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Chapter 6: Another Chance
It's good to see you back again
In the land of salvation and sin.
You know sometimes I get so lonely.--Dan Baird, "I Dunno"
By the time Jerry Lee's country comeback was assured, his former shepherd at Smash, Shelby Singleton, had purchased the Sun Records catalog from Sam Phillips, who was retiring on money he had made, not from rock and roll but from being an early investor in the Holiday Inn chain of motels. Digging through the vaults, Shelby chanced across Jerry Lee's last Sun sessions, immediately recognized them as the blueprint for the Ferriday Fireball's current Smash recordings, released them as quickly as possible, and scored big. Jerry Lee enjoyed five Top Ten country hits in 1969, and two of them, "Invitation to Your Party," and "One Minute Past Eternity," were long-forgotten Sun performances that Singleton had exhumed. In a roundabout way, Singleton finally had gotten Jerry Lee into the Top Ten. Everybody welcomed back the apparently contrite Jerry Lee, including performers like Bob Dylan, who wrote "To Be Alone with You" for Jerry Lee but eventually recorded it himself.
The return of fame and fortune did not ease Jerry Lee's perpetually worried mind. Substance abuse had become more of a problem outside the studio, and it affected his concentration in the studio. In 1970 Myra finally divorced him, alleging some truly horrific behavior; in April of the next year, his beloved mother, Mamie, died, leaving him without his prime counsel in his religious struggles. Elmo, who had turned even more passive in the sixties, remained. Jerry Lee married again, this time to a sheriff's secretary named Jaren Pate. She gave birth to a daughter, Lori Leigh, in the spring of 1972. Jerry Lee had hits; Jerry Lee had problems. It was in this period that he made his most conspicuous attempt to resolve his inner conflicts. He also scored what will most likely be his last Number One single. He was growing older and more bitter, and age crept into his records.
Jerry Lee spent most of February 1969 in Nashville, working through six sessions that concentrated on country-and-western classics. Most of them came out on the LPs Jerry Lee Lewis Sings the Country Music Hall of Fame Hits, Volumes 1 and 2. There were also some contemporary choices squeezed in, as well as the occasional sacred concern. By now this was the usual blend. Even when he was supposed to be doing only one thing, Jerry Lee wanted to do it all.
As evidence that Jerry Lee spent much of his life avoiding responsibility are six failed marriages, several disowned children, and stormy unsteady relationships with most of the family members who remained in his inner circle after he hit the big time. Yet he burned to change. When he submitted to duet sessions with his twenty-one-year-old sister, Linda Gail, he was more than anything trying to do right by his family. Their three duets in February--"Don't Let Me Cross Over," "Jackson," and "Sweet Thang"--were not at all embarrassing. Jerry Lee's singing in these duets was always superb, possibly because he felt he had to compensate. His comeback was secure enough that Smash did not balk at releasing "Don't Let Me Cross Over" as a single, and his audience did not hesitate to buy it. It reached Number Nine, Jerry Lee's fifth consecutive Top Ten country-and-western hit.
The country-icon standards recorded for the Hall of Fame hits were as a rule safer than the recent Jerry Lee hits that preceded them. Songs like "Another Place, Another Time" and its successors were hard country in the style of Hank Williams and early George Jones, an indirect affront to the saccharine stylings coming out of Nashville studies at the time. The Hall of Fame sessions were a step backward toward his mid-sixties overproductions and a hint of what was to come. It was as if the idea was to slicken tradition.
By now Jerry Kennedy's hit method had turned into a paint-by-numbers procedure. For example, in almost every song the backing singers did not show up until the second chorus. This started as a means of letting a song gradually gain power, but it had quickly become a gimmick. On songs like the Don Gibson hit "Oh Lonesome Me," a reasonable cover choice, Jerry Lee was too tame to energize the song. The Killer was not at the controls; an extremely careful Jerry Kennedy was, and Kennedy was most interested in making the record sound sophisticated, dressed-up. The Hank Williams covers--"Cold Cold Heart," "Why Don't You Love Me (Like You Used to Do)," "I'm So Lonesome I Could Cry," and "Jambalaya"--had no kick. Only the most probing fans could tell that Jerry Lee loved these songs, as he put them across so indifferently. Maybe it was an off-session, maybe Jerry Lee's mind was on other troubles, maybe he was stoned. For whatever reason, he did not electrify when the "record" light was switched on. Only Don Gibson's "I Can't Stop Loving You," Lefty Frizzell's "Mom and Dad's Waltz," and Jim Reeves's "He'll Have to Go" involved the artist. Of the new songs, only "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)" came close to the new standard. It was sung well but too straightforward professionally; Jerry Lee came across as a more than adequate male country crooner but did not do much more. Overjoyed to have him back in preferred form, his fans did not care. The song went Number Three country.
