Jerry Lee Lewis

TrackAlbum
Jerry Lee on Sun Records
High School ConfidentialSun 296 (1958)
Crazy ArmsSun 259 (1956)
Break-UpSun 303 (1958)
I'll Make It All Up To YouSun 303 (1958)
You Win AgainSun 281 (1957)
That Lucky Old SunRecorded at Sun Studio (1957)
Big Legged WomanRockin' Rhythm & Blues
Sixty Minute ManRecorded at Sun Studio (1957)
Milkshake MademoiselleRecorded at Sun Studio (1957)
Real Wild ChildRecorded at Sun Studio (1958)
Jerry Lee after Sun Records
What'd I SayLive At The Star Club, Hamburg
Got You On My MindThe Return Of Rock
Detroit CityCountry Songs For City Folks
She Thinks I Still CareMemphis Beat
She Even Woke Me Up To Say GoodbyeShe Even Woke Me...
Me And Bobby McGeeThe Killer Rocks On
Who Will The Next Fool BeJerry Lee Lewis
Over The RainbowKiller Country
I'd Do It All AgainKiller Country
Miss The Mississippi And YouMean Old Man

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Contributors: Keith Shackleton & Dave Stephens

I’m not going to write too much back story here (but I will take a moment to recommend Nick Tosches’ wonderful “Hellfire – The Jerry Lee Lewis Story”, which is essential reading). Let’s just get straight to the music – the best of Jerry Lee Lewis is to be found on Sun Records.

OK, there’s obviously a case to be made for song selections from the rest of his career, and the album I found most difficult to omit from this list is Live At The Star Club from 1964, when a supposedly washed-up Killer, ably assisted by The Nashville Teens, made one of the most brutal, thrilling live recordings in the history of rock and roll. James Brown’s Live At The Apollo, B.B. King’s Live At The Regal, Van’s Too Late To Stop Now … Jerry Lee and friends are up there with the greats. For fans of the familiar you can find killer versions of Great Balls Of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, What’d I Say and many others on this legendary live album.

But Sun, and Sam Phillips, and Jerry Lee, is where it’s at.

There’s only one real solid gold hit here, the one I can come back to time and again and get just as much out of it as when I first heard it. High School Confidential never gets old. “Open up-a, honey, it’s your lover boy, me, that’s knockin'” – Jerry’s at the door urging the young lady to get on her rockin’ shoes and boogie on down to the high school hop. And that’s it, just a trite story, but through the sheer force of his considerable personality, hammered piano, stinging bursts of guitar from Roland Janes and no little lyrical repetition, Jerry brings it home.

Some of you out there may have been thinking Jerry’s just an unsubtle, bellowing, hamfisted piano-pounder. But hang on a minute … let’s listen closely to some of the results of an astonishing solo session at Sun from May 1958. Let’s just pin back our ears and listen to the man and his piano, with no band to distract us. Start with Crazy Arms, which begins a studio snippet of Jerry wondering whether he can remember the words (to what was his debut disc for Sun!). Apart from one tiny fluff, the products of his left and right hand, and his singing, effortlessly interweave. The hell-fire version of Break-Up from the same session is blistering piano playing … it really doesn’t get any better than this (although a very close second is Johnny B. Goode recorded at the same sitting).

And let’s concentrate chiefly on Jerry’s vocal on I’ll Make It All Up To You: his control is remarkable, and that’s what makes him one of the best (if not the best) interpreters of Hank Williams.

Play the band-augmented You Win Again (with or without backing vocals), and hear just how good he is: his grip on the line “this love of miiine” especially. He holds it perfectly and just soars. For the best of ‘Country Jerry’, in a spiritual mood, again solo on the piano, try That Lucky Old Sun, a transcendental take on the 1949 Frankie Laine classic.

Of course, Jerry was torn between playing both these spirituals and sinful rock and roll. Anyone who hasn’t heard his discussion with Sam Phillips on the subject can find it here, because for the remainder of the selection, we turn back towards the devil’s music, with a couple of frankly quite filthy songs, even for today, let alone the late 50s.

