Jimmy Guterman – “Rockin’ My Life Away: Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis” (1991)

December 21, 2009 at 1:10 am (Music, Reviews & Articles)

A book written by Jimmy Guterman in 1991 which he has posted online, free of charge. He also wrote the liner notes to All Killer, No Filler: The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology, which came out on Rhino Records in 1993…


Chapter 1 — A Jerry Lee Lewis Solo

“Some people call me an idiot, but I know who I am.

I am The Killer.”

–Jerry Lee Lewis

A third of a century later, he is back where he started, and he is holding court.

It is the first night of February 1990, and Jerry Lee Lewis is once again singing and shouting in the eighteen-by-thirty-foot studio at the Memphis Recording Service, 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee, a room that once functioned as his spiritual home. Fifty-four years old, Jerry Lee doesn’t feel much like the kid from Ferriday, Louisiana, who barged into that building in September 1956, demanding that Sun Records label head Sam Phillips hear at that moment how great he was. It is not that he looks bad. He hasn’t been renovated as undoubtedly as the studio, but he as presentable as he has ever been. Jerry Lee’s wavy blond hair, newly cut, is packed tightly and neatly. It is nothing like the wild mop it was three decades ago, all flying curls and dangling strands. His defiant sneer has vanished. He has put on some weight, though certainly not the thirty-three years of girth one might expect of an entertainer in the late autumn of his career. Jerry Lee has looked far worse, as many friends, family, fans, and health-service professionals can vouch. Compared to what happened to some of his contemporaries, people like Elvis Presley – a man rarely far from Jerry Lee’s thoughts – he is in good shape.

The most pronounced difference is in his eyes. Once they were as ferocious as a pair of fireballs. That was one of the nicknames he encouraged: the Ferriday Fireball. When Jerry Lee first looked for a place in Sam Phillips’s dream, he was as singleminded as a kid who knew he was talented could be. He stared straight at the person he was addressing, certain that his God-given prowess could sway anyone. Indomitable, Jerry Lee employed false modesty if he thought it would help him, so the directness in his eyes could be misread as earnestness. He was powerful, he knew he was powerful, and his eyes were among the first weapons he employed. Now his gaze wavers, and not merely because he needs reading glasses. He looks down or looks away almost as frequently as he locks in with another’s eyes. Jerry Lee can still size up or dress down someone if he so deigns. When he bothers to use them, his eyes are as unrelenting as they have ever been. Yet the decades have made them something they never were in his salad days: now they are unpitying. If Jerry Lee bothers to notice someone new crossing his path in a studio or a backstage somewhere, it usually is not to beget a friendship.

Friendly or not, Jerry Lee is intent on being a professional tonight, and that means appearing to be committed to his work and not in the condition that his legend often necessitates. But from the moment Jerry Lee first arrived in Memphis thirty-three autumns back, “good shape” for the Ferriday boy was always a relative term. How could a twenty-year-old kid about to careen into his third marriage of dubious legality be in good shape? How could a religious young man tortured by the suspicion that he was playing evil music and committing loathsome acts be in good shape? Jerry Lee’s subsequent behavior, by turn destructive and self-destructive, was well-documented as it happened; many of his legions were sure that it was his honesty that brought him down so many times. His self-inflicted punishments went far beyond what any fair court or deity would mandate. (There could be no jury of his peers, of course, because he knew he had no equals.) Jerry Lee’s death was reported once and expected several times more, but he laughed at how the public view of his life had led to such expectations. He was The Killer, he would tell anyone who came within earshot, and he would last as long as he damn well wanted. He was in charge.

But he is not a kid anymore. His most purposeful performances of the past decade and a half – songs like “Middle Age Crazy,” “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again,” “Thirty-nine and Holding,” and “Rockin’ My Life Away” – derive much of their considerable staying power from Jerry Lee’s knowledge that his glory days, at least in terms of Billboard chart standings, are now mostly the stuff of myth and memory, and from his fear that his time as a top-rank performer has passed. Jerry Lee Lewis is not content to be a good singer and pianist who was once one of the greats. He wants only to be the best at this instant, and his terror is that of the aging competent who remembers.

Kids don’t smoke custom pipes. Jerry Lee may have driven to the studio from his ranch in northern Mississippi in a flashy powder-blue-topped Jaguar that screams his idea of rock-star attitude, yet he reads the words to the tune he chooses to sing tonight, “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me),” through the half-height reading glasses that edge down to the tip of his nose. He concentrates, tests phrasings, listens, lets his gaze glide up and down the room’s eleven-foot-high walls, concentrates, swigs some of the song’s namesake, and asserts himself at irregular intervals.

Although “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” is as strong a new tune as any he has recorded in the past four years (skeptics may consider this faint praise), Jerry Lee’s recording of the number is essentially a contrived event. Quite simply, he lucked into the gig. The producer, Andy Paley, wrote the song with Jerry Lee in mind more than a decade ago when he was a staff writer for Warner Publishing and Jerry Lee was one of the rulers of country radio. For reasons too obscure and random to recount, the song was not then presented to the Killer. Now Paley is supervising one element of the soundtrack for a film version of the Dick Tracy comic strip, following director and star Warren Beatty’s directive that the movie’s music should reflect his version of what Chicago radio might have sounded like in the 1930s. “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” fits into that niche; it’s a pleasant, if not spectacular, trot along the pep side of Bob Wills-style western swing. The blame-the-booze-not-the-boozer lyrics of the song are not particularly convincing, but they do appear custom-made for Jerry Lee’s latter-day recording persona. “Think about it,” he often says between takes, more as an ominous general warning than as a reference to anything specific.

Now in the fourth decade of his professional recording career, Jerry Lee is used to putting across songs custom-written for him. He is a stylist, he likes to say, not a writer. His own rare compositions tend to be slight and formulaic. One of his greatest gifts is to take a composition, even one associated with another performer, and redefine it in such a way that others’ versions of the song no longer matter. Custom-written numbers don’t show up in his mailbox as frequently as they did back when Paley wrote “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me),” so Jerry Lee is luxuriating in the tune. He is also savoring the knowledge that this tune will appear in what will likely be a hit film. He has suffered bad luck with films lately: his contribution to the film K-9 Cop was a dog, and his own biopic, Great Balls of Fire, portrayed him as a grotesque somewhere between Gomer Pyle and the Disney dog Goofy. So he is working, extra hard, on “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me).” He needs a hit. He wants a recording deal again.

A playback of the tune fills the studio, Jerry Lee’s voice darting between horn blasts. The mood in the room is buoyant but professional. “I can’t figure it out, but it sounds great,” Jerry Lee hears someone, he’s not sure who, tell him. “All of it sounds great. Awesome.”

Jerry Lee pushes his glasses up his nose, grins, and points at the ingratiating speaker. ‘He knows somethin’, but he ain’t saying’ nothin’.” Jerry Lee laughs and prepares to take control of the situation. It is the sort of thing he likes to say he can do in his sleep.

“I’m being serious,” he hears.

“Well, I appreciate that.”

“I am being honest,” he hears.

“I appreciate you for saying that, young man,” Jerry Lee says, in one of the trademark expressions of feigned deference that still charms fans and seduces producers and executives. Others think they are in charge, but Jerry Lee knows better. “I just want to know. I’m watching people in the room and I get real sensitive. I watch people’s eyes. Now who is this guy here? Hey, who are you?

“That’s James,” producer Andy Paley pipes in.

“Come here, boy,” Jerry Lee instructs and the young man walks toward him. “Who are you?”

“I’m James. I’m the studio manager.”

“OK, James. What do you think?” Jerry Lee is insecure. His last single that crossed over from Billboard’s country charts into its more lucrative pop list slipped off more than sixteen years ago. He needs a hit, but he also needs to play, and he appears more alert for this face-off than he was for some of the vocal overdubs he committed to tape earlier this evening and the night before.

James is nervous and, like many young men, southern U.S.A. and elsewhere, his discomfort summons up his manners. “I think it sounds real good,” he says. “We got a lot of good vocals on there. Last night I liked everything that was on there. Tonight I love everything. And if Andy says he likes it–”.

Jerry Lee interrupts James and points at him. “Do you love God?” he demands. Those looking carefully can discern a hint of the old spark behind his reading lenses.

James keeps talking, hoping that he can return Jerry Lee’s attention to the tune “it’s gotta be good. He can’t lie–”

“Do you love God?” Jerry Lee drawls again.

As he looks around, Jerry Lee takes in the large photographs on the wall, all taken during Sun’s fifties heyday, a time label head Sam Phillips had moved on from his seminal blues productions–he was the first to record Chester Burnett (aka Howlin’ Wolf), among many other top-rank bluesmen – to a blues-drenched form of country-and-western that, after some woodshedding, exploded into rock and roll. Phillips’s grinning image is on the wall. Jerry Lee is there as well, along with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and several other white performers who helped make the Memphis Recording Service the center of the pop-music universe.

Once upon a time, Jerry Lee was the reddest, hottest core of that center, and he stretched it when he could. In October 1957, anxious to deliver a worthy follow-up to his million-selling Sun smash “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” Lewis settled into the studio one evening to take a pass at “Great Balls of Fire,” a submission from ace New York songwriter Otis Blackwell. Lewis was accompanied by guitarist Roland Janes and drummer J.V. Van Eaton, the core of his band, although Janes did not play on the released version. Missing was the fourth member of his stage quartet, Jerry Lee’s cousin and future father-in-law, J.W. Brown. Another Sun regular, perhaps Billy Lee Riley, a star in his own right, toyed with an upright bass but went mostly unheard.

Jerry Lee, the only great rock and roller who also had been expelled from the Southwestern Bible Institute of Waxahachie, Texas, was exploring “Great Balls of Fire” before attempting to record it for a single when he noticed the frankly Pentecostal imagery of the song’s title and he flipped out. Shouting “H-e-l-l!” he launched into a protracted argument with producer Phillips that was as brazen and enthusiastic as the song in question. The altercation exemplifies two of the great Jerry Lee Lewis dilemmas: his desire to be both the most profane pop performer and the purest purveyor of sacred music, and his demand for permission to hop from one to the other at whim. Never in the argument did he suggest that he wouldn’t record “Great Balls of Fire.” The dispute took in all sorts of Biblical quotations, some of which Jerry Lee made up, and its intensity was in no way compromised by the inebriation of the debaters. Jerry Lee demanded that Phillips accept Jesus Christ as his Savior; Phillips demanded that Jerry Lee interpret the Bible in a new way; the underpaid sidemen tapped their instruments and mumbled that they wanted to cut the song already and go home.

Jerry Lee and Phillips loved this kind of brawl, but this quarrel was not only amusement, even if they both were entertained by it. Jerry Lee had recorded a version of the song a few weeks earlier for the soundtrack of the film Jamboree, so undoubtedly he knew all the words before that evening. His testiness was replaced a few minutes later by expressions of desire that were far more worldly. They loved to face off, show off, and (although each was too proud to admit it) learn from the other.

Tonight at 706 Union there is no one with the authority to counter Jerry Lee, no one who can stand with him among the giants pictured on the walls. So tonight he will solo and see whom he can draw into his wake. Jerry Lee is playing a game.

His question to James, “Do you love God?”, hangs in the air. This time James knows he cannot run away. ‘Yes sir, I sure do,” he says.

“Are you a Baptist?” Jerry Lee inquires. As with most of his recent solos, he has waited a moment before picking up steam.

“A Baptist Christian,” James responds, stating his affiliation precisely in an attempt to ward off future questions. He is not smiling.

Jerry Lee smiles as he leans toward his punch line. “I knew you were fucked up.”

“Uh oh,” James says.

“You know the only thing wrong with Baptist folk?” Jerry Lee asks.

“What it is?” James plays along.

“They just need to get saved,” Jerry Lee says. Sacred issues are as omnipresent in his mind as memories of Elvis, but that does not mean that he will address them in a sacred fashion. The half-dozen folks in the studio absorb the outburst and act as appalled as their jaded selves can be.

Alas, James makes the mistake of taking Jerry Lee seriously. “Oh! My grandfather was a preacher. I’m not gonna tell him–”

“Young man,” Jerry Lee says, “I’m just putting you on.”

“I know it.” James swallows.

“Baptist folks are good,” Jerry Lee continues. “They just don’t preach the full gospel.”

“I’m not as good a preacher as I ought to be,” James admits.

Jerry Lee has his invitation. “Well, let me go back to where we started: the Book of Acts, second chapter. Read it. Pentecostal. You are what you are. You’re realistic and you’re real – or you’re not.” He looks toward the control room. “Now I’m watching you people in there and I know what you’re thinking. I know what you’re thinking, I know what you’re looking at. You ain’t fooling Jerry Lee Lewis for a minute.”

“I’d never try to,” James says, once again on the defensive. “You’ve been around long enough to read me the Book.”

Jerry Lee chuckles. “Now that boy’s got a little more sense than I thought he had. That’s good.”

James goes on, too nervous to stop now. “He’s got us jumping in there so fast we ain’t got time to think.”

Distracted, Jerry Lee turns away from James for a moment and studies the oversize photograph of Elvis on the wall. “Now if I could just recall this dude back here for about fifteen minutes,” he says, gesturing toward the larger-than-life king of rock and roll, “we could show you a trick.” He nods, swigs, and continues. “Never be another Elvis Presley. He had that something. Dynamic, you know, something that would make you want to drive ten thousand miles to see him if you only had fifteen cents in your pocket. You’d get the money somewhere to go. Ain’t nobody could outdraw Elvis Presley.”

“I never had the honor of meeting him,” Paley says.

“Really?” Jerry Lee fakes incredulity. “Well, we had some good times right here in this old studio out here. He told me, he said, ‘Wh-what’s goin’ on?’” Jerry Lee stops for a moment, delighted that his Elvis imitation catches some of his dead peer’s self-mocking mannerisms. “He said, ‘Wh-why did you, you didn’t have to go into the Army?’ I said to him, ‘Shit, I never was that crazy.”

“He got a little upset about that,” Jerry Lee says after he stops laughing. “But he was some man. He served his time, he done it. He was so far ahead of his time.” He lowers his voice. “He was so great.” He begins to sing a line from a tune associated with Presley – “Landlord ringing on the front door bell” – and then imitates Presley’s Sun-period vocal stutter: “B-b-b-baby, baby, b-b-baby.”

Again, he laughs. “Well, he had something different, didn’t he? He was a real gentleman, son. I’ll never forget – I know people don’t want to hear this bullshit I’m talking about – he pulled out right here and parked, he had that 1956 Lincoln Mark I, I believe it was, I think it was. White one. When he got out of the damned car, I wanted to see what he looked like. He rolled out of that car and he walked in and he looked just exactly like he looked – dangerous. We had some times. But those days are going, aren’t they?”

“Not completely,” someone pipes up. “We got Jerry Lee.”

“Well, ole Jerry Lee is really trying to get it together,” he continues. “I know I haven’t quite gotten there yet, like I really needed to get there, but I am really working on it with everything I’ve got to get it there. I’ve had a rough struggle. I got strung out for a couple of years on all kinds of drugs, junk, whiskey, and everything else. And you just got to back off, man, or you’re not gonna make it. Record companies are not gonna buy you, they’re not gonna produce you, they’re not gonna release a record on you, they’re not gonna back you up, if you don’t back yourself up.”

Caught up in his own preaching, his voice rises: “And they can spot you a mile off if you’ve got a shot of Demerol or something. They can detect it just like that.” He snaps his fingers. “Whiskey’s bad enough, but that other kind of stuff man. Brother, I don’t mean to be getting into that, it’s just a pleasure talking to somebody. You’re one of the sharpest people I’ve talked to.”

“Well, that’s a huge compliment coming from you.”

By now, few in the room remember that they are here to help Jerry Lee finish the vocals to “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me).” They are witnessing a performance. Jerry Lee loves it. Except for the informality, for him there is no difference between playing a sold-out thousand-seat hall or a studio with half a dozen professionals and hangers-on. He is still performing. “People talk to you somehow, they talk to me, they get so, I don’t know, they just talk in circles. They think they’re fooling me, they’re trying to put something over on me and I can’t hear a prayer.”

Suddenly, he remembers what is really on his mind: “Weeds die and roses bloom, but I can’t figure out what to do with that fucking wife.”

Jerry Lee’s laughter has become more hoarse as his mind wanders outside the studio to ponder his latest public argument with his wife, Kerrie, and her father, Jerry Lee’s on-again/off-again manager. “She really made me mad this trip,” he says. His phrasing owes much to his whiskey. “I told her she ought to go back to her daddy, her manager, Bob McCarver.” He laughs loudly. “Well, I’m hotter than fresh-fucked sheep!” He laughs again. “Woo! That broke me out in a sweat. Lord, you’re gonna pay for what you did wrong, you know that.”

“It’ll come back to you,” Paley says.

“Don’t it?” Jerry Lee continues. “What goes around comes around, what comes around goes around. Well, I’ll tell you one thing, I’ll never get married again if I live to be three thousand years old!” His voice rises the eleven feet to the ceiling. “I’ll swear to God that’s the truth! Mark my word on that! Jerry Lee’s had his share of women, but they always seem to leave. Thank God for some favors.” He chuckles. “Well, my life would make a damn good country song, son. I’ve been there. And I’m still a living, a living motherhumper.”

He fingers the keys of his piano and keeps talking. “I know some things. I’ve learned some things. I’ve got to get with it.” He talk-sings the first lines from his 1975 hit, “A Damn Good Country Song”: “I took enough pills for the whole damn town/Jerry Lee Lewis, he done drunk enough whiskey to lift any ship off the ground.” He chuckles, and pays more attention to his singing. “God knows, I’ve earned my reputation/But they’ll never let me get my salvation/My God, Jerry Lee would make a damn good rock-and-roll song/I’ve had my share of women, son/But they always seem to leave.”

Now he’s singing full power. “I’ll put me another quarter in that pinball machine/Yes, Jerry Lee’s been wrong/Looks like the change that came over me took a little too long/My life would make a damn good country song/Jerry Lee Lewis’s life, son/Would make a damn good country song.” He ends with a flourish.

“There you go,” he says as applause fills the room.

Having warmed up, Jerry Lee believes he is now prepared to cut the number he’s there for; his announcement, “Let’s cut it,” throws the assembled off-guard. “Well, now that I’ve psychoanalyzed everybody and proved myself wrong again, I thank you for talking with me, Killer.” Call someone else by my most persistent nickname, he thinks, and he’ll be loyal to me for life. “I need to talk sometimes, I need help sometimes. Nobody wants to talk to me. They just look at me like I’m crazy or something. You’re a good man. I’ll tell you what, I think I might just start recording here.”

Applause.

Jerry Lee testifies to himself (so much for “Let’s cut it”). “As a matter of fact, I swear to God, last night I laid in my bed this morning, about four-thirty, I said, ‘That’s where I’m gonna start doin’ my records.’ And nobody could tell me, but this is something I had to make up my mind to do. I don’t know, I just made it up when I came in last night, I got to thinking about it. This is home!” Others in the room murmur their assent. “You gotta go back home, man, the prodigal son, man, you know. Hell, I done blowed and strowed and it’s time to get back in the saddle. Open me with welcome arms, daddy.”

Jerry Lee mumbles, pauses, and adds, “Well, now that I have disbursed all the ignorance of my great thoughts and thinking of my casual-type, nimble brain, let’s record” After a verse and chorus from Ray Price’s “For the Good Times,” a longtime standard in Jerry Lee’s stage show, he is indeed ready. “Hey man, this damn song could be the biggest thing. God, I wish I’d’ve gotten a hold of this thing with a band.” Quickly, Jerry Lee remembers that he is at the Memphis Recording Service tonight to make Paley happy, so he changes his tune. “But then again, you’re not going to beat the band you’ve got on there. But you see, Andy, I’ve got a bad hangup, a bad problem with overdubbing. I never thought I could overdub.”

Paley encourages. “But somehow you could.”

“Well, I did,” Jerry Lee answers, his ego rising. “I went in and did the vocal on ‘Middle Age Crazy’ a month after I put the track down. I hadn’t done it before.”

“You’d never know,” Paley says.

“No, and it was a big record,” Jerry Lee reminds himself.

“Let’s try it,” Paley says. You’re overdubbing good.”

“This is a hit,” Jerry Lee says. “Now I think I can cut a hit on this song. Let’s get with it.”

The next take is a strong one, Jerry Lee somehow finding new nuances in a number that he has by now sung dozens of times. “Boy, that song’s something else,” Jerry Lee says after he finishes. “Damn, that song excited me. Ain’t nothin’, son, got me out of bed, son, in the last ten years.”

“I’m proud of that,” Paley says. He has waited ten years for Jerry Lee to cut the track; he is not kidding. “Glad to be of service.”

“Glad to be a servant,” Jerry Lee mimics.

A few more passes at “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” yield nothing special. By the third effort Jerry Lee is playing around, showing off, leading into sloppy solos with improvised couplets like “If you can find a stool high enough/You can kiss ole’ Jerry’s ass.” He apologizes.

“It’s all right with me,” Paley says.

“No, I just want to get my voice opened up, Killer. It’s taking me a little while. When my wife comes back, it’ll close up again.”

The next take deteriorates into more improvised couplets: “I guarantee you this/It was the whiskey that made me want to piss/It was the whiskey doing things like this.”

“Sorry, Andy,” Jerry Lee says. “Fuck, I ain’t sorry. John Wayne said, ‘Never apologize. It shows a sign of weakness.’ I ain’t apologizing; I’m just saying I was wrong.”

By now, Paley is satisfied enough with the various takes to know that he can piece together a full performance from the many takes. He is almost home. He says, “This is the only line we need right here: ‘Just lettin’ off a little steam.’”

“Whoever wrote that is baaad,” Jerry Lee says.

Andy repeats: “Just lettin’ off a little steam.”

“I’m just playin’ with you, son,” Jerry Lee says and belches as Paley repeats, “Just lettin’ off a little steam.”

Jerry Lee decides to comment on his expulsion. “Now that was the most ill-mannered, ridiculous, uncouth thing that I’ve ever done in my fucking life.” He gestures toward the lyric sheet that has fallen to the floor. “Now hold that damn piece of paper up where I can see it and let’s get to letting off some steam.”

He sings the line and then decides it’s not true. “Just lettin’ off some steam/ Well, that’s a bunch of shit. I’m the meanest motherfucker that ever shit through a meat ass.” Paley laughs, Jerry Lee and Paley duet the verse in question, and Jerry Lee quickly loses interest.

I’m sounding worse all the time,” Jerry Lee says after another aborted take. Now he yells. “I’ll drink this whole fucking filth if I don’t get mad in a minute and kill! I’m really getting upset. Call Sam.” Then, quieter, “Please don’t do that.”

Paley feels the session getting away from him. “Please don’t get upset,” he implores.

“I’m as nervous as a queer at a weenie roast,” Jerry Lee says. “I oughta married one o’ them Rock Hudsons or somebody, I would’ve been better off.”

Another overdub attempt is closer to what Paley wants, but Jerry Lee wants more. “Why don’t we do the whole song?”

An alarmed Paley says, “That was good, though. Let’s get the ending.”

“Yassuh,” Jerry Lee says. “Yassuh boss.”

More overdubs follow, and eventually Paley gets what he wants. Yet completing the song is anticlimatic. The show Jerry Lee is putting on tonight is greater than any movie-soundtrack tune. “Are we outta here?” Paley asks.

Jerry Lee sings and plays his response, improvising half-remembered words to a half-remembered melody:

“Are we outta here/I think we were before I came/I think I was in vain/A motherhumpin’ man I used to be/I got news in 1990/Son, they’re see/A different motherhumper by the name of Jerry Lee/’Cos I just am what I am and I just really don’t give a damn.”

By now Paley has joined in on drums and Jerry Lee is cruising, playing far harder than he was for take after take of ‘It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me).” He sings: “‘Cos people ain’t gonna tell me what I can do/Doctor, lawyer, bum at a bar, a rockin’ motherhumper or a movie star/There’s a rockin’ rollin’ Jerry Lee Lewis from Tennessee/Memphis, Tennessee, is rock and roll, son/Nashville, Tennessee, is hillbilly heaven/I ain’t got nothin’ against ole’ hillbilly heaven/My voice is leavin’, that must mean I must have some of the devil/You demon-possessed mother, play your drums for Jerry Lee/Go back to your little girl in L.A. and tell her how true you’ve been/You/d screw up a two-car funeral with Sam Phillips in the lead/Ha ha/Thank God I’m perfect/Shine on, shine on, shine on, harvest moon up in the sky/Jerry Lee Lewis ain’t had no lovin’ since January, February, June, and July/There’s no time, baby, ain’t no time for stayin’ out late to spoon/You oughta get down on your knees for me and shine on harvest moon.”

Jerry Lee indulges himself in a brief upper-key solo and returns to his tale. “Well, Jerry Lee, he’s been waiting for a wedding in June/Honey, I might be a little hoarse but pretty soon I’ll come through/They’re gonna put a coon on the moon in June or the jig is up they say/Probably be old Charley Pride I pray, pray, pray, and pray.” He solos through the nervous laughter, plays another chorus, and resolves into a standard: “Mona Lisa, Mona Lisa, men have named you.” Paley’s drums nearly swing and Jerry Lee’s piano certainly does, until the Killer loses interest and complains, “Pick it up son, you’re draggin’ on Jerry Lee. You screwed me up.”

“No I didn’t,” Paley protests as he drops his sticks.

“Jealousy. I have that problem everywhere I go.” Jerry Lee chuckles. ‘You’re draggin’ ass on me, too.”

“I’m sorry, Jerry.” Unlike James, Paley won’t be drawn out.

Jerry Lee nods an acceptance to Paley’s apology. He looks at the picture of himself and his fellow Sun artists on the wall, and he remembers once more. He looks around, taps the top of the piano, and he recalls the simple joys of discovering music in this room. That’s what he does best and the vast majority of people who have heard his name don’t know it. They know the dirt; they know defrocked televangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart is his cousin; they know Jerry Lee is rumored to have murdered one of his half-dozen wives; blah blah blah. Jerry Lee knows he should be famous for only one thing: his more than thirty years of music. Instead he is famous to most because he enjoyed two early rock-and-roll hits with suggestive titles, because he ruined his career by marrying his thirteen-year-old cousin, and because he is one of the few early rock-and-roll titans who isn’t dead.

