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Chapter 5: Something Has to Stick
Last night I dreamed I made it to the promised land,
I was standin' at the gate and I had the key in my hand.
Saint Peter said, Come on in boy, you're finally home,"
I said, "No thanks Pete, I'll just be movin' along." -- Steve Earle, "I Ain't Ever Satisfied"
Jerry Lee signed with Smash Records in September 1963, a few days after his daughter, Phoebe, was born, and he received an advance against royalties of fifty thousand dollars. He had been courted by Shelby Singleton, vice president of Mercury Records in charge of its Smash subsidiary, who had been looking for an act with marquee value; he went after Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee, and eventually he snared them both.
"He hadn't had a hit in a long time," Singleton said of the latter, "but Jerry Lee was still Jerry Lee. He still had the talent. I knew I could sell him better than Sam [Phillips] because what I had was a promotion machine. Sam had practically gotten out of the business. I had distribution, plus I had international distribution. I had major bucks behind me."
The legend of Sun is a worthy one, even if it has been overromanticized, but Singleton had a point. A fan, he knew that Jerry Lee made some marvelous records after the hits stopped and that even if there had not been a scandal, Phillips would have had trouble working them on anything within ten steps of an equal footing with the major labels. As the pop-music market increased, major labels moved to increase market shares. Memphis independents like Sun and Goldwax did not have much of a chance to break their artists on the pop charts. Another great Memphis label, Stax, saw the writing on the wall, signed with Atlantic, and thrived.
Unaware of the final Sun recordings, Singleton had a plan to restore Jerry Lee. "The first thing I did with acts that I signed in those years who had had hit records is I immediately went into the studio and I cut a greatest hits album," he explained. "That way, because of the lack of availability of the other product in the marketplace, a greatest hits album would recoup whatever advance I gave him, plus it gave me working capital to work on new product."
Such rerecordings by former hit makers on a new label are a long-standing pop-music tradition, but the frequency of the move did not make it any less misleading, especially when the result was an album called The Golden Rock Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis. Still, the Sun rerecordings cut in late September with Singleton producing were overarranged, but not wholly without merit. You can't go home again, but sometimes it is pleasant to briefly visit the old neighborhood. Jerry Lee was encouraged to sing in a more mannered style than was natural for him, very different from the way he was singing those songs onstage at the time; and manners made a remake of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" wholly gratuitous.
The female backing singers and the saxophone did not help matters any. The performance was acceptable but not remotely turbulent; the biggest problem was the engineer's inability to echo Jerry Lee's voice consistently. Other Sun songs that got the good-but-not-inspired treatment were "Crazy Arms," "Great Balls of Fire," "High School Confidential," "I'll Make It All Up to You," "Down the Line," "Breathless," "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee," "Fools Like Me," "End of the Road," and a trio of Hank Williams cuts, "Your Cheatin' Heart," "You Win Again," and "Wedding Bells."
Even strings could not prevent Jerry Lee from flourishing when singing Hank Williams ballads. The arrangements were not significantly different from those on his eventual late-sixties hits, which made it puzzling that they were not released as singles in 1963. Even more puzzling was that they were placed on a record titled Golden Rock Hits. Of the Sun remakes, those that best handled the transition to the more cluttered arrangements were a speedy "Johnny B. Goode" and an unruly "Break Up" that would have come within hollering distance of the original had the backup singers been given a few minutes off. Golden Rock Hits was the first Jerry Lee album to squeeze onto Billboard's LP charts, though not for long. It got only as high as Number 116 before it faded away.
Other recordings from the two-day session evidenced that Singleton was not sure what to do with Jerry Lee after having his new charge regurgitate past triumphs; and Jerry Lee was not providing him any clues. Unlike the try-anything approach at Sun, which was usually a result of broad interests and unfettered ambition, the catholic recordings of Jerry Lee's first Smash sessions seemed a result of random hunches. Some of the performances were very good, but they did not add up as a whole, something essential as the album market had become more lucrative. Several passes at "Hit the Road, Jack," based on Ray Charles's live version, found Jerry Lee trying to replicate his "What'd I Say," with a fine rhythmic blues-flavored solo. "Just Because," a Shelton Brothers tune recorded by Elvis at Sun, was a provocative raveup that Jerry Lee elevated to a vivid putdown.
Less vital tracks from the sessions included a truly awful song Jerry Lee wrote called "He Took It Like a Man," a not-at-all solemn retelling of John the Baptist's beheading in which he referred to the martyr as "Ole Johnny." Jerry Lee was not trying to be funny; for him it was natural to convey a religious icon's fate as relaxedly as he would tell that of Frankie and Johnny. The semihit from the sessions was Eddie Kilroy's "Pen and Paper," a workaday country ballad found on the flip of the nonhit "Hit the Road, Jack" single. A much better choice for a single was "The Hole He Said He'd Dig For Me," a bitter Charlie Rich-style country tune that built a worthy bridge between Jerry Lee's bare-bone Sun country and his more elaborate Smash version.
By the time Jerry Lee next recorded for Singleton, on February 14, 1964, the world had changed. A rock quartet from Liverpool, England, had forever altered how rock and roll would be assimilated, and the assassination of John Kennedy had irrevocably modified the nation's view of itself. Freedom from bland radio had arrived in the persons of John, Paul, George, and Ringo; considering what had happened in Dallas and how deeply it shook people, especially in the South and Southwest, where anger was augmented by guilt and denial, the release could not have come at a more propitious moment. Some might even claim that the miseries in the United States in early 1964 were necessary for the blitzkrieg rise of the mop-tops. Whatever the cause, the ante had been raised, and Jerry Lee had to respond to it.
And what a response it was. "I'm on Fire" only reached Number Ninety-eight on the Billboard pop chart before it retreated to obscurity after a week; but if radio programmers had been willing to listen, it would have enlivened the few spots on their playlists not held by Beatles tunes. "I'm on Fire" was the first time Jerry Lee's brand of elemental rock and roll made sense in this more orchestrated context, referring to Sun triumphs without merely restating them. He had finally figured out how to make a big band rock. "She Was My Baby (He Was My Friend)," recorded the same day, was an ingratiating teen-oriented pop track with a Coasters feel; "Bread and Butter Man" was uptempo country pop with an insistent vocal and a touch of blues; and "I Bet You're Gonna Like It" was a speedy big-production number about the obvious subject.
Decades later, it remains foggy whether the blacklist was a real one or just an excuse. One Mercury executive of the time said eighteen years later, "We had to blame it on something, didn't we? We couldn't say that we were the problem." Nonetheless, it is not hard to imagine that only a conspiracy could have kept off the radio performances this sturdy by a man with a history of million sellers.
Jerry Lee did not enter a recording studio again for another year because his touring schedule was so grueling. In that time he reconquered Europe in a tour backed by the Nashville Teens, and he recorded two of the greatest live albums in the history of American popular music.
On April 5, 1964, Jerry Lee played at the Star-Club in Reeperbahn, Hamburg, a performance preserved on a Europe-only LP entitled, imaginatively, Live at the Star-Club. Listening to the set for about ten seconds makes one want to send a nasty letter to Sam Phillips for not recording any onstage Jerry Lee performances during his Sun years. (In Sam's defense, live albums were not the sure-fire profit-takers they are today.) Before he began his first song Jerry Lee rolled his l's; he did not wait for the opening number to start performing. The kick-off tune, "Mean Woman Blues," was leery, malicious, ferocious, frenetic, everything Jerry Lee's blues-soaked version of rock and roll offered or implied. An exhilarating "High School Confidential" climaxed in a tense piano solo, and "Money" went far beyond the recorded version. Sultry, primitive, demanding, Jerry Lee ignored the band and wrenched all he could from the ugly truths at the song's center. The breakdown before the final charge featured some defiant scatting in which Jerry Lee said everything that needed to be conveyed in wordless taunts that no one could have misunderstood. "Matchbox" was his first attempt at a Carl Perkins performance that exceeded the model. Jerry Lee defined the tune as an agreeable strut and was so taken by himself that he kept soloing through the guitar interlude and derived extra pleasure from singing, "If you don't like my peaches/Please don't shake my tree."
"What'd I Say" at the Star-Club was one of the three or four most amazing performances of Jerry Lee's career, from its far-ranging piano introduction through some screaming that took in a lifetime's worth of disappointment and frustration, into an extended coda that was at once both generous and sleazy. "Down the Line" maintained the scorching pace with a strong, rough delivery of lines like, "I'm gonna do right 'cause I was meant to do right/And you'd better believe that Jerry Lee is gonna do right."
"Jerry! Jerry!" the audience chanted; the object of their affection took up the chant; and everyone jumped into a "Great Balls of Fire" that should have set off the smoke detectors, Jerry Lee's eternal argument setting off explosions at every turn. "Good Golly Miss Molly" was a raucous Little Richard evocation, wilder even than Little Richard, and "Lewis Boogie" was an ideal, implosive pumping-piano showcase, marvelous tension implied by the band's heated attempt to keep up with the Killer. "Your Cheatin' Heart" brought the tempo down, but Jerry Lee's flexible solo and soulful singing kept the proceedings intense, as did a rough, very fast "Hound Dog." "Long Tall Sally" was another Little Richard number characterized by all sorts of yelling, both vocally and instrumentally, and Jerry Lee scorched with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." Live at the Star-Club documented an extraordinary performance, even if only Jerry Lee's European fans had easy access to the recording.
American audiences were also extremely well served. A July 1, 1964, concert at the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, was the basis for the album The Greatest Live Show on Earth. There was some duplication with the Star-Club set--four songs--but this was a wholly different act. The audience was not so boisterous as that at the Star-Club, but Jerry Lee made up for it. Little Richard's "Jenny Jenny" provided the show with a propulsive, auspicious opening salvo, and it rolled into a self-involved rap (what did Jerry Lee mean by "Talk about it one time, yeah"?) that resolved into Charlie Rich's "Who Will the Next Fool Be?" A heartbreak-country tune, it was intended to alert his audience that this show would have a wide agenda, that Jerry Lee would do everything. Chuck Berry's "Memphis" was preceded by a warning to the band, "If we can get it right this time." It moved words across verses until the story of the lyrics was overwhelmed by the story told in the ivories. On "Hound Dog" and "Mean Woman Blues," all flying hands from Jerry Lee and high-pitched screams from the audience, even those listening to the record at home could feel the set building. The single culled from the show was a bluesy take of Robert Higginbotham's "Hi-Heel Sneakers," a strut enlivened by unison clapping from the crowd and the tension between Jerry Lee's desire to take the song dirty and his responsibility to keep it radio safe. "No Particular Place to Go," prefaced by humble comments regarding writer Chuck Berry (Jerry Lee had mellowed since their confrontation), offered a fine stuttering solo and some sympathetic accompaniment from his new road band, the Memphis Beats.
"Honey, I'll tell you one thing," Jerry Lee said between breaths after the song. "It's gonna get real good in a minute. If it gets much better than this, I won't be able to stand it. Rrrrrr ... I'm the kinda cat I might do a blues tune one minute than turn right around and do a country tune." After having defined himself with the precision of a haiku, he leaned into the wistful Buck Owens ballad "Together Again," a slab of hard, hard country with wry piano flourishes.
Jerry Lee was in the mood to talk. He spoke lovingly of Little Richard when introducing "a little groovy tune we hope you'll enjoy. Grrrrr. "Shake it, shake it, Long Tall Sally." This soul-man version spit out even more sparks than it had at Hamburg. As expected, but still appreciated, the set climaxed with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," complete with a spirited extended rap during which he directed his audience to shake "Not a whole lot/Just a little."
Some of this enthusiasm worked its way into Jerry Lee's next studio dates in January 1965, produced by Singleton and Jerry Kennedy. The first released recording from the sessions, Big John Greer's rhythm-and-blues hit "Got You on My Mind," was presented as midtempo country and was in every way less encumbered than the February 1964 sessions, perhaps because of the success of the live tapings: The Greatest Live Show on Earth had ventured forty-five slots higher on Billboard's LP chart than Golden Rock Hits. "Mathilda" was a similar song executed with a similar feel, marked by an affecting, rhythmic solo. Jerry Lee breezed through a pleasant, brisk "Corrine, Corrina," a blues standard that had been resurrected by Big Joe Turner. Two songs he previously recorded at Sun, Hank Ballard's "Sexy Ways" and Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life," were the equal of their predecessors; and another Joe Turner number, "Flip, Flop, and Fly," rocked hard behind wry lines like "Gimme a kiss and hold it a long, long time." "Herman the Hermit" was a peculiar rocker, chock full of wonderfully bad rhymes ("hermit"/"permit") in which Jerry Lee sounded nothing so much as bemused.