On April 14 Jerry Lee appeared on the Monkee's television special "33 Revolutions per Monkee." Instead of using his growing store of country hits, he opted to play "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" and "Down the Line." To that young audience, he was still the Killer of 1957. On June 13 he recorded seven duets with Linda Gail. One of them, a shrill "Roll Over Beethoven" inexplicably became a minor country hit. Most amusing was "Secret Places," an adultery tale that Linda Gail wrote with two of her husbands, Cecil Harrelson and Kenneth Lovelace. Soon after Jerry Lee and Kenneth appeared on "Hee Haw," playing strong, elemental versions of "Walking the Floor Over You" and "Another Place, Another Time."
An August 4 session without Linda Gail generated much more interest on everyone's part. "Waitin' for a Train" was a straightforward Jimmie Rodgers cover that probably would have climbed higher than Number Eleven if Jerry Lee's piano had not been buried under a steel guitar. Mickey Newbury's "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye" was stirring stuff, a devastating ballad highlighted by an absorbing vocal ("It's not her heart," Lord/It's her mind") that made the superfluous strings and backup singers much less grating. Still, there was an assembly-line quality about this session. No one explored, no one experimented, no one cared. Everyone there knew what the ingredients were for a late-sixties Jerry Lee country hit, and they all did what was expected. It was very professional and a little boring.
Much wilder was a September 13 appearance at John Lennon's "Rock and Roll Revival" concert in Toronto, Canada. Jerry Lee put across great rock-and-roll songs and played an electric guitar for "Mystery Train." Whether he articulated it or not, he had mapped out for himself a fruitful double career: country in the studio and rock and roll onstage. He could do everything he wanted and still satisfy everyone part of the time. But his rock-and-roll success was not based on anything current. Like Chuck Berry, Bob Diddley, and Little Richard, Jerry Lee's earliest hits were being discovered by a new generation of rock-and-roll kids who had no use for or awareness of his more recent Nashville recordings, which were made for adults. His country success was in present tense; in rock and roll he was usually considered a dinosaur. He was not a threat anymore. By 1969, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" was considered by much of the rock audience as benign as "The Twist."
Jerry Lee concentrated on his recording career, which at least was built on ongoing achievements, and sessions in October and November were intermittently rewarding artistically and extremely rewarding commercially. Don Chapel's "When the Grass Grows Over Me" gave Jerry Lee an opportunity to affect his Buck Owens tenor, and his voice moved to useful agitation by the end of the tune. Faron Young's "Wine Me Up" was workable midtempo country with a touch of western swing. Also worth hearing was Ivory Joe Hunter's "Since I Met You Baby," which featured one of Lovelace's most stirring fiddle breaks and a fun, all-over-the-place vocal by the Killer. "Workin' Man Blues" was an uptempo honky-tonk Merle Haggard cover which Jerry Lee tried hard to personalize, but his piano was secluded and the whole arrangement tried too hard to please. Also, Haggard's original was definitive. Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein's "Once More with Feeling," recorded several times, showed that a good lyric could make Jerry Lee the singer sound far more trenchant emotionally than Jerry Lee the man, and the repeated versions gave him enough time to fully think out the song, all the way to Number Two.
The truest cut from these sessions was a fine take of Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man," a song long in Jerry Lee's repertoire. Jerry Lee's agenda in the performance was to remind those in the studio that his rock and roll was definitive, and if he wanted to he could still rock out, even with airhead backup singers swirling around him. All he had to do was want to, which was precisely the burgeoning problem.