He has suffered through years of indifference from a modern pop-music industry he helped build. He has endured books about him full of transparently made-up quotations. He has suffered through a flop film based on his life that treated him and the culture that formed him as a joke. He appears in the tabloids not for his records, but for business judgments so wrongheaded that they are matched only by his romantic miscalculations. People get so high on the myth of Jerry Lee that often many forget that the guy sings and plays piano.

Jerry Lee’s true story is in his bold, unquenched music far more than in his ultimately common deeds. It is his music that speaks loudest; it is his music that tells the greatest truths. When you’re listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, you’re listening to him rocking his life away, listening to his music. Long after he passes on and the tabloids pick at his bones (“Killer’s Ghost Disrupts Graceland Tour,” the headlines will read), his music will remain. Long after his life story is supplanted in most people’s minds by Dennis Quaid’s incompetent impersonation of him in Great Balls of Fire, his greatest records will still reveal mystery after mystery. The records will tell a story that will sway even the most fervent critic of the man. Jerry Lee Lewis lived his life through his music; we can understand his life only through his music.

Chapter 2: Ferriday

We were just farmers.

–Jerry Lee Lewis

Before we can hear the music, we need to know what led to it. “There’s only been four of us,” many have reported Jerry Lee boasting. “Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That’s your only four fuckin’ stylists that ever lived.”

The youngest of that elite group of American music originals was born poor on Sunday, September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, a medium-size city in the east center of the state, near the Mississippi border. The larger Louisiana city Alexandria was more than an hour’s drive away; the nearest community of any size was Natchez, just across the great Mississippi River. United with Mississippi by its dependence on the river, Ferriday had more in common with Mississippi boroughs than Louisiana ones, both musically and economically. It is no accident that Jerry Lee always considered Mississippi, which is all that separates Ferriday from Memphis, as much his home state as Louisiana.

Jerry Lee was the second son born into the stormy marriage of Elmo and Mary Ethel (“Mamie”) Lewis. Elmo, Jr., was closing in on his sixth birthday when his little brother showed up a bit prematurely. Those with a penchant for the romantic are welcome to suggest that Jerry Lee, born feet first, just could not wait to get into this world and start rocking. Throughout his personal and professional life, he always worked on his own schedule.

Elmo, Sr., was already rocking. A cotton farmer, he had been the victim of two horrible punches, knocked to his knees by poor harvests and then to the dry ground by the Great Depression. One of his few means of escape was his collection of Jimmie Rodgers 78-r.p.m. records; through his father Jerry Lee became a dedicated fan of the Singing Brakeman. Another one of the former bootlegger’s diversions was selling homemade whiskey without giving the government its share of his proceeds. This had already landed him in prison at least once before Jerry Lee was born.

Music and booze were no more than temporary diversions. The Lewises were poor, saved from outright homelessness only by the shotgun home lent to them by one of Elmo’s relations. They lived without indoor plumbing or electricity – the record player was a windup model. Elmo and Mamie endured frequent rows. Mamie’s anger at their economic predicament and her husband’s inability to rescue them from their insolvency vented itself frequently and Elmo would usually back off or take off. Those looking for the origin of the many battles Elmo and Mamie fought over Jerry Lee’s destiny have only to consider their son’s name. Elmo insisted that he had named the child after two relatives while Mamie stresses that she had named him either after different relatives or after one of her favorite silent-movie stars. In these ways – dire economic circumstances and a passive husband stumbling along the margins of the law – the circumstances of Jerry Lee’s first few years were similar to those of another kid, eight months his senior, who was growing up in northern Mississippi: Elvis Presley. Grafted onto this situation was something Elmo and Mamie whispered about, something called “It,” that had infected members of Elmo’s family.

Some photographs of Jerry Lee from this period have survived, and they all reveal an aspect of the Killer’s look that has also lasted, his sneer. Much has been written about the lecherousness of Jerry Lee’s smirks, but such provocativeness on his part definitely began in a presexual period. In his early years of hardship, long before he had a hint of what he was going to do with his life, Jerry Lee sported a natural sneer, one far more friendly than the one many have subsequently divined.

They did have music, and Mamie loved to hear her two Elmos sing tunes by their favorite Mississippian, Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers’s career was brief: he recorded professionally for the first time in 1927 and was dead of tuberculosis within six years. However, what his first producer called a mix of “nigger blues and old-time fiddle music,” coupled with the expressive, malleable yodeling that was his trademark, made the former railroad man an instant star.

Rodgers’s influence was diverse, immediate, and profound on the second generation of country-and-western stars. Bob Wills expanded upon his ideas about merging white rural music with New Orleans-style jazz. Tex Ritter and Gene Autry transformed his wild, romanticized tales of a brakeman’s life (with titles like “Train Whistle Blues,” “In the Jailhouse Now,” and “My Rough and Rowdy Ways”) into less adventurous, more romanticized tales of a cowboy’s life. Woody Guthrie took up his mantle as a plainspoken rambler.

Rodgers is often designated the Father of Country Music, although the elements of his style that have frequently been dismissed, such as his nasal voice and his idiosyncratic timing, are the ingredients that earned him his title. His commercial ascendancy and the success of his contemporaries, such as the Carter Family and dozen of front-porch string bands, showed that this new form of music he was inventing would have much more to do with direct, unencumbered expression than it would with the tightly arranged big bands then at the height of their popularity. Also, one did not need thirty instruments to replicate this music, and the Elmos were content to sit on the floor and harmonize with Rodgers and his primitive guitar accompaniment.

The Lewises also had church. For whites in the mostly rural South, informal evangelical sects were the rule, the rock that united families and communities. Religion, especially the more visceral variety, is frequently a refuge for those who have been mistreated in this life. Flannery O’Connor, a southern Catholic with a keen eye for the nuances of her Protestant neighbors, once said in a lecture, “While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted.” This observation, albeit somewhat flippant, alertly describes the predicament of families like the Lewises. Their everyday problems were too pressing and unavoidable for them to devote their time to much other than survival, but it was belief in something beyond this world that made it possible for them to get through day after day of drudgery and fear. At Mamie’s command, the Lewises were churchgoers, first to the local Baptist church and later to the Assemblies of God hall. What little leisure time she enjoyed went in that direction.

In his youngest years Jerry Lee was brought to a makeshift church, more a tent than a solid building, that had been founded by traveling preachers representing the Assemblies of God, one of the more popular Pentecostal sects. Pentecostalism was a culture based on separation from worldliness, and the Assemblies of God was more activist in its methods of disassociation than most. Not only did the Assemblies of God believe in the standard Pentecostal movement’s emphasis on ecstasy through glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and the purity of women through enforced plainness and rigid social morés, but it also insisted that even believers had to be repeatedly prodded along the road to salvation. It was a sect for people who wanted to be saved every day. The uninhibited Assemblies of God services were more than a little scary to the young Jerry Lee. People danced excitedly, in ways he had never seen his parents respond to his father’s Jimmie Rodgers records, and people spoke in words and ways he could not comprehend. But Jerry Lee enjoyed the Assemblies of God rituals for another reason: there was music. His uncle Willie Leon Swaggart and his aunt Minnie Bell Swaggart, who had inducted the Lewises into the Assemblies of God, brought their fiddle and guitar to the proceedings and by all accounts kicked up as much dirt with their accompaniment as did the dancers and glossolaliacs. Jerry Lee and his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart listened to Jimmy Lee’s parents play, and they were both moved by what they heard and saw. They got to sing along. They were poor but they felt like part of a community, part of a big family.

One member of the Lewis family who did not attend many of these services was Elmo, Sr., who had been arrested once again for liquor-law violations and was residing in a New Orleans federal prison. While her husband was away, Mamie held sway over Jerry Lee and impressed upon her son that his father was not worth his time. (The Elvis parallel is clear.) Jerry Lee saw his father only once during Elmo’s nearly year-long incarceration, and those circumstances were tragic. On a Saturday afternoon in early August 1938, Elmo, Jr., eight years old, was killed by a drunk driver. His father was allowed to attend the funeral, which took place on land owned by a relative, in handcuffs. The inscription on his dead son’s stone read: Budded on Earth to Bloom in Heaven.

Elmo returned from prison a few months later to learn that he might as well have stayed in New Orleans. His family, particularly the Calhouns and the Swaggarts, had supported Mamie and Jerry Lee adequately while he was away, and absence had not made Mamie’s heart grow fonder. Elmo did what his wife told him to do and complained about it elsewhere. Jerry Lee envied his father’s rough and rowdy affairs from afar, but he was and would remain his mother’s son. Jerry Lee was now singing along with Elmo’s Jimmie Rodgers records, not singing along with Elmo.

Jerry Lee grew up during World War II in several homes, including his own and the somewhat more spacious one of his uncle Lee and aunt Stella Calhoun while Elmo and Mamie hit the road briefly in 1942, chasing weapons-manufacturing work. The Swaggarts also sought such jobs. By then the Assemblies of God tent had become a genuine wood building in which Jerry Lee and his favorite cousins, Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, beheld services that were made more spectacular by an assembly line of fire-breathing preachers.

Also by then Jerry Lee had noticed the Calhouns’ spinet piano. There was an upright in the church that Jerry Lee, Jimmy Lee, and Mickey were all encouraged to explore, but it was the Calhouns’ that Jerry Lee favored. His school work was consistently poor enough that Elmo felt the need to spank him over it; the Calhouns’ piano was for Jerry Lee both an escape from these everyday traumas (it did for the eight-year-old what the Assemblies of God did for Mamie) and an alternate means of satisfying his parents.

Elmo and Mamie gave Jerry Lee a sister, Frankie Jean, shortly after his ninth birthday. Around the same time, Jerry Lee gave Elmo and Mamie a present of his own.

He had been battling the Calhouns’ spinet for months, and by Christmas 1944 he had beaten his first recognizable song out of it, the nineteenth-century carol “Silent Night.” For an untutored nine-year-old with minimal interest in schooling and nothing approaching leadership from his father, Jerry Lee’s serendipitous discovery that he could listen to a song, reproduce it, and get the immediate approval of his entire family was revelatory. Mamie pronounced him a budding genius on the spot, and she instructed Elmo to use what little they had as collateral to get the child a piano. Elmo soon dragged a used Starck upright into their home.

The war ended, the flooding of the Mississippi River had a deleterious effect on the family harvest, and his grades fell to nearly straight F’s, but Jerry Lee did not care because he had a piano. At first he played variations of “Silent Night” that became more raucous with each iteration. The Calhouns’ house had a radio, so in addition to the Jimmie Rodgers tunes that were the staple at home, Jerry Lee’s ears were opened to a broader array of sounds. Most important was a song called “Boogie Woogie,” which he had heard in two versions, that of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and the original version by Clarence (“Pinetop”) Smith, who identified it as “Pinetop’s Boogie Woogie.” A delightful instrumental journey, “Boogie Woogie” was the first major hit record to feature the striking new piano style that gave the song its name. By the time Jerry Lee was ready to hear “Boogie Woogie,” the form had apparently peaked. John Hammond’s 1938 breakthrough concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, “From Spirituals to Swing,” had featured three boogie woogie pianists: Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. By the mid-forties, most boogie-woogie piano players in large bands were often too overwhelmed by loud horn sections to make themselves felt.

Boogie-woogie sounded like noise to many of the jazz fans who first heard it, but more discerning listeners, among them the amazed young Jerry Lee, could tell that it was the most unruly, most inviting piano style they had ever heard. Boogie-woogie was propelled by eight-to-the-bar rhythms that could turn the pianist’s right hand into an instant jukebox. Play the boogie-woogie, and people would move. Even if a pianist’s right hand – the melody hand – was not particularly adept, the boogie-woogie beat would stomp out all objections. Jerry Lee played “Silent Night” boogie-woogie.

Jerry Lee’s vacillation between the sacred and the profane has been an enduring part of his myth, but the fact remains that his early boogie-woogie workouts, an obvious affront to church piano patterns, met no objection from his God-fearing mother or, apparently, anyone else. Mamie encouraged his explorations. One preacher, a Brother Janeway, who passed through Ferriday’s Assemblies of God church, was noted for a staccato piano style, sparked by a wandering left hand that many listeners felt could boogie them toward the Promised Land. Mamie never hid her desire that Jerry Lee’s burgeoning talents be put in the service of Jesus, but at least in his first few years of piano playing, perhaps until as late as 1950, there is no evidence of her forcing Jerry Lee down one musical path or another. Perhaps she was simply grateful for evidence that her remaining son might develop into something more than his father.

Music was everywhere for Jerry Lee: in church, on the Calhouns’ radio, and on the new records Elmo bought to augment his Jimmie Rodgers 78s. The pumping rhythms of Freddie Slack’s “The House of Blue Lights” made it a favorite (young Jerry Lee was allowed to listen to a song with a title that hinted at a house of ill repute), as was a hammering version of the Cajun standard “Jole Blon” by Aubrey “Moon” Mullican. (Moon’s follow-up was called “Jole Blon’s Sister.”) Mullican was using his piano to pull off some of the same fusions that Jimmie Rodgers had achieved on his guitar; but, although Rodgers was the greater artist, the younger Mullican was able to incorporate Rodgers’s achievement into his mix.

Mullican was a country singer in the Texas style, which meant he raided jazz for rhythms to complement his country cadences. He was country and western with an emphasis on western. Mullican’s attitude also made an impact on his young fan. He shouted his words and was far more interested in being heard than in being precise. Mullican once said, “You got to make those bottles bounce on the table,” a notion Jerry Lee would remember when he entered the honky tonks of Natchez. Esteemed as a singer and pianist, Mullican was nonetheless best known in Louisiana as the leader of the band that accompanied Jimmie Davis, the future governor and author of “You Are My Sunshine,” during his first campaign.

Jerry Lee tried to learn everything as quickly as possible. He heard blues records on a Natchez radio station after his home finally had electricity. But at that time the black music of the Delta was too foreign for him to assimilate, even if the country blues of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson had now been electrified and ostensibly made more accessible by several Memphis-based performers. He made tentative attempts at translating Jimmie Rodgers’s guitar ideas onto piano chords, and he learned to yodel in Rodgers’s blues-derived manner. He committed himself to drills of Al Jolson tunes, whose films he devoured, so he could better project his voice. Most important, he latched onto Gene Autry’s “You’re the Only Star (In My Blue Heaven)” as a means by which he could make country music swing in a new way. From the start he was looking to be a unique stylist. Eventually he was willing to play outside the house in front of people other than his family, and his performances of sacred songs were loose enough to be appreciated and close enough to the original to be permitted. In the summer of 1947, Mamie gave birth to Jerry Lee’s second sister, Linda Gail.

Since school was no longer a priority for Jerry Lee, in his parents’ mind as well as his own, his hours not practicing or praying were devoted to carousing with his cousins Jimmy Lee and Mickey. Jimmy Lee, still a teenager, had already pledged his life to the Lord, but he was nonetheless encouraged by Jerry Lee and Mickey to accompany them on their jaunts both in Ferriday and across the river. They sneaked into blues bars and heard venerated piano players like Sunnyland Slim and Memphis Slim; they also indulged in some petty theft. Not yet fourteen, Jerry Lee was already having it both ways: his mother delighted at his development as a church pianist and his cousins were thrilled to be hearing some juke blues, overturning garbage cans, and raising a bit of hell. Around this time, Jerry Lee’s wild behavior, among other things, earned him the nickname “Killer.”

The final element of Jerry Lee’s musical education arrived one Saturday night, when he tuned to the syndicated “Louisiana Hayride” radio show and first heard Hank Williams. Williams was as much a trailblazer as Jimmie Rodgers, but he was an even greater writer and performer. The characters in his songs wavered incessantly, but his portrayals of them never did. Jerry Lee heard Williams put across songs like “I Saw the Light,” an astonishing prodigal son parable; “Honky Tonkin’,” a paean to hard living; and “Move It On Over,” a hilarious tale of a honky-tonkin’ husband who is literally in the doghouse. The breadth of these recordings was stunning to Jerry Lee. Here was someone who could sing about both sides of the line, sin and salvation, and make them sound like the same, real life. Jerry Lee has said that his favorite of the early Williams tunes he heard was “Lovesick Blues,” which was not, tellingly, a Williams original; it originated in Tin Pan Alley. For Jerry Lee, it had everything: a steady beat that never got in the way of the singer, a resigned tale of fractured love that somehow worked with its spirited delivery, and a yodel more lonesome and blue than anything Jimmie Rodgers ever concocted. When Jerry Lee connected immediately to Williams’s music, it was not only because he heard someone he liked, it was also because he heard someone he wanted to be.

With Williams’s songs ringing in his ears even when he was not listening to them or replicating them on his Starck, Jerry Lee decided he was a songwriter, too. He never recorded the first song he wrote, a ragtime-style ditty he often sang with his cousin Mickey, called “Yo Yo”:

Yo yo, I know

You’re my little pet.

You must’ve come from heaven

‘Cause you ain’t stepped out yet.

With a string around my finger

I’m happy as can be

‘Cause every time I throw you down

You come right back to me.

[JG note 2000: Er, I’ve since learned that this is an old song from the hills, not one Jerry Lee wrote. Oops.]

Elmo got a job working construction at the Angola Penitentiary, the same place he had served time a few years previously, and a reformatory known in town for the musical prowess of its mostly African-American residents. Jerry Lee spent much time shuttling between the family’s new home closer to the prison and his beloved Ferriday. His relationships with his sisters took their cue from the way he saw Elmo and Mamie interact: he would bully Frankie Jean, and she would find out what mattered to him and damage it. The job in Angola did not last long, and the family moved back to Ferriday, this time to a house with electricity and indoor plumbing. Aside for a high-school football injury and his first attempts at romance, nothing happened to Jerry Lee in Angola.

In 1949 Ferriday got a Ford dealership, Babin-Paul Motors, and a hillbilly band performed at a November party hyping the new cars. In one of his few enterprising moments that did not involve moonshine, Elmo talked one of the proprietors into letting Jerry Lee take over the eighty-eights. Those at the event differ on what Jerry Lee played and sang. Some report it was the Bill Nettles’s hit, “Hadacol Boogie,” others insist it was Granville (“Stick”) McGee’s proto-R&B “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee”; but everyone agrees that after a few seconds of indecisiveness, Jerry Lee was tremendous, as evidenced by the nearly thirteen dollars he earned when a hat was passed. For the Lewises, that was big money. Jerry Lee knew what he was going to do with his life. Within a month, he dropped out of high school. No one argued.

Jerry Lee wanted to play clubs, and he was competent to do so, but the local authorities did not look kindly upon underage piano players in juke joints. Jerry Lee tried to find work elsewhere, traveling as far as New Orleans; but, as Elmo put it, his son didn’t look any older in New Orleans than he did in Ferriday. He contented himself with flat-bed shows and talent contests, usually taking in ten dollars or so.

Mamie was pleased that her son was making something of a living as a musician, but she was still committed to the idea that his talents be used for their church. She was unable to fathom a way in which Jerry Lee could do both. Since she could not resolve the dilemma, she decided it was all Jerry Lee’s fault. Mamie was proud that her son was talented, but the real reason she encouraged Jerry Lee’s predilection for music was simple economics. Even with Elmo’s somewhat better standing in the community, even with the help they still received from their families, they were far from safe or comfortable. They needed the money, even if Mamie feared that Jerry Lee’s occupation would make his entrance into heaven questionable. When Jerry Lee came home from a gig, he knew what the pattern would be. Mamie would rail at him about how he was doing the devil’s work by playing that boogie-woogie music. Then she would demand the money.

As the months passed, Jerry Lee returned home with more money in his pockets. Fifteen years old, he was finally allowed to work in a Natchez nightclub and he earned himself a twenty-minute Saturday-night slot on Natchez’s WNAT, where he played Jimmie Rodgers songs, other countrified blues, and a smattering of gospel. His extracurricular adventures accelerated since he could drive, and Elmo made some noise himself by being accused of trying to kill his brother-in-law Lee Calhoun over a piece of land. These events, coupled with his fear that Mamie and Jimmy Lee might be right about whom he was serving during his evening adventures, led Jerry Lee to enroll in the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas.

He did not last long. His attention span snapped quickly, and the institute’s faculty did not take well to his sneaking out to bars or inserting boogie-woogie riffs into songs like “My God is Real” during services. After three months, he was expelled and returned to Ferriday.

At the time, Jerry Lee was nonchalant about being booted from the institute, but being expelled from such a school must have touched him deeply. Mamie’s screams that he was doing evil by playing secular music rattled in his brain, and he knew that his inability to satisfy his teachers in Waxahachie indicated that he was cut from a different cloth. Jerry Lee has bounced back and forth between hard-edged rock and roll and polite spirituals more times than Little Richard and Prince combined. Mamie never resolved the paradox, and she never gave her son the tools to do so. Waxahachie came and went quickly for Jerry Lee, but it stayed with him.

By this time, Jerry Lee was a married man, at least on paper. Sixteen years old, he had married a preacher’s daughter one year his senior named Dorothy Barton. On his February 1952 marriage license, he listed his occupation as farmer. Barton’s romance with Jerry Lee had proceeded despite her parents’ protest. They detested Jerry Lee, which was reason enough for them to try to break it off, but a more sensible reason for separating Jerry Lee and Dorothy was that they were both innocent kids who had no clue what marriage was about.

As Jerry Lee remembered more than three decades later, “On my wedding night with Dorothy, we just sat up for hours, didn’t want to shut the lights and go to bed. I said, ‘Do you wanna?’ and she said, ‘I don’t know, do you?’ So I said, ‘Well, this is what we got married for, ain’t it?’ Boy, afterwards, I didn’t know where the blood was comin’ from, you know, if it was from her or me. I wiped myself off and saw it wasn’t me and called old man Calhoun and said, ‘Somethin’s wrong with Dorothy, she’s bleedin’ to death.’ Man, they didn’t teach us nothin’.”

To please Mamie and Dorothy’s father, Jerry Lee preached for a time, but that did not take any better than the marriage. Those present swear that his sermons were as vivid and intense as the piano solos he played when he slipped into Ferriday and Natchez clubs late at night, but it was the excitement of the jukes and the relative ease with which he could make a living there that settled the question. He had also picked up some work as a drummer in Paul Whitehead’s band at the Wagon Wheel in Natchez, which catered to both country and blues crowds. He was able to play piano when Whitehead moved to accordion or trumpet. Thirty-seven years later, Jerry Lee’s onstage repertoire was cluttered with many of the same songs he played with the Whitehead group: “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee” (a cleaned-up version of “Drinkin’ Wine Motherfucker”), Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” Ernest Tubb’s “Slippin’ Around,” and Johnny Temple’s “Big Legged Woman.” It was with Whitehead’s band that Jerry Lee learned the worth of, and excitement that could be generated by, the hardest-edged, bluesiest of country sounds. Around the same time he heard a local bluesman named John Littlejohn play a song that sounded interesting, called “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”

By the end of 1954, Jerry Lee’s second marriage was in trouble. He had ended his first marriage unilaterally, without bothering to get any approval from the state of Louisiana, or from Dorothy, an oversight that would one day cause him much grief. Jane Mitcham, wife number two, met Jerry Lee at church, made a living selling sewing machines, and gave birth to Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., in November. Jerry Lee did not spend much time with Jane or his son; he was either out playing or in listening to the radio. Church was no longer part of his weekly routine.

The music he heard on the country stations was perceptibly more uptempo than it had been six years earlier, when he started listening seriously. A boogie-woogie pianist named Merrill Moore was playing hard, fast versions of Freddie Slack tunes, and a journeyman country singer named Bill Haley was softening Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” into something that seemed different. Haley’s “Shake, Rattle, and Roll” wasn’t country. It certainly wasn’t blues, and it wasn’t slick enough to be pop. Jerry Lee filed the genre-busting idea.

He promptly forgot it when he got another one, a better one. Some little label had a new singer who didn’t just sound different; he sounded outright weird. Oddballs, singers like Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King, only got onto the blues stations, not the country or pop channels where quiet conformity ruled. “Da da-da dee dee-dee dee, Dee-dee dee-dee dee,” Jerry Lee heard Elvis sing. There was hardly anything other than Elvis’s voice on “That’s All Right,” just a couple of guitars. Even more than the Bill Haley performance, which was much lighter, “That’s All Right” did not sound like it belonged anywhere. It moved, though, and Jerry Lee learned that the company in Memphis that put it out was called Sun.

The confidence Jerry Lee gained from performing in Ferriday and Natchez clubs, combined with his hope that the introduction of these strange sounds to the radio might mean there was room for someone like him, led him to Shreveport on a trip funded by his aunt Stella Calhoun. He auditioned for the “Louisiana Hayride” package tour, the program through which he had first heard his idol, Hank Williams. Jerry Lee auditioned for Slim Whitman, a country star with severe pop leanings. Whitman brought Jerry Lee to the KWKH studios, where the nervous kid recorded two songs directly to acetate. It was only the second time Jerry Lee had been recorded. In the summer of 1951, he had shown up at a make-your-own-record booth in New Orleans and cut a pair of tunes, Lefty Frizzell’s “Don’t Stay Away (‘Til Love Grows Cold)” and an original instrumental that never earned a name. That time the only audience was Jerry Lee and his buddy Cecil Harrelson. AT KWKH far more was at stake.

For the first number, Jerry Lee chose “I Need You Now,” then a chart-topping pop hit for Eddie Fisher. The song was nothing special, just a come-back-to-me lyric pasted on standard chord changes, but Jerry Lee’s solo performance, kicked off by a boogie-woogie figure he swiped from a Moon Mullican single, strips the song to its barest essentials and makes it real. His voice is higher than his first officially released performance two years later, but what is most remarkable about the track is that he is already “the Killer” in style and demeanor. One myth about Jerry Lee (a similar one exists for Elvis) is that he entered the Sun Recording Service as a tabula rasa for Sam Phillips and Jack Clement to shape, but even a cursory listen to “I Need You Now” indicates that Jerry Lee arrived at 706 Union Avenue close to being fully formed musically.