The extraordinarily rude Big Legged Woman is the best of “Lascivious Jerry”. I first heard it on an old NME compilation tape called Pocket Jukebox (curated by the great Roy Carr) and it was the standout song of a very strong classic-crammed collection, a swaggering, leering performance that jumps out of the grooves, concluding with the wild, and inaccurate, exclamation “It’s a hit!”. It wasn’t, and given the times, could never be. “Big legged woman, keep your dresses down, now I swear honey, you got something up under there mama, that make me wanna lay down” and “… that’d make a bulldog hug a hound”. Oh my. I feel … tainted, somehow.

But wait, Jerry’s off again, boasting and a-bragging in the terrific rocker Sixty Minute Man. Just the sixty minutes, Jerry? Oh, that’s right, four or five times a night, I get ya. Some wonderful bouncy piano-thrashing on this one, and Roland Janes throws in whiplash guitar lines to top it all off as Jerry blows his top.

And another couple of flame-on performances to highlight before we’re done. Awesome control from all the band on the speedy alternate version of Milkshake Mademoiselle which sacrifices a little of the gay abandon, but ultimately is a brilliant ensemble performance; everyone is totally on the money all the way through and the results are thrilling.

And finally, Cyril … Real Wild Child (aka The Wild One). Jerry and the band are barely in control this time; it’s the wildest, freest take on Johnny O’Keefe’s classic Australian rock and roller you’ll ever hear, hurtling along to a stumbling crash stop in just under two minutes. Iggy Pop? Get out of town. Jerry Lee Lewis is the man.

Phew. I don’t know about you, but I’m heading off for a cold shower!

Keith Shackleton

 

 

Keith paid tribute to the brilliance of Jerry Lee at Sun Records. I’d go further and remark upon the quite incredible level of consistency of the man over the few years he was at the label. Check out any of the multi CD sets from the Sun era and you’ll be hard pushed to find a bad track. Most were recorded in one or two takes, usually with only Roland Janes (guitar) and Jimmy Van Eaton (drums) plus occasional overdubbing from Sam Phillips. He just went from one killer track to another – pardon the pun – knocking out rockers, oldies, blues, country – and anything else you could think of and making it all sound like fresh, sparkling Jerry Lee.

He never attained anything like that plateau of excellence again but just occasionally there were eruptions of creativity which rivalled the Sun tracks. You couldn’t keep a spirit like Jerry Lee tamed for fifty odd years without a few flares of virtuosity and panache, and I’m using this addendum to draw the reader’s attention to a few of those highlights.

1964 – Keith referred to Live At The Star Club, Hamburg, a location which readers might associate more with a learning experience for the Beatles. Jerry brings back memories of the boys with his version of Money and beats both Barrett Strong and the fab four with his almost frightening take on the song. But while I could have gone for any track in the set – it’s that good – I’ve selected What’d I Say which he propels at an alarming rate ending with oodles of extemporisation climaxing in a final yodel. In between he manages to find time to chuck in a portion of Turn On Your Lovelight.

1965 – The title of the first Smash/Mercury LP, The Return Of Rock, gave an idea of what the label intended but the results were mixed. I’d mark it as good rather than excellent. A cover of Cookie and the Cupcakes Got You On My Mind, was among the highlights. A medium tempo blues of the type often created by Ivory Joe Hunter, it was beautifully delivered by Jerry and the backing was spot on.

1966 – This was the year when Smash made their first attempt to identify Jerry with country music. The album was Country Songs For City Folks and it consisted entirely of covers of popular country songs that had scored recently with several having crossed over to the pop chart. It’s mainly famous for containing a version of Green, Green Grass Of Home which got picked up by a lad from Pontypridd – you know the rest. Although Tom has always given credit to the Jerry Lee version it didn’t do the latter much good at the time. I was torn between choosing Green Grass or Detroit City and eventually went for the last named. It also got picked by TJ as his follow-up which made the identification of the source to this album even easier.

