/pianist who had impressed Jack Clement: Charlie Rich. The solo version somehow anticipated all the other instruments to be added later and in doing so rendered their addition superfluous, from Jerry Lee's uncharacteristic walking bass to his breakneck speed. A far superior Charlie Rich tune, attempted next, was the trenchant ballad "I'll Make It Up to You." Jerry Lee zeroed in on an appropriate tempo; it was polite, but there was no way Jerry Lee's piano could sing the devotional ballad as straight as his voice could. He played "Crazy Arms" to remind himself that his previously recorded version was great, and his take on Chuck Berry's "Johnny B. Good" reversed the typical Berry recording method by replicating Berry's guitar on the piano. As a guitarist, Berry had aped the chords of his pianist, Johnny Johnson.
One could argue that Jerry Lee was simply hunting, looking for some material to fill out his long-player. The long-delayed first album, titled Jerry Lee Lewis, came out later that month and featured "Don't Be Cruel," "Goodnight Irene," "Put Me Down," "It All Depends (On Who Will Buy the Wine)," "Ubangi Stomp," "Crazy Arms," "Jambalaya," "Fools Like Me," "High School Confidential," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Matchbox," "It'll Be Me," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." Jerry Lee felt on top of the world--he had enjoyed three smash singles, and "High School Confidential" was on its way to becoming number four--and was trying to find new ways to solidify and expand his success. Like Elvis before him, he wanted his music to satisfy everyone and he knew it could.
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Then the bottom fell out. Over everyone's objections, Myra accompanied Jerry Lee to London, was found out by the sensationalist Fleet Street press as the Killer's underage cousin/wife, and scandalized herself and her husband. Reporters then discovered that neither Jerry Lee's first marriage nor his second had been legally terminated, making him a bigamist and his marriage to Myra Gale illegal as well as, from their viewpoint, immoral. The resulting uproar eventually forced Jerry Lee to leave the country without performing most of the booked shows.
The tour had begun on a lighter note. Nick Tosches reported that Jane Mitcham called Jerry Lee's hotel room and Myra answered. Jane said she wanted to wish Jerry Lee luck in his London debut and told Myra she was still in love with the Ferriday Fireball. Countered Myra, "But I'm living with him and you're not." That night Jerry Lee's show was poorly attended and booed lustily by many of those who bothered to show up.
In the center of the storm, Jerry Lee did not understand what had happened to him personally or professionally. The twenty-one-year-old's nonchalant attitude to marriage ensured that he did not think he had done anything wrong by any of his wives; his insular, innocent ideas about the record industry led him to believe that this was a small matter that would blow over by the time his flight touched down in Memphis. However, "High School Confidential" stalled on the pop chart almost immediately; and neither side of the succeeding two-sided single, the Charlie Rich pair, "Break Up" and "I'll Make It All Up to You," cracked the Top Fifty.
Phillips tried everything. He had Jerry Lee and Myra remarry publicly. He had Jack Clement cut a novelty record, under Jerry Lee's name, called "The Return of Jerry Lee," a break-in single in the style of Buchanan and Goodman's "Flying Saucer," in which an announcer dubbed Edward R. Edward asked a question and then an engineer inserted a somewhat relevant lyrical snippet from a Jerry Lee song. (Sample question: "Where did you meet your young bride?" Answer, from "High School Confidential": "Boppin' at the high school hop!")
This was supposed to solve the problem? The flipside was the great "Lewis Boogie," which no one heard. One could argue that "The Return of Jerry Lee" was recorded in the spirit of its namesake, but Phillips's decision to let Clement turn the scandal into a joke hurt everyone's already crumbling credibility. Not much more successful was the humble open letter that Phillips placed as a full-page ad in Billboard and forced his charge to sign:
I have in recent weeks been the apparent center of a fantastic amount of publicity, none of which has been good.
But there must be good even in the worst people and according to the press release originating in London, I am the worst and not even deserving of one decent press release.
Now this whole thing started because I tried and did tell the truth. I told the story of my past life, as I thought it had been straightened out and that I would not hurt anybody in being man enough to tell the truth.
I confess that my life has been stormy. I confess further that since I have become a public figure, I sincerely wanted to be worthy of the decent admiration of all the people, young or old, that admired or liked what talent (if any) I have. That is, after all, all that I have in a professional way to offer.
If you don't believe that the accuracy of things can get mixed up when you are in the public eye, then I hope you never have to travel this road I'm on.
There were some legal misunderstandings in that matter that inadvertently made me look as though I invented the word indecency. I feel I, if nothing else, should be given credit for the fact that I have at least a little common sense and that if I had not thought that the legal aspects of this matter were not completely straight, I certainly would not have made a move until they were.
I did not want to hurt Jane Mitcham, nor did I want to hurt my family and children. I went to court and did not contest Jane's divorce actions, and she was awarded seven hundred and fifty dollars a month for child support and alimony. Jane and I parted from the courtroom as friends and, as a matter of fact, chatted before, during, and after the trial with no animosity whatsoever.
In the belief that for once my life was straightened out, I invited my mother and daddy and little sister to make the trip to England. Unfortunately, Mother and Daddy felt that the trip would be too long and hard for them and didn't go, but Sister did go, along with Myra's little brother and mother.
I hope that if I am washed up as an entertainer, it won't be because of this bad publicity, because I can cry and wish all I want to, but I can't control the press or the sensationalism that these people will go to to get a scandal started to sell papers. If you don't believe me, please ask any of the other people that have been victims of the same.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Less than two years after his initial appearance at 706 Union Avenue, Jerry Lee had scaled the top of the rock-and-roll ladder and fallen off. He had enjoyed the fruits of being "different," being someone whose differentness made him special; now he was learning what happened when people learned the true extent of his differentness. After a month of pouting and blaming his problems on anyone else whom he happened to meet, he returned to 706 Union Avenue, ready to redeem himself the only way he knew how.