The second tune, Hank Snow’s “I Don’t Hurt Anymore,” was even sturdier. Everything about the performance was more thought out, probably because the Snow tune had been out four months longer than “I Need You Now” and Jerry Lee had had more time to assimilate its nuances. The singing was more assured; he played with the phrasing and bent the melody to his wishes. He stomped into the solo, which set the pattern for a lifetime of piano breaks. There was nothing economical about the solo. Jerry Lee tried to cram in as much as the song would stand. He climaxed “I Don’t Hurt Anymore” the same way capped “I Need You Now,” in a persuasive upper-register cry. Although they were never released, these performances meant a great deal to Jerry Lee for a long time. As recently as the mid-seventies, he played the acetates for virtually anyone who visited him. However, they did not mean anything to Slim Whitman, who is reported to have said, “Don’t call me, I’ll call you.”

Far from discouraged, for he knew he was great, Jerry Lee next assaulted the capital of country music, Nashville, a town he later memorialized as “hillbilly heaven.” He found some work there but soon returned to Ferriday because he was broke. Legend states that conservative C&W icon Chet Atkins himself dismissed Jerry Lee and told him to learn how to play the guitar. Atkins says he does not remember such a suggestion, although Jerry Lee did subsequently study the six-string. Whoever turned him down and for whatever reason, Jerry Lee landed back at the Wagon Wheel.

He tired of Natchez clubs quickly and hammered out a tentative reconciliation with Jane. Through 1955, Jerry Lee heard more and more Elvis Presley records on the radio and decided that Elvis’s record company, Sun, might be more open to a wild child like him than the buttoned-up Nashville major labels. Through the fall, Jerry Lee and Elmo worked Elmo’s hens hard, pulled a record number of eggs out of them, and used the money they made from selling more than thirty dozen to finance a trip to Memphis to show this Sam Phillips how great Jerry Lee was.

Chapter 3: Sun Rising

You went to Memphis to find yourself

Read every Elvis book on the shelf

Even popped a pill or two

To feel like a honky-tonk star.

–Jason Ringenberg, “Broken Whiskey Glass”

For fans whose primary connection to country music was through their radios, 1956 was a great year. Aside from Elvis, folks could hear genre-shattering new songs like “Why Baby Why” by Red Sovine and Webb Pierce and assertive returns to the hard country of two decades earlier like “Cash on the Barrelhead” and “I Don’t Believe You’ve Met My Baby” by the Louvin Brothers. The year’s biggest country hit was Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” a tremendous heartbreak ballad written and, to a lesser degree, performed in the mold of the late Hank Williams. The song had been written by Price’s guitar player while he was drunk, after his wife left him. This was a year in which the record companies allowed the country audience to respond to the unadorned stuff, a situation that gave Sun Records a shot. (One could argue that without Sun, the major labels in Nashville never would have loosened up enough to release such songs and promote them as hits.)

Broke and half-crazy after the long car ride from Ferriday, Jerry Lee and Elmo arrived at the Sun Recording Service one afternoon in September 1956 and learned that Sam Phillips was not around and was not expected for several days. Jack Clement, a former dance instructor and Sam’s staff engineer/creative consultant/court jester, was there; but he was dubious about listening to unwashed talent that walked in off the street and tracked up the floors. As a result of Sun’s recent success – since Elvis, Sun had recorded Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and many other new stars – Clement had to sift through a considerable amount of garbage when it was his turn to mind the store. After Phillips had to sell Elvis Presley’s recording contract to RCA in 1955 and Sun became famous as Presley’s original label, the number of Elvis wanna-be’s who showed up demanding that they were every bit as noteworthy as the Hillbilly Cat increased exponentially. Unfortunately all that many of them had in common with Elvis was their truck-driver sideburns.

However, Sun would not exist were it not for such unannounced hungry kids. The label had scored its first two non-Elvis Number One country hits that year, Cash’s “I Walk the Line” and Perkins’s “Blue Suede Shoes,” thanks to music that came to it. Phillips may have been a genius in directing talent, but it was always talent that found him. He could work up a hit, but he was no talent scout in the traditional sense, like a Ralph Peer or a Don Law. Everything about the place was casual. When Roy Orbison sold his song “Claudette” to the Everly Brothers, who scored a major hit with it, he did so by simply singing it for them and writing its words on the top of a cardboard box.

First Elmo promoted Jerry Lee, and then his son stepped forward to announce that he could play piano like Chet Atkins played guitar. This sounded bizarre to Clement, but Jerry Lee knew what he was talking about. None of his heroes, the three “fuckin’ stylists” who had preceded him, were piano players. Al Jolson was a singer; Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams were singers and guitarists. Jerry Lee wanted to sound like a guitar player on his piano; he wanted his piano to talk in a different language, the tongue Rodgers and Williams so effortlessly spoke.

Intrigued by Jerry Lee’s strange boast and his taunting goatee, a recent addition that would soon vanish, Clement pointed the wavy-haired kid toward the studio spinet. The Killer banged out spirited versions of the George Jones number “Seasons of My Heart,” Hank Thompson’s “Wildwood Flower,” and a few other of the year’s country hits. Clement was impressed, but he also impressed on Jerry Lee his belief that the country market was shrinking, thanks to Elvis, and that if he wanted to record at Sun he would have to come up with some rock-and-roll songs. This made no sense to Jerry Lee, who did not separate blues, country, rock and roll, or gospel any more than he differentiated between his behavior in church and in the back seat. For him, it was all part of the same thing. Clement encouraged Jerry Lee to write a rock-and-roll song and return soon, but Elmo’s son left Sun disappointed and confused. Before they embarked on the long drive back to Ferriday, Elmo and Jerry Lee tried out some other Memphis companies, most notably the crumbling Meteor label, but could not find a snug fit anywhere.

Within days of reasserting himself in Ferriday, Jerry Lee rummaged through his memory and devised his rock-and-roll tune. He was again living with his parents and sisters, separated for at least the second time from Jane. Her sister Jewell was raising Jane and Jerry Lee’s second son, Ronnie Guy, because the infant looked so unlike Jerry Lee, Jr., or Sr., that the Killer insisted that he was not the father.

The song was “End of the Road.” It was dark like a blues song, rocking like a boogie-woogie; it had everything. For some uncharacteristic reason, Jerry Lee planned to relax in Ferriday for a few months and then return to Memphis, but this plan changed when his cousin on Elmo’s side, J. W. Brown, whom Jerry Lee had never met, passed through town on his way home to Memphis. Brown, ten years older than his cousin, wanted to start a band and he had heard that Jerry Lee could play piano. Was he interested? Jerry Lee rode back to Memphis with J. W. and was welcomed to his cousin’s home by J. W.’s wife, Lois, and their twelve-year-old daughter, Myra Gale.

Jerry Lee and J. W. met with Phillips, everybody sized up everybody else, and on November 14, 1956, Clement supervised Jerry Lee’s first Sun session. J. W. was a bystander that night, being too new to the bass to be of much use yet. Aside from Jerry Lee, the only other musicians at the session were Clement’s studio stalwarts: guitarists Roland Janes and Billy Lee Riley, and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton. Riley played only one note at the end of one song, so the session was essentially a three-piece date. Although this was the first time Jerry Lee had recorded with accompaniment other than himself, the session sounds like a complete band with no holes, no tentativeness. Two hundred miles east in Nashville, producers like Owen Bradley and Billy Sherill were discovering how many strings and horns and background vocals they could drop on a song and still have something under it that was recognizable as country music; at Sun the method was to discover how little one needed to put across a song. Direct expression was what mattered most.

Jerry Lee was anxious to record the song he had written at Clement’s direction, “End of the Road,” and that is where the band started. The opening piano figure was honky-tonk à la Moon Mullican, and there was a palpable amount of echo glued on his voice as he sang, “The way is dark/Night is long/I don’t care if I ever get home/I’m waiting/At the end of the road.” The echo on his vocal as well as its natural deepening gave it more presence than it had exuded on the KWKH demonstration acetate two years earlier.

Slapback echo was an integral part of the Sun recording formula, from bluesmen like Little Junior’s Blue Flames through Elvis’s angular sides to the more recent rock and rollers like Roy Orbison, and it suited Jerry Lee better than most. But, as with the KWKH cuts, “End of the Road” indicates that Jerry Lee arrived at Sun with his method and his repertoire already set. (Recent research by Colin Escott suggests that the released version of “End of the Road” may in fact have been recorded at a later session, but there is strong evidence that some version of the tune was recorded that night.)

Next up was “Crazy Arms,” the Ray Price smash of a few months previous, and it was essentially a duet between Jerry Lee and Van Eaton. Roland Janes’s acoustic bass was so far off-mike it was barely audible, and Billy Lee Riley played only one guitar note at the very end of the song. He was in the bathroom for most of the performance and returned to twang once, unaware that Clement was recording the take. “Crazy Arms” was traditional country, and Van Eaton did not exactly swing. However, even the laziest disk jockey who heard it, mostly because it was already a notable number and therefore was the song from the session picked to be a single, could tell that this was something new. It was as delightful and inexplicable a mixture of American musical forms as the one that Elvis had worked up with Scotty Moore and Bill Black in the same studio two years earlier.

Clement was pleased with “End of the Road” and “Crazy Arms,” but he had time to kill and wanted to hear how broad Jerry Lee could go. The Ferriday fireball responded with “You’re the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven),” his favorite sentimental-yet-effective Gene Autry ballad. Jerry Lee’s version was less sentimental and more effective. He held his vocal notes for a longer time than necessary; that, along with a dash of falsetto that he sprinkled into the mix, lent the slightest air of camp to his performance. In his first night as a professional recording artist, Jerry Lee was already making fun of himself, laughing at himself. The performance was less than masterful, but no one can listen to it and argue that Jerry Lee was not enjoying himself. His brief solo danced up and down, and Janes’s improvised solo showed him going for something different from a Sun’s guitarist’s Scotty Moore-derived norm. These three players – Lewis, Janes, and Van Eaton – were beginning to find common ground, beginning to develop into a real band.

The last song they attacked that night, Ted Daffan’s World War II hit “Born to Lose,” was a midtempo ballad of regret that provided Jerry Lee with a vehicle for some profound singing that transcended the tale of self-pity and compensated for when he forgot the words. Janes’s wobbly background guitar and brief solo had a touch of Les Paul, and Jerry Lee’s boogie-woogie piano solo emphasized his left-hand rhythm dexterity.

Although Phillips deemed only two songs from this session worthy of release (“End of the Road” was the flip side of the “Crazy Arms” single; neither side charted), these four cuts persuasively outlined Jerry Lee’s concerns as a musician. Even the ballads rocked along steadily, he straddled multiple styles and showed no interest in conforming to morés, and he played each song in full. There were no fadeouts. The songs ended exactly as they would in front of an audience.

Jerry Lee left that evening convinced he was going to be a big star. He telephoned Ferriday and talked Jane into moving in with him at J. W. and Lois’s home. Cousin Myra volunteered to babysit for Junior.

Jack Clement left that night sure that he had found Sun a new session piano player. Phillips agreed. “I can sell that,” he said when Clement played him a tape of “Crazy Arms,” even before Jerry Lee started singing. “Why’d you let the guy get outta here that other time?” They decided to credit him on the record as Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano.

Imminent stardom notwithstanding, Jerry Lee needed to make a living. The Browns’ attempts to secure him day jobs were fruitless, so he checked his rapidly expanding ego and allowed himself to be used as a session man for Sun. He got a call the morning of December 4, 1956, from Jack Clement. If he played on a Carl Perkins session that day, Phillips would pay him fifteen dollars. Jerry Lee was there.

Perkins, a native of Jackson, Tennessee, an hour and change east of Memphis, was the greatest of the Elvis wanna-be’s who were drawn to Sun, and he was one of the few rockabilly singer/guitarists who developed a lanky style that was not a regurgitation of Presley’s salad recordings. Even more than Presley’s, Perkins’s Sun recordings defined rockabilly. “They took a light from the honky-tonk/Put the gleam in your eye,” Perkins howled in “Honky-Tonk Gal,” one of his earliest recordings, neatly encapsulating rockabilly’s concerns and fears. Rockabilly, that reckless, primal thrash of honky-tonk country-and-western, was all about conflict: between rural and urban, between barroom adventure and home comfort, between the extremes Ernest Tubb described in his hit, “Saturday Satan, Sunday Saint,” The honky-tonk gal Perkins adored was both his joy (hot stuff) and his pain (no longer a demure housewife); the conflict of rockabilly personified. Perkins treated this dilemma the way any self-respecting rockabilly cat would. He blazed out fiery riffs and drove through the quandary in fifth gear. He’d deal with the consequences of his rampage some other time. Even in the giddy thrill of taking his Gibson guitar for an unexpected joy ride, he knew that somewhere down the road there would be a price to pay.

Rockabilly was about release, but its release always had limits. That was the form’s country birthright, and that was what made Perkins different from Presley, a rockabilly cat who expanded into straight pop and, in doing so, uprooted. A pure pop Perkins was unimaginable. This is what set him apart from Presley and what prevented him from achieving Elvis-like success. Elvis, for all his indisputable greatness, sold out in every way imaginable. Perkins, even in his most banal country-pop settings, never surrendered.

Like most of the first-generation rockabillies, Perkins started off considering himself country. His gracious, quavering tenor carried some magnificent country-and-western ballads, among them the bare-boned “Turn Around,” his first Sun recording, and “Let the Jukebox Keep on Playing,” as understated an expression of honky-tonk regret and paralysis as one would expect of Hank Williams himself. But Perkins’s meat was his rockabilly, in which he repeatedly drove full speed to the end of his world, leaned over the cliff to enjoy the view for a brief second, and then, as he knew he must, pulled back and carefully headed home.

Several months before his sessions featuring Jerry Lee, Perkins had recorded his greatest uptempo composition, “Dixie Fried.” The song was as close as any rockabilly performer came to going over the edge and living to tell about it. His guitar flashed like the barroom-fight switchblade the tale chronicled. His voice swayed with the wobbly exuberance of his brazen, drunken protagonist, someone much more like Jerry Lee than the more mannered Perkins. “Let’s all get Dixie fried,” he screamed, shattering any pretension to caution, let alone civilized behavior. The violence in the lyric and the performance escalated as the song smashed into its head-on conclusion, not with the law, but with the inevitable. Perkins may have had the gleam of a honky-tonk in his eye, but his eye was fixed on home, where he prayed his honky-tonk gal had returned.

The songs Perkins had brought to Sun on December 4 were as diverse as Jerry Lee’s concerns. Straight-ahead rockabilly raised its head in “Put Your Cat Clothes On” and “Your True Love.” Jimmie Davis’s “Sweethearts or Strangers,” Wynn Stewart’s “Keeper of the Key,” and Fred Rose’s “Be Honest with Me” were pure country. “Matchbox” was an uncredited rewrite of Blind Lemon Jefferson’s blues number of the same title. Jerry Lee played the studio’s upright spinet, which Clement had recently augmented by plunging thumbtacks into the string hammers. He then placed the microphone underneath the piano. Clement’s alterations gave the piano a fuller, more spacious presence, making it sound more like the grand piano that Phillips still refused to buy. (There is some evidence that Clement did not install the tacks for several months to come.) It was not a new trick – ragtime pianists were familiar with the method – but for Jerry Lee it gave its chords and lead lines more bounce. He fit in well with Perkins’s band: his brothers Jay Perkins on guitar and Clay Perkins on bass, and W. S. Holland on drums.

The date ran longer than Jerry Lee’s had. They cut at least twenty-two versions of the six tunes. As the session began to wind down, the reception area in front of the studio gradually became more crowded. Smokey Joe Baugh, a fellow Sun performer who had released a novelty version of “The Signifying Monkey,” walked in unannounced, as did Johnny Cash and his wife, Vivian, with their eighteen-month-old baby, Roseanne. Someone opened the door between the reception area and the studio, and the session turned into more of a party. Then Elvis Presley, the most famous man in the Western world, arrived with a showgirl named Marilyn Evans, arguably the only positive aspect of his first, otherwise disastrous, appearance in Las Vegas. Johnny Cash smiled for the newspaper cameraman (Sam Phillips knew a photo opportunity when he saw one) and left to go shopping. The crowd moved into the studio and Jack Clement kept the tapes rolling.

Jerry Lee, Carl, and Elvis had all turned to a music career to avoid the dead ends they saw elsewhere – none of them wanted to relive his daddy’s life – but they embraced music in the first place because it was a mystery they could love, explore, and through their pursuits find more reasons to love. All of them first discovered music in church, so it is no surprise that the common ground they found when they started harmonizing was sacred music. Jerry Lee’s mother damned him for playing secular music; Carl sang about knife fights; and Elvis had just been called everything short of the antichrist because of his wild performances, but gospel music was the first thing they thought to sing together. Their connection to it was that natural. Fluid, fervent versions of songs like “When God Dips His Love in My Heart, “Just a Little Talk with Jesus,” “Down by the Riverside,” and “Blessed Jesus Hold My Hand” spiraled out of them in a relaxed, spontaneous rush. Perkins’s band supplied the artless accompaniment, and even Marilyn Evans joined in. The song selection gradually drifted to hits of the day, among them Charlie Singleton’s “Don’t Forbid Me,” which noted antirock singer Pat Boone had just defanged in a cover version. Elvis said that the song had been written for him, that an acetate of it had been “over my house for ages, man. I never did see it, so much junk lyin’ around.” Everyone laughed.

Jerry Lee was anxious to show off in front of Elvis and he had Phillips play an acetate of “Crazy Arms” for him. Elvis told Robert Johnson, the reporter from the local paper that Phillips had called in, “That boy can go. He has a different style, and the way he plays piano just gets inside of me.” A gentleman, Elvis offered to stand up and let Jerry Lee play the piano. “I’ve been wanting to tell you that,” Jerry Lee said, smiling, and gestured Elvis off the bench. “Scoot over!” Elvis and Carl laughed, but it was clear that Jerry Lee wanted them to be his audience.

Talk turned to Chuck Berry, their fellow performer and songwriter whose work all of them treasured. They played multiple snatches of Berry’s “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” until they got the words right and then argued which song was better. Elvis clued in the assembled to working in Las Vegas. He spoke of seeing Billy Ward and the Dominoes in one of the show rooms. The Dominoes’ lead singer was a kid named Jackie Wilson who could do a devastating Elvis impersonation, and Elvis parodied Wilson imitating him doing “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Paralyzed.” It was loving mimicry; Elvis had seen in Wilson a talented fan who could make him rethink his own performances of songs he had already turned into smash hits. The trio sang the rockabilly anthem “Rip It Up,” Elvis enjoying an alternate version of its first line: “It’s Saturday night and I just got paid, uh, laid.” These were priceless moments, an opportunity for a man in the public eye to jettison the sex-symbol nonsense and just play. For a long time this session was known as the Million Dollar Quartet; but even marked down 25 percent as the result of Cash’s absence (it was first thought that he had stayed and played), this was a bargain.

Elvis was cordial, but he had to move on. In singles and pairs, everyone left until only Jerry Lee remained. Unaccompanied, he replayed much of his first session: “Crazy Arms,” “End of the Road,” and “You’re the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven),” as well as a brief instrumental with the telling title “Black Bottom Stomp.” Eventually there was no one left for him to play to, so he stopped.

“How’d it go?” his cousin Myra asked him when he returned home late that night.

Clement quickly booked Jerry Lee for three more sessions over the next two weeks. Returning a favor, he accompanied Billy Lee Riley on a session that yielded “Flyin’ Saucer Rock and Roll,” one of the most ludicrously lovely of all rockabilly screams. Riley was the ostensible star, but Jerry Lee fought for room, ending the song with a hammering chord that he sustained after everyone else had finished playing. It was Jerry Lee’ first session in which he saw Sam Phillips exert himself. A few days later, he played piano for Sun’s best-selling artist, Johnny Cash; a week after that he watched Hayden Thompson huff and puff.

Jerry Lee excelled on others’ recordings, but it was his own music that challenged him most. Soon after the first of the year, Jerry Lee was allowed to record for himself again. The nonhit status of “Crazy Arms,” which had entered no national chart, had not led Phillips to feel he needed to rush out a follow-up. He must not have been particularly taken by this second session, for none of it was released during Jerry Lee’s tenure with Sun, but anyone with any faith in Jerry Lee could hear that he was moving toward his breakthrough.

For someone who was being encouraged to rock out, the sentimental “Silver Threads Among the Gold” was a strange choice to begin the session. Guitar interjections provided relief from Van Eaton’s occasionally monotonic drumming, but Jerry Lee reached a comfortable altitude and cruised. He inserted the odd vocal and piano flourish to amuse himself; he was at ease and in control, perhaps puzzled that he was not a millionaire. The Eddy Arnold country weeper “I’m Throwing Rice (At the Girl I Love)” was even farther from rock and roll. Jerry Lee sounded older than his years (which made sense, considering his overfamiliarity with weddings). The rhythm was nearly a waltz, and Jerry Lee’s solo punctured the tune’s lyrics, as did the slyness with which he delivered the lines: “She was my gal/He was my pal/She liked him better somehow/I’ll step aside/After I kiss the bride.” It was the vocal equivalent of the sneer.

The Floyd Tillman cover, “I Love You So Much It Hurts,’ proceeded similarly. It took a line or two for the vocal melody to coalesce, and that vocal breathed life into the ballad’s cliched lyric. The piano solo meshed with primitive, near-martial drums; Roland Janes’s guitar was unheard. Yet this sounded full. “Deep Elem Blues,” a Shelton Brothers composition about the Dallas red-light district with which Jerry Lee was familiar from his Waxahachie days, was more like what Clement was after. Jerry Lee swooped into the speedy number, reminiscent of Elvis’s version of “Milkcow Blues Boogie,” and the drums lent this a phenomenal kick. Jerry Lee’s singing was giddily all over the place; he nearly overmodulated in the style of Little Richard, whose souped-up rhythm-and-blues style the Killer greatly admired. Van Eaton’s drums were more subservient, appropriately so, on the Leadbelly standard “Goodnight Irene.” Janes’s rhythmic style “typed” out the suicide note implied in the words, and Jerry Lee was deep into those lyrics, unless appearing deep into them when he was merely performing was part of his genius. He moved to double time halfway through and climaxed with the verse, “Sometimes I live in the country – yeah!/Sometimes I live in town/Sometimes I take a cruel notion/To jump in the river and drown.”

Jerry Lee was driving to hell at ninety miles an hour, and Jack Clement was loving it. (A second version was more choppy, less intense, and never sped up). Phillips later dressed it up with extraneous overdubs and tacked it onto an album.) Next up was “Honey Hush,” a scorching rocker in which Jerry Lee’s playful voice mimicked Gene Vincent’s. Janes’s guitar break was a shotgun wedding of Chuck Berry to Scotty Moore, and Jerry Lee shouted as though he thought he was playing before two thousand people. A ferocious coda ended with Jerry Lee warning, “Shut up yer mouth!”

Jerry Lee was proving himself to Clement that night, demonstrating that he could take on anything. The standard “Crawdad Song” was fast, wild, and echoey. The studio was a party now, with much screaming in the background by the sidemen. Janes’s one-note solos were nothing much, but Jerry Lee sang as fast as he could without running out of breath. “Dixie” was fine as source material for Jerry Lee’s southernness, but otherwise it was an inconsequential instrumental. Perhaps he had some time to kill while Janes ate a hamburger; the same goes for “The Marine’s Hymn,” except that Janes had returned to his guitar. “That Lucky Old Sun,” which was recorded either that night or soon after, was just voice and piano, and it was shocking in its naked expression of emotion. It was a tremendous ballad of defeat; the aching lyric held out heaven as an escape but expressed ambivalence as to who might inhabit it. As Jerry Lee would eventually say when he stumbled upon anything he considered remotely profound, “think about it.”

Jerry Lee soon got his first taste of touring, and by the time he returned to Sun to woodshed a few weeks later, his trio – James, Van Eaton, and the newly dexterous J. W. Brown – were far better acquainted. This evening’s work was another tour-de-force journey through whatever styles Jerry Lee could think of, with a big surprise at the end.

Jerry Lee looked back almost a century with James Bland’s “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane.” By now the pumping introduction was familiar, as was the echo-drenched vocal and his swift solo. He continued his attempt to walk both sides of the line with the improvised lyric, which had blues structure, gospel import, and somehow came out country-rock. A few takes of “You’re the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven)” were not as fresh as the earlier version but were perhaps a bit more playfully executed.

Then he surprised Clement with a tune he had written. Except for “End of the Road,” Jerry Lee was not committed to songwriting, so this was something special. “Lewis Boogie” was a tad more tentative than the released take he recorded several months later, but it was still inarguable. The self-mythologizing lyrics (which dismissed other performers, among them Elvis, whose success and showgirl companion often burned in his mind) were perfect: “Cruise on down to old Natchez town/That’s where that Presley boy says ‘you ain’t nothin’ but a hound’/But now you take my boogie/It keeps  you in the groove/Until your sacroiliac begins to shiver and move/It’s called the Lewis Boogie/In the Lewis way.” The rappers of three decades later could take a cue from its range and specificity. Jerry Lee sang whatever came to mind, but what he was really saying over and over was “I won’t be denied.”

Jerry Lee was in the mood to take shots at Elvis, and one way to do that was to cover a song associated with Presley and do it better. That was the idea behind a version of Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because,” and it did not succeed. There could be no more echo on this vocal unless it had been recorded at the Grand Canyon, which made it distracting. Jerry Lee nodded toward Elvis’s version and grabbed the song, yet he was marking time, showing off, which was not without a massive charm. Much better was a take of “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love With You),” the first of Jerry Lee’s many unparalleled interpretations of Hank Williams songs. Clearly this was a favorite of his; he immediately burrowed to the center of the song and gathered strength from all around him. Unlike many of his unrequited-love ballads, there was no hint of camp here. Jerry Lee knew this song mattered and let his solo skid and scrape across the drums. Not to break the mood, Jerry Lee followed it with another Williams composition, “Cold, Cold Heart,” which was done just as well if a bit lighter, though Jerry Lee’s full-throated singing overruled all objections.

The rest of the session, until the band arrived at the final tune, yielded nothing near that level. Spade Cooley’s “Shame on You” was spry but played too quickly; Jerry Lee’s timing was off. He tossed in an untamed solo right after the first chorus, but it barged in too soon to be effective. Janes’s guitar solo rocked up Les Paul, but that was not much of an accomplishment. Floyd Tillman’s “I’ll Keep on Loving You” was acceptable uptempo country. “You Are My Sunshine” was forthright, hardened Jimmy Davis, and Jerry Lee’s sprightly performance countered its death-oriented lyric. “Tomorrow Night” was dirty and not much else; several takes of the Dominoes’ “Sixty Minute Man” revealed nothing save Jerry Lee’s enduring ability to put across a speedy boast at whim. That out of their system, the band began to pick up some power. “It All Depends (Who Will Buy the Wine)” was a strong, resigned drinking ballad that Jerry Lee would return to for decades, and the loose “I Don’t Love Nobody” was archetypal fast-country Jerry Lee. “Let me have one!” he cried, and indulged himself in a monstrous solo.

With the marathon session running near an end, Jerry Lee called for a song he remembered from his Wagon Wheel days that his group had recently begun playing onstage, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” They played it as a rocker with a prominent guitar, but Jerry Lee was still figuring out what he needed to do to transform the tune into something different from what it was when he first heard it. It was energetic, but not spectacular. He ended the night promising to work on it some more.

Sessions for Carl Perkins and Ray Harris followed, as did another opportunity for Jerry Lee to figure out “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” They had often played it in their live shows, and by mid-February it sported a much stronger arrangement. By this time, Jane and Junior had moved out of the Brown house for good, and Myra and Senior were starting to look at each other with different intentions.

Clement was anxious to hear what the band had done with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” but he was more interested in having Jerry Lee record a song he had written, a rocker called “It’ll Be Me,” which he was sure would be a smash. Clement said he had dreamed up the song while sitting on a toilet; by the time he presented the tune to Jerry Lee, he had removed the original lines: “If you see a turd in your toilet bowl/It’ll be me/And I’ll be looking for you.” The new lyrics referred to a lump in a sugar bowl.

Clement worked the quartet hard on the song, more than half a dozen full takes. The song took form over the many performances. The first take started with off-beat drums that kept the song off-kilter and a piano solo that was mostly a series of ascending and descending chords. A guitar solo spiraled around and drew back, but did not travel far. Another version kicked off a capella, but deteriorated into a shuffle. Exploratory versions followed, Jerry Lee gradually discovering the essence of the cleaned-up song.

Repeated listening to multiple takes of anything can be daunting, but take after take after take of “It’ll Be Me” is fascinating, mostly because it reveals that even if he was trying, Jerry Lee in his Sun prime was unable to attack a song exactly the same way twice. He slipped in a rumbling multioctave solo here, hastened the tempo there, forgot to take piano solos sometimes because he was enjoying Clement’s words so much.

“That’s a hit,” Clement said. “Now what do you want to do for the flip?” They took a pass at Gene Autry’s “Ole Pal of Yesterday,” a fine example of how Jerry Lee rocked up midtempo country, but they moved on quickly. Everyone in the band was pretty sure that “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” was destined to be a hit; live, it was a killer, so to speak.

They played it at Sun the same way they played it onstage: intent, disquieting, unrelenting. Jerry Lee crashed into the song as if through a bedroom window. “Come on over baby [or was it “Come all over baby”?]/Whole lotta shakin’ going on!” he announced, and leaned hard into a groove toward which even his hardest previous performances did not begin to hint. He rocked furiously, but the words came out smooth and easy. The lyrics boiled down to a demand for sexual attention, but this was not a mere plea. Jerry Lee sang it, knowing he was beautiful, knowing he was desirable, as if surprised that he had stumbled across someone half as beautiful and desirable as he. Onstage, with aching slowness he would run his fingers through his greasy, wet blond locks as he delivered this song. He knew he was spectacular, he knew that the woman he addressed was spectacular, and he dared her to be worthy of him. When parents in the fifties claimed that rock and roll was evil, they were talking about records like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” “Ain’t fakin’,” Jerry Lee sang, and that’s what worried people about him and his ilk.

When Jerry Lee barged into his piano solo, Van Eaton’s drums took a bar to catch on – he was that transported by Jerry Lee’s performance. Janes’s guitar solo was assured; more importantly, it provided temporary relief from Lewis’s lasciviousness. Jerry Lee sang, “We got kickin’ in the barn/Whose barn?/What barn?/My barn!” and careered into the most frankly lecherous breakdown in fifties rock and roll (no small achievement). “Easy now,” he commanded, and the band played just as hard, a little more quietly. He talked now. ‘Let’s get real low one time,” he ordered. “All you gotta do, honey, is just kinda stand in one spot. Wiggle around just a little bit. That’s when you got somethin’.” The mood was taut, tense. He knew he had won, so he called the band back and he swooped in for the kill, shouting the final chorus as though he knew it would be the last of his life. He knew he had conquered his listener, and the song ended with a shout of satisfaction rarely heard in public. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going on” was about forbidden ideas coming to the surface; it was, in Jerry Lee’s mind, the sound of sex.

Jerry Lee returned to the road, where “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” climaxed his performances as the single began its run up the three major singles charts: rhythm-and-blues, country-and-western, and pop. Soon after it was recorded, Jack Clement played the studio take of the song for Sam Phillips, who decided to gamble his company on it, pressing several hundred thousand copies of the disc before he sold a single one. Phillips was confident he had found his new Elvis. Although he told everyone who would listen that he did not for one second regret selling Elvis’s contract to RCA, Sam was jealous – personally and financially – that Elvis’s superstardom occurred only after leaving his tutelage. Not only could Jerry Lee mess around with familiar forms and yield something new, he was, like Elvis, good-looking and charismatic. Phillips cherished the Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison records he was making, but he sensed that none of them was bold enough to grab a microphone and refuse to relinquish it no matter what. He knew that Jerry Lee had what it took; he knew that Jerry Lee was cocky enough to make it happen. Sam found Jerry Lee’s craziness comforting.

Much has been said about the “crazy” or “nutty” atmosphere at Sun and how the colorful characters broke all sorts of musical and cultural rules there because they acknowledged none. All that is true, but the fact remains that this craziness or nuttiness had a significant downside, one that led many of the regulars there into fits of depression, extended substance abuse, and, in some cases, arbitrary violence. The “It” in Jerry Lee’s family, and the “It” in a disproportionate numbers of the families that gave Sun its greatest performers, was mental illness. The music at Sun changed pop music and enlivened the lives of many listeners, but it did so at great cost to its originators.

Jerry Lee fit in at Sun because he was personally as well as musically off-kilter. Phillips saw him as someone with that magical combination of talent and senselessness. As he said of “Crazy Arms,” he could sell that, if he could keep the boy from Ferriday on a leash. He might have worried a bit more if he had known the feelings Jerry Lee and his kid cousin were beginning to acknowledge for each other.

While Phillips prepared to unleash “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” on an unsuspecting world, Jerry Lee kept recording. Sessions in the spring and summer of 1957 yielded a wide variety of material, but not another immediately recognizable smash or even another single except for a new version of “Lewis Boogie” that surpassed the earlier model. Jerry Lee recorded several versions of Hank Williams’s “You Win Again,” including a very fast take that proved that the song did not respond well to being rocked up. Jerry Lee sped through the song’s drama and pathos; perhaps it was recorded at the beginning of a session, just a warm-up. Several months later he recorded a ballad version that was as slow and felt as the earlier take had been sped-up and affected. His inspiring, acute singing made it the definitive version of a top-flight song.

“Love Letters in the Sand” strutted along pleasantly, but it was more along the lines of Pat Boone, who presently and inexplicably scored a hit with it. A similar thirties pop tune, “Little Green Valley,” had a more prodding beat and was much more fun. “Pumpin’ Piano Rock” arrived with an initial solemn piano chord, and effect that quickly bored Jerry Lee as he created instant boogie-woogie. The words, which he wrote, are not worth repeating, although they are a more effective stab at a statement of purpose than those he emitted throughout the seventies and eighties. However, it did feature a wonderful spinning solo that proved that Jerry Lee could not be confined by a bad song, even if it was a dud that he wrote.

Perhaps miffed that his pet song had wound up on the wrong side of Jerry Lee’s next single, Jack Clement ordered up several new versions of “It’ll Be Me,” this time intended for inclusion on Jerry Lee’s first LP. Except for a bizarre drums-and-guitar introduction that was so out of place that it worked and some tempo changes, the new versions were similar to the older takes.

If producer Clement got what he wanted out of these sessions, so did band leader Jerry Lee. In his last session before the success of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” changed his life, he led Janes and Van Eaton – J. W. was out making some honest money as an electrician – into his past, calling for song after song that he had loved back in Ferriday. Once again, his childhood favorites formed the basis of the songs he chose to perform professionally. “All Night Long” was a combination of half a dozen country standards. The piano work was a prime updated Moon Mullican impersonation, and the vocal paid attention to detail à la Chuck Berry. In the end, the song was simply an excuse for Jerry Lee to push out a great new solo. “Old Time Religion” was rocked up faster than fast gospel, Jerry Lee’s falsetto and the background yells, probably by Clement, making it sound somehow dirty. One listen to this solo and it is obvious what got him kicked out of Waxahachie. The New Orleans journey was “When the Saints Go Marchin” In,” another religiously oriented tune that Jerry Lee turned into a pop song with a wonderful crammed solo.

The next number, Jimmy Rodgers’s “My Carolina Sunshine Girl,” made it clear that in his early days Jerry Lee simply could not play a country song straight. He could only play it like himself, and that had nothing to do with what was happening in Nashville at the time. “Long Gone Lonesome Blues” was the rare Jerry Lee cover of a Hank Williams composition that did not click at all, but he ended the session with two top-rank rockers. A tumbling, ferocious “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee” brought Jerry Lee back to that Ferriday Ford dealership. “Singin’ the Blues,” a Marty Robbins hit, was speedy and bluesy. Jerry Lee was so excited by the number, or his performance of it, that he could not stop fully at its dramatic pauses. He stretched the song into a honky-tonk strut that suited him. As had become the rule in his recordings, he held sway over the tune.

By July, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” had exploded. The antirock forces were making the usual complaints. The Alabama White Citizens Council set the agenda with the statement: “The obscenity and vulgarity of the rock-and-roll music is obviously a means by which the white man and his children can be driven down to the level with the nigger.” Most critics were less honest when they expressed their fears. Jerry Lee was even worse than Elvis, many of them argued, because not only did the Ferriday Fireball move, but the songs he played while he moved left much less to overactive teen imaginations. And Jerry Lee’s stage show was raucous. He would jump to his feet, leer at the audience, roll his tongue, and kick his piano stool into the wings. He would play the piano with his feet and his fists; sometimes he would jump atop the expensive grand piano a hall had rented. Usually accompanied only by J. W. on bass and Russell Smith on drums, he compensated with sheer energy and intensity the lack of additional pieces. He acknowledged no bounds.

Jerry Lee’s music, his antics, and the fact that this eccentric was striking against (depending on one’s viewpoint) morés or deeply held beliefs about how to behave all helped “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” up the charts. Trade paper reviewers heralded the tune but noted that it did not fit into any one category, country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues, or straight pop. Aided by striking performances on “The Steve Allen Show” and “American Bandstand,” the song succeeded in all categories, eventually topping two of the three Billboard singles charts and getting as high as Number Three on the third, a rare feat in 1957 and an unimaginable one in the genre-fractured nineties. The differences that supposedly kept country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues, and pop songs on separate radio formats never made sense to Jerry Lee. He loved any kind of music, so long as it moved him in one way or another. So it makes sense that when he figured out what he was best at on “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” an unclassifiable melange of all the forms he adored, fans representative of all markets responded.

Jerry Lee bought a home for his parents, a black Cadillac for himself (in both cases, the first of many), and kept recording for Phillips. He appeared at 706 Union several times in September 1957, searching for another “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” that would help him sustain his newfound income of several thousand dollars a week. At least one session early in the month was so relaxed that nobody expected anything to come from it. The jump blues “Rockin’ with Red” was just a messaround, with on-the-spot lyrical additions “She rocks me to the east/She rocks me to the south/My baby, she’s got a big mouth.” Jerry Lee must have taken a shine to “Matchbox” while he worked it up with Perkins’s band. His version was sprightly enough and featured some superior singing, but there was no place for Jerry Lee to go with the tune that Perkins hadn’t already taken it. “How was that?” he asked at the end of the take. Jerry Lee gave another Sun-identified track, Warren Smith’s “Ubangi Stomp,” an excellent rocking treatment, all dramatic stops and starts, although his piano was buried except for his solos; and the lyrics remain among rock and roll’s most blatantly racist.

“Rock ‘n’ Roll Ruby” was a Warren Smith tune written (or bought) by Johnny Cash in one of that country giant’s more awkward attempts to fit the rockabilly mold. Jerry Lee had fun with it, his high-register singing sometimes wandering into falsetto, but this was not a serious attempt at a hit. He graced the Roy Orbison hit “Ooby Dooby” with the same introduction he gave to “Ubangi Stomp” and came on even harder. It was a superb version of the sweet rocker; Jerry Lee’s rough voice was more appropriate for the number than Orbison’s smooth tenor. “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” was an early Elvis recording of regret that Jerry Lee probably chose to prove that he could outdo Elvis, which on this song he could not. Otis Jett’s stumbling drumming did not help either.

The most far-ranging Sun tune explored in these sessions was a Roy Orbison composition, “So Long I’m Gone,” that had been a hit for Warren Smith. The relatively uptempo version moved fast and went nowhere. Jerry Lee was clearly not involved with the number, but the song itself exemplified much of what made the country music recorded at Sun Records different from that cut for the more established Nashville labels. At Sun, as for Jerry Lee, wild rockabilly and polite country were part of the same continuum, as surely as Saturday nights rolled into Sunday mornings. In either category, Sam Phillips invariably sought out unencumbered, passionate, plainly stated performances. He wanted a mood to establish itself the second a song began and then intensify and ignite.

Phillips’s Nashville contemporaries were adding scads of strings and bus loads of backup singers to sweeten songs for the uptown crowd, but Phillips sensed that frankness was gaining an edge over forced sophistication. He arrived at this method partly by ingenuity and partly by necessity. After all, fewer musicians on a session meant fewer people to pay. Because there were less players to shift around, Phillips and his flock could experiment with different treatments of the same tune.

Warren Smith recorded two radically dissimilar versions of “So Long I’m Gone” that go a long way toward telling the grand story of how country spawned rockabilly. The words were the same in both versions, but the attitudes could not have been farther apart. Smith was best-known as a second-tier post-Presley rocker, but his country version of “So Long I’m Gone” foreshadowed his move into straight country-and-western after he left Sun. On that slow version, Smith collapsed into regret, missing the occasional guitar strum, mortified that he has to leave his philandering lover. On his fast rockabilly variation he triumphed, a hardened man determined to beat adversity. He’s out the door; he’s bound for glory. His fast “So Long I’m Gone” sounded like freedom, nearly as much so as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.”

Through autumn, Jerry Lee searched for his second “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Jack Clement thought he had found one in “I’m Feeling Sorry.” His confidence in the sturdy country strut was justified, but it was due mostly to his having written it. On September 10, 1957, Clement guided Jerry Lee, J. W. Brown, Roland Janes, and Jimmy Van Eaton through more than a dozen takes of “I’m Feelin’ Sorry,” in a variety of tempos and configurations. Some lines Jerry Lee attacked with glee, like “I know you’re blue/But, baby/I’m bluer.” Listening to these endless versions shows how many angles from which Jerry Lee could attack a song: respectful, showboating, giddy, you name it.

Two other songs put down at the session hinted at Jerry Lee’s limits at the time. “Turn Around” was more evidence that he could not cover Carl Perkins as definitively or easily as he took on songs identified with some others. But “Mean Woman Blues,” an Elvis hit earlier in the year, was a rocker as broad, though not as deep, as “Whole Lotta Shakin” Going On.” “I ain’t bragging/It’s understood/Everything I do/I sure do it good,” he sang, finally finding an appropriately overt lyrical outlet for his unending self-assurance. He started soloing virtually as soon as the song began, and his pleasure in delivering double-entendre lines like “I like a little coffee/I like a little tea/Jelly, jelly is the thing for me” was infectious. It was a worthy successor to “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” breakdown and all, but it was too similar to be immediately differentiable.

Sam Phillips arrived at Jerry Lee’s next session with a new song he had received from a New York songwriter named Otis Blackwell, who had provided Elvis with “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel,” called “Great Balls of Fire.” Phillips had cut a deal for a Jerry Lee song to appear in Jamboree, a film about a fractured love that was forgettable even before anyone had seen it. He sensed that being associated with a film – any film – might be a sure-fire and cost-effective way to launch a hit record. Blackwell had thought to offer Jerry Lee “Great Balls of Fire” after seeing the Killer shake on “The Steve Allen Show.” Again it is noticeable that Phillips did not approach Blackwell. Still, Phillips cut a version for Jamboree, which the film’s producers accepted, but neither Phillips nor Jerry Lee was satisfied with that take for single release, so on October 6 they tried again (this time with tacks audibly on the piano).

It was that night, trying to tame “Great Balls of Fire,” that Jerry Lee heard the voice of his mother taunting him and rebelled against the song he suddenly considered to be pure evil. Phillips was personally supervising the session; he knew he was only a few takes away from another smash on the scale of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” so he pushed back. The conversation that was going on inside Jerry Lee’s head turned external, and he took Mamie’s part.

“You can save souls!” Sam barked deep into their dispute.

“No! No! No! No!” Jerry Lee shouted back as the argument arched toward a crescendo.

“Yes!” Phillips hollered.

“How can the devil save souls?” Jerry Lee countered at an even louder volume. “What are you talking about?”

Jerry Lee soon relented, aware that he would not be resolving this particular mystery tonight, and hurled himself into the song. Several takes later, he was much less agonized by his choice of material. “I do like to eat it,” he said and made a slurping noise. “I hope you ain’t puttin’ that on tape. Shit, I’d give up the ship. You ready to cut? You ready to cut? You ready to cut ‘Great Balls of Fire’? What am I gonna eat? I would like to eat a little pussy if I had some.” At the end of the take he announced, I’m about to gag.” He had traveled the road from piety to lust in only a few minutes, and the song he was shouting provided the link.

The final take of the evening was clearly the performance worth releasing. After four staccato chords, Jerry Lee sang out of the top of his head: “You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain/Too much love drives a man insane/You broke my will/But what a thrill/Goodness gracious, great balls of fire!” The imagery was salacious; the delivery was even more gleefully obscene. If “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” was a song that promised sex, “Great Balls of Fire” delivered. Some of the lyrics and vocal interjections, like “Oooh/Feels good” and “You’re kind/So fine,” were as overtly sexual as Jerry Lee could get and still slip onto the radio. Roland Janes and Billy Riley must have been at the restaurant next door during this take, which featured only Lewis and drummer Van Eaton. Jerry Lee’s solo started with some tossed-off sweeps and peaked with upper-key poundings that challenged Van Eaton’s snare drum for the contest of Biggest Noise in the World. Many fans, critics, and performers have speculated as to who won the Lewis/Phillips argument that night. One listen to “Great Balls of Fire” reveals that it was Jerry Lee Lewis fans who won.

Because Jerry Lee had already established himself with one multi-format smash, “Great Balls of Fire” scaled the three Billboard charts more quickly than its predecessor, eventually reaching Number One on the country-and-western charts, Number One on the rhythm-and-blues charts, and Number Two on the pop charts. Danny and the Juniors’ extremely white doo-wop “At the Hop,” with its ersatz-Killer piano, denied it the triple crown. Jerry Lee’s performances of the number on three national television shows – The Steve Allen Show, American Bandstand, and Patti Page’s Big Record TV Show – hastened the advance. On radios and televisions across the land, people heard the battle between the spiritual and the secular music that raged within Jerry Lee, and it sounded to them like rock and roll.

Jerry Lee’s attempt to sing pop music and not be evil suggested a similar battle being fought around the same time by the gospel-turned-country duo, Ira and Charlie Louvin, the Louvin Brothers. The brothers had recorded together for more than a decade and were at their peak in 1957. The two dived into despair like no other pair in country; it was no accident that they titled their greatest album Tragic Songs of Life. The bare-bones arrangements on even their hits were built around a terse string band, pared to the marrow, careful not to muscle in front of the words, which scrutinized the many intersections of religious fervor and reckless abandon.

The Louvin Brothers had grown up as poor in Alabama as Jerry Lee was in Louisiana. Gospel was their first love, but their talents were broader, and executives at their label, Capitol Records, knew it. After they scored their first major country-and-western hit in 1955 with “When I Stop Dreaming,” they had to fight to get Capitol to acquiesce to even occasional sacred recordings. But, unlike Jerry Lee, their country songs were as buttoned-up and reverential as their more explicitly religious numbers. “We were hard country,” Charlie Louvin said a generation later. “We never did record a dirty lyric. For my part, I don’t think anyone could find a good, clean country love song offensive. If they could, they’re serving somebody I haven’t heard of.”

For the Louvin Brothers, the transition was easy because they moved between songs of religious devotion and songs of romantic devotion. There was a precedent in country music for performers like them. For Jerry Lee, who bounced between the poles of “When the Saints Go Marching In” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” the road was more treacherous and far less frequently traveled.

Jerry Lee did not record again until after the first of the year; his touring schedule as part of various packages, Sun and otherwise, was hectic. In Memphis he was busy otherwise, finally calling it quits with Jane, in their eyes if not those of the courts. Without J. W. or Lois’s knowledge or approval, on December 12, 1957, he and his cousin Myra drove south to Mississippi and were married. The family was shocked. Some said that Myra was much too young for Jerry Lee; strangely, some implied the exact opposite. Sam Phillips heard about the wedding and insisted it be kept quiet. Just to make sure that people considered Jerry Lee a good country boy, Phillips started plugging the B-side of “Great Balls of Fire,” the ballad version of “You Win Again,” hard country at its most acceptable to that conservative audience.

In the first half of 1958, Jerry Lee spent most of the time either on the road or in the studio. He was living like a star, buying cars and motorcycles, spending money as if the enormous royalty checks would arrive forever with the same frequency. He brought some of his star arrogance to his January sessions, but he also brought his star talent.

Fresh from having spent a pleasant afternoon at a motorcycle shop with Roy Orbison, Jerry Lee called for “Go Go Go,” one of Roy’s most propulsive rockers, which the Killer redubbed “Down the Line.” The first few versions were conversational, Jerry Lee feeling out the song and transporting it from Roy’s world to his own. He changed some key lyrics and kept charging at it. “Wait a minute, I’m pooped out,” he said between two of the eight takes. By the time he captured the song, he was putting on a show, daring the assembled to “Look-a-here!” before he bolted into a raucous solo. Billy Riley’s proto-surf guitar owed more to another Orbison song, “Domino,” than it did to “Go Go Go,” but it still fit fine.

Another song they worked at was “I’m Sorry I’m Not Sorry,” a tune identified with Carl Perkins, a strong country weeper with prominent, strutting drums and a cold-hearted attitude in its lyrics that stunned. On Hank Ballard’s rhythm-and-blues hit, “Cool Cool Ways,” which had been called “Sexy Ways” in its original incarnation, Jerry Lee sang extra hard to make up for the softer title. The song’s breakdown section referred directly to its superior predecessor, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and the song ended with sexual taunts that insured it could not be released. Jack Hammer’s “Milkshake Mademoiselle” was considered as a follow-up to “Great Balls of Fire.” Its teen-oriented lyrics would have fit in well on pop radio, but Jerry Lee’s corrosive piano solo and wild singing, including a high-pitched scream, worked against the lyric and the tune was shelved after half a dozen tries.

The most successful song to emerge from the January sessions was another made-to-order contribution from Otis Blackwell, “Breathless,” that yielded another multiformat hit: Number Four country-and-western, Number Three rhythm-and-blues, and Number Seven pop. The tune was less backwoodsy than what Jerry Lee usually brought to the studio, but the Killer was not about to argue with the work of the “little colored fellow” who had given him “Great Balls of Fire.” Echo swirling around him, Jerry Lee’s voice leaped out from the mix, howling the tale of sexual satisfaction with abandon.

One couplet in Blackwell’s lyric stood out: “When you call my name/You know I burn like a wood in flame.” Perhaps Jerry Lee was not paying attention to the words. If he had, he had a spectacular sacred-turned-profane image with which he could fuel another brief epistemological war with Sam. (Jerry Lee does not sing “burn” in the lyric quoted above. He sings “boin,” a tossed-away syllable for Jerry Lee, but for little John Fogerty listening in northern California it was the key to a mystery of southern dialect that he would exploit in “Proud Mary” and several dozen other Creedence Clearwater Revival songs of similar caliber.)

With “Breathless” in the can, Jerry Lee flew to Australia with a package tour that included Buddy Holly, whom Jerry Lee adored, and Paul Anka, whom he terrorized. They stopped for the night in Hawaii, where Jerry Lee, guilty about neglecting Myra Gale, wrote her a rare letter that she preserved for decades and gave to Murray Silver. It read:

How is the most beautiful girl in all the world, fine I hope. Darling I sure do miss you, because I love you so so so much. How is everybody fine to I guess. Darling please take care of your self if anything was to happen to you I’d die and that’s no joke. Oh Myra I love you with all my heart. Baby we’re going to have such a beautiful life together, we’re going to be so happy too. Myra if you ever done me wrong it would kill me, well I’d rather you would kill me. Well I no you woulden do me wrong would you darling. Myra I’ve let myself fall in love too much with you, don’t break my heart. Darling this is the most beautiful place you ever seen But I can’t enjoy it without you. I’ll be home soon. May God watch over you, pray for me, your husband, Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Jerry Lee’s next Sun session was on Valentine’s Day. Jerry Lee warmed up with the first  songs that came to mind. The trio, consisting of Jerry Lee, J. W., and Van Eaton, turned in a barrelhouse version of Roy Brown’s rhythm-and-blues smash “Good Rockin’ Tonight” that featured a luxurious solo and Jerry Lee’s plea that his beloved “meet me out behind the barn.” He discarded as much of the original as he could, and, as was now becoming habit, evoked the breakdown of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” this time with the vow, “We’re gonna take it down now, little mama.”

