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Chapter 4: Sun Set
"It is far easier, I know, to criticize the failure of the South to face and solve its problems than it is to solve them." -- W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South
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 his records, only a few months passed before he was able to once again earn a good living on the road. Into the nineties, the road has been his home. From July 1958 to August 1963, when his elongated contract at Sun finally ran out and he graduated to Mercury's Smash subsidiary, Jerry Lee put down on tape fewer songs than he had between November 1956 and the disaster in London. Why did he record more songs in his first eighteen months than he did in the subsequent five years? Because he was on the road.
This is not to suggest that these were not years of tremendous anger for Jerry Lee. He knew he had slipped, and his disappointment in himself and those around him was exacerbated by the alcohol and pills that had been part of his life even before he arrived in Memphis. In spite of the frequent high quality of his recordings, his hits were far less common and had weaker legs. Sam Phillips, and the subsequent producers he assigned to Jerry Lee when he lost interest, adopted a try-anything-and-see-what-might-stick approach. They took on instrumentals and eventually resorted to putting out tracks without vocals under an assumed name, the Hawk, thinking that a new monicker might break the blacklist. Through it all, on record at least, Jerry Lee remained completely individual. One could not hear a Jerry Lee performance and not know immediately that the Killer was at the controls. His stylistic authority announced itself the moment his fingers struck the ivories; every performance was as inescapable and demanding as an unexpected lapel grab.
The sessions that were supposed to make Charlie Rich wealthy took place in July 1958, but the scandal kept the resulting double-sided single of Rich compositions, "Break Up" and "I'll Make It All Up to You," in the bottom half of the charts. Some of the takes featured Rich playing piano, clear evidence that the brain trust at Sun had become so desperate they had temporarily lost their minds. Rich was a formidable pianist, to be sure, and he was one of the few white performers who had started their careers under the Sun umbrella who were able to truly expand on those lessons when they moved to a major label. Roy Orbison was another notable exception to the rule.
Rich's talent notwithstanding, it was senseless to consider a Jerry Lee record without Jerry Lee playing piano, even if Jerry Lee's idiosyncratic style sometimes worked against a producer's tightly defined intentions. Somehow Jerry Lee shrugged off the insult; his singing on both tunes was intensely committed, at least to cutting a hit. Later in the month, Phillips crony and noted rock hater, Bill Justis, whose overwrought instrumental hit of the previous year, "Raunchy," sported an inadvertently ironic title, supervised another of the backup-singer overdub extravaganzas that sank many a Jerry Lee tune by smoothing it so much that little was left to keep it afloat. As noted in a reissue, these overdubs "destroyed more Sun records at the end of the fifties than a raging warehouse fire."
Justis was at the next Jack Clement-supervised session, on November 5, 1958, and he brought his saxophone. There is some evidence that Martin Willis played sax that date and Justis just produced, but he did bring his cynicism. Jerry Lee did not care; just off the road, he was ready to rock. He announced, "I might dance to it. I might tear it to the ground," before he galloped through a "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee" that lived up to his rhetoric. "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," a Moon Mullican smash from 1950, was rollicking, although the saxophone sounded too literal, and Roland Janes's repetitive guitar lines would have been annoying had they not been buried in the pollution of a mix. "It Hurt Me So" was a polite Rich/Justis number, again with Rich on piano, and "You're the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven)" rounded out the session. Fans of pure Jerry Lee recordings were excused for wanting to stuff their laundry into Willis's saxophone. A few days later, Justis threw a wet blanket of overdubs atop "It Hurt Me So." Two hundred-odd miles east in Nashville, a producer named Jerry Kennedy took notes on Justis's method.
This was rock and roll? With background choruses out of the blandest pop and pop-country forms? Many devotees of the first explosion of rock and roll--much of it emanating from 706 Union Avenue--were disappointed to hear what had happened to the music in 1958. Everyone was getting soft. Elvis, for example, had stumbled from "Jailhouse Rock" all the way down to "A Fool Such As I." (Elvis's induction into the army solidified his move.) The first wave of rock and roll was being retaken by the crooners (Pat Boone and his ilk) and novelty performers (a big hit of 1958 was Sheb Wooley's "The Purple People Eater").
Sensing that the market for the raw sounds that had built Sun was quickly weakening, Phillips accepted the counsel of people like Clement and Justis. There would still be a mix of teenage and adult topics in Jerry Lee's songs, teen for the pop audience and adult for country folk, but those stories would now have to be more dressed up. Compared to the strings and horns foisted upon Jerry Lee through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the comparatively subtle backup la-la's on "You Hurt Me So" are not nearly so obstructive. But they set the pattern for what was to come; in the second phase of his tenure at Sun, it would be harder for listeners to get at Jerry Lee.
Although some of the people who overdressed Jerry Lee's Sun performances have since publicly atoned, Jack Clement in particular, Jerry Lee himself did not rebel against this treatment, even if he surely knew it was inappropriate. All the men at Sun were brought up to understand and respect southern concepts of honor. Jerry Lee was wild, but he had manners. He may have indulged in shouting matches with his boss, but he always called him Mr. Phillips. At Sun after the fall, Jerry Lee revealed his character in Sam's studio, not his office.
1958 bumped into 1959 with no reprieve for Jerry Lee from radio programmers. "I'll Sail My Ship Alone" wandered into the Billboard pop chart for a week, position Ninety-three, and promptly disappeared. He had the usual problems at home, too, although a bewildered Myra was about to give birth to their first child, Steve Allen Lewis. J. W. had left the group, still trying to figure out what had happened to him and his family. Mother Mamie and cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart pressured him to absolve himself of all his worldly possessions--and give them those goodies. With all this on his mind, Jerry Lee cut loose in the studio with some performances he convinced himself could break him out of his personal and professional ruts. He was wrong on both counts, but freneticism poured out of him. Playing hard was the way he temporarily transcended his world. "Lovin' Up a Storm," consisting of just Jerry Lee, guitar, bass, and drums, was as hard and fast as any rock and roll. And the zeitgeist to the contrary, Jerry Lee still played authentic, unencumbered rock and roll. The piano solo conjured up a cyclone even more persuasively than the title image and the improvised couplet, "When we kiss/Great balls of fire," hearkened Jerry Lee back to his favorite subjects: himself and his early career. Van Eaton's outstanding demolition-derby drumming drove the number. "Big Blon' Baby" was in the spirit of "Great Balls of Fire." Instead of "Goodness gracious," he exclaimed, "Jumpin' Jehosaphat," but few heard the worthy sequel.
Clement, or whoever was running the session, sensed that these fine performances could lead to more if he got Jerry Lee into the studio again soon, and three other tunes were recorded only a few days later, this time with Jerry Lee on drums rather than piano. All three were acceptable, but none of them reached the heights of "Lovin' Up a Storm" or "Big Blon' Baby." The rhythm-and-blues "Sick and Tired," written by New Orleans stalwarts Chris Kenner and Dave Bartholomew, was sprightly and syncopated, more Little Richard than Jerry Lee in its appropriation of the former's "Lucille" riff. "(Just a Shanty in Old) Shanty Town" was a memory-driven (the child Jerry Lee had heard the song on the radio) midtempo country tune without the usual maudlin overlay. Jerry Lee forced the solo to be wilder than the song but the composition could not accept it and he ended abruptly. "Release Me" was a country standard (Ray Price and Kitty Wells both had recorded hit versions of the pained ballad in 1954) executed deftly if not brilliantly. This is a telling example of how even an uninspired Jerry Lee during this era could be spare and driving.
Jerry Lee returned to the studio on March 22, 1959, with Phillips himself apparently presiding and guessing what he could possibly do to get Jerry Lee back on the charts. Manners aside, Jerry Lee was pressuring Phillips for better answers on why he was not scoring hits anymore. He blamed Phillips for the mess, not the revelation of his marriage or the changing of public tastes. With more reason, he also resented Phillips for leading him into signing a sub-minimum-wage, five-year extension on his recording contract the year before when everyone felt like a vindicated genius. Jerry Lee and Sam were going to be stuck with each other until 1963 no matter how much either of them felt betrayed by the other. Unofficial blacklist or not, they had to try to make some commercial noise.
This night's session was somewhat tentative, as Jerry Lee was playing with Bill Justis's stage band rather than musicians with whom he shared a history, with the notable exception of drummer Van Eaton. Only one cut from the lengthy March 22 session was released before the dawn of the reissue age, perhaps because Sam sensed that Jerry Lee worked best with the people he knew best. By now it was nearly obligatory to include a Hank Williams song at a session, and this afternoon it was "I Could Never Be Ashamed of You." It was characterized by a prancing solo and Jerry Lee's inability or refusal to pronounce perhaps. He said "prehaps." A plodding rhythm kept this particular performance stuck in the starting gate. "Near You" was a slight limbering-up instrumental, not without its charms or opportunities for Jerry Lee to show off.
This was Jerry Lee's fiftieth session for his record label, and he was still intent on showing off before he did anything else. Phillips and Clement preserved these moments because they were fans, but even the dedicated must have tired of such practices after half a hundred dates. Jerry Lee showed off to amuse himself, he showed off to relieve the tension and repetitiveness of take after take of the same song, he showed off to entertain, he showed off to remind people that he was the Killer. But he showed off all the time. His career-long refusal to get through a session without doing this--the staff at the Memphis Recording Service the nights of the "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" sessions can attest to the enduring nature of the practice--was the only part of the Killer persona that was a bluff. Bravado is what men employ to hide their insecurities. Jerry Lee showed off all the time because he was afraid that he might not be any good. He didn't need to remind everyone else that he was the Killer; he needed to remind himself.
Now that the hits were apparently over and his marriage was reduced to one hurt after another, Jerry Lee got his validation only from himself and whatever audience was starting to see him again when he played live. He was used to making do with little. Back in his childhood, horrific economic conditions had been exacerbated by the New Deal that was invented to alleviate them. The South had 28 percent of the country's population in the thirties but received less than 16 percent of dispersed federal aid.
Although the Cadillac-and-motorcycle life had been thrilling, Jerry Lee was used to making do with little. How did he make do? By entertaining himself and reassuring himself. In that way, the Killer who recorded "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" in 1990 was not far removed from the kid who banged out "Silent Night" on his uncle's upright. He wanted to prove to himself that he was worthy of special treatment; he wanted deliverance from his trials. The only places Jerry Lee could roam free without fear were in the studio and onstage. There he could consistently earn approval.
Other songs recorded between show-off moves at the March 22 session were "Hillbilly Music," a spirited performance of a mediocre country-rocker that Jerry Lee elevated to a statement of purpose. It was the one song that session in which Justis's stalwarts, particularly guitarist Brad Suggs, were able to keep up with Jerry Lee. Alas, the song faded out, so listeners could not enjoy the bang with which it inevitably concluded. Many attempts were made at covering the Fats Domino hit "My Blue Heaven," in which flourish-filled piano lines were not contained by the sweet melody. After trying out several tempos, Jerry Lee suggested, "This'll be Jerry Lee Lewis style," and he rocked it out. His right hand wandered to the upper end of his eighty-eights, dancing on the edge to stop-and-start rhythms.
Sam Phillips could suffer through show-off episodes, but the prime reason he had Jerry Lee at 706 Union that night was to present him with a new Otis Blackwell composition written especially for him: "Let's Talk About Us." The teen-oriented love rocker moved along pleasantly enough, but it needed another kick to get over the cliff. Phillips suggested that when Jerry Lee finished his next string of dates, he should return to complete the number.
By the time Jerry Lee next recorded at Sun in late June, Phillips had fired Jack Clement and Bill Justis, ostensibly for insubordination. Ernie Barton supervised, and guitarists Roland Janes and Billy Riley were back in the fold. Again the point of the session was "Let's Talk About Us." Six takes into it, they scored a winner. The only problem was that even though Clement and Justis were gone, Phillips was still following their advice, heaping indifferent backup singers onto an already bursting track. As early as 1959 it was indisputable that the prime Jerry Lee tracks were those that were the least fussed over in post-production. The overdubs did not help; the single failed to enter any of the three Billboard singles charts.
