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Chapter 7: Last Stand
Sometimes I blame it on a woman,
The one that made my poor heart bleed.
Sometimes I blame it on the money,
Sometimes I blame it all on me. --Dave Alvin, "Long White Cadillac"
The last five years of Jerry Lee's association with Smash/Mercury started with two of his most lasting studio albums and ended in ashes. Outside the studio, his life deteriorated terribly. Jerry Lee, Jr., an acid casualty, died in a car crash; Jaren filed for divorce; the Killer "accidentally" shot his bassist, Butch Owens, in the chest (Owens survived to take legal action); Jerry Lee overturned his Rolls Royce; he was hospitalized for respiratory distress and a "nasal problem"; he was arrested waving a gun in front of Graceland demanding to see Elvis; and he had his gallbladder removed. By 1978, there was not much Jerry Lee left. Getting yelled at by Mercury executives for skipping sessions was the least of his problems.
At first, all was well. In the early seventies, rich British rock stars paid homage to their less fortunate American forebears by cutting tribute sessions, in which the aging influence was accompanied by the new stars whose names on the record cover would aid sales. The Chess blues performers profited the most from this with a series of London Sessions LPs by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Sun alumnus Howlin' Wolfe, all of which sold more copies than these artists usually managed. Artistically, however, only The London Howlin' Wolf Sessions was a triumph. In January 1973 Jerry Lee, Kenny Lovelace, and too many hangers-on to list traveled to London to indulge the new stars and cut hits.
The Session, as the album was called, worked in spite of everything and everyone; there was much additional worthy material that did not make it onto the double album. In chronological age, only a few years separated the Killer and the British. For instance, Jerry Lee is only thirteen months older than Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. However, there were many generational and geographical differences between Jerry Lee's entourage and British rock stars like Albert Lee and Peter Frampton. For all the rules his music broke, Jerry Lee was fundamentally conservative on issues like how long a man's hair should be. British rock stars in the early seventies were uptight as well, but regarding different matters. That, combined with chemicals in the air and the arrogance one would expect of young millionaires, insured that no one asked for anyone else's phone number after the four days of sessions concluded.
Nevertheless, with the noted Head, Hands, and Feet rhythm section playing the essential rhythm parts to which the superstars would not stoop, The Session rocked, often hard. Fifteen years after Jerry Lee first recorded it, he finally cut a raucous "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee" that came out as a single. A sandpapery Jerry Lee sounded as though he had drunk too much wine on the ole spo-dee-o-dee and he did not care who was in the room with him. Directing solos, Jerry Lee said, "Take it, son." He did not bother to learn anyone's name. When he warned "think about it" at the end of almost every take, no one did.
Distance can create tension, and tension is an essential ingredient and great rock and roll. Take the one song Jerry Lee had come to London prepared to record, Charlie Rich's dark blues "No Headstone on My Grave." Perhaps because the song was written by a like-minded pianist, an absorbed Jerry Lee was comfortable leading the band through its bloody charges and changes. Because Jerry Lee did not come to London armed with any more material and there was only a limited amount of studio time slotted for the supergroup, Jerry Lee and the Brits had to come to a quick understanding regarding what songs they all knew.
They tried the Rolling Stones's "(I Can't Get No) Satisfaction," but Jerry Lee could not bring himself to sing the verse about the girl having her period. Inevitably the lack of planning turned the set toward early rock-and-roll songs, like Chuck Berry's "Memphis, Tennessee" (complete with a yodel) and a steamy "Johnny B. Goode." Also rocked-up was Jerry Lee's own "High School Confidential," pointlessly done as an instrumental (listeners were forgiven for thinking they were waiting for the jam to end and the song proper to begin) and a shaky "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" salvaged only by Rory Gallagher's sublime slide guitar (Gallagher was the only Brit outside the rhythm section who had a consistent handle on the material) and a harsh ending worthy of the Killer.