Jerry Lee probably was most familiar with “Good Rockin’ Tonight” through Elvis’s 1954 Sun Version, and more Elvis hits spilled out. He jumped into “Jailhouse Rock” driven by alcohol, ego, and defiance. Ditto with “Hound Dog and “Don’t Be Cruel.” He was showing off to himself, proving to himself that he was really the king of rock and roll, not that other guy. Other warm-up numbers included “Pink Pedal Pushers,” the sort of high-school tune usually best left to its writer, Carl Perkins (except for the extremely suggestive line “she’s got something her mom never had”) and the Jimmie Hodges hillbilly hit of a decade before, “Someday (You’ll Want Me to Want You),” a serviceable barroom ballad in which Jack Clement turned up the echo to eleven.

That out of the way, they moved to the possible-hit song in question. Sam Phillips was pleased with the way Jamboree had helped market “Great Balls of Fire,” so he arranged for Jerry Lee to sing the theme to a juvenile-delinquent exploitation film, High School Confidential, starring Russ Tamblyn and Mamie Van Doren. It was a wild song, and it took Jerry Lee a few takes, of more than a dozen in total, to get started. This gives the lie to the myth that what happened at the Memphis Recording Service was all noble-savage spontaneity and artless genius. These boys worked hard at their songs, over and over and over, until they got it right. They were professionals.

“Wait a minute,” Jerry Lee said after one false start. “I screwed up, I had my mind on something else – something I shouldn’t’ve had my mind on. Let’s cut it!” They did, and out came a roaring version, from the opening double entendre, “Open up honey/It’s your lover boy me that’s knockin’,” through a pure honky-tonk piano solo highlighted by a transitional yell of, “dig dig dig dig dig hell hell,” as Roland Janes’s guitar took over. It was wilder than the released version, though not by much. The movie was a hit, as was the song: Number Nine country-and-western and Number Five rhythm-and-blues, although events that transpired between recording and release kept it down to Number Twenty-one on the pop charts. Also recorded around the same time, perhaps at the same session, was the ordinary rocker, “Put Me Down.”

Jerry Lee hit the road again, playing some Alan Freed package shows as well as Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” where he performed live, not lip-synched, “Breathless,” “You Win Again,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” At one show in New York, he was furious to learn that he was not the headliner, but rather he was second-billed behind Chuck Berry. Jerry Lee had enormous respect for Berry as a performer and songwriter, but his ego would not allow him to be second-billed to anyone. He delivered a show that was torrid even by his usual standards. One enduring rock-and-roll myth states that Jerry Lee lit his piano on fire at the conclusion of “Great Balls of Fire” and stalked off to the side of the stage to confront Berry. The story about lighting the piano on fire is all wet, but it is true that Jerry Lee stood face to face with Berry after he ended his set to thundering applause. “Follow that, nigger,” he taunted and swaggered away. By Ferriday standards, Jerry Lee was not an all-out racist, but he knew the value of intimidation.

A few weeks later, Jerry Lee was much friendlier as he recorded a few more tunes for his first album. The obligatory Hank Williams compositions were the Cajun-flavored “Jambalaya,” which the Louisiana boy rocked out, and “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” which was more scattered; in years to come Jerry Lee would record several superior versions of the latter number. Also played was another Williams-performed tune, “Lovesick Blues,” on which a loose Jerry Lee had altogether too much fun. His piano was intentionally sloppy and he altered many of the lyrics.

The session did not yield much more releasable material. James Liddle’s standard rocker, “Friday Night,” was a poor cousin to “High School Confidential,” though “Hello, Hello Baby,” a Jerry Lee Lewis original, was a whooped-up blues that archivists will note as the first time he substituted his proper name for I in a lyric. In March 1958, that was not yet a lazy affectation. The standard “Frankie and Johnny” was never much of a song, even in the hands of Jimmie Rodgers, but Jerry Lee did perform it with some verve, and there is no Jerry Lee fan who does not get pleasure from hearing the noted philanderer sing, “My story has no moral/My story has no end/My story shows/There’s no trusting none of these men.”

What was by far the greatest performance recorded during the session was also by far the most unreleasable. “Big Legged Woman” was an oft-covered blues leer, and Jerry Lee unleashed a terrific version. The performance of the song Jerry Lee had heard back in Natchez was as lecherous as Myra’s parents feared he could be, all single-entendre lyrics (“I bet my bottom dollar there ain’t a cherry in the house”; “When I start drilling on you, baby/You’re gonna lose your nightgown”) and sleazy l’s rolling off his tongue. This was young Jerry Lee at his most direct and terrifying, with falsetto screeches and a cry of “Don’t stop me now, mama!” This was the closest Jerry Lee ever came to the Delta blues tradition of a randy rambler like Robert Johnson, and in its own way cut just as deep as Johnson’s tales of sex, death, and fear.

“It’s a hit!” Jerry Lee proclaimed after the song was over. He acted as if he did not understand why his comment was greeted by laughter. Two decades later, when “Big Legged Woman” finally appeared on a reissue LP, Jerry Lee professed to be embarrassed by it.

On April 20, the usual quartet stomped through several takes of “Put Me Down,” in which for someone who was supposed to sound like he was being dumped, Jerry Lee was having a ball, as well as “Fools Like Me,” a slow one co-written by Jack Clement that enlivened the clichés of self-pitying country, bad rhymes and all. “Carrying On (Sexy Ways)” was fine and hard-rocking, but by now it was apparent that no one knew what to rename the Hank Ballard number. “Crazy Heart,” another tune identified with Hank Williams, was executed lightly and playfully.

The next night’s session was more productive, after a few run-throughs of “High School Confidential” loosened up the quartet. A cascading attack on Floyd Tillman’s “Slippin’ Around,” another Wagon Wheel favorite, featured two lead guitars by Billy Riley and Roland James and served as a perfect double-entendre vehicle for Jerry Lee. He sang as though he knew what it meant to “live in constant fear” on a number of levels. “I’ll See You in My Dreams” was a jazzy instrumental meant to mark time, a piano-roll readymade, and “Real Wild Child” was a sterling hard rocker with lines like “We’ll shake until the meat comes off the bone.” The session eased to a conclusion with the Louis Jordan jump-band hit “Let the Good Times Roll.” Jerry Lee’s idiosyncratic version suggested the sound of a New Orleans barroom just before dawn.

Jerry Lee was scheduled to fly to London on May 22 to embark on a sold-out-in-advance British tour, and Sam Phillips squeezed in one more session before the jaunt. Jerry Lee played this date solo. It was refreshing to play alone. His growth since his first solo session when he had revealed himself in front of Slim Whitman was noteworthy.

Jerry Lee started with yet another Williams track, “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” later overdubbed with guitar, bass, and drums. By 1958 Jack Clement had convinced Phillips to allow him and his buddy Bill Justis to start overdubbing strings and background choruses, but every single time this turned out to be superfluous at best and ruinsome to the original track at worst. It was comforting that not too much was overdubbed onto the released “Settin’ the Woods on Fire.” “Memory of You,” an original Jerry Lee wrote on the flight back from Australia, was nothing special except for its sound of freedom. Solo, he had so much room to play with in the heavily echoed Sun studio that he insisted on cramming every space he could find with sound, just like his piano breaks. The same went for the Allen Toussaint scorcher, “Come What May.” Alone in the studio, Jerry Lee shouted so no one’s attention, including his own, lagged for even a moment.

“Break Up” was a contribution from a new singer/pianist who had impressed Jack Clement: Charlie Rich. The solo version somehow anticipated all the other instruments to be added later and in doing so rendered their addition superfluous, from Jerry Lee’s uncharacteristic walking bass to his breakneck speed. A far superior Charlie Rich tune, attempted next, was the trenchant ballad “I’ll Make It Up to You.” Jerry Lee zeroed in on an appropriate tempo; it was polite, but there was no way Jerry Lee’s piano could sing the devotional ballad as straight as his voice could. He played “Crazy Arms” to remind himself that his previously recorded version was great, and his take on Chuck Berry’s “Johnny B. Good” reversed the typical Berry recording method by replicating Berry’s guitar on the piano. As a guitarist, Berry had aped the chords of his pianist, Johnny Johnson.

One could argue that Jerry Lee was simply hunting, looking for some material to fill out his long-player. The long-delayed first album, titled Jerry Lee Lewis, came out later that month and featured “Don’t Be Cruel,” “Goodnight Irene,” “Put Me Down,” “It All Depends (On Who Will Buy the Wine),” “Ubangi Stomp,” “Crazy Arms,” “Jambalaya,” “Fools Like Me,” “High School Confidential,” “When the Saints Go Marching In,” “Matchbox,” “It’ll Be Me,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Jerry Lee felt on top of the world–he had enjoyed three smash singles, and “High School Confidential” was on its way to becoming number four–and was trying to find new ways to solidify and expand his success. Like Elvis before him, he wanted his music to satisfy everyone and he knew it could.

Then the bottom fell out. Over everyone’s objections, Myra accompanied Jerry Lee to London, was found out by the sensationalist Fleet Street press as the Killer’s underage cousin/wife, and scandalized herself and her husband. Reporters then discovered that neither Jerry Lee’s first marriage nor his second had been legally terminated, making him a bigamist and his marriage to Myra Gale illegal as well as, from their viewpoint, immoral. The resulting uproar eventually forced Jerry Lee to leave the country without performing most of the booked shows.

The tour had begun on a lighter note. Nick Tosches reported that Jane Mitcham called Jerry Lee’s hotel room and Myra answered. Jane said she wanted to wish Jerry Lee luck in his London debut and told Myra she was still in love with the Ferriday Fireball. Countered Myra, “But I’m living with him and you’re not.” That night Jerry Lee’s show was poorly attended and booed lustily by many of those who bothered to show up.

In the center of the storm, Jerry Lee did not understand what had happened to him personally or professionally. The twenty-one-year-old’s nonchalant attitude to marriage ensured that he did not think he had done anything wrong by any of his wives; his insular, innocent ideas about the record industry led him to believe that this was a small matter that would blow over by the time his flight touched down in Memphis. However, “High School Confidential” stalled on the pop chart almost immediately; and neither side of the succeeding two-sided single, the Charlie Rich pair, “Break Up” and “I’ll Make It All Up to You,” cracked the Top Fifty.

Phillips tried everything. He had Jerry Lee and Myra remarry publicly. He had Jack Clement cut a novelty record, under Jerry Lee’s name, called “The Return of Jerry Lee,” a break-in single in the style of Buchanan and Goodman’s “Flying Saucer,” in which an announcer dubbed Edward R. Edward asked a question and then an engineer inserted a somewhat relevant lyrical snippet from a Jerry Lee song. (Sample question: “Where did you meet your young bride?” Answer, from “High School Confidential”: “Boppin’ at the high school hop!”)

This was supposed to solve the problem? The flipside was the great “Lewis Boogie,” which no one heard. One could argue that “The Return of Jerry Lee” was recorded in the spirit of its namesake, but Phillips’s decision to let Clement turn the scandal into a joke hurt everyone’s already crumbling credibility. Not much more successful was the humble open letter that Phillips placed as a full-page ad in Billboard and forced his charge to sign:

Dear Friends:

I have in recent weeks been the apparent center of a fantastic amount of publicity, none of which has been good.

But there must be good even in the worst people and according to the press release originating in London, I am the worst and not even deserving of one decent press release.

Now this whole thing started because I tried and did tell the truth. I told the story of my past life, as I thought it had been straightened out and that I would not hurt anybody in being man enough to tell the truth.

I confess that my life has been stormy. I confess further that since I have become a public figure, I sincerely wanted to be worthy of the decent admiration of all the people, young or old, that admired or liked what talent (if any) I have. That is, after all, all that I have in a professional way to offer.

If you don’t believe that the accuracy of things can get mixed up when you are in the public eye, then I hope you never have to travel this road I’m on.

There were some legal misunderstandings in that matter that inadvertently made me look as though I invented the word indecency. I feel I, if nothing else, should be given credit for the fact that I have at least a little common sense and that if I had not thought that the legal aspects of this matter were not completely straight, I certainly would not have made a move until they were.

I did not want to hurt Jane Mitcham, nor did I want to hurt my family and children. I went to court and did not contest Jane’s divorce actions, and she was awarded seven hundred and fifty dollars a month for child support and alimony. Jane and I parted from the courtroom as friends and, as a matter of fact, chatted before, during, and after the trial with no animosity whatsoever.

In the belief that for once my life was straightened out, I invited my mother and daddy and little sister to make the trip to England. Unfortunately, Mother and Daddy felt that the trip would be too long and hard for them and didn’t go, but Sister did go, along with Myra’s little brother and mother.

I hope that if I am washed up as an entertainer, it won’t be because of this bad publicity, because I can cry and wish all I want to, but I can’t control the press or the sensationalism that these people will go to to get a scandal started to sell papers. If you don’t believe me, please ask any of the other people that have been victims of the same.

Sincerely,

Jerry Lee Lewis

Less than two years after his initial appearance at 706 Union Avenue, Jerry Lee had scaled the top of the rock-and-roll ladder and fallen off. He had enjoyed the fruits of being “different,” being someone whose differentness made him special; now he was learning what happened when people learned the true extent of his differentness. After a month of pouting and blaming his problems on anyone else whom he happened to meet, he returned to 706 Union Avenue, ready to redeem himself the only way he knew how.

Chapter 4: Sun Set

“It is far easier, I know, to criticize the failure of the South to face and solve its problems than it is to solve them.”

W. J. Cash, The Mind of the South

The conventional wisdom about Jerry Lee’s career after the London fiasco is that it never truly recovered. The more complicated, and less romantic, truth is that although it took years for Jerry Lee to reestablish himself commercially on his records, only a few months passed before he was able to once again earn a good living on the road. Into the nineties, the road has been his home. From July 1958 to August 1963, when his elongated contract at Sun finally ran out and he graduated to Mercury’s Smash subsidiary, Jerry Lee put down on tape fewer songs than he had between November 1956 and the disaster in London. Why did he record more songs in his first eighteen months than he did in the subsequent five years? Because he was on the road.

This is not to suggest that these were not years of tremendous anger for Jerry Lee. He knew he had slipped, and his disappointment in himself and those around him was exacerbated by the alcohol and pills that had been part of his life even before he arrived in Memphis. In spite of the frequent high quality of his recordings, his hits were far less common and had weaker legs. Sam Phillips, and the subsequent producers he assigned to Jerry Lee when he lost interest, adopted a try-anything-and-see-what-might-stick approach. They took on instrumentals and eventually resorted to putting out tracks without vocals under an assumed name, the Hawk, thinking that a new monicker might break the blacklist. Through it all, on record at least, Jerry Lee remained completely individual. One could not hear a Jerry Lee performance and not know immediately that the Killer was at the controls. His stylistic authority announced itself the moment his fingers struck the ivories; every performance was as inescapable and demanding as an unexpected lapel grab.

The sessions that were supposed to make Charlie Rich wealthy took place in July 1958, but the scandal kept the resulting double-sided single of Rich compositions, “Break Up” and “I’ll Make It All Up to You,” in the bottom half of the charts. Some of the takes featured Rich playing piano, clear evidence that the brain trust at Sun had become so desperate they had temporarily lost their minds. Rich was a formidable pianist, to be sure, and he was one of the few white performers who had started their careers under the Sun umbrella who were able to truly expand on those lessons when they moved to a major label. Roy Orbison was another notable exception to the rule.

Rich’s talent notwithstanding, it was senseless to consider a Jerry Lee record without Jerry Lee playing piano, even if Jerry Lee’s idiosyncratic style sometimes worked against a producer’s tightly defined intentions. Somehow Jerry Lee shrugged off the insult; his singing on both tunes was intensely committed, at least to cutting a hit. Later in the month, Phillips crony and noted rock hater, Bill Justis, whose overwrought instrumental hit of the previous year, “Raunchy,” sported an inadvertently ironic title, supervised another of the backup-singer overdub extravaganzas that sank many a Jerry Lee tune by smoothing it so much that little was left to keep it afloat. As noted in a reissue, these overdubs “destroyed more Sun records at the end of the fifties than a raging warehouse fire.”

Justis was at the next Jack Clement-supervised session, on November 5, 1958, and he brought his saxophone. There is some evidence that Martin Willis played sax that date and Justis just produced, but he did bring his cynicism. Jerry Lee did not care; just off the road, he was ready to rock. He announced, “I might dance to it. I might tear it to the ground,” before he galloped through a “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee” that lived up to his rhetoric. “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” a Moon Mullican smash from 1950, was rollicking, although the saxophone sounded too literal, and Roland Janes’s repetitive guitar lines would have been annoying had they not been buried in the pollution of a mix. “It Hurt Me So” was a polite Rich/Justis number, again with Rich on piano, and “You’re the Only Star (in My Blue Heaven)” rounded out the session. Fans of pure Jerry Lee recordings were excused for wanting to stuff their laundry into Willis’s saxophone. A few days later, Justis threw a wet blanket of overdubs atop “It Hurt Me So.” Two hundred-odd miles east in Nashville, a producer named Jerry Kennedy took notes on Justis’s method.

This was rock and roll? With background choruses out of the blandest pop and pop-country forms? Many devotees of the first explosion of rock and roll – much of it emanating from 706 Union Avenue – were disappointed to hear what had happened to the music in 1958. Everyone was getting soft. Elvis, for example, had stumbled from “Jailhouse Rock” all the way down to “A Fool Such As I.” (Elvis’s induction into the army solidified his move.) The first wave of rock and roll was being retaken by the crooners (Pat Boone and his ilk) and novelty performers (a big hit of 1958 was Sheb Wooley’s “The Purple People Eater”).

Sensing that the market for the raw sounds that had built Sun was quickly weakening, Phillips accepted the counsel of people like Clement and Justis. There would still be a mix of teenage and adult topics in Jerry Lee’s songs, teen for the pop audience and adult for country folk, but those stories would now have to be more dressed up. Compared to the strings and horns foisted upon Jerry Lee through the sixties, seventies, and eighties, the comparatively subtle backup la-la’s on “You Hurt Me So” are not nearly so obstructive. But they set the pattern for what was to come; in the second phase of his tenure at Sun, it would be harder for listeners to get at Jerry Lee.

Although some of the people who overdressed Jerry Lee’s Sun performances have since publicly atoned, Jack Clement in particular, Jerry Lee himself did not rebel against this treatment, even if he surely knew it was inappropriate. All the men at Sun were brought up to understand and respect southern concepts of honor. Jerry Lee was wild, but he had manners. He may have indulged in shouting matches with his boss, but he always called him Mr. Phillips. At Sun after the fall, Jerry Lee revealed his character in Sam’s studio, not his office.

1958 bumped into 1959 with no reprieve for Jerry Lee from radio programmers. “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone” wandered into the Billboard pop chart for a week, position Ninety-three, and promptly disappeared. He had the usual problems at home, too, although a bewildered Myra was about to give birth to their first child, Steve Allen Lewis. J. W. had left the group, still trying to figure out what had happened to him and his family. Mother Mamie and cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart pressured him to absolve himself of all his worldly possessions – and give them those goodies. With all this on his mind, Jerry Lee cut loose in the studio with some performances he convinced himself could break him out of his personal and professional ruts. He was wrong on both counts, but freneticism poured out of him. Playing hard was the way he temporarily transcended his world. “Lovin’ Up a Storm,” consisting of just Jerry Lee, guitar, bass, and drums, was as hard and fast as any rock and roll. And the zeitgeist to the contrary, Jerry Lee still played authentic, unencumbered rock and roll. The piano solo conjured up a cyclone even more persuasively than the title image and the improvised couplet, “When we kiss/Great balls of fire,” hearkened Jerry Lee back to his favorite subjects: himself and his early career. Van Eaton’s outstanding demolition-derby drumming drove the number. “Big Blon’ Baby” was in the spirit of “Great Balls of Fire.” Instead of “Goodness gracious,” he exclaimed, “Jumpin’ Jehosaphat,” but few heard the worthy sequel.

Clement, or whoever was running the session, sensed that these fine performances could lead to more if he got Jerry Lee into the studio again soon, and three other tunes were recorded only a few days later, this time with Jerry Lee on drums rather than piano. All three were acceptable, but none of them reached the heights of “Lovin’ Up a Storm” or “Big Blon’ Baby.” The rhythm-and-blues “Sick and Tired,” written by New Orleans stalwarts Chris Kenner and Dave Bartholomew, was sprightly and syncopated, more Little Richard than Jerry Lee in its appropriation of the former’s “Lucille” riff. “(Just a Shanty in Old) Shanty Town” was a memory-driven (the child Jerry Lee had heard the song on the radio) midtempo country tune without the usual maudlin overlay. Jerry Lee forced the solo to be wilder than the song but the composition could not accept it and he ended abruptly. “Release Me” was a country standard (Ray Price and Kitty Wells both had recorded hit versions of the pained ballad in 1954) executed deftly if not brilliantly. This is a telling example of how even an uninspired Jerry Lee during this era could be spare and driving.

Jerry Lee returned to the studio on March 22, 1959, with Phillips himself apparently presiding and guessing what he could possibly do to get Jerry Lee back on the charts. Manners aside, Jerry Lee was pressuring Phillips for better answers on why he was not scoring hits anymore. He blamed Phillips for the mess, not the revelation of his marriage or the changing of public tastes. With more reason, he also resented Phillips for leading him into signing a sub-minimum-wage, five-year extension on his recording contract the year before when everyone felt like a vindicated genius. Jerry Lee and Sam were going to be stuck with each other until 1963 no matter how much either of them felt betrayed by the other. Unofficial blacklist or not, they had to try to make some commercial noise.

This night’s session was somewhat tentative, as Jerry Lee was playing with Bill Justis’s stage band rather than musicians with whom he shared a history, with the notable exception of drummer Van Eaton. Only one cut from the lengthy March 22 session was released before the dawn of the reissue age, perhaps because Sam sensed that Jerry Lee worked best with the people he knew best. By now it was nearly obligatory to include a Hank Williams song at a session, and this afternoon it was “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You.” It was characterized by a prancing solo and Jerry Lee’s inability or refusal to pronounce perhaps. He said “prehaps.” A plodding rhythm kept this particular performance stuck in the starting gate. “Near You” was a slight limbering-up instrumental, not without its charms or opportunities for Jerry Lee to show off.

This was Jerry Lee’s fiftieth session for his record label, and he was still intent on showing off before he did anything else. Phillips and Clement preserved these moments because they were fans, but even the dedicated must have tired of such practices after half a hundred dates. Jerry Lee showed off to amuse himself, he showed off to relieve the tension and repetitiveness of take after take of the same song, he showed off to entertain, he showed off to remind people that he was the Killer. But he showed off all the time. His career-long refusal to get through a session without doing this – the staff at the Memphis Recording Service the nights of the “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” sessions can attest to the enduring nature of the practice – was the only part of the Killer persona that was a bluff. Bravado is what men employ to hide their insecurities. Jerry Lee showed off all the time because he was afraid that he might not be any good. He didn’t need to remind everyone else that he was the Killer; he needed to remind himself.

Now that the hits were apparently over and his marriage was reduced to one hurt after another, Jerry Lee got his validation only from himself and whatever audience was starting to see him again when he played live. He was used to making do with little. Back in his childhood, horrific economic conditions had been exacerbated by the New Deal that was invented to alleviate them. The South had 28 percent of the country’s population in the thirties but received less than 16 percent of dispersed federal aid.

Although the Cadillac-and-motorcycle life had been thrilling, Jerry Lee was used to making do with little. How did he make do? By entertaining himself and reassuring himself. In that way, the Killer who recorded “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” in 1990 was not far removed from the kid who banged out “Silent Night” on his uncle’s upright. He wanted to prove to himself that he was worthy of special treatment; he wanted deliverance from his trials. The only places Jerry Lee could roam free without fear were in the studio and onstage. There he could consistently earn approval.

Other songs recorded between show-off moves at the March 22 session were “Hillbilly Music,” a spirited performance of a mediocre country-rocker that Jerry Lee elevated to a statement of purpose. It was the one song that session in which Justis’s stalwarts, particularly guitarist Brad Suggs, were able to keep up with Jerry Lee. Alas, the song faded out, so listeners could not enjoy the bang with which it inevitably concluded. Many attempts were made at covering the Fats Domino hit “My Blue Heaven,” in which flourish-filled piano lines were not contained by the sweet melody. After trying out several tempos, Jerry Lee suggested, “This’ll be Jerry Lee Lewis style,” and he rocked it out. His right hand wandered to the upper end of his eighty-eights, dancing on the edge to stop-and-start rhythms.

Sam Phillips could suffer through show-off episodes, but the prime reason he had Jerry Lee at 706 Union that night was to present him with a new Otis Blackwell composition written especially for him: “Let’s Talk About Us.” The teen-oriented love rocker moved along pleasantly enough, but it needed another kick to get over the cliff. Phillips suggested that when Jerry Lee finished his next string of dates, he should return to complete the number.

By the time Jerry Lee next recorded at Sun in late June, Phillips had fired Jack Clement and Bill Justis, ostensibly for insubordination. Ernie Barton supervised, and guitarists Roland Janes and Billy Riley were back in the fold. Again the point of the session was “Let’s Talk About Us.” Six takes into it, they scored a winner. The only problem was that even though Clement and Justis were gone, Phillips was still following their advice, heaping indifferent backup singers onto an already bursting track. As early as 1959 it was indisputable that the prime Jerry Lee tracks were those that were the least fussed over in post-production. The overdubs did not help; the single failed to enter any of the three Billboard singles charts.

