If one tried to match the stature of Jerry Lee Lewis as a rock ‘n’ roll rebel, the end result would most undoubtedly be incarceration or death. Any rock star can abuse drugs and alcohol, but not many rockers marry their thirteen your old cousin, resulting in bigamy, or shoot a band member in the chest. We won’t even speculate on how his fifth wife died.
At his best, he embodied a wild, foreboding, dangerous rock ‘n’ roll spirit. Viewing his life as a terminal battle between sin and salvation, his fierce energy was permeated with darkness. He was dragging his audience to hell and he wasn’t happy about it. Yet, he knew that his soul was owned by a demonic temperament. Now seventy-seven years old, he no longer seems to be grappling with eternal mysteries; in 2006, Rolling Stone reported that he had spent almost a decade watching “Gunsmoke” reruns. Without further ado, here are twenty essential tracks from The Killer, listed chronologically.
1. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Originally recorded in 1955 by Big Maybelle (Mabel Louise Smith) as a mid-tempo, rhythm and blues number, Lewis increased the beats per minute and producer Jack Clement transformed the song into a rockabilly classic. The lecherous single went to #3 on the pop charts and topped both the country and R&B lists in 1957. A rock ‘n’ roll star was born. In addition to Jerry’s Moon Mullican-on-amphetamines piano playing style, note the impeccable guitar solo by Sun studio musician Roland Janes.
2. “Great Balls of Fire.” Penned by legendary rock ‘n’ roll songwriter Otis Blackwell, one can question whether the title even qualifies as a double entendre or if it just directly describes a physical sensation. Another lascivious performance, replete with the piano fills and flourishes that would become his stock in trade, “Great Balls of Fire” went to #2 on the pop charts and hit #1 in England. With these two singles, the legend was established.
3. “You Win Again.” The Killer would state for years that there had only been “four stylists” in the history of popular music, humbly noting that he was first on that list. The others were Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and Jimmie Rodgers. Hank took “You Win Again” to #10 on the country charts in 1952 and Jerry Lee pushed it to #2 on the country charts in 1957. The song was a precursor to the country music that would save his career in the late 1960s. Jerry Lee celebrated his successes in 1957 by marrying Myra Gale Brown on December 12, 1957. There have been better career moves.
4. “Big Legged Woman.” Recorded in 1958, but not released until 1969, this is a sexual R&B tune in the manner of “Sixty Minute Man.” One guesses that having Jerry Lee Lewis howl, “I bet my bottom dollar there ain’t a cherry in this house!” was not a promising commercial proposition in 1958.
5. “Real Wild Child (Wild One).” Australian rocker Johnny O’Keefe performed the original version of this often-covered ‘50s classic and it was a #1 hit in New Zealand for Iggy Pop in 1986. Like “Big Legged Woman,” this was also recorded in 1958, when his initial dance with fame was waning, but it was not released until 1974. Lewis had his last Top Ten pop hit in ’58 with “Breathless,” pushed up the charts by a co-promotion with Beechnut Gum. Viewers of Dick Clark’s American Bandstand received an “autographed” copy of the single by sending in five gum wrappers and 50 cents. You didn’t have to swallow payola in the 1950s; you could just chew on it.
6. “Keep Your Hands Off of It (Birthday Cake).” Before recording this lewd number in 1960, Jerry Lee, somewhat confused, asked, “What are you going to do with this thing?” Knowing that airplay was not a possibility, Lewis delivered a simultaneously loose and commanding performance on this carnal rocker.
7. “Mean Woman Blues” (Live). The Live at the Star Club, Hamburg album is one of the most exciting documents in the history of rock ‘n’ roll. This savage opener is one significant reason why. The contrast between the riotous performances, with Lewis being backed by the Nashville Teens of “Tobacco Road” fame, and the utterly insincere between song patter is bewildering.
8. “Hi Heel Sneakers.” Lewis recorded two live albums in 1964, the Hamburg release and The Greatest Live Show on Earth. This cover of the 1963 Tommy Tucker hit would one of his last efforts aimed at the pop/rock market until the early 1970s.
9. “Another Place, Another Time.” After a decade with no major hits, Lewis started his hot run on the country charts with this weeper penned by Jerry Chesnut, who also wrote “A Good Year for the Roses.” With the traditional country arrangement (background vocals, violin), Lewis proved he was as comfortable weeping as he was rocking. This reached #4 on the country charts and his next ten releases reached the Top Ten.