Three days of Nashville sessions in March 1970 were troubling for a variety of reasons, most notably because the overdubs Jerry Kennedy grafted onto the tracks suffocated the tunes more than usual. This was Kennedy's solution to a difficult problem. As Jerry Lee became more erratic, recording less frequently and more arbitrarily, Kennedy felt he had to salvage each date. He was on Mercury's payroll, and part of his job was to ensure that the sessions were cost effective. As Felton Jarvis was doing with Elvis Presley, Kennedy used massive overdubs like makeup, to hide flaws and round out performances he felt were incomplete. Yet the overdubs only served to distract attention from Jerry Lee, the only reason people were listening to the records in the first place. Kennedy did not trust Jerry Lee to consistently assert himself in the studio anymore, so he was going to make sure that somebody was in charge.
Instrument and vocal-group overdubs were one thing, but fans devoted to pure Jerry Lee could have sensed the beginning of the end when two of the songs from the March sessions--Cecil Harrelson and Linda Gail's punchy "Woman, Woman (Get Out of Our Way)" and the overrated country standard "Reuben James"--were subjected to vocal overdubs by the Ferriday Fireball himself. Overdubbing for Jerry Lee meant work and only work: no interacting with the band members, no involvement with the song, no incentive to be passionate. Jerry Lee was a musician who excelled in live performances, even those with indifferent session musicians. The farther away he got from such settings, the less interested he and his records became.
One distinctive number recorded during the March sessions was a sly version of "Sweet Georgia Brown," highlighted by Jerry Lee's vow, "I don't lie/Not much," and a superb fiddle break. Another was "There Must Be More to Love Than This," which would be heard as a strong, pained ballad beneath the overdubs and was another smash hit. A problematic element of the session, aside from Kennedy's heavy-handed approach to touching up the tunes, was "Gather 'Round Children," a mediocre and extremely morbid country-death ballad by Cecil and Linda Gail. Also, the Jerry Lee original, "Alvin," left unreleased for almost twenty years, was one of the least propulsive songs ever written about teen angst. He was a stylist, not a songwriter.
Enjoying a renegotiated contract, Jerry Lee presently had a technical change in his recording status. He was no longer a Smash performer, the imprint having been folded into the main Mercury label. After more than fourteen years as a recording artist, he was finally on a true major label.
Although he was clearly having less fun than ever in his studio incarnation, Jerry Lee was still anxious to scorch onstage. Six shows in May were edited down for the album Live at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, the latest in his series of fine in-concert sets. But the released album only hinted at the breadth of Jerry Lee's performances that week in Las Vegas. For obvious commercial reasons, nine of the ten cuts on the released LP were explicitly country tunes, many of them recapitulations of recent Jerry Lee-in-the-studio hits, with more sympathetic accompaniment built around fiddler Lovelace and drummer Morris Tarrant. "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye" came across as the first-rate country ballad it was, and those few in the Las Vegas crowd who were familiar with Jerry Lee only through his country hits must have been taken aback by how much harder he played outside of a Nashville studio, fronting a relatively small, five-piece band. "Jambalaya" and "She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left of Me") exceeded their studio incarnations, and on Bill Mack Smith's self-descriptive "Drinkin' Champagne," Jerry Lee's voice was pained and believable, yet his performance was remarkably effortless.
Jerry Lee introduced "Once More with Feeling" by saying, "This was Number One for us in the country field of music, which I think is the main field of music right now." Such a statement was Jerry Lee's way of acting the part of the rocker who has returned to his country roots, although a few minutes later he was tearing through "Rip It Up," "Great Balls of Fire," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." The lone noncountry number on the released LP, though, was a riveting, purposeful "Flip, Flop and Fly" with which Jerry Lee had opened some of the shows. Stuck on the end of Live at the International, it provided a glimmer of a more expansive world.
Of the unreleased material from these Las Vegas shows, sixty-eight additional numbers ranging from longtime favorite Jimmie Davis's "You Are My Sunshine" to John Fogerty's Killer-inflected " Proud Mary," there was enough for at least two more LPs of comparable quality. Las Vegas has never been an ideal site for rocking out--neither Elvis nor his music got out of that city alive--but, except for his New York foray several years previously, location meant nothing to an energized Jerry Lee so long as he had a piano to bang. On a fierce "Great Balls of Fire" he altered the lyrics to proclaim "Too much love drives a stud insane." He commended "Oh Lonesome Me" by claiming that country music was all he ever cared about. Then he played a totally rock-and-roll version of the Don Gibson tune. "Blue Suede Shoes" came complete with pokes at Elvis and Tom Parker, and Elvis got it again in "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On." During the extended breakdown, the Ferriday Fireball said of Presley, "Him and Tom Jones couldn't shine my big toe." Chuck Berry got off better. A version of "Sweet Little Sixteen" did not kick up much dirt, but Jerry Lee did say of Berry, "I think he's the Stephen Foster of the rock-and-roll era," a tremendous compliment considering the source. The defining moment came in the third show, when Jerry Lee explained himself. "This is the only rock and roll/rhythm and blues/country and western/Grand Ol' Opry in existence," he said. "That's the way I do it, all wrapped up in one. Hang it in, all right."
The pick of the Las Vegas numbers screamed with life, but, by the time Jerry Lee returned to Nashville, he had temporarily lost interest in unleashing that side of himself. In Nashville, he conformed. With the dissolution of his longest marriage eating at him, he sounded miserable and performed miserably. He recorded more frequently now with Linda Gail, hoping to find some solace in family. A two-day session in October 1970, half duets, emphasized songs of divine praise. Mamie was very ill at the time with cancer, and Jerry Lee dived into gospel as if it could heal. "The Old Rugged Cross" was deeply convincing, and "The Lily of the Valley" and "I Know That Jesus Will Be There" were as open-hearted and searching as anything Jerry Lee ever performed. "I'll Fly Away" and "My God's Not Dead" were loose-limbed, adventurous attempts to capture the thrill of ritual on vinyl. Jerry Lee's sprightly piano was too loose to some ears and was probably very similar to what shortened his tenure in Waxahachie, even though his vocals were very committed ("My God's not dead/Sorry 'bout yours, my friend").
Several secular tunes were worked up during the October session, and they ran the gamut from profound ("One More Time") through tunes as weak as their titled ("Foolaid," "Too Much to Gain to Lose") to "Black Mama," a tasteless, raised-by-wolves tale, as hilariously bad as "Alvin" and so wrongheaded about race it made the concerns of "Ubangi Stomp" sound like those of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder's "Ebony and Ivory." Jokey songs regarding race were a long, though not noble, tradition among some people in the South, so it was no surprise that the Ferriday boy indulged himself in some of it. What was surprising was that he did so in the midst of a self-produced gospel session organized because Jerry Lee felt guilty that Mamie's desire for him to become a solely religious purveyor had so far gone unfulfilled.
Jerry Lee insisted to his confidantes that he believed Mamie contracted cancer because he was still drinking and drugging, because he had turned his back on the Assemblies of God of his youth. He informed Mercury executives that he would be recording only religious music or pure-minded country in the future. Three sessions from December 1970 to January 1971 suggested that he was serious. Two of those dates Jerry Lee produced himself in two different studios, and they focused on Carter Family songs and newer compositions that evoked the first family of country music.
Led by A. P. Carter, the Carter Family were discovered at the same time as Jimmie Rodgers. Their obsessive tales of family, God, and death were the flip side of the Singing Brakeman's anthems of physical and spiritual dislocation. The influence of the Carter Family on country music has been as enduring as Rodgers's. His celebrations of wildness and their paeans to family and community, established in the twenties, are the two extremes of pure country-and-western that still set the outer limits. Jerry Lee's singing on the two studio sessions was alert and dedicated, but, except for the one genuine A. P. Carter number in the set, the songs were not worth the trouble.
On December 10 Jerry Lee announced that his reign as the Killer was over. Reeling from the one-two punch of the divorce from Myra and the imminent death of Mamie, the loss of the two most important women in his life, he decided to abdicate, make a clean break. He gave up booze and pills. A few days later he ensconced himself and his core band in a Memphis church and began preaching again. But he was still the Killer, even in a house of God. He introduced "I'm Longing for Home" by offering to sell copies of it after the service was over. A changed man, he wanted to testify, "I got saved! I'm gonna stay saved! I'm no hypocrite!" Musically the songs were strong if somewhat samey, thwarted only by the rudimentary drumming of Jerry Lee, Jr. "A lot of folks think I've gone crazy!" Jerry Lee, Sr., acknowledged. But the twenty-one songs, including a "My God Is Real" with a boogie-woogie bass line (his revenge on Waxahachie), were among Jerry Lee's most deeply felt recordings.