Although few of the songs from the June sessions were initially intended for release, many of them were strong enough to convince Phillips otherwise. A cover of Chuck Berry’s jailbait anthem, “Little Queenie,” was definitive, the first of many Jerry Lee versions of Berry songs that would surpass their models. The studio echo enhanced the lecherous, conversational vocal; Jerry Lee was in control and enjoying his power, sexual and otherwise. The only weak spots in the mix were guitar interjections that did not add much that Jerry Lee’s lead lines did not already imply, and the Killer’s forgetting to play a piano solo. Roger Miller’s “Home” was competent, bluesy country, but Jerry Lee seemed distracted. Much better was an amazingly graceful version of the Carter Family’s “Can the Circle Be Unbroken,” the archetypal God-believing country ballad. Much worse was a rare dud by Sam’s current favorite, Charlie Rich, called “The Ballad of Billy Joe,” maudlin midtempo country sung by a man about to be executed. It showed up on the B-Side of “Let’s Talk About Us,” fumbling through lyrics like, “I’ll be hung tomorrow/Just because I had to kill that little rat.” The song was much more appropriate for Johnny Cash than Jerry Lee. However, since the Man in Black had jumped ship for Columbia (and had recorded an extremely similar song called “Don’t Take Your Guns to Town”), it fell on Jerry Lee’s lap. Another Rich composition, “Sail Away” made more emotional sense, and Jerry Lee sang it as a duet with the writer, adding an extra overlay of resignation and yearning to an already fine tune. “Sail Away” should have replaced “The Ballad of Billy Jo” on the flip of “Let’s Talk About Us.”

“Am I to Be the One” was another duet, this time on a quality mild rocker. Both Jerry Lee and Rich’s singing owed much to Atlantic rhythm-and-blues singers like the Coasters. On the basis of these two songs, someone should have suggested a Lewis/Rich duet album and begged Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller to produce it. “Night Train to Memphis,” a hit a generation previously for Roy Acuff, was masterfully executed as a spiritually contented rocker, an anticipatory antidote to Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train” with a marvelous secular/gospel mixture, using phrases like “We’re gonna sing hallelujah” and “We’re gonna have a jubilee” to describe all sorts of sacred and profane activities. This was another example of Jerry Lee’s mixing styles and coming up with something new and indefinable. Rounding out the session was “I’m the Guilty One,” a cry-in-your-beer revenge ballad in which the revenge is on the self, tossed-off in great country style.

Cecil Scaife, Sun’s promotion manager at the time, thought he knew how to get Jerry Lee out of his commercial doldrums. As he told Colin Escott, he wanted to change the Killer’s image. “I wanted to get him out of typical rock-and-roll regalia,” Scaife said. “Ivy League was in. I wanted him to get a crew cut. I wanted to hold a press conference where Jerry would announce that he was somewhat remorseful. He would take on an adult image. We discussed it for over an hour. Jerry was very polite and listened. He would nod every once in a while, but he kept looking at his watch. Finally, he shook it like it wasn’t working, and he looked at his buddy across the table and said, ‘What time is it?’ The guy said, ‘It’s five before one,” Jerry said, ‘Oh! The double feature at the Strand starts in five minutes. It’s Return of the Werewolf and The Bride of Frankenstein Meets Godzilla.’ Then he jumped up and left the table. That was the last time we discussed Jerry’s image.”

First-rate performances like those on “Night Train to Memphis” and “I’m the Guilty One” were second nature to Jerry Lee, not much work at all. They reflected the way he thought. They were great, but neither was released until long after he had left the label. His promotion manager wanted to turn him into Pat Boone. No wonder he needed to show off so much.

Jerry Lee, peroxided hair not within six inches of crew cut length, did not get around to recording again until early 1960, by which time the studio at 706 Union had been abandoned in favor of a more modern setup at 639 Madison Avenue. It had a grand piano and a four-track recorder. Jerry Lee’s first session there, produced by Charles Underwood, was a disaster. “The Wild Side of Life” was a Hank Thompson hit from 1952 that had become an immediate sexist-lament, honky-tonk standard. It seemed likely that Jerry Lee would put down a strong version, but from the opening note it was clear that Martin Willis’s saxophone had no business being anywhere near this tune. The more elaborate instrumentation that its presence suggested made the song and Jerry Lee’s loose performance sound more ordinary than they really were. “Billy Boy” was a rocker written by someone who didn’t understand rock and roll, although Jerry Lee’s howdy-doody solo and lines like “I’m a young cat/And I can’t leave my mother” lifted it to borderline listenable. “My Bonnie” was an intermittently spirited standard that made a little more room for the saxophone.

A marathon session at the end of the month produced by Sam Phillips was much more rewarding and about ten times as long. Neither Sam nor Jerry Lee had a clue what to do with a newfangled four-track recorder, but they both were well lubricated and not concerned with such esoterica. Jerry Lee kept explaining “Mexicali Rose,” a breezy Bing Crosby song from 1938 that was a relic of the Killer’s Ferriday radio-listening years, telling Phillips over and over why it was going to be a hit. He was supercharged. Even his talking before the tune was rhythmic and intense: “It’s real slow and pretty/The whole thing/Real slow and pretty/Then it changes into the beat, man.” The band started it at a sluggish tempo and Jerry Lee called it off.

“It’s too slow!” Jerry Lee complained.

“It’s no hit,” Sam complained.

“Damn right, it’s a hit,” Jerry Lee said. “Just wait ’til I get through with it and I’ll show you it’s a hit.”

A few minutes later, he blazed through a turbulent rock-and-roll version of “Mexicali Rose.” The session moved along as swiftly and directly as the music. “Let’s do some Newport jazz,” Sam suggested, searching for any fad on which to capitalize, although Jerry Lee did not want to stop insisting that “Mexicali Rose” was a hit. Sam implored, “Let’s cut this instrumental just for the thrill of it,” and Jerry Lee played an interpretation of the Glenn Miller hit “In the Mood” that built up steam as the band, especially guitarist Janes, caught on to Jerry Lee’s most subtle asides. “I might put out an instrumental record,” Sam said afterward, thinking aloud. “Maybe something else? Call it the Jerry Lee Lewis Combo featuring Roland Janes.” This was the cut they released credited to “The Hawk,” rather than to Jerry Lee Lewis, but no one could hear its honky-tonk version of swing and not immediately know who the perpetrator was. For all his selfless loyalty to Jerry Lee, Janes did not get his credit.

Afternoon turned to evening, and dozens of versions of many more songs were thrown at the wall. “I Get the Blues When It Rains” was either dinner music or a soporific, depending on one’s tastes; “Don’t Drop It” was a persuasive barroom rocker with a weird lyrical conceit that compared love to glass; and Jerry Lee committed a pair of versions of Roy Acuff’s “The Great Speckled Bird,” a metaphorical tale about the steadfastness of Good against Evil that was extremely popular in Assembly of God churches. In fast and slow versions, Jerry Lee played both characters. The premier take of the song was preceded by Jerry Lee’s instructions to the band, “Kinda slow, man, you know, not draggy but lively, you know, not lively but not too draggy.” Whatever it sounded like, it was intended by Jerry Lee as a devout song to balance the session’s frank pop.

“Bonnie B,” later picked as a single, was a terrific teen-oriented rocker by Charles Underwood, although Sam should have known he could never sell many copies of a song in which Jerry Lee sang, “I would marry Bonnie B if I could,” and then went on to explain that they could not marry because they were too young. A picture sleeve featuring a pajama-clad Myra holding a teddy bear would not have been more self-defeating. “Baby, Baby Bye Bye” was a spirited complaint tune that later had backup idiots grafted on it, as did a quietly country-rocking version of Stephen Foster’s “Old Black Joe,” which whitewashed the pre-industrialized South. Jerry Lee’s frequent readings of Foster tunes suggested that the version of the South he accepted was the romanticized one, Lost Cause and all.

A fast take of Hank Williams’s “I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still in Love with You)” underlined Jerry Lee’s usual trouble with Hank songs at anything significantly faster than the original tempo. Still, it was a good version, even if it was sung backwards: “You can’t help it if you’re still in love with me.” A speedy “Your Cheatin’ Heart” was somewhat more effective. “As Long As I Live,” written by Dorsey Burnette, bassist for the Johnny Burnette Rock ‘n’ Roll Trio, was a driving, optimistic rocker with a country tinge and gospel chord changes. Although Jerry Lee suspected his record audience was gone for good, he never stopped entertaining himself. “Hound Dog” had a wild solo, and Jerry Lee could do a great version of this in his sleep.

As the session tumbled deeper into the evening, an agitated Phillips taunted Jerry Lee by claiming that the Killer “couldn’t cover Ray Charles for shit.” An argument of “Great Balls of Fire” proportions ensued. Some say it escalated to blows. Whatever happened, it resolved in an astonishing version of “What’d I Say” that made Charles’s original fluent, uptempo gospel soul with a bang, sound tame. Sam conceded the point.

One final, wonderful performance from the session that did not see release until Ronald Reagan was president was a rock-and-roll song called, alternately, “Keep Your Hands Off of It” or “Birthday Cake.” “What are you gonna do with this thing?” Jerry Lee laughed when he learned the words.

“I don’t know,” Sam said. “Take it out behind the barn and play it.”

“Well that’s the only place you’re gonna be able to play it,” Jerry said. “Here we go…”

He scampered through the song as though it were a mine field, dropping chords and running, investing the double-entendre lyrics with as much slyness as his rolling tongue would allow. Thirty years later, what remains most amazing about this performance is that, even though Jerry Lee knew that there was no chance that it was ever going to see the light of day, he still played it as ferociously as all but the greatest of his Sun recordings. It was not that Jerry Lee was desperate for a hit, although he was, it was that he thought anything was possible. His unbridled optimism about himself shone through in his work. Sam listened to the playback, put the tape in its box, wrote “HELP!” on the box, and filed it.

Standouts from the next session, in June, included “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes” by the late rhythm-and-blues master Chuck Willis, in which Martin Willis’s finally appropriate saxophone emphasized the tune’s New Orleans flavor and threw Jerry Lee’s boisterous vocal into relief; a dirty excavation of W. C. Handy’s gospel-blues “John Henry”; and another Chuck Willis tune, “C.C. Rider,” which Jerry Lee interpreted as an emphatic, relaxed strut. A feverish instrumental called “Lewis Work-out” was perfectly self-descriptive. Less worthy was a tossed-away version of Cindy Walker’s “When My Blue Moon Turns to Gold Again,” in which Jerry Lee’s voice sounded shot; it was probably attempted at the tail end of the mostly successful session.

It has been suggested that one of the reasons Jerry Lee had trouble finding another hit in his later years with Sun was that he was not much of a songwriter. But what about Elvis Presley, who never wrote a song in his life? It has also been suggested that pop music had moved away from rock and roll in the early sixties, leaving Jerry Lee the artistic equivalent of homeless. Radio was soft compared to 1956, but there was still room in 1960 for Elvis’s “A Mess of Blues,” Wanda Jackson’s “Let’s Have a Party,” Fats Domino’s “Natural Born Lover,” Ray Charles’s “Let the Good Times Roll,” James Brown’s “You Got the Power,” and many more. The blacklist was a factor, but “What’d I Say” would soon prove that it was not impenetrable. Rather, what kept Jerry Lee off the charts after the shock of his marriage to Myra faded away was one of the aspects of Sun Records that made it great: its devotion to new talent, the flip side of which was a reliance on such performers. Sun was not constructed like a major label that could nurture long-term careers. Until Motown changed the rules in 1963, regional independent labels thrived on novelty, not familiarity. The major labels treated Sun like a Triple-A baseball team; it was built for people to develop and move on to the big time. By 1960 Jerry Lee was ready for new challenges and new ideas, but his contract insured he was with Phillips for three more years. Of the greatest Sun performers, Jerry Lee stayed with Sam by far the longest. By 1960 they still had a tremendous amount of common ground stylistically and still made wonderful records together, but any disinterested observer could have seen that Jerry Lee had outgrown Sun.

An October 13 session with a large band including two guitars, three horns, and a vocal group yielded nothing useful. “When I Get Paid” and “Love Made a Fool of Me” were pulled as singles and disappeared almost immediately. Both conformed to the bland norms of Nashville country. The next session actually took place in Nashville, a distressing development for those who believed Jerry Lee did his best work away from the influence of “hillbilly heaven.”

Neither Phillips nor Jerry Lee was entirely satisfied with the January 1960 version of “What’d I Say” so they went at it again at their June session. They got closer, and at the end of the take, Phillips cheered. Recording in Nashville with countrypolitan producer Billy Sherrill at the helm and crack session men at his side, Jerry Lee battled against the preconception that he would soften in such company and bested all previous versions of “What’d I Say.” This time Jerry Lee was completely uninhibited, so much that even the overdubbed backup singers (brought in to remind listeners of Charles’s Raelettes, who had accompanied the original hit) did not detract from his raving, shouting, and pleading. The only thing wrong with it was that it ended too soon. Jerry Lee hollered so loud he even made a dent in the blacklist: “What’d I Say” reached Number Twenty-seven country-and-western, Number Twenty-six rhythm-and-blues, and Number Thirty pop. It was not a smash, but it was a start. More important in the short run, it also helped Jerry Lee garner better bookings on the road.

Accompanying Jerry Lee on February 9, 1961, in Nashville were guitarists Hank Garland and Kelso Herston, bassist Bob Moore, and drummer Buddy Harman. They were the elite in Nashville session circles, and their other three tracks with Lewis that day showed both how sympathetic – and limiting – they could be. “Livin’ Lovin’ Wreck” was a teen-oriented Otis Blackwell tune, a vehicle that was starting to knock when Jerry Lee drove it. The performance was good, but it was also polite. Those looking toward the future noticed that if he wanted to, Jerry Lee could thrive in any environment, even one populated by bona fide session musicians. On Hank Williams’s “Cold Cold Heart,” a number Thirty-six country hit, the problem was not so much the size of the accompaniment or the backup singers as it was the insistence of drummer Harman and bassist Moore to place repetitive, passion-free rhythms onto the tunes. Being a Hank tune guaranteed that Jerry Lee would sing “Cold Cold Heart” with passion and brains, but his piano was buried in the mix except when he was soloing, and the “clean” recording had no use for the Sun echo that served Jerry Lee’s voice so well. “I Forgot to Remember to Forget” was forgettable.

Desperation being the rule, everyone at Sun and in the Lewis family was so thrilled that “What’d I Say” had hit that they insisted on repeating its recording method for Jerry Lee’s next recording session on June 12. It was recorded in the same city, in the same studio, with the same players and the same producer. Again the results were artistically mixed; this time they were also commercially negligible. “C.C. Rider” was far inferior to the version of a year earlier, mostly because of the overblown accompaniment. The midtempo beat selected for Leon Payne’s “I Love You Because” was nonsensical, as the song was built as a slow ballad. Again, Jerry Lee failed to top Elvis on a song they had both recorded. A take on the beautiful Drivers hit “Save the Last Dance for Me” was better than 90 percent of what was coming out of Nashville at the time, but it seemed indifferent: Jerry Lee’s approach did not have much in common with New York songwriters, even superb ones like Doc Pomus and Mort Shuman. The session’s sacrificial lamb, for instance, the single, was “It Won’t Happen with Me,” an ego-boosting song that brought Jerry Lee’s piano and vocals into the open. It was energetic in spite of drummer Harman’s puzzling decision that hitting cymbals hard meant rocking out.

Two days later Jerry Lee was back in Memphis at the Madison Avenue studio. Johnny (“Ace”) Cannon’s all-over-the-place saxophone ruined most of what it touched, but a few tracks survived the encounter. The whole session was bizarre. Fats Domino’s “Hello Josephine (My Girl Josephine)” faded out precisely at the moment it got interesting. “High Powered Woman” by the bluesman Sonny Terry was a harshly performed woman-fearing rocker, and “Sweet Little Sixteen” was propulsive enough, but it was several rungs below Jerry Lee’s finest Chuck Berry recastings.

The remaining 1961 session, on September 21 in Nashville with the same cast, including seven horns, that had botched the previous date, was slightly more successful. “Ramblin’ Rose” kicked up some swamp-rock mud, and those who listened hard could ferret through the over-orchestrated sound and find Jerry Lee trying to summon up blues feeling and commitment in the midst of people who did not share such interests. Barrett Strong’s “Money” was a highlight of Jerry Lee’s stage shows, but here the horns and vocalists stuck a pin into the song. Carl Mann’s “Rockin’ the Boat of Love” was a seaworthy pop exercise. It had some expansive singing by Jerry Lee, but the backup la-las annoyed as usual, though bassist Moore did a good job of anticipating and doubling Jerry Lee’s left hand. “Ramblin’ Rose” was the track picked for a single, and it sank. All these Nashville performances were tasty, professional, mannered. Except for “What’d I Say,” none of them was wild. In 1961 Jerry Lee songs that were not wild were not worth hearing.

Jerry Lee began his penultimate year at Sun with a weirdo novelty session in Memphis under Sam Phillips’s direction. Although the fine drummer Al Jackson was brought in for the date, desperation still called the shots. Chubby Checker’s “The Twist” was the inescapable hit of the day, and Sam insisted on trying to cash in. Sun bluesman Junior Parker’s “Feelin Good” was the basis for “I’ve Been Twistin’,” which featured elastic, open-air guitar by Roland Janes. The conversational shaggy-dog tale was fun no matter how opportunistic and twisted this cut was. Higher up on the psychotic scale was “Whole Lotta Twistin’ Goin’ On.” Two other unjustly forgotten songs that emerged from this session were a Stan Kesler country ballad, “I Know What It Means,” that suggested a Memphis spaghetti western (pre-Ennio Morricone), and a resilient “High Powered Woman” that crushed the Nashville attempt at the tune. A June 5 session yielded nothing except “Set My Mind at Ease,” a tough blues, and a lovely take of Jimmie Rodgers’s “Waiting for a Train,” a defiant song of life on the grift that Jerry Lee always considered one of the Singing Brakeman’s greatest.

By mid-1962, Jerry Lee’s career was back on an upturn. He and his long hair returned triumphantly to England, where it seemed that everyone either idolized him or apologized to him for what had happened last time. But just as his professional life began to settle, his personal life was once again visited by tragedy. On Easter morning, Steve Allen Lewis wandered into the family pool and drowned. He was three years old. Jerry Lee told many around him that he was convinced the Lord was punishing him for not being a good enough or holy enough family man. Privately he blamed Myra, for no good reason. By the end of the year, Myra was pregnant with a daughter, Phoebe.

In the next year sessions were few, two in Memphis and one in Nashville, and not particularly productive. J. W. Brown returned for one, which may have made it easier for Jerry Lee to go through with it. In spite of everything, some of those recordings have lasted. A smoldering reinvention of “Be Bop a Lula” anticipated Stax more than it celebrated the Gene Vincent rockabilly standard; it was the rare rockabilly cut that looked forward. “Teenage Letter,” familiar to Jerry Lee in a version by Big Joe Turner, a shouting bluesman, offered Jerry Lee an opportunity to invent some lyrics that he could really lay into: ‘I need it/I gotta have it/I love you baby/I’m gonna prove it in my own way.” Undoubtedly the worst of the Memphis tracks was “Seasons of My Heart,” a grating duet with little sister Linda Gail.

The main reason that Linda Gail was featured on a Jerry Lee Lewis record was that Sam Phillips wanted to keep making Jerry Lee records, and he figured a little nepotism might tip the scales. The Killer’s contract was up on September 1, and Phillips did everything he could think of, except offer him much more money, to keep Jerry Lee, his last great performer, in his dwindling stable. But Jerry Lee had had enough, and he signed with Smash Records. So Sam did with Jerry Lee as he had with Johnny Cash half a decade before: he booked last-minute contractually obligated sessions in case the departed scored a hit on his new label. For these last Sun sessions, on August 27 and 28, 1963, Phillips decided to try something different: a string section. Big production had taken over country and pop, and Sam figured he would try to master yet another style.

None of the songs recorded in those last sessions ranked with Jerry Lee’s greatest for the label, but they did suggest the future. A song like “Your Lovin’ Ways” cannily anticipated what Jerry Lee would sound like five years down the road when he returned to country-and-western chart prominence. Some of the songs were weird. Hoagy Carmichael’s “Hong Kong Blues” was given the new lyrics: “I’d rather be back in San Francisco/Wearing blue suede shoes.” However, “One Minute Past Eternity,” “Invitation to Your Party” (with its key rhyme with the title “I’m not conceited or a smartie”), “I Can’t Seem to Say Goodbye,” and “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia” were exemplars of how to go big-production and still keep things relatively soulful. Thanks to the backup singers, it was easy to hate some of the songs even before Jerry Lee started singing, but he sang with an adult mix of regret, assurance, and defiance. He took uptown and brought it down-home. No one knew it at the time, but he was on to something.

The world had changed drastically since Jerry Lee had recorded “Crazy Arms,” and no one could argue that the 1963 versions of both Jerry Lee and rock and roll were not in important ways inferior to what they were in 1956. But on “Carry Me Back to Old Virginia,” a song that mirrored Jerry Lee’s own ideas of what it meant to be a Southerner, his tough solo cut through the walls of sound around it and argued, for the last time under Sam Phillips’s tutelage, he would never, ever, be tamed.

Chapter 5: Something Has to Stick

Last night I dreamed I made it to the promised land,

I was standin’ at the gate and I had the key in my hand.

Saint Peter said, Come on in boy, you’re finally home,”

I said, “No thanks Pete, I’ll just be movin’ along.”

– Steve Earle, “I Ain’t Ever Satisfied”

Jerry Lee signed with Smash Records in September 1963, a few days after his daughter, Phoebe, was born, and he received an advance against royalties of fifty thousand dollars. He had been courted by Shelby Singleton, vice president of Mercury Records in charge of its Smash subsidiary, who had been looking for an act with marquee value; he went after Charlie Rich and Jerry Lee, and eventually he snared them both.

“He hadn’t had a hit in a long time,” Singleton said of the latter, “but Jerry Lee was still Jerry Lee. He still had the talent. I knew I could sell him better than Sam [Phillips] because what I had was a promotion machine. Sam had practically gotten out of the business. I had distribution, plus I had international distribution. I had major bucks behind me.”

The legend of Sun is a worthy one, even if it has been over-romanticized, but Singleton had a point. A fan, he knew that Jerry Lee made some marvelous records after the hits stopped and that even if there had not been a scandal, Phillips would have had trouble working them on anything within ten steps of an equal footing with the major labels. As the pop-music market increased, major labels moved to increase market shares. Memphis independents like Sun and Goldwax did not have much of a chance to break their artists on the pop charts. Another great Memphis label, Stax, saw the writing on the wall, signed with Atlantic, and thrived.

Unaware of the final Sun recordings, Singleton had a plan to restore Jerry Lee. “The first thing I did with acts that I signed in those years who had had hit records is I immediately went into the studio and I cut a greatest hits album,” he explained. “That way, because of the lack of availability of the other product in the marketplace, a greatest hits album would recoup whatever advance I gave him, plus it gave me working capital to work on new product.”

Such rerecordings by former hit makers on a new label are a long-standing pop-music tradition, but the frequency of the move did not make it any less misleading, especially when the result was an album called The Golden Rock Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis. Still, the Sun rerecordings cut in late September with Singleton producing were overarranged, but not wholly without merit. You can’t go home again, but sometimes it is pleasant to briefly visit the old neighborhood. Jerry Lee was encouraged to sing in a more mannered style than was natural for him, very different from the way he was singing those songs onstage at the time; and manners made a remake of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” wholly gratuitous.

The female backing singers and the saxophone did not help matters any. The performance was acceptable but not remotely turbulent; the biggest problem was the engineer’s inability to echo Jerry Lee’s voice consistently. Other Sun songs that got the good-but-not-inspired treatment were “Crazy Arms,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “High School Confidential,” “I’ll Make It All Up to You,” “Down the Line,” “Breathless,” “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee,” “Fools Like Me,” “End of the Road,” and a trio of Hank Williams cuts, “Your Cheatin’ Heart,” “You Win Again,” and “Wedding Bells.”

Even strings could not prevent Jerry Lee from flourishing when singing Hank Williams ballads. The arrangements were not significantly different from those on his eventual late-sixties hits, which made it puzzling that they were not released as singles in 1963. Even more puzzling was that they were placed on a record titled Golden Rock Hits. Of the Sun remakes, those that best handled the transition to the more cluttered arrangements were a speedy “Johnny B. Goode” and an unruly “Break Up” that would have come within hollering distance of the original had the backup singers been given a few minutes off. Golden Rock Hits was the first Jerry Lee album to squeeze onto Billboard’s LP charts, though not for long. It got only as high as Number 116 before it faded away.

Other recordings from the two-day session evidenced that Singleton was not sure what to do with Jerry Lee after having his new charge regurgitate past triumphs; and Jerry Lee was not providing him any clues. Unlike the try-anything approach at Sun, which was usually a result of broad interests and unfettered ambition, the catholic recordings of Jerry Lee’s first Smash sessions seemed a result of random hunches. Some of the performances were very good, but they did not add up as a whole, something essential as the album market had become more lucrative. Several passes at “Hit the Road, Jack,” based on Ray Charles’s live version, found Jerry Lee trying to replicate his “What’d I Say,” with a fine rhythmic blues-flavored solo. “Just Because,” a Shelton Brothers tune recorded by Elvis at Sun, was a provocative raveup that Jerry Lee elevated to a vivid putdown.

Less vital tracks from the sessions included a truly awful song Jerry Lee wrote called “He Took It Like a Man,” a not-at-all solemn retelling of John the Baptist’s beheading in which he referred to the martyr as “Ole Johnny.” Jerry Lee was not trying to be funny; for him it was natural to convey a religious icon’s fate as relaxedly as he would tell that of Frankie and Johnny. The semi-hit from the sessions was Eddie Kilroy’s “Pen and Paper,” a workaday country ballad found on the flip of the nonhit “Hit the Road, Jack” single. A much better choice for a single was “The Hole He Said He’d Dig For Me,” a bitter Charlie Rich-style country tune that built a worthy bridge between Jerry Lee’s bare-bone Sun country and his more elaborate Smash version.

By the time Jerry Lee next recorded for Singleton, on February 14, 1964, the world had changed. A rock quartet from Liverpool, England, had forever altered how rock and roll would be assimilated, and the assassination of John Kennedy had irrevocably modified the nation’s view of itself. Freedom from bland radio had arrived in the persons of John, Paul, George, and Ringo; considering what had happened in Dallas and how deeply it shook people, especially in the South and Southwest, where anger was augmented by guilt and denial, the release could not have come at a more propitious moment. Some might even claim that the miseries in the United States in early 1964 were necessary for the blitzkrieg rise of the mop-tops. Whatever the cause, the ante had been raised, and Jerry Lee had to respond to it.

And what a response it was. “I’m on Fire” only reached Number Ninety-eight on the Billboard pop chart before it retreated to obscurity after a week; but if radio programmers had been willing to listen, it would have enlivened the few spots on their playlists not held by Beatles tunes. “I’m on Fire” was the first time Jerry Lee’s brand of elemental rock and roll made sense in this more orchestrated context, referring to Sun triumphs without merely restating them. He had finally figured out how to make a big band rock. “She Was My Baby (He Was My Friend),” recorded the same day, was an ingratiating teen-oriented pop track with a Coasters feel; “Bread and Butter Man” was uptempo country pop with an insistent vocal and a touch of blues; and “I Bet You’re Gonna Like It” was a speedy big-production number about the obvious subject.

Decades later, it remains foggy whether the blacklist was a real one or just an excuse. One Mercury executive of the time said eighteen years later, “We had to blame it on something, didn’t we? We couldn’t say that we were the problem.” Nonetheless, it is not hard to imagine that only a conspiracy could have kept off the radio performances this sturdy by a man with a history of million sellers.

Jerry Lee did not enter a recording studio again for another year because his touring schedule was so grueling. In that time he reconquered Europe in a tour backed by the Nashville Teens, and he recorded two of the greatest live albums in the history of American popular music.

On April 5, 1964, Jerry Lee played at the Star-Club in Reeperbahn, Hamburg, a performance preserved on a Europe-only LP entitled, imaginatively, Live at the Star-Club. Listening to the set for about ten seconds makes one want to send a nasty letter to Sam Phillips for not recording any onstage Jerry Lee performances during his Sun years. (In Sam’s defense, live albums were not the sure-fire profit-takers they are today.) Before he began his first song Jerry Lee rolled his l’s; he did not wait for the opening number to start performing. The kick-off tune, “Mean Woman Blues,” was leery, malicious, ferocious, frenetic, everything Jerry Lee’s blues-soaked version of rock and roll offered or implied. An exhilarating “High School Confidential” climaxed in a tense piano solo, and “Money” went far beyond the recorded version. Sultry, primitive, demanding, Jerry Lee ignored the band and wrenched all he could from the ugly truths at the song’s center. The breakdown before the final charge featured some defiant scatting in which Jerry Lee said everything that needed to be conveyed in wordless taunts that no one could have misunderstood. “Matchbox” was his first attempt at a Carl Perkins performance that exceeded the model. Jerry Lee defined the tune as an agreeable strut and was so taken by himself that he kept soloing through the guitar interlude and derived extra pleasure from singing, “If you don’t like my peaches/Please don’t shake my tree.”

“What’d I Say” at the Star-Club was one of the three or four most amazing performances of Jerry Lee’s career, from its far-ranging piano introduction through some screaming that took in a lifetime’s worth of disappointment and frustration, into an extended coda that was at once both generous and sleazy. “Down the Line” maintained the scorching pace with a strong, rough delivery of lines like, “I’m gonna do right ’cause I was meant to do right/And you’d better believe that Jerry Lee is gonna do right.”

“Jerry! Jerry!” the audience chanted; the object of their affection took up the chant; and everyone jumped into a “Great Balls of Fire” that should have set off the smoke detectors, Jerry Lee’s eternal argument setting off explosions at every turn. “Good Golly Miss Molly” was a raucous Little Richard evocation, wilder even than Little Richard, and “Lewis Boogie” was an ideal, implosive pumping-piano showcase, marvelous tension implied by the band’s heated attempt to keep up with the Killer. “Your Cheatin’ Heart” brought the tempo down, but Jerry Lee’s flexible solo and soulful singing kept the proceedings intense, as did a rough, very fast “Hound Dog.” “Long Tall Sally” was another Little Richard number characterized by all sorts of yelling, both vocally and instrumentally, and Jerry Lee scorched with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Live at the Star-Club documented an extraordinary performance, even if only Jerry Lee’s European fans had easy access to the recording.

American audiences were also extremely well served. A July 1, 1964, concert at the Municipal Auditorium in Birmingham, Alabama, was the basis for the album The Greatest Live Show on Earth. There was some duplication with the Star-Club set – four songs – but this was a wholly different act. The audience was not so boisterous as that at the Star-Club, but Jerry Lee made up for it. Little Richard’s “Jenny Jenny” provided the show with a propulsive, auspicious opening salvo, and it rolled into a self-involved rap (what did Jerry Lee mean by “Talk about it one time, yeah”?) that resolved into Charlie Rich’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be?” A heartbreak-country tune, it was intended to alert his audience that this show would have a wide agenda, that Jerry Lee would do everything. Chuck Berry’s “Memphis” was preceded by a warning to the band, “If we can get it right this time.” It moved words across verses until the story of the lyrics was overwhelmed by the story told in the ivories. On “Hound Dog” and “Mean Woman Blues,” all flying hands from Jerry Lee and high-pitched screams from the audience, even those listening to the record at home could feel the set building. The single culled from the show was a bluesy take of Robert Higginbotham’s “Hi-Heel Sneakers,” a strut enlivened by unison clapping from the crowd and the tension between Jerry Lee’s desire to take the song dirty and his responsibility to keep it radio safe. “No Particular Place to Go,” prefaced by humble comments regarding writer Chuck Berry (Jerry Lee had mellowed since their confrontation), offered a fine stuttering solo and some sympathetic accompaniment from his new road band, the Memphis Beats.

“Honey, I’ll tell you one thing,” Jerry Lee said between breaths after the song. “It’s gonna get real good in a minute. If it gets much better than this, I won’t be able to stand it. Rrrrrr … I’m the kinda cat I might do a blues tune one minute than turn right around and do a country tune.” After having defined himself with the precision of a haiku, he leaned into the wistful Buck Owens ballad “Together Again,” a slab of hard, hard country with wry piano flourishes.

Jerry Lee was in the mood to talk. He spoke lovingly of Little Richard when introducing “a little groovy tune we hope you’ll enjoy. Grrrrr. “Shake it, shake it, Long Tall Sally.” This soul-man version spit out even more sparks than it had at Hamburg. As expected, but still appreciated, the set climaxed with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” complete with a spirited extended rap during which he directed his audience to shake “Not a whole lot/Just a little.”

Some of this enthusiasm worked its way into Jerry Lee’s next studio dates in January 1965, produced by Singleton and Jerry Kennedy. The first released recording from the sessions, Big John Greer’s rhythm-and-blues hit “Got You on My Mind,” was presented as midtempo country and was in every way less encumbered than the February 1964 sessions, perhaps because of the success of the live tapings: The Greatest Live Show on Earth had ventured forty-five slots higher on Billboard’s LP chart than Golden Rock Hits. “Mathilda” was a similar song executed with a similar feel, marked by an affecting, rhythmic solo. Jerry Lee breezed through a pleasant, brisk “Corrine, Corrina,” a blues standard that had been resurrected by Big Joe Turner. Two songs he previously recorded at Sun, Hank Ballard’s “Sexy Ways” and Hank Thompson’s “The Wild Side of Life,” were the equal of their predecessors; and another Joe Turner number, “Flip, Flop, and Fly,” rocked hard behind wry lines like “Gimme a kiss and hold it a long, long time.” “Herman the Hermit” was a peculiar rocker, chock full of wonderfully bad rhymes (“hermit”/”permit”) in which Jerry Lee sounded nothing so much as bemused.

The sessions were not all grand. The Roy Hamilton soft-rhythm-and-blues hit, “Don’t Let Go,” a song Jerry Lee returned to many times subsequently, received the standard Nashville-session treatment; the Chuck Berry covers “Maybelline” and “Roll Over Beethoven” were time-killers; and “Baby Hold Me Close,” a song written in the studio that Jerry Lee performed the next month on the television show “Shindig,” was derivative, though not charmless, with a fine spoken intro and a semi-spoken last verse. “Skid Row” was average country with some self-pity where regret was supposed to be. By the end of the session, the two outstanding live albums had been forgotten. Jerry Lee was not strong enough at this time in his life to wrest control of his recordings from his producers, and his producers’ power was exceeded only by their indecisiveness.

Those sessions set the pattern for the next two years of studio work, until Jerry Kennedy replaced Shelby Singleton as Jerry Lee’s primary producer: some rock, some blues, some country, and occasionally a whole lotta nothin’ going on. Because albums had become more important, both on their own and, strangely, as marketing tools for the less expensive single records, they had to cohere better than the slapped-together early rock-and-roll LPs of the fifties. The long-player market in 1965 was only beginning to reach sophistication. It was the year of the Beatles’ Help! And Rubber Soul, the Rolling Stones’ Out of Our Heads and December’s Children (and everybody’s), and Bob Dylan’s Bringing It All Back Home and Highway 61 Revisited. Albums now existed as more than a dumping ground for collected singles and odd tracks. Jerry Lee could not compete with the new rock-and-roll leaders on their terms, although one wonders what Jerry Lee could have done with a modern sound like Dylan’s “Can You Please Crawl out Your Window?” or “If You Gotta Go, Go Now,” and his session-man cronies did not keep up with the latest musical developments north of Nashville. Jerry Lee was never one to think about more than one song at a time, making it difficult for him to think in terms of albums. As a result, he cut tracks solely until someone told him he had succeeded. What characterizes these sessions more than anything else? No advance planning, not even any that facilitated spontaneity.

The sessions, most of them in Nashville, were not exactly geared for coherence. “As far as the studio went,” Singleton said, “the only thing Jerry Lee and I argued about was his bringing all his kinfolks to the sessions. He used to bring his cousins, his momma and daddy, his sisters. There’d be about thirteen of them in the control room while I was trying to make a record. He’d always ask what they thought about the record. He didn’t give a damn what the musicians felt or I felt about it.” Outside the studio, they argued about everything. Singleton once had to bribe Jerry Lee with a hunting rifle to get him to play some already-booked dates in Alaska. Shelby said to use it to hunt Kodiak bears.

A rare New York City session, while Jerry Lee was in town for a TV show, yielded little more than a moderately funky attack on Huey (“Piano”) Smith’s second-line anthem “Rockin’ Pneumonia and the Boogie Woogie Flu” and the awful “Seasons of My Heart.” The latter was the song that he had recorded toward the end of this Sun period with Linda Gail and featured the spectacle of hearing Jerry Lee on harpsichord. Logistical convenience notwithstanding, it was foolish for Smash to think that Jerry Lee would thrive one thousand miles northeast of home.

Pop music is recorded for the most part in studios in and around major cities. Country music is by definition rural, although by the mid-sixties the shock felt by rural musicians and songwriters when they moved to Nashville had become country music’s prime topic. By 1965, country had lost its “and western” suffix, because the idea of the frontier inherent in “and western” had disappeared. There were still many areas of the South that did not look significantly different from their pre-New Deal selves, but it was harder to find anyone who subscribed to the idea of areas of the South as rural refuges. Nearly everyone had a radio, the vast majority of white families had televisions, and interstate highways cut through even unpopulated areas. People were connected in new ways, which led to new sorts of dislocation when they had to function as usual in untested geographic areas. Jerry Lee’s move from Ferriday to Memphis in 1956 was an upheaval from which he had never recovered, and the Memphis boy in him had trouble accommodating to Nashville studio rules. In big city New York without his regular players, he might as well have been on Mars.

Somewhat more rewarding was a Labor Day weekend blowout in Nashville. There were some duds, two sloppy duets with Linda Gail, an ashy “Ring of Fire” complete with a sub-mariachi band, and a drippy “Green Green Grass of Home.” But the high points of the session, mostly forgotten, were the heartfelt Bill Anderson ballad “City Lights,” a thrilling and involved version of Willie Nelson’s “Funny How Time Slips Away,” and a wise take on Roger Miller’s later oft-covered but then brand-new “King of the Road.”

Jerry Lee toured extensively in the year that followed and did not want to travel two hundred miles just to record, so Smash frequently cut him at the familiar Phillips Studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis. After the Labor Day 1965 dates, Jerry Lee did not record again in Nashville until August 1967. Those two years were strong ones in terms of road work; but, except for a fair of weak-charting long-players, he did not enjoy any commercial success with his recordings.

A two-day session in Memphis in January 1966 was produced by Sun’s Jack Clement and featured Jerry Lee’s touring band, the Memphis Beats, which should have meant that it yielded great recordings. It did not, because the material was eccentric, ill-conceived, and random. Clement should have known that he was in trouble when Jerry Lee, whose songwriting acumen was not one of his strong suits, showed up with three songs he had composed. “What a Heck of a Mess” was a fair hard-country tale about divorce. Most interesting about it was that Hank Williams, Jr., recorded it, a rare cover of a Jerry Lee-penned tune, perhaps as a thank-you gesture to Jerry Lee for recording so many songs written and/or performed by Bocephus’s father. For whatever reason, the cover completed a circle. “Rockin’ Jerry Lee” was a messy autobiography; Jerry Lee was more vital when he was rockin’ than when he talked about rockin’.

“Lincoln Limousine” was something else, the strangest song Jerry Lee ever recorded. Smash’s liner notes called it a “touching eulogy to the late President Kennedy,” but this belated tribute gave no indication that Jerry Lee knew of anything JFK did before he ventured to Dallas. However, recent revelations suggest that the Killer may have had more in common with the murdered president than he realized at the time. The song was so dreadful it may have served as a model for the Elvis tribute singles of late 1977. The lyric line, “It goes to show you never know who’s your enemy or your friend,” was typically baffling and is recommended to any remaining conspiracy theorists.

Other songs were less bizarre; they were also less notable. “Sticks and Stones” was a Titus Turner song that brought Jerry Lee back to Ray Charles territory. “Memphis Beat” was a moderately stimulating extrapolation of Chuck Berry’s vastly superior “Memphis,” “The Urge” was hefty, gnarled country-rock, and the George Jones smash ballad “She Thinks I Still Care” responded extremely well to the spare sound Clement constructed for it. When Jerry Lee was given the room he needed, he was unstoppable. On the other hand, he was also beginning to cover songs written by his longtime drinking buddies. Cecil Harrelson’s “Whenever You’re Ready” accomplished nothing musically, although Murray Silver maintained that it did help Cecil become Linda Gail Lewis’s fourth husband.

Shelby Singleton drove into Memphis for a July session that coughed up inferior versions of four songs: one mediocre (“Memphis Beat”), one a notch higher (“Twenty-four Hours a Day”), and two serviceable country performances destroyed by strings (Merle Haggard’s “Swinging Doors” and Paul Selph’s “If I Had It All to Do Over”). These songs, intended for the Memphis Beat long-player, were recorded at Roland Janes’s studio. The rehearsal versions were far superior and in some cases were the takes that were used on the album.

Shelby Singleton had been extremely pleased with the relative commercial success of The Greatest Live Show on Earth, so he recorded an August 20, 1966 concert at Panther Hall in Fort Worth, Texas, and called the ostensible sequel By Request: More of the Greatest Live Show on Earth. The show was not as consistently mesmerizing as the twin 1964 triumphs in Hamburg and Birmingham, but it offered many great moments, both in song (Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie” was one long ogle) and when Jerry Lee addressed specific women in the crowd between songs (“Honey, don’t worry about the blonde hair”; and “I’m the kind of guy that always likes to give the great artists what they’ve got coming to ‘em”).

Although there were many fine rock-and-roll performances in the set, Jerry Lee caused the most commotion with his deep, pleading country performances, a portent of things to come: “You Win Again,” “How’s My Ex Treating You?” “Crying Time” (drawn more from the Ray Charles cover version than the Buck Owens original), “I’ll Sail My Ship Alone,” and “Green Green Grass of Home.” These songs sounded remarkable with only small-band accompaniment, and Singleton obviously had an affinity for the live shows. If he had stayed with Jerry Lee, he might have directed his charge to a sparer sound that still made commercial sense. But by the end of the year Singleton left Mercury to start his own company, and Jerry Kennedy was assigned as Jerry Lee’s producer.

Jerry Lee’s first two sessions under Kennedy, on May 9 and August 7, 1967, were disasters that for the most part did not serve as the logical prelude for the next year’s breakthrough. “Just Dropped In (To See What Condition My Condition Was In),” a Mickey Newbury song, was later recorded by Kenny Rogers, who deserved it. Four cover versions of sizeable hits ran the gamut from pointless (Roy Orbison’s uncoverable “Dream Baby (How Long Must I Dream)” and Bruce Channel’s inappropriate “Hey Baby”) to good and harsh (Roy Head’s “Treat Her Right” and Bobby (“Blue”) Bland’s “Turn on Your Lovelight”). Not unexpectedly, the nadir of the sessions was the boast-bloated “Shotgun,” in which nonsongwriter Cecil Harrelson struck again. The kindest evaluation of the tune was that it was not as hopeless as “Whenever You’re Ready.” But the truth was that the next song Jerry Lee recorded, a radio commercial for Coca-Cola, sported better lyrics.

By January 1968 Eddie Kilroy and Jerry Kennedy had decided that contemporary country was the only way Jerry Lee could return to a prominence befitting his talent. They said he was too old to be a rock-and-roll star. (To place matters in perspective, some industry professionals were worrying whether the Beatles and the Rolling Stones were too old to rock.) Jerry Lee and the music industry were different enough in 1968 from what they had been a decade before that country seemed a likely gambit. As Shelby Singleton put it, “Country radio changed. Country acts used to try to cross over into the pop field. Now the opposite was happening. The disc jockeys were ex-rock-and-roll disc jockeys. Charlie Rich, who everybody thought of as a rockabilly, had started to get country play. Conway Twitty was another one. He was a rock act who all of a sudden was classified country even though the music was basically the same. It was time for a change. Jerry [Kennedy] cut Jerry Lee on more country than I did. I wanted to cut him pop. I wanted to sell him a million records, not a hundred thousand.” Kennedy’s sights were lower than Singleton’s, but he was to score far more direct hits.

Many aging rockers from the South (“aging” usually meant pushing thirty) turned to country music as their appearances and interests had less and less in common with pop’s teen audience. The trick was to say something like, “Forget that rock and roll. This is what I wanted to do all along. Really. Please take me back.” Often the gambit worked; occasionally it was also sincere.

More than any other form of American pop music, country music is about family and community. The country audience expects its favored performers to be family members, and most families have a prodigal son or daughter. By accepting performers, country fans make their collective family whole. Kilroy and Kennedy knew that for Jerry Lee to make a dent in the country charts, he had only to ask to become part of the family again. All would be forgiven.

Three songs were recorded at that January session, with participants disagreeing whether Kilroy or Kennedy helmed the date. Nevertheless, they were all soaked in country genius in every stage, from song selection to mixing. Something significant had changed: the backing vocals were more controlled and Jerry Lee’s voice, comfortable with echo, sounded more at ease and lived-in. Three top-drawer dissections of fractured romance, “All the Good is Gone,” Jerry Chesnut’s “Another Place, Another Time,” and Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You,” brought Jerry Lee back-up-to-date in country as surely as Elvis Presley’s NBC-TV special the same year made the long-lost Hillbilly Cat relevant again. Jerry Lee’s singing was as pure as George Jones’s, as direct as Buck Owens’s, and as deep as Merle Haggard’s. For the first extended time in a studio since he left Sun, Jerry Lee was completely in control and in his element. The chosen market responded. The single “Another Place, Another Time” reached Number Four on the Billboard country charts, his highest-charting country-and-western single in a full decade. It crossed over to the bottom half of the pop chart, where it was his highest-charting entry since “What’d I Say” in 1961. Jerry Lee knew all along that he was a star; now at least the country-music establishment finally agreed with him again.

In a typical move, the first thing Jerry Lee did after he had salvaged his country career was to do something completely different, in this case Shakespeare. Jack Good, producer of the TV pop show Shindig that had featured the Killer during his early-sixties shuffle through the wilderness, imagined a rock-and-roll version of Othello and had long ago talked Jerry Lee into playing the lead heavy, Iago, in the Centre Theatre Group production. Jerry Lee grew an evil-looking moustache and goatee and took the gig very seriously. He learned his part by taping himself reading the entire play, minus Iago’s lines, and listening and responding to the tape incessantly while on tour.

“Iago really puts out some words in this thing, Jerry Lee told Calendar reporter Pete Johnson. “I never knew there were so many words. Shakespeare was really something. I wonder what he would have thought of my records.”

With a microphone before him a few days before the show opened, Jerry Lee knew what to do. “I think,” he announced, “the generation today who don’t know much about stage plays will come here and enjoy it. They’d be out of their minds if they didn’t. It has everything – rhythm and blues, rock and roll, country and western, serious acting, comedy, drama, everything.”

The show ran six weeks and took in half a million dollars from people who were curious to hear Jerry Lee deliver lines like “Shake it and break it and wrap it up and take it!” and, upon seeing the corpse of a buddy, “Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo!” Most critics responded kindly to Jerry Lee and almost as warmly to the entire production. But Catch My Soul was not all camp. The audio tapes of the event that have survived indicate that Jerry Lee was truly committed to his part, trying to wrench decay and degeneration out of most lines. In typical Jerry Lee fashion, he tried something new, excelled at it, and then went back to what he felt like doing. For the first time in a long time, his artistic restlessness served him well.

Jerry Kennedy, thrilled that his interest in Jerry Lee had been justified, ordered six more sessions that year in Columbia’s Nashville studios. Many of them mined gold. A double-length date on April 16, 1968, featured Jerry Lee regal, comfortable, and confident in his new role. He sang with ease and unquestionable authority songs like Merle Haggard’s “I’m a Lonesome Fugitive,” John Loudermilk’s “Break My Mind,” and Jerry Chesnut’s “Play Me a Song I Can Cry To.” The only disappointing tracks recorded that day were Don Chapel’s “All Night Long,” which made the exciting new method seem dull and formulaic, and Roy Acuff’s “We Live in Two Different Worlds,” a duet with Linda Gail. By far the strongest cut of the day was Glenn Sutton’s “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” an archetypal honky-tonk ballad. Jerry Lee contributed an incredibly involved vocal, drawing emotion out of the punch line (“What made Milwaukee famous/Has made a loser out of me”) without falling to the prime vice of honky-tonk ballads, self-pity. Again, the mixture of up-to-date production and time-worn lyrical concerns could not miss. Again, matching an unparalleled stylist with commercial material worthy of him paid immediate dividends: “What Made Milwaukee Famous” charged all the way to Number Two on the country-and-western charts and made a bit of noise on the pop list.

Jerry Lee still toured a great deal, although by the next royalty period he would be able to cut down from six nights a week to five. That summer he recorded yet another friendly, jazzy version of Floyd Tillman’s signature number “Slippin’ Around,” as well as another custom-made tune by “What Made Milwaukee Famous” writer Glenn Sutton, called “She Still Comes Around to Love What’s Left of Me.” Jerry Lee burrowed into the song, another wet-eyed ballad that hovered on the edge of self-pity, and pushed it all the way to Number Two on the country chart. The powers at Smash may have been disappointed that “She Still Comes Around to Love What’s Left of Me” did not cross over to pop, but fans were pleased because the lack of pop action proved that the song was true hard country. As Loretta Lynn once said, “I think country will keep on growing as long as country stays different from pop. To keep it true, you have to leave it hanging on the fence.”

Three fall sessions were hit-or-miss affairs. On the down side, Jerry Lee returned to the Sun well for Otis Blackwell’s “Let’s Talk About Us” but he wasn’t rocking in the studio just then. “Out of My Mind” showed that Jerry Lee’s fiddler and guitarist Kenny Lovelace, destined to be the fifth Mr. Linda Gail Lewis, was an extraordinary picker but not much of a songwriter. Cecil Harrelson and Linda Gail, still an item, co-wrote “Echoes,” which, aside from an overwrought opening, was not as pitiful as the title might lead one to expect. As was becoming the norm, the highlights of the sessions were well-chosen ballads. The Merle Haggard composition “Today I Started Loving You Again” received an understated, smoldering performance, and the fifteen-year-old Webb Pierce smash “There Stands the Glass” was, in Jerry Lee’s orbit, a terrific self-pitying drinking ballad.

As also was becoming the welcome norm, the saddest and most intense of the performances was the one that became a monster country hit, in this case Glenn Sutton and Jerry Kennedy’s “To Make Love Sweeter for You.” A cynic might argue that these country-ballad hits were coming too easily to Jerry Lee, that these performances were merely facile. But cynics do not note that these ballads are tense, not easy; and the emotion that these ostensibly sweet ballads spat out was terror.

“To Make Love Sweeter for You” surpassed the other comeback singles, finally topping the country-and-western chart. It was Jerry Lee’s first country Number One since “Great Balls of Fire.” He celebrated New Year’s Day 1969 by playing a show of mostly country songs that ended with a swirl of ferocious rock and roll.  It was as if he was saying, yes, I have redeemed myself in your eyes. But I am still the Killer.

Chapter 6: Another Chance

It’s good to see you back again

In the land of salvation and sin.

You know sometimes I get so lonely.