The sessions were not all grand. The Roy Hamilton soft-rhythm-and-blues hit, "Don't Let Go," a song Jerry Lee returned to many times subsequently, received the standard Nashville-session treatment; the Chuck Berry covers "Maybelline" and "Roll Over Beethoven" were time-killers; and "Baby Hold Me Close," a song written in the studio that Jerry Lee performed the next month on the television show "Shindig," was derivative, though not charmless, with a fine spoken intro and a semispoken last verse. "Skid Row" was average country with some self-pity where regret was supposed to be. By the end of the session, the two outstanding live albums had been forgotten. Jerry Lee was not strong enough at this time in his life to wrest control of his recordings from his producers, and his producers' power was exceeded only by their indecisiveness.
* * *
Those sessions set the pattern for the next two years of studio work, until Jerry Kennedy replaced Shelby Singleton as Jerry Lee's primary producer: some rock, some blues, some country, and occasionally a whole lotta nothin' going on. Because albums had become more important, both on their own and, strangely, as marketing tools for the less expensive single records, they had to cohere better than the slapped-together early rock-and-roll LPs of the fifties. The long-player market in 1965 was only beginning to reach sophistication. It was the year of the Beatles' Help! And Rubber Soul, the Rolling Stones' Out of Our Heads and December's Children (and everybody's), and Bob Dylan's Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Albums now existed as more than a dumping ground for collected singles and odd tracks. Jerry Lee could not compete with the new rock-and-roll leaders on their terms, although one wonders what Jerry Lee could have done with a modern sound like Dylan's "Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?" or "If You Gotta Go, Go Now," and his session-man cronies did not keep up with the latest musical developments north of Nashville. Jerry Lee was never one to think about more than one song at a time, making it difficult for him to think in terms of albums. As a result, he cut tracks solely until someone told him he had succeeded. What characterizes these sessions more than anything else? No advance planning, not even any that facilitated spontaneity.
The sessions, most of them in Nashville, were not exactly geared for coherence. "As far as the studio went," Singleton said, "the only thing Jerry Lee and I argued about was his bringing all his kinfolks to the sessions. He used to bring his cousins, his momma and daddy, his sisters. There'd be about thirteen of them in the control room while I was trying to make a record. He'd always ask what they thought about the record. He didn't give a damn what the musicians felt or I felt about it." Outside the studio, they argued about everything. Singleton once had to bribe Jerry Lee with a hunting rifle to get him to play some already-booked dates in Alaska. Shelby said to use it to hunt Kodiak bears.
A rare New York City session, while Jerry Lee was in town for a TV show, yielded little more than a moderately funky attack on Huey ("Piano") Smith's second-line anthem "Rockin' Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu" and the awful "Seasons of My Heart." The latter was the song that he had recorded toward the end of this Sun period with Linda Gail and featured the spectacle of hearing Jerry Lee on harpsichord. Logistical convenience notwithstanding, it was foolish for Smash to think that Jerry Lee would thrive one thousand miles northeast of home.
Pop music is recorded for the most part in studios in and around major cities. Country music is by definition rural, although by the mid-sixties the shock felt by rural musicians and songwriters when they moved to Nashville had become country music's prime topic. By 1965, country had lost its "and western" suffix, because the idea of the frontier inherent in "and western" had disappeared. There were still many areas of the South that did not look significantly different from their pre-New Deal selves, but it was harder to find anyone who subscribed to the idea of areas of the South as rural refuges. Nearly everyone had a radio, the vast majority of white families had televisions, and interstate highways cut through even unpopulated areas. People were connected in new ways, which led to new sorts of dislocation when they had to function as usual in untested geographic areas. Jerry Lee's move from Ferriday to Memphis in 1956 was an upheaval from which he had never recovered, and the Memphis boy in him had trouble accommodating to Nashville studio rules. In big city New York without his regular players, he might as well have been on Mars.
Somewhat more rewarding was a Labor Day weekend blowout in Nashville. There were some duds, two sloppy duets with Linda Gail, an ashy "Ring of Fire" complete with a sub-mariachi band, and a drippy "Green Green Grass of Home." But the high points of the session, mostly forgotten, were the heartfelt Bill Anderson ballad "City Lights," a thrilling and involved version of Willie Nelson's "Funny How Time Slips Away," and a wise take on Roger Miller's later oft-covered but then brand-new "King of the Road."