Some other early rockers were enlivened: "Sixty Minute Man," "Down the Line," "What'd I Say," and a medley comprising "Good Golly Miss Molly," "Long Tall Sally," "Jenny, Jenny," "Tutti Frutti," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" that danced like the climax to a live show. But the pick of these remakes, one that remained unreleased for more than a decade, came from an unlikely source, Gene Vincent. His signature tune, "Be Bop a Lula," which Jerry Lee had successfully covered years previously, got the ride of its life. In Vincent's hands, "Be Bop a Lula" was a persuasive little rockabilly song, a celebration of his sweetheart led by the nonsense-syllable chorus.
Jerry Lee surpassed the Vincent version by the time he had completed his ten-second portentous piano introduction, and he stretched the song until it was unrecognizable as anything but what he had imagined at the moment. The stylist with his own ideas triumphed. He approached "Be Bop a Lula" as a dirty blues that he hung onto for a glorious seven minutes and eighteen seconds. This was a loose jam with purpose, Jerry Lee's voice howling and scatting, his fingers crawling up and down his piano. After all, the most successful Jerry Lee sessions were those in which the Killer was relaxed, but not too relaxed. "This mother must be nine years long!" he shouted. And then he went on some more. This was fabulous. Perhaps in 1973 Jerry Lee had to travel far away from Nashville to work up such a sweat in the studio.
This could have been the start of a new direction, but Jerry Lee the man sabotaged Jerry Lee the artist. His next session was produced in Memphis by percussionist Tony Colton of Head, Hands, and Feet, who also contributed a strong song, "Jack Daniels (Old Number Seven)," that was executed brilliantly by a band that featured Stax masters Steve Cropper on guitar and Duck Dunn on bass. It was raucous country that anticipated and outmatched the Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings/Tompall Glaser/Jessi Colter Outlaw movement. Mercury never put the song on an album. It deserved a better fate than being stuck on the wrong side of a single, even if the A-side, "No Headstone on My Grave," was magnificent in its own right. Of course, the Killer being the Killer, Jerry Lee alienated Colton so completely and irrevocably in their few hours together that Colton bolted as soon as he could.
When Jerry Lee returned to the Nashville Overproduction Factory for a three-day, twenty-one song blowout produced by Stan Kesler (Mercury executive Jerry Kennedy had started off-loading some of his production chores), he also reverted to old vices. Kesler was an important Memphis music figure, as a writer and player at Sun Records and later as the producer for the delightfully whacked-out Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Here, though, Kesler operated as if his job was to make Jerry Kennedy seem like a producer of uncommon subtlety. Very little of this session deserved to be preserved, although Mercury insisted. Not even a motivated Jerry Lee could have made sense of songs with titles like "The Alcohol of Fame," "Mama's Hands," and "Tomorrow's Taking Baby Away," although Jerry Lee clearly delighted in singing the last song's line, "She still gave me her young body/In a lovely, friendly way." In "I Think I Need to Pray," Jerry Lee called out, "I think we all need to pray." What he needed to pray for was a new producer. To be fair, Jerry Lee was driving Kesler crazy, and Kesler had every excuse to unconsciously sabotage the date.
The only remotely alert new song to come out of the Kesler marathon was "Honky Tonk Wine," written by one Mack Vickery, a journeyman Alabama singer and composer who had recorded under both his name for the short-lived Playboy label and the monicker Atlanta James, neither time with much success. He had also placed a few songs with Memphis soul master James Carr. He had yet to release his definitive LP, Live at the Alabama Women's prison. "Honky Tonk Wine was a minor song, and Kesler tried to kill it with strings, but it was immediately apparent that the tune moved Jerry Lee unlike anything else he recorded that night. He was in synch with the number.
The powers at Mercury listened and knew that they had a commercial problem. After a string of smashes, Jerry Lee's last five singles had not scratched their way into the country-and-western Top Ten. The Killer still had an extremely loyal core audience that would stand by its man no matter what he recorded, but the tide of across-the-board monsters had clearly ebbed. They also had a personal problem. Bassist Bob Moore, who accompanied the Ferriday Fireball on most of his Smash/Mercury sessions, overstated the case when he said, "Jerry Lee has a heading and a bottom line of each page in his life. The heading is drugs and the bottom line is drugs," but the sad fact was that there were some days when there was nothing else written on the page. The label had trouble finding people willing to work with Jerry Lee. On a move that was one part genius and two parts recklessness, they decided to send him into the studio with someone even crazier than he.
* * *
"We fought," Huey P. Meaux told Colin Escott, "but we delivered."
Meaux was one of those colorful characters who gave southern writers prime source material and who made outsiders wonder if they were being put on. A Cajun named after Louisiana dictator Huey ("Kingfish") Long, Meaux had worked in all aspects of the record business, and in September 1973 he was glad to be in his own loud clothes instead of what he had been wearing most recently: prison garb. Upon his release he had re-established contact with Mercury. Now, after agreeing with Mercury's vice president of artists and repertoire Charlie Fach that a pure Jerry Lee album was the cure to everyone's ills, he was signed to produce such an LP.
The resulting set, Southern Roots, was recorded virtually nonstop over three days and nights in Memphis. Meaux enjoyed extraordinary connections, so he was able to assemble a group that was undoubtedly Jerry Lee's most sympathetic accompaniment since his 1964 tour. He recruited guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald ("Duck") Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, the essential Stax rhythm section, as the core band. Then he added other top-of-the line musicians like organist Augie Meyers of the Sir Douglas Quintet, the original Memphis Horns, members of the Memphis Beats, and Carl Perkins. Mack Vickery contributed harmonica, vocals, and enough craziness to be allowed in the same room with Meaux and Jerry Lee.
Recording conditions were chaotic, to put it mildly. Musicians, family members, delivery men, ex-girlfriends, and people just off the street wandered around, pushed engineers out of the way, and slept on the floor. Unlike the London session earlier in the year, where producer Steve Rowland tried to tone down his charges' behavior and instead made everyone more nervous, Meaux encouraged all in his kingdom to whoop it up. The unwieldy Southern Roots sessions were not designed with controlled behavior in mind, but they did yield what was unquestionably the most spirited and sustained studio album of Jerry Lee's long and spirited career. The album was subtitled Back Home to Memphis and featured Jerry Lee's only post-Sun studio performances that consistently captured what made him special, different, and impossible to pigeonhole.
A filthy Mack Vickery tune written with Jerry Lee in mind, "Meat Man," kicked off the album and pinned itself in fifth gear. "Meat Man" was two minutes and forty seconds of vivid sexual boasts, delivered furiously and convincingly: "They call me the meat man/You oughta see me eat ma'am." He did not sing as if there were any possibility that the woman might decline his offer. Jerry Lee made listeners believe he had a "Maytag tongue with a sensitive taster." He whooped it up in an avalanche of a solo and his least practiced shouting in years. His mind wasn't in a studio; as far as he was concerned he was in the darkest, toughest roadhouse in Mississippi. "Meat Man" was the most frankly sexual song of Jerry Lee's career, no small achievement. It was the first time in the studio since his glory days at Sun that he sounded truly free. Even when the song ended, he refused to stop, shouting, "Meat man, you mother!" until Meaux shut off the tape.
"When a Man Loves a Woman" was originally a hit for Percy Sledge, and Meaux's decision to record it hinted at his agenda more than any other song on Southern Roots. Meaux loved Memphis music, but one of his more brilliant ideas on this session was to act as if Jerry Lee's Memphis homecoming belonged at Stax, not Sun. For a decade the soul masters at Stax (and, later, Hi) had been the groundbreaking performers in town; in the mid- and late-sixties Sun was a clearing house for second-rate talent. Stax and Sun had different sounds, but they were linked because the country-blues fusion at Sun set the stage for Stax to come up with its country-rhythm-and-blues union. So in taking Jerry Lee back to a "Memphis sound," Meaux was both returning to past glories and nudging the Killer forward.
