28 October 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis


It has now been confirmed that Jerry Lee Lewis has died. 

There can't be any doubt that he was the last of the true greats from the golden age of rock'n'roll; I can still recall the excitement of first hearing Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On, different from the frenzy of Little Richard's recordings but every bit as potent. In The Sound of the City Charlie Gillett had especial praise for his ability to sing, as it were, in inverted commas, never wholly abandoned like Richard but "almost always" with "an edge of detachment or even cynical derision", as though not quite buying into this "love" business:

 This detachment enabled Lewis to pace his records, and control his audiences at live performances, with a finesse few rock'n'roll singers showed. He would have needed only Chuck Berry's flair for writing songs to be a comparably important figure.

He was a big part of my discovery of rock'n'roll; I have written elsewhere of a double album of Sun sides, predating the Charly reissues, being played at an art school dance, and around the same time I used go to rock'n'roll nights at Tiffany's in Glasgow (a Monday, if I remember) where Rollin' Joe, a Jerry Lee disciple, had a residency, recreating the likes of High School Confidential.

My most recent sighting was seven years ago, in the BBC 4 three-part documentary series Rock'n'Roll America. He only appeared very briefly in Episode 1, but so uncharacteristically placid and avuncular that it came as a bit of a shock. He seemed a long way indeed from the showman I remembered from Tony Palmer's seventies documentary series All You Need is Love or the happily raving figure, sealed in his own little world, in the hypnotic raw footage of Taylor Hackford's 1987 study of Chuck Berry, Hail! Hail! Rock 'n' Roll.

I don't have a pre-prepared encomium but here is an abridged version of what I wrote at the time about the second episode of Rock'n'Roll America, in which he figured prominently:

Episode Two of Rock 'n' Roll America follows the pattern of the first programme: well-chosen clips, interviews with surviving key players and sidemen, the whole a canny mix of the story's essentials and some illuminating extra details along the way for those who already know the basics.

The focus in this episode is on the major stars once rock'n'roll was established as a force: Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. The Elvis Presley material, and the business of his singing Hound Dog to an actual canine on the Steve Allen Show, will already be familiar to most readers, although it does mean something to hear directly from drummer DJ Fontana that Elvis really didn't want to do it and as a result "didn't like Steve till the day he died."

The Steve Allen Show appearance is represented only by a few photographs - I'd guess to avoid detracting from the performance of Hound Dog which we do see (on Milton Berle's show), as this is not a series which appears to skimp on licensing the best quality clips.

Afterwards I searched out the Allen appearance on youtube, and on the surface Elvis appears game: he doesn't ignore the canine once the joke has been established or go into moody rocker mode on the other side of the studio. In fact he even seems to kiss it at one point: if it's a joke which has been foisted upon him then it's one he seems, almost literally, to embrace. 

Perhaps because there have been fewer documentaries about him, but undoubtedly aided by the bonus that he is still around to testify (what other word can you use?), the episode's section on Jerry Lee Lewis seemed more compelling. Not that the Elvis and Jerry Lee parts of the programme were wholly discreet entities: talking about Presley, the writer Robert Gordon had made the point that Elvis's movements would have come from the churches he and his mother might have attended, and Jerry Lee talks with some satisfaction of goading him in the early days:

First time I met Elvis he was walking out the front door, and I said "Just a minute, Elvis, there's one thing I want to ask you before you leave: if you died, do you think you'd go to Heaven or Hell? [chuckles] Bluntly put it like that, you know, and he said: "Jerry Lee, don't ever say that to me again!" I said: "Okay." [chuckles] I think it shook him up pretty good.
The theme which runs through the Million Dollar Quartet tapes is of the young Jerry Lee trying, not always subtly, to prove he is the equal of the RCA star, which may suggest a context for the above exchange. But the question is about his own fears as much as mischief-making or jealousy. Jerry Lee admits that the thought of his own ultimate destination "worried me to death" as a young man, and now he has every reason to have death at the forefront of his mind, which gives a new slant to the studio argument between him and Sam Phillips when recording Great Balls of Fire.

This is where the series is at its best, I think: taking something which is familiar but making it vivid through the testimony of those who were there. First, the original drummer on Whole Lotta Shaking, JM Van Eaton, describes Jerry Lee jumping on his bed while on tour to tell him he was going to hell.

We then hear a bit of that famous discussion between Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee, then we cut to Sam Phillips's son, who says:
I think my dad had to wrangle that notion out of him in order for him to feel alright about recording and  I'm not sure that he ever completely convinced himself that he wasn't playing the Devil's music.
Then we cut to the Killer as he is now, saying simply: "There was no convincing Sam there was a heaven and a hell; there was no convincing him of that," and admitting, as mentioned earlier, that he worried himself to death about whether he was going to heaven or hell.

And if you want a critical gloss there's Robert Gordon to tell us that "A lot of the early rock 'n' rollers believed in a fire and brimstone hell," reinforced by Van Eaton adding matter-of-factly that Jerry Lee's dilemma was shared by all the other Southern rockers. Van Eaton himself talks of "feeling the spirit" when playing but being uneasy about its source. Was it from the devil?

 If you haven't heard it, here is a longer version of that discussion between Phillips and Jerry Lee:

On the subject of the famed Lewis ego, Sam Phillips' son tells us that:
Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the only ones who came in here full of confidence who knew he was great.
But it's the drummer's laconic pronouncement which sticks in the mind:
Jerry was a guy who real quick became very fond of himself.
But when you see him on the Steve Allen Show (top) - not forced to sing to a plate of jelly or some such prop - you can forgive him anything. That irresistible verve transmitted itself to the nation's youth and any unease about the lyrics of Whole Lotta Shaking ("Wiggle it around ..." ) was forgotten. As Jerry himself says:
Steve Allen kind gave his stamp of approval ... Next thing I knew we was rollin' in money.

And to give appropriate credit to Steve Allen, Jerry Lee explicitly says that Allen told him he wanted Jerry on the show doing Whole Lotta Shaking "word for word" as he, Allen, had heard it.

I don't have much to say about the Everly Brothers or Buddy Holly segments, although I note someone's comment that onstage Don and Phil "seemed to know more than they were saying." I think the suggestion was that for all the coiffeuring they were not showbiz: there was something more substantial which shone through - unlike some of the teen idols who will, presumably be part of the third and final episode of this captivating series.

Looking through the show again, credit must also be paid to the imagination and intelligence behind the various montages: the movements of a black preacher intercut with Elvis doing Hound Dog, for example, and the various photographs and clips of Jerry Lee. There are so many perfectly adequate documentaries which rehash the basics that it took a second viewing to appreciate just how artfully this series has been assembled - which is entirely fitting for what may prove to be the final showcase for some of its participants. I look forward to see how the changes in rock'n'roll are handled in the final episode. 


Jerry Lee also appeared in the final episode, which started with a discussion of the impact of Buddy Holly's death.  Jerry Allison and Don Everly paid tribute to the man they knew - Don Everly at pains to stress how rare it was to have a genuine friend in the industry. The most devastating comment, however, came from Jerry Lee - not because the thought was new, but - uttered as it was by one who was there - it felt fresh and raw:

Any time you lose a talent like that everything suffers.

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