Although few of the songs from the June sessions were initially intended for release, many of them were strong enough to convince Phillips otherwise. A cover of Chuck Berry's jailbait anthem, "Little Queenie," was definitive, the first of many Jerry Lee versions of Berry songs that would surpass their models. The studio echo enhanced the lecherous, conversational vocal; Jerry Lee was in control and enjoying his power, sexual and otherwise. The only weak spots in the mix were guitar interjections that did not add much that Jerry Lee's lead lines did not already imply, and the Killer's forgetting to play a piano solo. Roger Miller's "Home" was competent, bluesy country, but Jerry Lee seemed distracted. Much better was an amazingly graceful version of the Carter Family's "Can the Circle Be Unbroken," the archetypal God-believing country ballad. Much worse was a rare dud by Sam's current favorite, Charlie Rich, called "The Ballad of Billy Joe," maudlin midtempo country sung by a man about to be executed. It showed up on the B-Side of "Let's Talk About Us," fumbling through lyrics like, "I'll be hung tomorrow/Just because I had to kill that little rat." The song was much more appropriate for Johnny Cash than Jerry Lee. However, since the Man in Black had jumped ship for Columbia (and had recorded an extremely similar song called "Don't Take Your Guns to Town"), it fell on Jerry Lee's lap. Another Rich composition, "Sail Away" made more emotional sense, and Jerry Lee sang it as a duet with the writer, adding an extra overlay of resignation and yearning to an already fine tune. "Sail Away" should have replaced "The Ballad of Billy Jo" on the flip of "Let's Talk About Us."
"Am I to Be the One" was another duet, this time on a quality mild rocker. Both Jerry Lee and Rich's singing owed much to Atlantic rhythm-and-blues singers like the Coasters. On the basis of these two songs, someone should have suggested a Lewis/Rich duet album and begged Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce it. "Night Train to Memphis," a hit a generation previously for Roy Acuff, was masterfully executed as a spiritually contented rocker, an anticipatory antidote to Junior Parker's "Mystery Train" with a marvelous secular/gospel mixture, using phrases like "We're gonna sing hallelujah" and "We're gonna have a jubilee" to describe all sorts of sacred and profane activities. This was another example of Jerry Lee's mixing styles and coming up with something new and indefinable. Rounding out the session was "I'm the Guilty One," a cry-in-your-beer revenge ballad in which the revenge is on the self, tossed-off in great country style.
Cecil Scaife, Sun's promotion manager at the time, thought he knew how to get Jerry Lee out of his commercial doldrums. As he told Colin Escott, he wanted to change the Killer's image. "I wanted to get him out of typical rock-and-roll regalia," Scaife said. "Ivy League was in. I wanted him to get a crew cut. I wanted to hold a press conference where Jerry would announce that he was somewhat remorseful. He would take on an adult image. We discussed it for over an hour. Jerry was very polite and listened. He would nod every once in a while, but he kept looking at his watch. Finally, he shook it like it wasn't working, and he looked at his buddy across the table and said, 'What time is it?' The guy said, 'It's five before one," Jerry said, 'Oh! The double feature at the Strand starts in five minutes. It's Return of the Werewolf and The Bride of Frankenstein Meets Godzilla.' Then he jumped up and left the table. That was the last time we discussed Jerry's image."
First-rate performances like those on "Night Train to Memphis" and "I'm the Guilty One" were second nature to Jerry Lee, not much work at all. They reflected the way he thought. They were great, but neither was released until long after he had left the label. His promotion manager wanted to turn him into Pat Boone. No wonder he needed to show off so much.
* * *
Jerry Lee, peroxided hair not within six inches of crew cut length, did not get around to recording again until early 1960, by which time the studio at 706 Union had been abandoned in favor of a more modern setup at 639 Madison Avenue. It had a grand piano and a four-track recorder. Jerry Lee's first session there, produced by Charles Underwood, was a disaster. "The Wild Side of Life" was a Hank Thompson hit from 1952 that had become an immediate sexist-lament, honky-tonk standard. It seemed likely that Jerry Lee would put down a strong version, but from the opening note it was clear that Martin Willis's saxophone had no business being anywhere near this tune. The more elaborate instrumentation that its presence suggested made the song and Jerry Lee's loose performance sound more ordinary than they really were. "Billy Boy" was a rocker written by someone who didn't understand rock and roll, although Jerry Lee's howdy-doody solo and lines like "I'm a young cat/And I can't leave my mother" lifted it to borderline listenable. "My Bonnie" was an intermittently spirited standard that made a little more room for the saxophone.
A marathon session at the end of the month produced by Sam Phillips was much more rewarding—and about ten times as long. Neither Sam nor Jerry Lee had a clue what to do with a newfangled four-track recorder, but they both were well lubricated and not concerned with such esoterica. Jerry Lee kept explaining "Mexicali Rose," a breezy Bing Crosby song from 1938 that was a relic of the Killer's Ferriday radio-listening years, telling Phillips over and over why it was going to be a hit. He was supercharged. Even his talking before the tune was rhythmic and intense: "It's real slow and pretty/The whole thing/Real slow and pretty/Then it changes into the beat, man." The band started it at a sluggish tempo and Jerry Lee called it off.
"It's too slow!" Jerry Lee complained.
"It's no hit," Sam complained.
"Damn right, it's a hit," Jerry Lee said. "Just wait 'til I get through with it and I'll show you it's a hit."
A few minutes later, he blazed through a turbulent rock-and-roll version of "Mexicali Rose." The session moved along as swiftly and directly as the music. "Let's do some Newport jazz," Sam suggested, searching for any fad on which to capitalize, although Jerry Lee did not want to stop insisting that "Mexicali Rose" was a hit. Sam implored, "Let's cut this instrumental just for the thrill of it," and Jerry Lee played an interpretation of the Glenn Miller hit "In the Mood" that built up steam as the band, especially guitarist Janes, caught on to Jerry Lee's most subtle asides. "I might put out an instrumental record," Sam said afterward, thinking aloud. "Maybe something else? Call it the Jerry Lee Lewis Combo featuring Roland Janes." This was the cut they released credited to "The Hawk," rather than to Jerry Lee Lewis, but no one could hear its honky-tonk version of swing and not immediately know who the perpetrator was. For all his selfless loyalty to Jerry Lee, Janes did not get his credit.
Afternoon turned to evening, and dozens of versions of many more songs were thrown at the wall. "I Get the Blues When It Rains" was either dinner music or a soporific, depending on one's tastes; "Don't Drop It" was a persuasive barroom rocker with a weird lyrical conceit that compared love to glass; and Jerry Lee committed a pair of versions of Roy Acuff's "The Great Speckled Bird," a metaphorical tale about the steadfastness of Good against Evil that was extremely popular in Assembly of God churches. In fast and slow versions, Jerry Lee played both characters. The premier take of the song was preceded by Jerry Lee's instructions to the band, "Kinda slow, man, you know, not draggy but lively, you know, not lively but not too draggy." Whatever it sounded like, it was intended by Jerry Lee as a devout song to balance the session's frank pop.
"Bonnie B," later picked as a single, was a terrific teen-oriented rocker by Charles Underwood, although Sam should have known he could never sell many copies of a song in which Jerry Lee sang, "I would marry Bonnie B if I could," and then went on to explain that they could not marry because they were too young. A picture sleeve featuring a pajama-clad Myra holding a teddy bear would not have been more self-defeating. "Baby, Baby Bye Bye" was a spirited complaint tune that later had backup idiots grafted on it, as did a quietly country-rocking version of Stephen Foster's "Old Black Joe," which whitewashed the pre-industrialized South. Jerry Lee's frequent readings of Foster tunes suggested that the version of the South he accepted was the romanticized one, Lost Cause and all.
A fast take of Hank Williams's "I Can't Help It (If I'm Still in Love with You)" underlined Jerry Lee's usual trouble with Hank songs at anything significantly faster than the original tempo. Still, it was a good version, even if it was sung backwards: "You can't help it if you're still in love with me." A speedy "Your Cheatin' Heart" was somewhat more effective. "As Long As I Live," written by Dorsey Burnette, bassist for the Johnny Burnette Rock 'n' Roll Trio, was a driving, optimistic rocker with a country tinge and gospel chord changes. Although Jerry Lee suspected his record audience was gone for good, he never stopped entertaining himself. "Hound Dog" had a wild solo, and Jerry Lee could do a great version of this in his sleep.
As the session tumbled deeper into the evening, an agitated Phillips taunted Jerry Lee by claiming that the Killer "couldn't cover Ray Charles for shit." An argument of "Great Balls of Fire" proportions ensued. Some say it escalated to blows. Whatever happened, it resolved in an astonishing version of "What'd I Say" that made Charles's original fluent, uptempo gospel soul with a bang, sound tame. Sam conceded the point.