By day I make the cars and by night I make the bars

1966 (a few months later) – Smash reverted to a more typical mix of covers plus some mildly rocking originals for Jerry’s next LP, Memphis Beat. There was one country song included and that was George Jones’ She Thinks I Still Care which was an even stronger pointer to our man’s future career in the genre (even though that was still a couple of years away). It’s a song that had been covered quite a few times but I’d take Jerry’s cut over George’s original and all the other versions. Yes, I could be biased. I did encounter the Killer’s take first but even after a lot of listening I’m sticking with Jerry. It’s worth noting that at this time and, indeed, for the first couple or more albums from Another Place, Another Time onwards, Jerry played these songs straight. There were none of the “This is the Killer speaking” type additions which eventually marred much of the later country output.

I’d add that, in my opinion, this is the first one of the Smash country offerings to sound entirely natural. Jerry had lived the song, or that’s what you come away with. And that comment applies also to those tracks from Another Place and its follow-ups. Country weepies were a natural match for the Lewis life style, hence the conviction. Those years between the early successes at Sun and his reincarnation as a country performer had been hard for Jerry. The child bride affair in England in ’58 and his resultant rejection by civilised society – or that’s how it must have been perceived by someone with Jerry’s pride – would have continued to rankle. He also lost his three year old son to a swimming pool accident in ’62. By the time he’d effectively returned to country music in the mid to late sixties he’d encountered a lot more of life’s little ups and downs – to quote Charlie Rich – and that experience was apparent in the records. And the fact that he (or more likely his producer) was dab hands at selecting the best of the material around didn’t do any harm either.

1968 to 1971 approx – I’m getting ahead of myself. There were a couple more unremarkable albums before Another Place, Another Time, the one that gave Jerry his entrée into the US Country Chart. It yielded a couple of top five country hits via the title track and the superbly titled (and superbly empathic), What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me). But I’m skipping a few albums and going for She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye as my favourite from this period. The song was the first of several to be written by Mickey Newbury and recorded by Jerry. I’ve often pondered the differences between these two; Jerry very much in-your-face but Mickey the sensitive soul who liked to include rain noises between tracks on his albums. This song was to go on to be a big crowd pleaser on stage.

I’d add that the album She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye was the most entertaining of Jerry’s country period. There were several fine performances in addition to the title track – Ivory Joe Hunter’s Since I Met You Baby almost made my list as did the Killer take on Jimmie Rodgers’ Waiting For A Train. At this phase, roughly mid-way through the ‘country years’, Jerry had loosened in his approach to country material but not to the extent that he over-indulged the embellishments.

1972 & 1973 – Jerry’s peak as a country artist was probably at the turn of the decade. After that things just got more samey and our man resorted to adding self-centred punctuation to liven things up. In small doses this was fine but Jerry was never one for small doses and too many repeats of “This is the Killer speaking” just got up one’s nose. Even while he was riding high in the country charts Mercury were making attempts to achieve success in the more lucrative pop field. The Killer Rocks On, The Session (recorded in London) and Southern Roots were three such efforts. The first named is recommended though its title was a slight misnomer; it only contained a few really retro covers, the rest were more varied and included some soul & contemporary stuff. His version of Me And Bobby McGee from the latter grouping is for me the best recording of this song. It’s little more than a romp but a vastly enjoyable one. Perhaps Jerry’s infectious keyboard rattling on this and several of the other tracks on The Killer Rocks On were an indication of how bored he was getting with straightjacket country.

And that’s one hell of a fade.

I find my attitude to Southern Roots varies depending on mood. On this one Jerry had support lined up from a number of big names including Carl Perkins, Tony Joe White, the MG’s plus the Memphis Horns. It’s almost as ferocious as the Star Club live set and not short on sexual innuendo. My suspicion is that the presence of these big names pushed our man’s competitive button hard resulting in some OTT performances. However the (slightly) more relaxed numbers were very good – Born To Be A Loser almost made my list.