"When a Man Loves a Woman" was a colossal ballad with a bite, and Meaux's arrangements kept the focus on Jerry Lee's voice and piano, a logical idea that in 1973 seemed novel. The only thing wrong with "When a Man Loves a Woman" was that it faded out after only four minutes and twenty seconds. "Hold On I'm Coming," a suggestive hit for Sam and Dave, was another tune that originated in the Stax axis, and Jerry Lee recast it as a funky, soulful strut. "I made love to a lotta women in Tennessee," Jerry Lee sang as if he needed to remind himself. "I'm comin, C-o-m-i-n…" An alternate version was slightly faster and much looser.
Roscoe Gordon's "Just a Little Bit" got the Sir Douglas Quintet treatment, with Augie Meyers's charmingly trashy organ fighting Jerry Lee for room until piano and organ merged in an otherworldly, bass-heavy keyboard crash. The Killer's singing on this ideal funk-rocker was as ferocious as the song's rhythms. His wild pleading danced across the studio floor until it collapsed in a heap with all the other stragglers. "Born to Be a Loser" was a strong southern ballad with lyrics that Jerry Lee obviously related to: "Ain't nobody perfect," he sang. "Think about it." By the end of the song, he was addressing his potential partner as "you good-looking wench."
The second side of Southern Roots erupted to life with "Haunted House," originally a novelty hit for Memphis singer Gene Simmons. (In spite of its relative obscurity, "Haunted House" has garnered quite a celebrity fan club. On Halloween night 1981 Bruce Springsteen began a concert by being carried onstage in a coffin, jumping out, and singing it.) Those listening closely could hear liquor and pills rattling through the vocal. Fats Domino's "Blueberry Hill" was a straightforward, southern-ballad performance with a touch of Dixieland horns, still on the highest level.
The album ended with three songs as weird as the participants in the session; all three featured at least one "think about it." Doug Sahm's "The Revolutionary Man" was a barnstorming rocker, piano and horns once again battling organ. One suspected that good ole boy Jerry Lee's idea of revolution was different from that of confirmed hippie Sahm, but at least Jerry Lee acted like he knew what he was singing about. The backup singers, not even remotely annoying, sang, "Jerry is a rebel," in a melody swiped from Gino Washington's obscure "Gino Is a Coward." Earl ("Kit") Carson's "Big Blue Diamond" offered an unbuttoned solo, and the album slid home with another Mack Vickery song, "That Old Bourbon Street Church." The strong ballad was also thematically useful in that the Vickery numbers that opened and closed the album defined the two Jerry Lees. In "Meat Man" he was a raving, cocksure stud; by "The Old Bourbon Street Church" he was vanquished, drunk, nearly crying, begging for forgiveness. In Vickery, a fan as well as a professional, Jerry Lee had found someone who could articulate his troubles better than he himself ever could.
Although they did not surface until the late eighties, another album's worth of first-rank tunes were cut at the Southern Roots sessions. Even better, full session tapes emerged in which fans could hear Jerry Lee, Meaux, and Vickery whoop it up. Everyone at that three-day session was intoxicated by talent as well as by alcohol; unlike the typical Jerry Lee seventies session, in which a truck load of hired guns played their parts and left as soon as the clock said they could, it sounded like the Southern Roots musicians were in Memphis because they loved the music. They were all crazy, but they were also crazy about music. With them cheering him on, Jerry Lee scorched for the last time in a long time.
Instead of reviving Jerry Lee's career, Southern Roots condemned it. The album never hit the Billboard chart because its ridiculous cover, a drawing of the Killer that looked positively antebellum, gave the LP all the appearances of yet another reissue of old cuts. All but the most loyal fans did not know that there were any new hits because nothing from Southern Roots got on the radio. In a pea-brained marketing move, Mercury opted for "Meat Man" as the first single. Granted, it was a stupendous song, but part of what made it fantastic was that it was a defiant, upraised middle finger at countrypolitan record formats. Jerry Lee made a sublime album, but nobody got to hear it. He resigned himself to the inevitable.
* * *
Even Jerry Lee's faithful admitted that what came between Southern Roots and the end of this association with Mercury was almost lifeless. None of his more welcome trademarks showed up: no honky-tonk chords slammed against each other until they made friends, and nothing suggested that metallic-blond locks were flopping in front of his eyes while he played. His voice frequently took on a monotonic quality, as if he could not be bothered to move his mouth and tongue to enunciate different sounds. Some fans blamed the deterioration in Jerry Lee's vocals on substance abuse; others pointed to a 4:00 A.M. fight in a night club that left his nose broken in three places and was not satisfactorily attended to for years.
For whatever reason, this was the only period in Jerry Lee's career that did not feature an official live album, mostly because his shows were too infrequent and his singing and playing veered toward the lazy and monotonic. If live shows were out of the question, so were live-in-the studio performances. It took more takes to complete songs, unless Jerry Lee became so bored or ornery that he left the studio before anyone was happy with his performances. From now on, fans knew to expect tons of overdubs, vocal and otherwise, many of them supervised by someone who was passed-out on the floor.
Jerry Lee did not argue against this recording method, in which songs were built piece by piece, with everything "perfect" and no passion allowed. "When you're making love to a woman, you can't overdub it," he told an interviewer. "You can't phone it in." So he knew better, but either did not want to or could not exert himself.
Right after live recordings, another idea that went out the window, at least unconsciously, was bringing up issues through songs. Through the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, fans learned about Jerry Lee's ideas on everything from sex and drugs to family and religion through the way he performed; in the late seventies he was simply too out of it to bring his performances to a level where those meanings, intentional or not, could be discerned.
Yet Jerry Lee kept playing and playing. "Jerry Lee is onstage twenty-four hours a day," said Bob Moore. "When we were on the road, we'd go right offstage into the limo to the plane. On the plane he went to his Casio immediately. He'd sing and play all the way home. He never stopped." There are hundred of private tapes of Jerry Lee playing any keyboard he could find, just for the pleasure and release it gave him. He played piano in 1977 for the same reason he had turned to the instrument more than three decades earlier: it was an escape. Other people were in the room with him, so he could show off.
October and November 1974 sessions in Nashville were once again overseen by Jerry Kennedy. "Watch me," Jerry Lee said before a take of Troy Seals's "Boogie Woogie Country Man." "I might get hot." He never got past "might." Tom T. Hall's "I Can Still Hear the Music in the Restroom" gave Jerry Lee a reason to hold notes in his best Merle Haggard voice, but the most colorful nugget about the minor hit was its promotional campaign, which featured a copy of the single affixed to a toilet seat.
"Honey Hush" was a real rock-and-roll song, complete with ersatz-Sun echo, more speed-up than comeback, hobbled by the usual overproduction. Stuart Hamblen's "Remember Me (I'm the One Who Loves You)" was a good ballad performance without too much interference; "Forever Forgiving" was a typically appropriate Mack Vickery weeper; and "I'm Still Jealous of You" was the occasion for what was now a rare event, a committed, comprehending vocal. Everything else from those sessions resembled the sort of self-pitying country ballads that the Killer had once set out to vanquish. Only Elvis was in worse shape.
Four sessions in the first half of 1975 could squeeze out only five songs worth preserving. One of those was a ringer ("Your Cheatin' Heart"), and two of them were spontaneous readings of songs Jerry Lee loved as a child that were never intended for release, "Crawdad Song" and "The House of Blue Lights." The two new songs, both custom-written ballads for the Killer's teetering self, let Jerry Lee show his pain and his self-loathing. Mack Vickery's "That Kind of Fool" yearned for unattainable domestic bliss: it was the tale of a rockabilly cat who grew up too late. Donnie Fritts's "A Damn Good Country Song" covered similar ground almost as comprehensively. Jerry Lee sang the song hard. It meant a great deal to him and was one of the numbers he turned to during the "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" sessions. His piano sneaked higher up in the mix, which meant that either Jerry Kennedy was finally letting him play his own way or he had thrown in the towel. Either way, it was a passable performance of a more than adequate song that deserved to climb higher on the country-and-western charts than Number Sixty-eight.
