p>Nowadays, Jerry Lee Lewis is a respected country and western star, instant success following each release. Actually, he’s always been country. But he hasn’t always been such a well respected man.
These two albums of re-releases return us to the Fifties, when Jerry Lee was the Mick Jagger of his day. If his (for then) outlandishly long blond hair, wild clothing, and frenzied act didn’t aggravate the public sufficiently, he made up for it in other ways. He married three times before his twenty-third birthday; the last marriage, to his thirteen year-old cousin, came before his second divorce was final and he found himself tossed out of England as a result. Headlining several of the late Alan Freed’s cross-country rock circuses, he was crucified by the press. And when Dick Clark brought rock to prime time TV, Lewis was the opening night star. Singing “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless,” the Pete Townshend of the piano discarded the stool, pounded the keys with his elbows, and transformed himself into a golden mass of perspiration. Jerry Lee was then at his peak, but the public wasn’t ready for him, and he soon faded. His style, both on stage and off, was part of his downfall.
It’s “Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano,” as the labels of his old Sun 45s once boasted; a distinctive vocal style, a country sound, a crazed piano, a guitar break, an occasional sax. His biggest hits are here; “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and the equally good but lesser known “High School Confidential.” They remain among the best examples of pure rock. The other numbers are straight C&W or rhythm and blues, all reflecting the musical flavor of the Fifties. We have a “Teen-Age Letter,” a “Break-Up,” and “Save the Last Dance for Me.”
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Many of the lyrics and arrangements are, of course, antiquated. People simply don’t sing about “boppin’ at the high school hop” or dancin’ shoes anymore. And background “doo-wahs” are scarce today. Yet the result overshadows these distractions.
Lewis’ voice, that slow southern drawl filled with power, urgency, sureness, and sexuality, is the same sort of voice that most of the early English groups tried to recreate, and it is still the voice of today. The white use of black pronunciation (“Great Balls of Fire,” “Little Queenie”) which Lewis carried on in true country tradition is now more common than ever. His fascination with boogie (“Lewis Boogie,” “What’d I Say”) reflects a knowledge of a form that many people today feel they have just uncovered.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” speak for themselvies as Lewis’ own contribution to the permanent history of rock, and “High School Confidential” is beautiful. Here he is, ordering his woman to open her door and get her dancing shoes before the juke box blows a fuse. The music stops, he sings; it stops, he sings. The song is so fast it stuns, the voice so urgent it spells emergency. So what if they’re going to a high school hop? It could be anywhere, and it could be any fuse getting ready to blow. He also does Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” and Barrett Strong’s “Money,” long before the English “discovered” them for white audiences. Jerry Lee knew back when.
Again, while millions are only now finding country music, Lewis always knew it. The C&W numbers also show shapes of things to come, as well as what had been. “Move on Down the Line” reminds me of the putdown songs of the Stones. “Fools Like Me” and “I’ll Make it All Up to You” are country, but like much country, they are also the blues. And everyone tries his hand at the blues today. Especially with Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” do we see why Lewis is a top country figure today. The music is not as smooth as country’s Top Forty, nor is the singing. But the beginnings are there, the feeling if you want to get corny.
For me, however, “Breathless” remains his masterpiece. The piano is pumping, the voice is raw Louisiana, and only the tired adjective “frantic” can describe the song’s total effect. The gasp for air each time he confesses he’s breathless, the substitution of squeals and groans for words, the half-talk, half-sing style; everything is perfect. There is a bit of “Breathless” in most good rock today. Only the “good-ness grac-ci-ous” of “Great Balls of Fire” matches the creativity of this song.
Lewis is not a great singer, a great musician, nor does he write much. He is a great interpreter. He takes the words and the music that others have put on paper and makes them his. Not many of today’s groups have this ability. The best write their own material. The others don’t last very long. It is this ability that makes “Breathless,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin'” great.
Like a few of the other rock stars of his time, like Presley, the Everlys, and Roy Orbison, he unwittingly foresaw the future. The forecasting is one of the remarkable aspects of these albums. His rock numbers still stand up. His country flavor is again the big thing. The blues, the boogie, the monologue; it’s all here. Those who saw him in the earlier days will recall one of rock’s wildest, yet best performers. A wild white singer, Mick Jagger with a piano. Those who never saw him can visualize it all by listening to these numbers, songs running from self-pity to gloating overbearance to simple statements of fact. And Jerry Lee was a revolutionary before it became fashionable. He just did what he thought was right.
A few of the songs on the albums are truly great. Most of them are good. There are a few duds, which is remarkable considering that Sun probably scrounged through their files to find enough material for the set.
Lewis is now enjoying a revival among rock listeners as well as among country fans, but he’s only doing what he’s always done; a bit more subdued, but basically the same thing. Hearing these albums won’t conjure up visions of him singing “What Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me.” But it’s so very easy to close your eyes and be back in the balcony of the Brooklyn Fox seeing Alan Freed introduce the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis.