Jerry Lee Lewis
It's December 4th, 1956. Carl Perkins and his band are minding their own business recording at Sun Studios in Memphis. Label mate Jerry Lee Lewis is helping out on piano. Johnny Cash is just hanging out when in walks Elvis Presley. Home for the holidays, Elvis, a former Sun recording artist, is now the biggest music star on the planet. Pretty soon, Perkins, Lewis, Cash and Presley are singing together in what would later be dubbed the "Million Dollar Quartet."
Looking at the four of them, Presley was clearly the star but Jerry Lee wasn't going to concede "center stage" even though he'd yet to have a hit. No qualms about going head-to-head/toe-to-toe with anybody on anything - Rock N' Roll, R&B, Gospel, Country - name it. Sure, Cash was a moody sort, given to drink and pills, but Jerry Lee was clearly even more trouble. A tormented, impulsive, self-contradictory hell raiser, Jerry Lee acted like he didn't expect to see New Year's Day ('57).
So it's kind of ironic that fifty years later, of the Million Dollar Quartet, Jerry Lee is the "last man standing."
Elvis was the King of Rock 'n' Roll. But if there is any justice in the world (and there isn't) the title would belong to The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis. By most accounts Elvis was a nice boy with a wild streak. Jerry Lee was flat-out, bad-ass crazy. Born with supreme self-confidence, he was egotistical, self-centered and incredibly talented. Arriving on September 29th, 1935 (the same year as Elvis) in Ferriday, LA, he spent a lot of time playing with his soon-to-be-famous (or infamous) cousins, Country star Mickey Gilley and television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
Jerry Lee made his first public appearance (on 11/19/49) when he was fourteen singing "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" at a car dealership in his hometown. Shortly thereafter, his dad was loading Jerry Lee's piano on the family truck and taking him from show to show.
Jerry Lee also attended the Assembly of God Institute Bible School in Texas . But his behavior got him booted out. At age sixteen, Jerry Lee married a preacher's daughter, Dorothy Barton, but it didn't last. Less than a year later he married again, this time to Jane Mitcham. That relationship made Jerry Lee a dad but the marriage soon hit the skids. Meanwhile, seeing the success Elvis had at Sun Records, Jerry Lee made the trek to Memphis in '56. After some delays, largely because label owner Sam Philips was out of town, Jerry Lee was signed. His first single "Crazy Arms" didn't do much but the follow-up was pure Jerry Lee. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," released in '57 was a song Jerry Lee had heard performed in Nashville by one of the song's composers, Roy Hall. Looking at the sheet music, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" appeared to be a standard 12-bar Blues based Rock 'n' Roll tune. Nothing too special. But in Jerry Lee's hands, with him pumping the piano and singing in that furious, yet smooth style, the song was transformed. The tempo change in the middle, allowed Jerry Lee to really 'sell' the song. But one of the greatest Rock 'n' Roll songs of all time "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" didn't have much impact outside the South. But that changed with a booking on the Steve Allen TV variety show. Steve Allen was opposite The Ed Sullivan Show and both, seeing how Rock 'n' Roll delivered ratings, were eager to display the latest rage. Jerry Lee's appearance not only shot "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" through the roof, it was the only time Allen ever beat Sullivan in the ratings.
While still married to Mitcham, Jerry Lee secretly married his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra Brown, who also happened to be his bass player's daughter. The raucous "Great Balls of Fire" went higher on the pop charts than "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" but didn't stay as long. A cover of Hank Williams' "You Win Again" was another Lewis success. As Jerry Lee's next single, "Breathless," raced up the charts he finally got a divorce from Mitcham and headed off for a U.K. tour. It was nothing short of a disaster.
When Lewis admitted he had a thirteen-year old wife there was an unabated media frenzy that not only got Jerry Lee booed off the stage, it eventually forced the cancellation of the tour. The news of Jerry Lee's marriage and apparent impropriety reverberated back to the U.S. and tanked his career.
Between the late '50s and mid '60s, Jerry Lee continued to work, if sporadically, and with limited success. On top of that, he suffered the first of many horrible personal tragedies when his son, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in the swimming pool while Myra , was preparing Easter dinner. A short time later ('64), Jerry Lee began a UK tour (with the Yardbirds). Ironically, the country that had initially shunned him turned out to be his only major Rock 'n' Roll success of the '60s.
By '68, signed by Mercury Records, Jerry Lee veered toward Country with "What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me). While Country served as his base in the '70s, he also had pop hits with Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," a cover of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" and another cover "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee O'Dee." By '70 Myra had enough and divorced Jerry Lee. Two years later Jerry Lee Jr. perished in an auto accident.
Jerry Lee's life has been a rough one. Aside from the personal tragedies already listed he survived a couple near fatal illnesses, the mysterious deaths of his fourth and fifth wives and an I.R.S. audit. His reckless behavior won him headlines especially when he showed up at Graceland intoxicated, waving a gun, or when he accidentally shot his bass player, Norman Owens, in the chest during a birthday celebration. The Owens survived and sued. Jerry Lee even did time at the Betty Ford Clinic to shake a painkiller addiction.
Jerry Lee was the subject of the movie, "Great Balls of Fire," charting his rise to fame. Starring Dennis Quaid, it was a so-so film since no mere mortal actor could possible capture Jerry Lee's wild, manic, unbridled personality. Lewis has made it into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and even has a star on Hollywood 's Walk of Fame.
Jerry Lee was The Killer. And the nickname says it all. He was simply the wildest, craziest, most talented, madman to ever play Rock 'n' Roll. And just to prove it to any doubters, he returned to the studio, with help from a "cast of dozens" including John Fogerty, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Rod Stewart - not to mention various Rolling Stones (Mick, Keith and Ronnie)- to record the '06 release, "Last Man Standing."
Many of the same musicians (Kid Rock, Fogerty, Richards, Woods, Clapton and Nelson) appeared on '10's "Mean Old Man" along with Solomon Burke, Sheryl Crow, Merle Haggard, Mick Jagger, Kris Kristofferson, John Mayer, Slash and Ringo Starr.
Jerry Lee is unmatched and untouched in Rock 'n' Roll. Until scandal tanked his career early on, Jerry Lee was the best. The proof is "Original Golden Hits-Volume 1." It has "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," the salacious "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless." The album also contains a couple Lewis penned songs, "End Of The Road" and "Lewis Boogie" where he takes on the Elvis. Rounding it out are "great as the original" covers of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" and Hank Williams' "You Win Again."
The Rhino set "Original Sun Greatest Hits" digs deeper and provides additional breathtaking performances. In the mid '60s, Lewis returned to England (the site of his downfall) and was given the welcome he should have received initially. He went on to record a live album at the infamous Star Club (The Beatles' early '60s roost) in Hamburg. The album shows Jerry Lee in all his intoxicating brilliance.
There are some things you don't do. Like reworking a Led Zeppelin song. Who would have the gall to record "Rock N' Roll" and attempt to make it his own, especially with Jimmy Page in the room? Well, when it comes to sheer nerve, Jerry Lee knows no equal. Even though Page's guitar work on the opening track of "Last Man Standing" is lean and furious, "Rock N' Roll" becomes a Jerry Lee song. And for once you can understand the lyrics (if that's a plus).
While Jerry Lee's picture is the only one to grace the cover of "Last Man Standing," (playing a flaming piano) it's far from a solo effort. Lewis gets help from contemporaries and "younger" performers (that's just about everybody else) he has influenced. The list is impressive - Eric Clapton, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen and even Willie Nelson, to name but a few.
The trouble with this kind of project is that the legend, and Jerry Lee is certainly that, often gets lost in the mix. At times, "Last Man Standing" sounds like one of those "Duets" albums. Jerry Lee does "Travelin' Band," aided by the song's composer and original vocalist, John Fogerty. The Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" gets a work out with Little Richard. Jerry Lee also resurrects his own "What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)" and is joined by Rod Stewart. With the exception of an uptempo rendition of "Honky Tonk Women," featuring none other than Kid Rock (certainly a spiritual child of Jerry Lee's), which sounds forced and strained, these pairings are appealing and fairly entertaining so long as you don't expect a definitive version of any of the songs. Besides, Jerry Lee didn't build his career singing duets. He did it all on his own. Nobody but nobody can match his slurring, confident drawl that grabs your ear and owns just about any song. When it comes to his piano playing, it's in a class by itself as notes explode in melodic bursts. This album shines when Jerry Lee does or when he is augmented by an ace like Page.
On "Mean Old Man" Jerry Lee's vocals have a gruff, raspy timbre (the ravages of age) that conveys a song's emotion with surprising depth. The title track, a statement-of-purpose Blues Rock number, is a muscular start. Kid Rock and Jerry Lee are perfectly matched on "Rockin' My Life Away" which is a close as this set gets to the vintage Sun sessions and comes off far better than their "Last Man Standing" track. Keith Richards helps power "Sweet Virginia" and Clapton delivers a tasty animated solo on "You Can Have Her," a song Jerry Lee sings with a sting of betrayal.
Performances with Jagger (on the Stones' "Dead Flowers"), Crow ("You Are My Sunshine") and Nelson ("Whiskey River") are good but far from essential. He does better on his own. Check out "Miss The Mississippi And You" and "Sunday Morning Coming Down" on the deluxe edition.
In the '60s and '70s, Lewis went Country or maybe Country accepted his brand of Rock 'n' Roll. "Killer Country" is an excellent sampler. "The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer, No Filler" is the perfect capsulation of the man's extraordinary career.
Also, like numerous '50s Rockers, Jerry Lee re-recorded his hits in the '60s. Look for the original Sun recordings.