One final, wonderful performance from the session that did not see release until Ronald Reagan was president was a rock-and-roll song called, alternately, "Keep Your Hands Off of It" or "Birthday Cake." "What are you gonna do with this thing?" Jerry Lee laughed when he learned the words.
"I don't know," Sam said. "Take it out behind the barn and play it."
"Well that's the only place you're gonna be able to play it," Jerry said. "Here we go..."
He scampered through the song as though it were a mine field, dropping chords and running, investing the double-entendre lyrics with as much slyness as his rolling tongue would allow. Thirty years later, what remains most amazing about this performance is that, even though Jerry Lee knew that there was no chance that it was ever going to see the light of day, he still played it as ferociously as all but the greatest of his Sun recordings. It was not that Jerry Lee was desperate for a hit, although he was, it was that he thought anything was possible. His unbridled optimism about himself shone through in his work. Sam listened to the playback, put the tape in its box, wrote "HELP!" on the box, and filed it.
Standouts from the next session, in June, included "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes" by the late rhythm-and-blues master Chuck Willis, in which Martin Willis's finally appropriate saxophone emphasized the tune's New Orleans flavor and threw Jerry Lee's boisterous vocal into relief; a dirty excavation of W. C. Handy's gospel-blues "John Henry"; and another Chuck Willis tune, "C.C. Rider," which Jerry Lee interpreted as an emphatic, relaxed strut. A feverish instrumental called "Lewis Work-out" was perfectly self-descriptive. Less worthy was a tossed-away version of Cindy Walker's "When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again," in which Jerry Lee's voice sounded shot; it was probably attempted at the tail end of the mostly successful session.
* * *
It has been suggested that one of the reasons Jerry Lee had trouble finding another hit in his later years with Sun was that he was not much of a songwriter. But what about Elvis Presley, who never wrote a song in his life? It has also been suggested that pop music had moved away from rock and roll in the early sixties, leaving Jerry Lee the artistic equivalent of homeless. Radio was soft compared to 1956, but there was still room in 1960 for Elvis's "A Mess of Blues," Wanda Jackson's "Let's Have a Party," Fats Domino's "Natural Born Lover," Ray Charles's "Let the Good Times Roll," James Brown's "You Got the Power," and many more. The blacklist was a factor, but "What'd I Say" would soon prove that it was not impenetrable. Rather, what kept Jerry Lee off the charts after the shock of his marriage to Myra faded away was one of the aspects of Sun Records that made it great: its devotion to new talent, the flip side of which was a reliance on such performers. Sun was not constructed like a major label that could nurture long-term careers. Until Motown changed the rules in 1963, regional independent labels thrived on novelty, not familiarity. The major labels treated Sun like a Triple-A baseball team; it was built for people to develop and move on to the big time. By 1960 Jerry Lee was ready for new challenges and new ideas, but his contract insured he was with Phillips for three more years. Of the greatest Sun performers, Jerry Lee stayed with Sam by far the longest. By 1960 they still had a tremendous amount of common ground stylistically and still made wonderful records together, but any disinterested observer could have seen that Jerry Lee had outgrown Sun.
An October 13 session with a large band including two guitars, three horns, and a vocal group yielded nothing useful. "When I Get Paid" and "Love Made a Fool of Me" were pulled as singles and disappeared almost immediately. Both conformed to the bland norms of Nashville country. The next session actually took place in Nashville, a distressing development for those who believed Jerry Lee did his best work away from the influence of "hillbilly heaven."
Neither Phillips nor Jerry Lee was entirely satisfied with the January 1960 version of "What'd I Say" so they went at it again at their June session. They got closer, and at the end of the take, Phillips cheered. Recording in Nashville with countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill at the helm and crack session men at his side, Jerry Lee battled against the preconception that he would soften in such company and bested all previous versions of "What'd I Say." This time Jerry Lee was completely uninhibited, so much that even the overdubbed backup singers (brought in to remind listeners of Charles's Raelettes, who had accompanied the original hit) did not detract from his raving, shouting, and pleading. The only thing wrong with it was that it ended too soon. Jerry Lee hollered so loud he even made a dent in the blacklist: "What'd I Say" reached Number Twenty-seven country-and-western, Number Twenty-six rhythm-and-blues, and Number Thirty pop. It was not a smash, but it was a start. More important in the short run, it also helped Jerry Lee garner better bookings on the road.