10. “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).” Written by Glenn Sutton, of “Almost Persuaded” and “You’re Good Girl’s Good Go Bad” fame, this was inspired by the Schlitz advertising slogan, “The beer that made Milwaukee Famous.” Telling the story about a man that regretfully opts for booze over a woman, Jerry Lee takes his time and displays his natural gift for the genre. Went to #2 on the country charts in 1968, as did…
11. “She Still Comes Around (to Love What’s Left of Me).” Another Glenn Sutton song, another parenthetical title, another #2 hit. Weird to hear the fiddle more prominently in a Jerry Lee song than his piano. He was wearing conservative suits at this point in his career and being positively constrained in televised appearances. Everybody loves a prodigal son.
12. “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” A Doug Gilmore/Mickey Newbury composition about a woman that put everything she had into a relationship, but for undisclosed reasons still had to leave. Lewis alternates between elooooongating the notes and then punctuating the tale with brief asides.
13. “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.” A 1969 duet with sister Linda Gail Lewis that went to #9 on the country charts. Linda released her first single at the age of sixteen in 1963 and, in the family tradition, she had already been married three times. This is a strange brother/sister duet about not wanting to cheat, but being unable to resist temptation. More than three decades after this hit, Linda Gail recorded an album with Van Morrison. Their personal and professional relationship didn’t end well.
14. “Chantilly Lace.” This cover of The Big Bopper’s (J.P. Richardson’s) 1958 pop hit went to #1 on the country charts for three weeks in 1972, a peak he would never reach again. Producer Jerry Kennedy later recalled the recording session, which included ten musicians, six background singers, and a seventeen-piece orchestra. Our hero was wallowing in booze and power that day. “It was a mess. We had an acre of people in there…and, as always, Jerry started changin’ keys, and the arranger was goin’ crazy, havin’ to rewrite stuff for the string section, ‘cause they could not just change keys like that; they needed charts. We only cut three songs that day.”
15. “No Headstone on My Grave.” In 1973, Lewis released The Session double album, which was recorded in London and included, among many others, Peter Frampton, Alvin Lee, and Rory Gallagher as part of the studio cast. “No Headstone” is a lyrically eccentric blues number written by Charlie Rich, who played it straight and soulful. Lewis transforms the song into a hard charging rocker; nobody else would describe his slave status as “motherhumpin’.” Also, check out “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” from The Session, which became a minor pop hit. Lewis performed that ode to wine guzzling at his first public performance, when he was fourteen years old.
16. “Meat Man.” Johnny Cash wasn’t the only singer to do prison gigs. In 1970, songwriter Mack Vickery released his first and only album – Live! at the Alabama Women’s Prison. Vickery alternated between writing commercial country music and filthy comedy tunes. Lewis recorded a number of Vickery compositions in the 1970s, none more eyebrow raising than this powerhouse 1974 album track about a man’s unquenchable appetite for female flesh. “I’m the meat man, you ought to see me eat, man.”
17. “Rockin’ My Life Away.” Lewis was only in his mid-40s when he recorded this in 1979, but as one of the first wave of rockers from the 1950s and having soaked his vocal chords in whiskey for decades, he sounded much older. This Mack Vickery composition was reminiscent of the spirit, if not the execution, of his early rockabilly hits. Went to #18 on the country charts. In 2010, he would record this song again, as a duet with the fabulous…Kid Rock! (Oy….).
18. “When Two Worlds Collide.” The two worlds are, of course, sin and salvation. The end result is, of course, heartbreak. Penned by Roger Miller and Bill Anderson, it was Miller’s first Top Ten country hit, reaching #6 in 1961. Jim Reeves took it to the same chart position in 1969 and it went to #11 for Lewis in 1980.
19. “Thirty Nine and Holding.” Datto, Arkansas native Bill Rice composed this number with his songwriting partner Jerry Foster, who was the pride of Tallapoosa, Missouri. They were inducted into the Nashville Songwriting Hall of Fame together in 1994. Reprising the theme of 1977’s Top Five hit “Middle Age Crazy,” this straightforward country number describes a man that still wants to live like a wild youth. This song hit a nerve with baby boomers, who were doddering into their oh-so-old mid-thirties when this was released. His last Top 40 country hit, it went all the way to #4.
20. “Mean Old Man.” Released in 2010, the Mean Old Man album was a contemporary duets compilation. The Kris Kristofferson cover/title track, which included assistance from Ronnie Wood, best matched the septuagenarian’s image and spirit. Although I’m sure modern technology helped, he still rocked with an effective, confident authority more than four decades after he first entered Sun Studio. Goodness gracious.
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