Mercury's Charlie Fach, frustrated that Jerry Lee was deteriorating in every way, specifically in completing the number of albums he was contracted to deliver per year, booked sessions the week before Christmas 1975 to meet the annual quota. He should have gone shopping instead. All but three of the songs were originally unissued, and they did not include the only two worthwhile tunes from the sessions. Even "I Can't Keep My Hands Off of You." The contribution from Mack Vickery, the only reliable Jerry Lee speechwriter, was written and performed with minimal energy. But Billy Swan's rollicking, "I Can Help" was recorded and performed with gusto. Jerry Lee immediately identified with the lyrics: "Your child needs a daddy/We can discuss that, too." However, by the end of the song the Ferriday Fireball had retreated to his own world, shouting "Think about it, Elvis" to someone who would never hear him. Abnormal but effective was Little Richard's "Slippin' and Slidin'," done as a cigarettes-and-coffee style, late-night blues jam.
It took almost six months for Mercury to get Jerry Lee back in a studio, and it is unclear why they expended the energy. The Killer was in no condition to record, and the third-rate material with which he was saddled did not shake him out of his stupor. "The Fifties" was the worst song Jerry Lee had recorded since "Lincoln Limousine," fake rock and roll with lyrics that strung together titles of early rock-and-roll classics. All that survived the most cursory inspection were "The Old Country Church," interesting only for the psychodramatics inherent in hearing a stoned Jerry Lee talk to himself, and "I Sure Miss Those Good Old Times," a Mack Vickery-penned outtake from Southern Roots that, by comparison, did not reflect well on Jerry Kennedy's recording methods. By now, Jerry Lee was skipping live shows as frequently as he was blowing studio dates, which cost him much money. On December 5 Jerry Lee received an early Christmas present when he turned on his television and saw his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart begging Jesus to save the Killer's soul.
In 1977 Jerry Lee bottomed out. His comrade and competitor, Elvis, had his misery terminated, but the Killer was forced to rock on. His two competent vocal performances that year were on "Ivory Tears," a marrow-cutting Mack Vickery ballad of piano-man regret, and Sonny Throckmorton's "Middle Age Crazy," a tale of a man Jerry Lee's age trying to pass himself off as a rock-and-roll kid. The performance was so vivid that someone in Hollywood expanded it into a movie, à la "Ode to Billy Joe." The song was a natural hit, all the way to Number Four, because it felt real. The Killer was beat; he admitted it; and he found an appealing way to convey it.
Jerry Lee's manager, Bob Porter, and the lawyers at Mercury spent the summer of 1978 trying to hammer out a new contract, but nobody on either side truly cared. Jerry Lee was estranged from all the people at Mercury who could or would set him on the right course; the divorce was swift and as amicable as it could be considering that one party was disappointed and the other was too out of it to know what was occurring. Except for overdub quickies, the last song Jerry Lee recorded for Mercury was the anorectic-rock "Pee Wee's Place," which, apparently, was a place where ennui ruled. Jerry Lee left Mercury, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a yawn. He tried to rock, but he could not; and he faded before the song got around to doing the same thing.
Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis's post-Southern Roots side for Mercury is a numbing experience, especially when compared to detailed examination of any of his four distinct previous periods: pre-scandal Sun, post-scandal Sun, pre-hit Smash, post-hit Mercury. No theme but dissolution emerges from the period; no stories worth chewing over the next day reverberate in your head. Listening to these records is like watching one of your favorite baseball players three or four years after he should have retired, in poor shape, playing only as a replacement, not particularly committed, afraid to hang up his cleats because he could not think of anything else to do but play ball.
"I thought I was indestructible," a contrite Jerry Lee told Jim Neff around the time his Mercury contract expired. "I thought the world had finally come up with a superman. I came to find out I wasn't." He was alone now, and he had to think up something new. Soon.