1979 & 1980 – There were plenty more country albums but moments of inspiration were elusive. In ’79 Jerry switched to Elektra and three albums resulted, of which the first and last were possibly the best of the post-Sun Period. Jerry Lee Lewis contained some sharp little rockers; ballads from that hinterland between country and soul, and, surprisingly, one of the better #BobCovers in Rita Mae. And it had James Burton on axe. The world-weary Lewis take on Charlie Rich’s Who Will The Next Fool Be is, in my book, up there with both the author’s original and the splendid version from Bobby Bland. Jerry was back but could he or would he keep it up?

Album #3 on Elektra was back in familiar territory as implied by its name, Killer Country, but one of its highlights was another surprise: a golden oldie in the shape of Over The Rainbow. It shouldn’t have been a surprise; there’s evidence of Jerry’s love for old songs scattered throughout his career including the excellent That Lucky Old Sun included in Keith’s ten. But this might be his best interpretation of a ‘standard’. The extemporisation is present both on piano and in the vocal, but it’s done with the greatest of affection and, dare I say, taste.

There were several songs on the Elektra albums on the theme of mortality, seemingly a new concern for Jerry. (Another surprise to us fans – we’d always thought that Jerry saw himself as immortal.) Best of the lot was I’d Do It All Again:

Well, the band was on its final break
When he came walking in
The lies that showed more than his age
He was drunk, worn and thin

Autobiographical? Of course. And did Jerry mean every word? Of course.

And he said, “What would you give to hear a song?
What prize do memories bring?
It ain’t every day you get
To hear a living legend sing”

2006 to 2010 – While he’s still actually with us albeit with dimming powers, something of a coda to the Lewis career was provided by three albums released during the noughties, Last Man Standing to Mean Old Man. The marketing plan for these was to surround Jerry with as many stars as possible and hopefully the money would pour in. Whether anyone expected Jerry to be quite so combative, who knows, but the spirit was there even if the ravages of time hadn’t done any favours to that voice – which was more noticeable on the last named set. The mortality thing was revisited on Kristofferson’s The Pilgrim Chapter 33 – ” From the rockin’ of the cradle, to the rollin’ of the hearse the going up was worth the coming down”.

The best of these three was Mean Old Man. I gave it five stars in my Amazon review and commented: “This one trounces it (Last Man Standing) every which way! They seemed to have learned all the right lessons. It’s simply jam packed with marvellous stuff.” It was typified by a solo Miss The Mississippi And You (Jimmie Rodgers) on which Jerry the consummate entertainer is still knocking out those good old songs from that piano in the corner of the living room. Sure the voice is shot but who cares? There’s even a triumphant yodel at the end. Killer!

I’ve run out of tracks but I wanted to end on a rocker. I made some comment about moments of inspiration being elusive in the mid seventies, but here’s a performance that gloriously mixes the sacred and the profane, Don’t Boogie Woogie (When You Say Your Prayers Tonight).

Dave Stephens

 

FOOTNOTES

Multi CD sets from the Sun era. There’s more than one and the ultimate might be the 18 CD set from Bear Family. But if your purse won’t stretch, try the 128 track Snapper set entitled Sun Essentials. It’s recommended.

Jerry heard country artists such as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams from his father’s collection of 78 rpm records. Both contributors here agree that he is one of the finest interpreters of Hank Williams songs.

For six weeks in 1968 in the UK Jerry played the role of Iago in Jack Good’s Catch My Soul, the rock version of Othello. Reportedly he never played it the same way on two nights running. There’s no record of it other than an audio tape of Jerry in rehearsal. This is it.

Jerry probably picked up the song Got You On My Mind from touring with Cookie and the Cupcakes. He cut their more well known Mathilda on Memphis Beat.

“(Well they shot him in the back seat of a) Lincoln Limousine” ran the first line of another song on Memphis Beat – a JFK tribute even, set to a bright and bubbly pop tune with a riff like that in When My Little Girl Is Smiling. And Jerry’s bright and bubbly too, when perhaps a more sober approach might have been appropriate/tasteful. But Jerry was from the southern states remember. The same album also contained a version of Jimmy Young’s Housewives Choice favourite, Too Young. Was he telling us something? Maybe the first line should have been “They tried to tell us she was too young”.