Jerry Lee toured extensively in the year that followed and did not want to travel two hundred miles just to record, so Smash frequently cut him at the familiar Phillips Studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis. After the Labor Day 1965 dates, Jerry Lee did not record again in Nashville until August 1967. Those two years were strong ones in terms of road work; but, except for a fair of weak-charting long-players, he did not enjoy any commercial success with his recordings.
A two-day session in Memphis in January 1966 was produced by Sun's Jack Clement and featured Jerry Lee's touring band, the Memphis Beats, which should have meant that it yielded great recordings. It did not, because the material was eccentric, ill-conceived, and random. Clement should have known that he was in trouble when Jerry Lee, whose songwriting acumen was not one of his strong suits, showed up with three songs he had composed. "What a Heck of a Mess" was a fair hard-country tale about divorce. Most interesting about it was that Hank Williams, Jr., recorded it, a rare cover of a Jerry Lee-penned tune, perhaps as a thank-you gesture to Jerry Lee for recording so many songs written and/or performed by Bocephus's father. For whatever reason, the cover completed a circle. "Rockin' Jerry Lee" was a messy autobiography; Jerry Lee was more vital when he was rockin' than when he talked about rockin'.
"Lincoln Limousine" was something else, the strangest song Jerry Lee ever recorded. Smash's liner notes called it a "touching eulogy to the late President Kennedy," but this belated tribute gave no indication that Jerry Lee knew of anything JFK did before he ventured to Dallas. However, recent revelations suggest that the Killer may have had more in common with the murdered president than he realized at the time. The song was so dreadful it may have served as a model for the Elvis tribute singles of late 1977. The lyric line, "It goes to show you never know who's your enemy or your friend," was typically baffling and is recommended to any remaining conspiracy theorists.
Other songs were less bizarre; they were also less notable. "Sticks and Stones" was a Titus Turner song that brought Jerry Lee back to Ray Charles territory. "Memphis Beat" was a moderately stimulating extrapolation of Chuck Berry's vastly superior "Memphis," "The Urge" was hefty, gnarled country-rock, and the George Jones smash ballad "She Thinks I Still Care" responded extremely well to the spare sound Clement constructed for it. When Jerry Lee was given the room he needed, he was unstoppable. On the other hand, he was also beginning to cover songs written by his longtime drinking buddies. Cecil Harrelson's "Whenever You're Ready" accomplished nothing musically, although Murray Silver maintained that it did help Cecil become Linda Gail Lewis's fourth husband.
Shelby Singleton drove into Memphis for a July session that coughed up inferior versions of four songs: one mediocre ("Memphis Beat"), one a notch higher ("Twenty-four Hours a Day"), and two serviceable country performances destroyed by strings (Merle Haggard's "Swinging Doors" and Paul Selph's "If I Had It All to Do Over"). These songs, intended for the Memphis Beat long-player, were recorded at Roland Janes's studio. The rehearsal versions were far superior and in some cases were the takes that were used on the album.
Shelby Singleton had been extremely pleased with the relative commercial success of The Greatest Live Show on Earth, so he recorded an August 20, 1966 concert at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, and called the ostensible sequel By Request: More of the Greatest Live Show on Earth. The show was not as consistently mesmerizing as the twin 1964 triumphs in Hamburg and Birmingham, but it offered many great moments, both in song (Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" was one long ogle) and when Jerry Lee addressed specific women in the crowd between songs ("Honey, don't worry about the blonde hair"; and "I'm the kind of guy that always likes to give the great artists what they've got coming to 'em").
Although there were many fine rock-and-roll performances in the set, Jerry Lee caused the most commotion with his deep, pleading country performances, a portent of things to come: "You Win Again," "How's My Ex Treating You?" "Crying Time" (drawn more from the Ray Charles cover version than the Buck Owens original), "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," and "Green Green Grass of Home." These songs sounded remarkable with only small-band accompaniment, and Singleton obviously had an affinity for the live shows. If he had stayed with Jerry Lee, he might have directed his charge to a sparer sound that still made commercial sense. But by the end of the year Singleton left Mercury to start his own company, and Jerry Kennedy was assigned as Jerry Lee's producer.