Accompanying Jerry Lee on February 9, 1961, in Nashville were guitarists Hank Garland and Kelso Herston, bassist Bob Moore, and drummer Buddy Harman. They were the elite in Nashville session circles, and their other three tracks with Lewis that day showed both how sympathetic--and limiting--they could be. "Livin' Lovin' Wreck" was a teen-oriented Otis Blackwell tune, a vehicle that was starting to knock when Jerry Lee drove it. The performance was good, but it was also polite. Those looking toward the future noticed that if he wanted to, Jerry Lee could thrive in any environment, even one populated by bona fide session musicians. On Hank Williams's "Cold Cold Heart," a number Thirty-six country hit, the problem was not so much the size of the accompaniment or the backup singers as it was the insistence of drummer Harman and bassist Moore to place repetitive, passion-free rhythms onto the tunes. Being a Hank tune guaranteed that Jerry Lee would sing "Cold Cold Heart" with passion and brains, but his piano was buried in the mix except when he was soloing, and the "clean" recording had no use for the Sun echo that served Jerry Lee's voice so well. "I Forgot to Remember to Forget" was forgettable.
Desperation being the rule, everyone at Sun and in the Lewis family was so thrilled that "What'd I Say" had hit that they insisted on repeating its recording method for Jerry Lee's next recording session on June 12. It was recorded in the same city, in the same studio, with the same players and the same producer. Again the results were artistically mixed; this time they were also commercially negligible. "C.C. Rider" was far inferior to the version of a year earlier, mostly because of the overblown accompaniment. The midtempo beat selected for Leon Payne's "I Love You Because" was nonsensical, as the song was built as a slow ballad. Again, Jerry Lee failed to top Elvis on a song they had both recorded. A take on the beautiful Drivers hit "Save the Last Dance for Me" was better than 90 percent of what was coming out of Nashville at the time, but it seemed indifferent: Jerry Lee's approach did not have much in common with New York songwriters, even superb ones like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. The session's sacrificial lamb, for instance, the single, was "It Won't Happen with Me," an ego-boosting song that brought Jerry Lee's piano and vocals into the open. It was energetic in spite of drummer Harman's puzzling decision that hitting cymbals hard meant rocking out.
Two days later Jerry Lee was back in Memphis at the Madison Avenue studio. Johnny ("Ace") Cannon's all-over-the-place saxophone ruined most of what it touched, but a few tracks survived the encounter. The whole session was bizarre. Fats Domino's "Hello Josephine (My Girl Josephine)" faded out precisely at the moment it got interesting. "High Powered Woman" by the bluesman Sonny Terry was a harshly performed woman-fearing rocker, and "Sweet Little Sixteen" was propulsive enough, but it was several rungs below Jerry Lee's finest Chuck Berry recastings.
The remaining 1961 session, on September 21 in Nashville with the same cast, including seven horns, that had botched the previous date, was slightly more successful. "Ramblin' Rose" kicked up some swamp-rock mud, and those who listened hard could ferret through the overorchestrated sound and find Jerry Lee trying to summon up blues feeling and commitment in the midst of people who did not share such interests. Barrett Strong's "Money" was a highlight of Jerry Lee's stage shows, but here the horns and vocalists stuck a pin into the song. Carl Mann's "Rockin' the Boat of Love" was a seaworthy pop exercise. It had some expansive singing by Jerry Lee, but the backup la-las annoyed as usual, though bassist Moore did a good job of anticipating and doubling Jerry Lee's left hand. "Ramblin' Rose" was the track picked for a single, and it sank. All these Nashville performances were tasty, professional, mannered. Except for "What'd I Say," none of them was wild. In 1961 Jerry Lee songs that were not wild were not worth hearing.
