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100 Greatest Artists

24

Jerry Lee Lewis

Moby


Jerry Lee Lewis
Illustration by Jody Hewgill
24/100

I'd be curious to know how many pianos Jerry Lee Lewis has gone through in his lifetime. Whoever was responsible for keeping the piano in tune and making sure it didn't fall apart at Sun Studio must have wept every time he showed up to play. I don't know what switch got flipped in his brain when he was born that compelled him to play so fast and so hard, but I'm glad it got flipped.

There's a perhaps apocryphal story that when he and his cousin, the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, were children, they went to a roadhouse and listened through the window to some amazing R&B band. Jimmy Swaggart supposedly said, "This is the devil's music! We have to leave!" But Jerry Lee just stood there transfixed and couldn't tear himself away. He was an evangelist for the devil's music.

If you listen to his records, they sound more punk rock than just about anything any contemporary punk band is doing. His records sound faster than they actually are, and they sound louder than they actually are. If you listen to them on a crummy little stereo on low volume, they still sound like they're exploding out of the speakers.

Whether it's Jerry Lee Lewis or Little Richard or Gene Vincent, these guys were dripping sex and anarchy. Their records all have a sense of abandon, like they had given up all hope of commercial success or ever being respected, so they just wanted to play crazy music and get laid.

If I had a daughter, I wouldn't let her date a musician, because most of them are just too dumb. In Jerry Lee's case, if he were coming over for dinner, I would literally lock her up. The story of him marrying his 13-year-old cousin is unbearably sad. Elvis had just been drafted, Jerry Lee was about to tour England for the first time, and the scandal broke. He was never able to ascend to the throne that was rightfully his. And the piano faded because it was too big and too hard to mic. The beauty of the electric guitar is that it's small, portable, loud and easy to mic.

"Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" are the iconic singles. But if you really want to understand Jerry Lee Lewis, find some video performance of him doing "Great Balls of Fire." It's pure, narcotic rock & roll excitement.

 
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