When most pop performers who claim to be pious record what they say is a religious disc, they usually play some Christmas songs and some obviously secular love ballads with Jesus replacing baby and God replacing you in the interchangeable lyrics. Jerry Lee went much deeper. Although his born-again phase ended before he placed Mamie in the ground, hastened by his own restlessness and the extremely poor chart showings of his holy-minded recordings, it was ardent while it lasted. Jerry Lee did try to come to terms with his religious responsibility, and for a time he had escaped some of the hellhounds on his trail. The only other performer in rock-and-roll history who got away with that was Aretha Franklin, another stylist of the highest order who grew up in church. Her 1972 double album, Amazing Grace, gathered the strength of her matchless soul recordings and brought them back to their original concept. But there was also one major difference: Amazing Grace rose as high as Number Seven on the Billboard pop album charts and sold more than half a million copies. Jerry Lee could not convince Mercury to release a single one of his in-church recordings.
* * *
Jerry Lee returned to the Jerry Kennedy Nashville factory and (without a hint remaining of the sort of inspirational recordings he had put down a few months earlier) resumed cranking out what was expected. Aside from the overwhelming "Touching Home," one of the most affecting of Jerry Lee's greatest ballad performances, nothing lasting emerged from a February 3 session. Two March sessions were similarly inconsistent. For every marvelous ballad like Kris Kristofferson's "Help Me Make It Through the Night," the Dallas Frazier/Doodle Owens composition "When He Walks on You (Like You Have Walked on Me)," or the wrenching "Another Hand Shakin' Goodbye," there were many indifferent tunes like "Time Changes Everything," "Hearts Were Made for Beating," and "Foolish Kind of Man," the last a Lovelace/Linda Gail composition. Higher up on the weird psychodrama scale was Jimmie Rodgers's "Mother, the Queen of My Heart," which can be read as either insanely devotional or incestuous, recorded as Mamie was dying. The single wonderful uptempo number in the sessions was the gate-jumping "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone," an extraordinarily approachable western swing number in which stalwart Lovelace contributes a wild fiddle break and Jerry Lee introduces the band members, including himself, with nothing but admiration and fraternity in his well-worn voice. It was the friendliest moment he ever allowed himself on record.
The summer of 1971 was treacherous for Jerry Lee. The divorce from Myra had become final in May, and Junior's behavior was becoming increasingly dependent on what happened to be flowing in his veins. However, Jerry Lee was able to gain enough strength for a handful of remarkable recordings to add to the still-growing list. Off the wagon, he was not yet teetering. Jimmy Hodges's "Someday You'll Want Me to Want You" was a concentrated love-revenge ballad most notable for being one of the first Jerry Lee recordings that included his "Think about it" warning/suggestion. "Big Blon' Baby," the Cajun thumper from his Sun days, kept the rocker in Jerry Lee happy, while "Thirteen at the Table" satisfied the man newly returned to secular music who still wanted to feel saved. "Thirteen at the Table" was a midtempo retelling of the Last Supper, built around clumsy lines like "He was a carpenter who mended broken bodies." That summer Jerry Lee tried to mend his ways by buying the film rights to The Carpenter, a life of Jesus; he intended to play the title role. As with Jerry Lee's other moves toward sacred-minded work, the deal fell through.
Jerry Kennedy's production formula was now stifling, but sometimes its familiarity allowed Jerry Lee to soar. A few days before a session, the Killer was able to hear most of the tunes that he did not himself suggest recording. Mercury's Roy Dea, who had recorded the Las Vegas shows, went to Jerry Lee's house. "I played acetates for him," Dea said. I got there about three in the evening, just when he was waking up. Usually it was a title or a line that caught his attention. A lot of it had to do with what he was going through personally. 'Would You Take Another Chance on Me,' for example, fit what was going on in his personal life at the time." Indeed, it was a concept and a composition with which Jerry Lee immediately connected. Strings and backing singers aside, "Would You Take Another Chance on Me" was a marvelous hard-country ballad sung with tremendous intensity, and it was yet another song that ended with the ominous "Think about it, darlin'." It shot to Number One on the country-and-western singles chart; its flip side, a spirited "Me and Bobby McGee," became Jerry Lee's first Top 40 pop hit since "High School Confidential," way back in 1958.