Jerry’s Me And Bobby McGee appeared on the ’71 album Would You Take Another Chance On Me and the one that followed, The Killer Rocks On. Maybe he wasn’t getting quite so “bored with straightjacket country”!

What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me) was the first a series of bracketed titles that Jerry recorded during his run in the Country Chart. Others included She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left Of Me) and One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart). Contrary to popular perception She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye was not a bracketed title.

Several of the songs on Southern Roots: Back Home To Memphis (its full title) including Born To Be A Loser were likely to have been suggested by the producer Huey P. Meaux, all-round Texas/Louisiana music entrepreneur. He would have had significant involvement in the originals.

Jerry’s keen competitive instincts – see Southern Roots and Last Man Standing – were there from the start. Virtually every time he recorded a cover, and he cut a lot, there was an element of attempting to outdo the original, and he often pulled it off.

“Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story” written by Nick Tosches and published in 1982 was hailed as “the best rock and roll biography” by Rolling Stone and took the No.1 slot in an article by Sean O’Hagan in The Observer in 2006, “The 50 Greatest Music Books Ever”.

 

 

The Official Jerry Lee Lewis Website

Jerry Lee Lewis discography

Sun Records Singles Discography

Jerry Lee Lewis – Rock & Roll Hall of Fame

“Rockin’ My Life Away: Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis” by Jimmy Guterman (1991) – read it online

Jerry Lee Lewis biography (iTunes)

All of Keith Shackleton’s killer toppermost can be found on the 4CD set, Jerry Lee Lewis: Sun Essentials, which includes rarities and a 52 page booklet. Read more of Keith’s musings on music and more at his website, The Riverboat Captain and follow him on twitter @RiverboatCapt

Dave Stephens is a top 500 Amazon reviewer. His first book “RocknRoll”, a comprehensive guide to a golden era was published for Kindle in 2015. He followed this up with “London Rocks”, a chronological guide to the London American record label in the UK. Follow him on Twitter @DangerousDaveXX

Read the Toppermosts of some of the other artists mentioned in this post:
George Jones
Tom Jones
Mickey Newbury
Charlie Rich

TopperPost #147

3 Comments

  1. Peter Viney
    Dec 15, 2013

    Jerry Lee Lewis … my often repeated view is that the obvious, the best-known are indeed the best-known because they are the best. So I’d go later, it’s between Great Balls of Fire and A Whole Lot of Shakin’ for me, both of which I have as London-American 45s, so the right way to listen. Great Balls of Fire is my final choice, though I do particularly like Jerry Lee’s cover of “Little Queenie.”

    Otherwise, the biography really, really gets in the way for me. Bill Wyman has described Chuck Berry as “a really nasty guy” twice at concerts I’ve attended. I think Jerry Lee’s a whole lot worse as a person than that. “Killer” is literal. Nevertheless, “Last Man Standing” the duets album has so many interesting combinations, that I’d recommend it for “Jerry Lee album”.

  2. Keith Shackleton
    Dec 15, 2013

    There’s a deeper discussion to be had about whether our enthusiasm for an artist’s oeuvre should be tempered if that artist is dysfunctional. If their behaviour is totally reprehensible, do the sins of the artist invalidate the art? There was a brave stab at writing about this recently by Michael Hann in the Guardian. But let’s wrestle with that problem away from Toppermost.

    The best known songs are often the best, no doubt. But the reason I like so many of this selection is that, stripped of adornment (no strings, no backing vocals and often no band), the songs for me become more thrilling.

  3. Dave Stephens
    Sep 29, 2017

    Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee, a marriage made in 706 Union Avenue. You have Sun 303 present and correct, so all is well in the world. I’d have forgiven anything else if those two sides were there but you also have Crazy Arms and You Win Again. A monster of a Top Ten and well chosen words. Ta, Keith.

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