Jerry Lee began his penultimate year at Sun with a weirdo novelty session in Memphis under Sam Phillips's direction. Although the fine drummer Al Jackson was brought in for the date, desperation still called the shots. Chubby Checker's "The Twist" was the inescapable hit of the day, and Sam insisted on trying to cash in. Sun bluesman Junior Parker's "Feelin Good" was the basis for "I've Been Twistin'," which featured elastic, open-air guitar by Roland Janes. The conversational shaggy-dog tale was fun no matter how opportunistic and twisted this cut was. Higher up on the psychotic scale was "Whole Lotta Twistin' Goin' On." Two other unjustly forgotten songs that emerged from this session were a Stan Kesler country ballad, "I Know What It Means," that suggested a Memphis spaghetti western (pre-Ennio Morricone), and a resilient "High Powered Woman" that crushed the Nashville attempt at the tune. A June 5 session yielded nothing except "Set My Mind at Ease," a tough blues, and a lovely take of Jimmie Rodgers's "Waiting for a Train," a defiant song of life on the grift that Jerry Lee always considered one of the Singing Brakeman's greatest.
By mid-1962, Jerry Lee's career was back on an upturn. He and his long hair returned triumphantly to England, where it seemed that everyone either idolized him or apologized to him for what had happened last time. But just as his professional life began to settle, his personal life was once again visited by tragedy. On Easter morning, Steve Allen Lewis wandered into the family pool and drowned. He was three years old. Jerry Lee told many around him that he was convinced the Lord was punishing him for not being a good enough or holy enough family man. Privately he blamed Myra, for no good reason. By the end of the year, Myra was pregnant with a daughter, Phoebe.
In the next year sessions were few, two in Memphis and one in Nashville, and not particularly productive. J. W. Brown returned for one, which may have made it easier for Jerry Lee to go through with it. In spite of everything, some of those recordings have lasted. A smoldering reinvention of "Be Bop a Lula" anticipated Stax more than it celebrated the Gene Vincent rockabilly standard; it was the rare rockabilly cut that looked forward. "Teenage Letter," familiar to Jerry Lee in a version by Big Joe Turner, a shouting bluesman, offered Jerry Lee an opportunity to invent some lyrics that he could really lay into: 'I need it/I gotta have it/I love you baby/I'm gonna prove it in my own way." Undoubtedly the worst of the Memphis tracks was "Seasons of My Heart," a grating duet with little sister Linda Gail.
The main reason that Linda Gail was featured on a Jerry Lee Lewis record was that Sam Phillips wanted to keep making Jerry Lee records, and he figured a little nepotism might tip the scales. The Killer's contract was up on September 1, and Phillips did everything he could think of, except offer him much more money, to keep Jerry Lee, his last great performer, in his dwindling stable. But Jerry Lee had had enough, and he signed with Smash Records. So Sam did with Jerry Lee as he had with Johnny Cash half a decade before: he booked last-minute contractually obligated sessions in case the departed scored a hit on his new label. For these last Sun sessions, on August 27 and 28, 1963, Phillips decided to try something different: a string section. Big production had taken over country and pop, and Sam figured he would try to master yet another style.
None of the songs recorded in those last sessions ranked with Jerry Lee's greatest for the label, but they did suggest the future. A song like "Your Lovin' Ways" cannily anticipated what Jerry Lee would sound like five years down the road when he returned to country-and-western chart prominence. Some of the songs were weird. Hoagy Carmichael's "Hong Kong Blues" was given the new lyrics: "I'd rather be back in San Francisco/Wearing blue suede shoes." However, "One Minute Past Eternity," "Invitation to Your Party" (with its key rhyme with the title "I'm not conceited or a smartie"), "I Can't Seem to Say Goodbye," and "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia" were exemplars of how to go big-production and still keep things relatively soulful. Thanks to the backup singers, it was easy to hate some of the songs even before Jerry Lee started singing, but he sang with an adult mix of regret, assurance, and defiance. He took uptown and brought it down-home. No one knew it at the time, but he was on to something.
The world had changed drastically since Jerry Lee had recorded "Crazy Arms," and no one could argue that the 1963 versions of both Jerry Lee and rock and roll were not in important ways inferior to what they were in 1956. But on "Carry Me Back to Old Virginia," a song that mirrored Jerry Lee's own ideas of what it meant to be a Southerner, his tough solo cut through the walls of sound around it and argued, for the last time under Sam Phillips's tutelage, he would never, ever, be tamed.