CORRECTION: Turns out I was wrong about that, according to this learned letter from reader Zachary R. Williams: In the chapter sixth you wrote about the huge success of "Would you take a chance on me the #1 country and western song from 1972. You said that its flip side, the Kris Kristofferson penned "Me and Bobby McGee" was the Killer's first Top 40 hit since 1958's High School Confidential. While, High School Confidential did rise to #21 back in 1958, it was not his last Top 40 until 1972. That honor goes to his 1960 remake of Ray Charles "What I'd Say" which reached #30 Subsequently, it become one of the best selling records at Sun and this was after the fact the Jerry Lee had been given the cold shoulder by the press and the public around the world. Hope this information helps. It does. Thank you, Zachary.
As far as recordings were concerned, 1972 began wonderfully for Jerry Lee. He was loose in the studio, and for a change Jerry Kennedy did not immediately call for a leash. "Think About It, Darlin'"--this title had to come--moved well, although with each year it seemed that more and more people were stuffed in the studio with Jerry Lee, inching him further and further into the background of his own records. The Killer sang as if he knew that he was close to self-parody, but he was too amused to care. Also recorded in this session was a dripping cover of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace," a fine reconstructed second-general rock-and-roll take with a very strong vocal, in spite of there being what seemed like fifty too many people on the cut.
Roy Dea, who was at the session, tells the story best:
I didn't like the heavy production. I didn't think it was Jerry Lee Lewis. I had been to Memphis, and we had picked four songs. We were going to add strings. We cut a couple tracks. There were fifteen string players and an arranger. Out of nowhere Jerry said, "Let's do 'Chantilly Lace'." The arranger said he didn't have charts, and Jerry said, "We're just running it down. Don't worry about the mules. Just load the wagon." The string arranger just about had a heart attack. Jerry Lee cut it once, took off his turtleneck sweater, played it back, and then played it again. He said, "That turtleneck was chokin' me." It was Jerry Lee's biggest record [Number One country for three weeks]. It proved Sam Phillips was right in the first place. Everything with Jerry Lee Lewis that works is spontaneous. It's not in the lyrics or the melody written by the writer. It's how Jerry Lee does it.
The remarkable success of a frank rock-and-roll song like "Chantilly Lace" set the stage for The "Killer" Rocks On," an album intended to draw in both the rock-and-roll fans who attended his shows and the loyal country fans, many of them aging along with Jerry Lee, who did not mind being reminded what this Killer did in a previous incarnation. It seemed like a great idea, expect Jerry Kennedy was even less helping in creating rock-and-roll settings than Shelby Singleton had been during the Golden Rock Hits sessions of nearly a decade earlier.
Virtually all the rock oldies Jerry Lee recorded for the new album were conveyed with gusto and attitude, but Kennedy's insufferable string and chorus overdubs all but ruined everything they touched. Kennedy's method of cutting country made no sense in a rock-and-roll context. Few classic rockers were able to withstand such treatment. However, the Charlie Rich number, "Lonely Weekends," jumped out of the speakers with an unshackled piano solo, and William Bell's soul-driving "You Don't Miss Your Water" was one of Jerry Lee's saddest cuts. These two triumphs must have been enough for many listeners. The "Killer" Rocks On became its namesake's highest-charting pop LP since The Greatest Live Show on Earth.
The rest of 1972 flew by in a blur. Five more sessions did not yield a single stellar track. Everyone was distracted. Marriage number four was beginning to crumble, Mercury seemed more interested in renewing Jerry Lee's contract than in securing him top-rank songs, and the big-production numbers that were Jerry Kennedy's specialty had become so successful commercially that no one thought to return Jerry Lee to more lanky settings in which he could excel. Regarding the music, everyone was complacent.