Jerry Lee's first two sessions under Kennedy, on May 9 and August 7, 1967, were disasters that for the most part did not serve as the logical prelude for the next year's breakthrough. "Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In)," a Mickey Newbury song, was later recorded by Kenny Rogers, who deserved it. Four cover versions of sizeable hits ran the gamut from pointless (Roy Orbison's uncoverable "Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)" and Bruce Channel's inappropriate "Hey Baby") to good and harsh (Roy Head's "Treat Her Right" and Bobby ("Blue") Bland's "Turn on Your Lovelight"). Not unexpectedly, the nadir of the sessions was the boast-bloated "Shotgun," in which nonsongwriter Cecil Harrelson struck again. The kindest evaluation of the tune was that it was not as hopeless as "Whenever You're Ready." But the truth was that the next song Jerry Lee recorded, a radio commercial for Coca-Cola, sported better lyrics.
By January 1968 Eddie Kilroy and Jerry Kennedy had decided that contemporary country was the only way Jerry Lee could return to a prominence befitting his talent. They said he was too old to be a rock-and-roll star. (To place matters in perspective, some industry professionals were worrying whether the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were too old to rock.) Jerry Lee and the music industry were different enough in 1968 from what they had been a decade before that country seemed a likely gambit. As Shelby Singleton put it, "Country radio changed. Country acts used to try to cross over into the pop field. Now the opposite was happening. The disc jockeys were ex-rock-and-roll disc jockeys. Charlie Rich, who everybody thought of as a rockabilly, had started to get country play. Conway Twitty was another one. He was a rock act who all of a sudden was classified country even though the music was basically the same. It was time for a change. Jerry [Kennedy] cut Jerry Lee on more country than I did. I wanted to cut him pop. I wanted to sell him a million records, not a hundred thousand." Kennedy's sights were lower than Singleton's, but he was to score far more direct hits.
Many aging rockers from the South ("aging" usually meant pushing thirty) turned to country music as their appearances and interests had less and less in common with pop's teen audience. The trick was to say something like, "Forget that rock and roll. This is what I wanted to do all along. Really. Please take me back." Often the gambit worked; occasionally it was also sincere.
More than any other form of American pop music, country music is about family and community. The country audience expects its favored performers to be family members, and most families have a prodigal son or daughter. By accepting performers, country fans make their collective family whole. Kilroy and Kennedy knew that for Jerry Lee to make a dent in the country charts, he had only to ask to become part of the family again. All would be forgiven.
Three songs were recorded at that January session, with participants disagreeing whether Kilroy or Kennedy helmed the date. Nevertheless, they were all soaked in country genius in every stage, from song selection to mixing. Something significant had changed: the backing vocals were more controlled and Jerry Lee's voice, comfortable with echo, sounded more at ease and lived-in. Three top-drawer dissections of fractured romance, "All the Good is Gone," Jerry Chesnut's "Another Place, Another Time," and Ernest Tubb's "Walking the Floor Over You," brought Jerry Lee back-up-to-date in country as surely as Elvis Presley's NBC-TV special the same year made the long-lost Hillbilly Cat relevant again. Jerry Lee's singing was as pure as George Jones's, as direct as Buck Owens's, and as deep as Merle Haggard's. For the first extended time in a studio since he left Sun, Jerry Lee was completely in control and in his element. The chosen market responded. The single "Another Place, Another Time" reached Number Four on the Billboard country charts, his highest-charting country-and-western single in a full decade. It crossed over to the bottom half of the pop chart, where it was his highest-charting entry since "What'd I Say" in 1961. Jerry Lee knew all along that he was a star; now at least the country-music establishment finally agreed with him again.
In a typical move, the first thing Jerry Lee did after he had salvaged his country career was to do something completely different, in this case Shakespeare. Jack Good, producer of the TV pop show "Shindig" that had featured the Killer during his early-sixties shuffle through the wilderness, imagined a rock-and-roll version of Othello and had long ago talked Jerry Lee into playing the lead heavy, Iago, in the Centre Theatre Group production. Jerry Lee grew an evil-looking moustache and goatee and took the gig very seriously. He learned his part by taping himself reading the entire play, minus Iago's lines, and listening and responding to the tape incessantly while on tour.
"Iago really puts out some words in this thing, Jerry Lee told Calendar reporter Pete Johnson. "I never knew there were so many words. Shakespeare was really something. I wonder what he would have thought of my records."
With a microphone before him a few days before the show opened, Jerry Lee knew what to do. "I think," he announced, "the generation today who don't know much about stage plays will come here and enjoy it. They'd be out of their minds if they didn't. It has everything--rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country and western, serious acting, comedy, drama, everything."
The show ran six weeks and took in half a million dollars from people who were curious to hear Jerry Lee deliver lines like "Shake it and break it and wrap it up and take it!" and, upon seeing the corpse of a buddy, "Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo!" Most critics responded kindly to Jerry Lee and almost as warmly to the entire production. But Catch My Soul was not all camp. The audio tapes of the event that have survived indicate that Jerry Lee was truly committed to his part, trying to wrench decay and degeneration out of most lines. In typical Jerry Lee fashion, he tried something new, excelled at it, and then went back to what he felt like doing. For the first time in a long time, his artistic restlessness served him well.
* * *
Jerry Kennedy, thrilled that his interest in Jerry Lee had been justified, ordered six more sessions that year in Columbia's Nashville studios. Many of them mined gold. A double-length date on April 16, 1968, featured Jerry Lee regal, comfortable, and confident in his new role. He sang with ease and unquestionable authority songs like Merle Haggard's "I'm a Lonesome Fugitive," John Loudermilk's "Break My Mind," and Jerry Chesnut's "Play Me a Song I Can Cry To." The only disappointing tracks recorded that day were Don Chapel's "All Night Long," which made the exciting new method seem dull and formulaic, and Roy Acuff's "We Live in Two Different Worlds," a duet with Linda Gail. By far the strongest cut of the day was Glenn Sutton's "What Made Milwaukee Famous," an archetypal honky-tonk ballad. Jerry Lee contributed an incredibly involved vocal, drawing emotion out of the punch line ("What made Milwaukee famous/Has made a loser out of me") without falling to the prime vice of honky-tonk ballads, self-pity. Again, the mixture of up-to-date production and time-worn lyrical concerns could not miss. Again, matching an unparalleled stylist with commercial material worthy of him paid immediate dividends: "What Made Milwaukee Famous" charged all the way to Number Two on the country-and-western charts and made a bit of noise on the pop list.
Jerry Lee still toured a great deal, although by the next royalty period he would be able to cut down from six nights a week to five. That summer he recorded yet another friendly, jazzy version of Floyd Tillman's signature number "Slippin' Around," as well as another custom-made tune by "What Made Milwaukee Famous" writer Glenn Sutton, called "She Still Comes Around to Love What's Left of Me." Jerry Lee burrowed into the song, another wet-eyed ballad that hovered on the edge of self-pity, and pushed it all the way to Number Two on the country chart. The powers at Smash may have been disappointed that "She Still Comes Around to Love What's Left of Me" did not cross over to pop, but fans were pleased because the lack of pop action proved that the song was true hard country. As Loretta Lynn once said, "I think country will keep on growing as long as country stays different from pop. To keep it true, you have to leave it hanging on the fence."
Three fall sessions were hit-or-miss affairs. On the down side, Jerry Lee returned to the Sun well for Otis Blackwell's "Let's Talk About Us" but he wasn't rocking in the studio just then. "Out of My Mind" showed that Jerry Lee's fiddler and guitarist Kenny Lovelace, destined to be the fifth Mr. Linda Gail Lewis, was an extraordinary picker but not much of a songwriter. Cecil Harrelson and Linda Gail, still an item, co-wrote "Echoes," which, aside from an overwrought opening, was not as pitiful as the title might lead one to expect. As was becoming the norm, the highlights of the sessions were well-chosen ballads. The Merle Haggard composition "Today I Started Loving You Again" received an understated, smoldering performance, and the fifteen-year-old Webb Pierce smash "There Stands the Glass" was, in Jerry Lee's orbit, a terrific self-pitying drinking ballad.
As also was becoming the welcome norm, the saddest and most intense of the performances was the one that became a monster country hit, in this case Glenn Sutton and Jerry Kennedy's "To Make Love Sweeter for You." A cynic might argue that these country-ballad hits were coming too easily to Jerry Lee, that these performances were merely facile. But cynics do not note that these ballads are tense, not easy; and the emotion that these ostensibly sweet ballads spat out was terror.
"To Make Love Sweeter for You" surpassed the other comeback singles, finally topping the country-and-western chart. It was Jerry Lee's first country Number One since "Great Balls of Fire." He celebrated New Year's Day 1969 by playing a show of mostly country songs that ended with a swirl of ferocious rock and roll. It was as if he was saying, yes, I have redeemed myself in your eyes. But I am still the Killer.