–Dan Baird, “I Dunno”

By the time Jerry Lee’s country comeback was assured, his former shepherd at Smash, Shelby Singleton, had purchased the Sun Records catalog from Sam Phillips, who was retiring on money he had made, not from rock and roll but from being an early investor in the Holiday Inn chain of motels. Digging through the vaults, Shelby chanced across Jerry Lee’s last Sun sessions, immediately recognized them as the blueprint for the Ferriday Fireball’s current Smash recordings, released them as quickly as possible, and scored big. Jerry Lee enjoyed five Top Ten country hits in 1969, and two of them, “Invitation to Your Party,” and “One Minute Past Eternity,” were long-forgotten Sun performances that Singleton had exhumed. In a roundabout way, Singleton finally had gotten Jerry Lee into the Top Ten. Everybody welcomed back the apparently contrite Jerry Lee, including performers like Bob Dylan, who wrote “To Be Alone with You” for Jerry Lee but eventually recorded it himself.

The return of fame and fortune did not ease Jerry Lee’s perpetually worried mind. Substance abuse had become more of a problem outside the studio, and it affected his concentration in the studio. In 1970 Myra finally divorced him, alleging some truly horrific behavior; in April of the next year, his beloved mother, Mamie, died, leaving him without his prime counsel in his religious struggles. Elmo, who had turned even more passive in the sixties, remained. Jerry Lee married again, this time to a sheriff’s secretary named Jaren Pate. She gave birth to a daughter, Lori Leigh, in the spring of 1972. Jerry Lee had hits; Jerry Lee had problems. It was in this period that he made his most conspicuous attempt to resolve his inner conflicts. He also scored what will most likely be his last Number One single. He was growing older and more bitter, and age crept into his records.

Jerry Lee spent most of February 1969 in Nashville, working through six sessions that concentrated on country-and-western classics. Most of them came out on the LPs Jerry Lee Lewis Sings the Country Music Hall of Fame Hits, Volumes 1 and 2. There were also some contemporary choices squeezed in, as well as the occasional sacred concern. By now this was the usual blend. Even when he was supposed to be doing only one thing, Jerry Lee wanted to do it all.

As evidence that Jerry Lee spent much of his life avoiding responsibility are six failed marriages, several disowned children, and stormy unsteady relationships with most of the family members who remained in his inner circle after he hit the big time. Yet he burned to change. When he submitted to duet sessions with his twenty-one-year-old sister, Linda Gail, he was more than anything trying to do right by his family. Their three duets in February – ”Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” “Jackson,” and “Sweet Thang” – were not at all embarrassing. Jerry Lee’s singing in these duets was always superb, possibly because he felt he had to compensate. His comeback was secure enough that Smash did not balk at releasing “Don’t Let Me Cross Over” as a single, and his audience did not hesitate to buy it. It reached Number Nine, Jerry Lee’s fifth consecutive Top Ten country-and-western hit.

The country-icon standards recorded for the Hall of Fame hits were as a rule safer than the recent Jerry Lee hits that preceded them. Songs like “Another Place, Another Time” and its successors were hard country in the style of Hank Williams and early George Jones, an indirect affront to the saccharine stylings coming out of Nashville studies at the time. The Hall of Fame sessions were a step backward toward his mid-sixties overproductions and a hint of what was to come. It was as if the idea was to slicken tradition.

By now Jerry Kennedy’s hit method had turned into a paint-by-numbers procedure. For example, in almost every song the backing singers did not show up until the second chorus. This started as a means of letting a song gradually gain power, but it had quickly become a gimmick. On songs like the Don Gibson hit “Oh Lonesome Me,” a reasonable cover choice, Jerry Lee was too tame to energize the song. The Killer was not at the controls; an extremely careful Jerry Kennedy was, and Kennedy was most interested in making the record sound sophisticated, dressed-up. The Hank Williams covers–”Cold Cold Heart,” “Why Don’t You Love Me (Like You Used to Do),” “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” and “Jambalaya” – had no kick. Only the most probing fans could tell that Jerry Lee loved these songs, as he put them across so indifferently. Maybe it was an off-session, maybe Jerry Lee’s mind was on other troubles, maybe he was stoned. For whatever reason, he did not electrify when the “record” light was switched on. Only Don Gibson’s “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” Lefty Frizzell’s “Mom and Dad’s Waltz,” and Jim Reeves’s “He’ll Have to Go” involved the artist. Of the new songs, only “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)” came close to the new standard. It was sung well but too straightforward professionally; Jerry Lee came across as a more than adequate male country crooner but did not do much more. Overjoyed to have him back in preferred form, his fans did not care. The song went Number Three country.

On April 14 Jerry Lee appeared on the Monkees’ television special 33 1/3 Revolutions Per Monkee. Instead of using his growing store of country hits, he opted to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Down the Line.” To that young audience, he was still the Killer of 1957. On June 13 he recorded seven duets with Linda Gail. One of them, a shrill “Roll Over Beethoven” inexplicably became a minor country hit. Most amusing was “Secret Places,” an adultery tale that Linda Gail wrote with two of her husbands, Cecil Harrelson and Kenneth Lovelace. Soon after Jerry Lee and Kenneth appeared on “Hee Haw,” playing strong, elemental versions of “Walking the Floor Over You” and “Another Place, Another Time.”

An August 4 session without Linda Gail generated much more interest on everyone’s part. “Waitin’ for a Train” was a straightforward Jimmie Rodgers cover that probably would have climbed higher than Number Eleven if Jerry Lee’s piano had not been buried under a steel guitar. Mickey Newbury’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” was stirring stuff, a devastating ballad highlighted by an absorbing vocal (“It’s not her heart,” Lord/It’s her mind”) that made the superfluous strings and backup singers much less grating. Still, there was an assembly-line quality about this session. No one explored, no one experimented, no one cared. Everyone there knew what the ingredients were for a late-sixties Jerry Lee country hit, and they all did what was expected. It was very professional and a little boring.

Much wilder was a September 13 appearance at John Lennon’s “Rock and Roll Revival” concert in Toronto, Canada. Jerry Lee put across great rock-and-roll songs and played an electric guitar for “Mystery Train.” Whether he articulated it or not, he had mapped out for himself a fruitful double career: country in the studio and rock and roll onstage. He could do everything he wanted and still satisfy everyone part of the time. But his rock-and-roll success was not based on anything current. Like Chuck Berry, Bob Diddley, and Little Richard, Jerry Lee’s earliest hits were being discovered by a new generation of rock-and-roll kids who had no use for or awareness of his more recent Nashville recordings, which were made for adults. His country success was in present tense; in rock and roll he was usually considered a dinosaur. He was not a threat anymore. By 1969, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” was considered by much of the rock audience as benign as “The Twist.”

Jerry Lee concentrated on his recording career, which at least was built on ongoing achievements, and sessions in October and November were intermittently rewarding artistically and extremely rewarding commercially. Don Chapel’s “When the Grass Grows Over Me” gave Jerry Lee an opportunity to affect his Buck Owens tenor, and his voice moved to useful agitation by the end of the tune. Faron Young’s “Wine Me Up” was workable midtempo country with a touch of western swing. Also worth hearing was Ivory Joe Hunter’s “Since I Met You Baby,” which featured one of Lovelace’s most stirring fiddle breaks and a fun, all-over-the-place vocal by the Killer. “Workin’ Man Blues” was an uptempo honky-tonk Merle Haggard cover which Jerry Lee tried hard to personalize, but his piano was secluded and the whole arrangement tried too hard to please. Also, Haggard’s original was definitive. Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein’s “Once More with Feeling,” recorded several times, showed that a good lyric could make Jerry Lee the singer sound far more trenchant emotionally than Jerry Lee the man, and the repeated versions gave him enough time to fully think out the song, all the way to Number Two.

The truest cut from these sessions was a fine take of Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man,” a song long in Jerry Lee’s repertoire. Jerry Lee’s agenda in the performance was to remind those in the studio that his rock and roll was definitive, and if he wanted to he could still rock out, even with airhead backup singers swirling around him. All he had to do was want to, which was precisely the burgeoning problem.

Three days of Nashville sessions in March 1970 were troubling for a variety of reasons, most notably because the overdubs Jerry Kennedy grafted onto the tracks suffocated the tunes more than usual. This was Kennedy’s solution to a difficult problem. As Jerry Lee became more erratic, recording less frequently and more arbitrarily, Kennedy felt he had to salvage each date. He was on Mercury’s payroll, and part of his job was to ensure that the sessions were cost effective. As Felton Jarvis was doing with Elvis Presley, Kennedy used massive overdubs like makeup, to hide flaws and round out performances he felt were incomplete. Yet the overdubs only served to distract attention from Jerry Lee, the only reason people were listening to the records in the first place. Kennedy did not trust Jerry Lee to consistently assert himself in the studio anymore, so he was going to make sure that somebody was in charge.

Instrument and vocal-group overdubs were one thing, but fans devoted to pure Jerry Lee could have sensed the beginning of the end when two of the songs from the March sessions–Cecil Harrelson and Linda Gail’s punchy “Woman, Woman (Get Out of Our Way)” and the overrated country standard “Reuben James”–were subjected to vocal overdubs by the Ferriday Fireball himself. Overdubbing for Jerry Lee meant work and only work: no interacting with the band members, no involvement with the song, no incentive to be passionate. Jerry Lee was a musician who excelled in live performances, even those with indifferent session musicians. The farther away he got from such settings, the less interested he and his records became.

One distinctive number recorded during the March sessions was a sly version of “Sweet Georgia Brown,” highlighted by Jerry Lee’s vow, “I don’t lie/Not much,” and a superb fiddle break. Another was “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” which would be heard as a strong, pained ballad beneath the overdubs and was another smash hit. A problematic element of the session, aside from Kennedy’s heavy-handed approach to touching up the tunes, was “Gather ‘Round Children,” a mediocre and extremely morbid country-death ballad by Cecil and Linda Gail. Also, the Jerry Lee original, “Alvin,” left unreleased for almost twenty years, was one of the least propulsive songs ever written about teen angst. He was a stylist, not a songwriter.

Enjoying a renegotiated contract, Jerry Lee presently had a technical change in his recording status. He was no longer a Smash performer, the imprint having been folded into the main Mercury label. After more than fourteen years as a recording artist, he was finally on a true major label.

Although he was clearly having less fun than ever in his studio incarnation, Jerry Lee was still anxious to scorch onstage. Six shows in May were edited down for the album Live at the International Hotel, Las Vegas, the latest in his series of fine in-concert sets. But the released album only hinted at the breadth of Jerry Lee’s performances that week in Las Vegas. For obvious commercial reasons, nine of the ten cuts on the released LP were explicitly country tunes, many of them recapitulations of recent Jerry Lee-in-the-studio hits, with more sympathetic accompaniment built around fiddler Lovelace and drummer Morris Tarrant. “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” came across as the first-rate country ballad it was, and those few in the Las Vegas crowd who were familiar with Jerry Lee only through his country hits must have been taken aback by how much harder he played outside of a Nashville studio, fronting a relatively small, five-piece band. “Jambalaya” and “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me”) exceeded their studio incarnations, and on Bill Mack Smith’s self-descriptive “Drinkin’ Champagne,” Jerry Lee’s voice was pained and believable, yet his performance was remarkably effortless.

Jerry Lee introduced “Once More with Feeling” by saying, “This was Number One for us in the country field of music, which I think is the main field of music right now.” Such a statement was Jerry Lee’s way of acting the part of the rocker who has returned to his country roots, although a few minutes later he was tearing through “Rip It Up,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” The lone noncountry number on the released LP, though, was a riveting, purposeful “Flip, Flop and Fly” with which Jerry Lee had opened some of the shows. Stuck on the end of Live at the International, it provided a glimmer of a more expansive world.

Of the unreleased material from these Las Vegas shows, sixty-eight additional numbers ranging from longtime favorite Jimmie Davis’s “You Are My Sunshine” to John Fogerty’s Killer-inflected ” Proud Mary,” there was enough for at least two more LPs of comparable quality. Las Vegas has never been an ideal site for rocking out – neither Elvis nor his music got out of that city alive – but, except for his New York foray several years previously, location meant nothing to an energized Jerry Lee so long as he had a piano to bang. On a fierce “Great Balls of Fire” he altered the lyrics to proclaim “Too much love drives a stud insane.” He commended “Oh Lonesome Me” by claiming that country music was all he ever cared about. Then he played a totally rock-and-roll version of the Don Gibson tune. “Blue Suede Shoes” came complete with pokes at Elvis and Tom Parker, and Elvis got it again in “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” During the extended breakdown, the Ferriday Fireball said of Presley, “Him and Tom Jones couldn’t shine my big toe.” Chuck Berry got off better. A version of “Sweet Little Sixteen” did not kick up much dirt, but Jerry Lee did say of Berry, “I think he’s the Stephen Foster of the rock-and-roll era,” a tremendous compliment considering the source. The defining moment came in the third show, when Jerry Lee explained himself. “This is the only rock and roll/rhythm and blues/country and western/Grand Ol’ Opry in existence,” he said. “That’s the way I do it, all wrapped up in one. Hang it in, all right.”

The pick of the Las Vegas numbers screamed with life, but, by the time Jerry Lee returned to Nashville, he had temporarily lost interest in unleashing that side of himself. In Nashville, he conformed. With the dissolution of his longest marriage eating at him, he sounded miserable and performed miserably. He recorded more frequently now with Linda Gail, hoping to find some solace in family. A two-day session in October 1970, half duets, emphasized songs of divine praise. Mamie was very ill at the time with cancer, and Jerry Lee dived into gospel as if it could heal. “The Old Rugged Cross” was deeply convincing, and “The Lily of the Valley” and “I Know That Jesus Will Be There” were as open-hearted and searching as anything Jerry Lee ever performed. “I’ll Fly Away” and “My God’s Not Dead” were loose-limbed, adventurous attempts to capture the thrill of ritual on vinyl. Jerry Lee’s sprightly piano was too loose to some ears and was probably very similar to what shortened his tenure in Waxahachie, even though his vocals were very committed (“My God’s not dead/Sorry ’bout yours, my friend”).

Several secular tunes were worked up during the October session, and they ran the gamut from profound (“One More Time”) through tunes as weak as their titled (“Foolaid,” “Too Much to Gain to Lose”) to “Black Mama,” a tasteless, raised-by-wolves tale, as hilariously bad as “Alvin” and so wrongheaded about race it made the concerns of “Ubangi Stomp” sound like those of Paul McCartney and Stevie Wonder’s “Ebony and Ivory.” Jokey songs regarding race were a long, though not noble, tradition among some people in the South, so it was no surprise that the Ferriday boy indulged himself in some of it. What was surprising was that he did so in the midst of a self-produced gospel session organized because Jerry Lee felt guilty that Mamie’s desire for him to become a solely religious purveyor had so far gone unfulfilled.

Jerry Lee insisted to his confidantes that he believed Mamie contracted cancer because he was still drinking and drugging, because he had turned his back on the Assemblies of God of his youth. He informed Mercury executives that he would be recording only religious music or pure-minded country in the future. Three sessions from December 1970 to January 1971 suggested that he was serious. Two of those dates Jerry Lee produced himself in two different studios, and they focused on Carter Family songs and newer compositions that evoked the first family of country music.

Led by A. P. Carter, the Carter Family were discovered at the same time as Jimmie Rodgers. Their obsessive tales of family, God, and death were the flip side of the Singing Brakeman’s anthems of physical and spiritual dislocation. The influence of the Carter Family on country music has been as enduring as Rodgers’s. His celebrations of wildness and their paeans to family and community, established in the twenties, are the two extremes of pure country-and-western that still set the outer limits. Jerry Lee’s singing on the two studio sessions was alert and dedicated, but, except for the one genuine A. P. Carter number in the set, the songs were not worth the trouble.

On December 10 Jerry Lee announced that his reign as the Killer was over. Reeling from the one-two punch of the divorce from Myra and the imminent death of Mamie, the loss of the two most important women in his life, he decided to abdicate, make a clean break. He gave up booze and pills. A few days later he ensconced himself and his core band in a Memphis church and began preaching again. But he was still the Killer, even in a house of God. He introduced “I’m Longing for Home” by offering to sell copies of it after the service was over. A changed man, he wanted to testify, “I got saved! I’m gonna stay saved! I’m no hypocrite!” Musically the songs were strong if somewhat samey, thwarted only by the rudimentary drumming of Jerry Lee, Jr. “A lot of folks think I’ve gone crazy!” Jerry Lee, Sr., acknowledged. But the twenty-one songs, including a “My God Is Real” with a boogie-woogie bass line (his revenge on Waxahachie), were among Jerry Lee’s most deeply felt recordings.

When most pop performers who claim to be pious record what they say is a religious disc, they usually play some Christmas songs and some obviously secular love ballads with Jesus replacing baby and God replacing you in the interchangeable lyrics. Jerry Lee went much deeper. Although his born-again phase ended before he placed Mamie in the ground, hastened by his own restlessness and the extremely poor chart showings of his holy-minded recordings, it was ardent while it lasted. Jerry Lee did try to come to terms with his religious responsibility, and for a time he had escaped some of the hellhounds on his trail. The only other performer in rock-and-roll history who got away with that was Aretha Franklin, another stylist of the highest order who grew up in church. Her 1972 double album, Amazing Grace, gathered the strength of her matchless soul recordings and brought them back to their original concept. But there was also one major difference: Amazing Grace rose as high as Number Seven on the Billboard pop album charts and sold more than half a million copies. Jerry Lee could not convince Mercury to release a single one of his in-church recordings.

Jerry Lee returned to the Jerry Kennedy Nashville factory and (without a hint remaining of the sort of inspirational recordings he had put down a few months earlier) resumed cranking out what was expected. Aside from the overwhelming “Touching Home,” one of the most affecting of Jerry Lee’s greatest ballad performances, nothing lasting emerged from a February 3 session. Two March sessions were similarly inconsistent. For every marvelous ballad like Kris Kristofferson’s “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” the Dallas Frazier/Doodle Owens composition “When He Walks on You (Like You Have Walked on Me),” or the wrenching “Another Hand Shakin’ Goodbye,” there were many indifferent tunes like “Time Changes Everything,” “Hearts Were Made for Beating,” and “Foolish Kind of Man,” the last a Lovelace/Linda Gail composition. Higher up on the weird psychodrama scale was Jimmie Rodgers’s “Mother, the Queen of My Heart,” which can be read as either insanely devotional or incestuous, recorded as Mamie was dying. The single wonderful uptempo number in the sessions was the gate-jumping “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” an extraordinarily approachable western swing number in which stalwart Lovelace contributes a wild fiddle break and Jerry Lee introduces the band members, including himself, with nothing but admiration and fraternity in his well-worn voice. It was the friendliest moment he ever allowed himself on record.

The summer of 1971 was treacherous for Jerry Lee. The divorce from Myra had become final in May, and Junior’s behavior was becoming increasingly dependent on what happened to be flowing in his veins. However, Jerry Lee was able to gain enough strength for a handful of remarkable recordings to add to the still-growing list. Off the wagon, he was not yet teetering. Jimmy Hodges’s “Someday You’ll Want Me to Want You” was a concentrated love-revenge ballad most notable for being one of the first Jerry Lee recordings that included his “Think about it” warning/suggestion. “Big Blon’ Baby,” the Cajun thumper from his Sun days, kept the rocker in Jerry Lee happy, while “Thirteen at the Table” satisfied the man newly returned to secular music who still wanted to feel saved. “Thirteen at the Table” was a midtempo retelling of the Last Supper, built around clumsy lines like “He was a carpenter who mended broken bodies.” That summer Jerry Lee tried to mend his ways by buying the film rights to The Carpenter, a life of Jesus; he intended to play the title role. As with Jerry Lee’s other moves toward sacred-minded work, the deal fell through.

Jerry Kennedy’s production formula was now stifling, but sometimes its familiarity allowed Jerry Lee to soar. A few days before a session, the Killer was able to hear most of the tunes that he did not himself suggest recording. Mercury’s Roy Dea, who had recorded the Las Vegas shows, went to Jerry Lee’s house. “I played acetates for him,” Dea said. I got there about three in the evening, just when he was waking up. Usually it was a title or a line that caught his attention. A lot of it had to do with what he was going through personally. ‘Would You Take Another Chance on Me,’ for example, fit what was going on in his personal life at the time.” Indeed, it was a concept and a composition with which Jerry Lee immediately connected. Strings and backing singers aside, “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” was a marvelous hard-country ballad sung with tremendous intensity, and it was yet another song that ended with the ominous “Think about it, darlin’.” It shot to Number One on the country-and-western singles chart; its flip side, a spirited “Me and Bobby McGee,” became Jerry Lee’s first Top 40 pop hit since “High School Confidential,” way back in 1958.

[Correction: Turns out I was wrong about that, according to this learned letter from reader Zachary R. Williams:

In the chapter sixth you wrote about the huge success of “Would you take a chance on me the #1 country and western song from 1972. You said that its flip side, the Kris Kristofferson penned “Me and Bobby McGee” was the Killer’s first Top 40 hit since 1958’s “High School Confidential.” While “High School Confidential” did rise to #21 back in 1958, it was not his last Top 40 until 1972. That honor goes to his 1960 remake of Ray Charles “What I’d Say” which reached #30. Subsequently, it become one of the best selling records at Sun and this was after the fact the Jerry Lee had been given the cold shoulder by the press and the public around the world. Hope this information helps.

It does. Thank you, Zachary.]

As far as recordings were concerned, 1972 began wonderfully for Jerry Lee. He was loose in the studio, and for a change Jerry Kennedy did not immediately call for a leash. “Think About It, Darlin’” – this title had to come – moved well, although with each year it seemed that more and more people were stuffed in the studio with Jerry Lee, inching him further and further into the background of his own records. The Killer sang as if he knew that he was close to self-parody, but he was too amused to care. Also recorded in this session was a dripping cover of the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” a fine reconstructed second-general rock-and-roll take with a very strong vocal, in spite of there being what seemed like fifty too many people on the cut.

Roy Dea, who was at the session, tells the story best:

I didn’t like the heavy production. I didn’t think it was Jerry Lee Lewis. I had been to Memphis, and we had picked four songs. We were going to add strings. We cut a couple tracks. There were fifteen string players and an arranger. Out of nowhere Jerry said, “Let’s do ‘Chantilly Lace’.” The arranger said he didn’t have charts, and Jerry said, “We’re just running it down. Don’t worry about the mules. Just load the wagon.” The string arranger just about had a heart attack. Jerry Lee cut it once, took off his turtleneck sweater, played it back, and then played it again. He said, “That turtleneck was chokin’ me.” It was Jerry Lee’s biggest record [Number One country for three weeks]. It proved Sam Phillips was right in the first place. Everything with Jerry Lee Lewis that works is spontaneous. It’s not in the lyrics or the melody written by the writer. It’s how Jerry Lee does it.

The remarkable success of a frank rock-and-roll song like “Chantilly Lace” set the stage for The “Killer” Rocks On,” an album intended to draw in both the rock-and-roll fans who attended his shows and the loyal country fans, many of them aging along with Jerry Lee, who did not mind being reminded what this Killer did in a previous incarnation. It seemed like a great idea, expect Jerry Kennedy was even less helping in creating rock-and-roll settings than Shelby Singleton had been during the Golden Rock Hits sessions of nearly a decade earlier.

Virtually all the rock oldies Jerry Lee recorded for the new album were conveyed with gusto and attitude, but Kennedy’s insufferable string and chorus overdubs all but ruined everything they touched. Kennedy’s method of cutting country made no sense in a rock-and-roll context. Few classic rockers were able to withstand such treatment. However, the Charlie Rich number, “Lonely Weekends,” jumped out of the speakers with an unshackled piano solo, and William Bell’s soul-driving “You Don’t Miss Your Water” was one of Jerry Lee’s saddest cuts. These two triumphs must have been enough for many listeners. The “Killer” Rocks On became its namesake’s highest-charting pop LP since The Greatest Live Show on Earth.

The rest of 1972 flew by in a blur. Five more sessions did not yield a single stellar track. Everyone was distracted. Marriage number four was beginning to crumble, Mercury seemed more interested in renewing Jerry Lee’s contract than in securing him top-rank songs, and the big-production numbers that were Jerry Kennedy’s specialty had become so successful commercially that no one thought to return Jerry Lee to more lanky settings in which he could excel. Regarding the music, everyone was complacent.

Chapter 7: Last Stand

Sometimes I blame it on a woman,

The one that made my poor heart bleed.

Sometimes I blame it on the money,

Sometimes I blame it all on me.

–Dave Alvin, “Long White Cadillac”

The last five years of Jerry Lee’s association with Smash/Mercury started with two of his most lasting studio albums and ended in ashes. Outside the studio, his life deteriorated terribly. Jerry Lee, Jr., an acid casualty, died in a car crash; Jaren filed for divorce; the Killer “accidentally” shot his bassist, Butch Owens, in the chest (Owens survived to take legal action); Jerry Lee overturned his Rolls Royce; he was hospitalized for respiratory distress and a “nasal problem”; he was arrested waving a gun in front of Graceland demanding to see Elvis; and he had his gallbladder removed. By 1978, there was not much Jerry Lee left. Getting yelled at by Mercury executives for skipping sessions was the least of his problems.

At first, all was well. In the early seventies, rich British rock stars paid homage to their less fortunate American forebears by cutting tribute sessions, in which the aging influence was accompanied by the new stars whose names on the record cover would aid sales. The Chess blues performers profited the most from this with a series of London Sessions LPs by Chuck Berry, Bo Diddley, Muddy Waters, and Sun alumnus Howlin’ Wolfe, all of which sold more copies than these artists usually managed. Artistically, however, only The London Howlin’ Wolf Sessions was a triumph. In January 1973 Jerry Lee, Kenny Lovelace, and too many hangers-on to list traveled to London to indulge the new stars and cut hits.

The Session, as the album was called, worked in spite of everything and everyone; there was much additional worthy material that did not make it onto the double album. In chronological age, only a few years separated the Killer and the British. For instance, Jerry Lee is only thirteen months older than Rolling Stones bassist Bill Wyman. However, there were many generational and geographical differences between Jerry Lee’s entourage and British rock stars like Albert Lee and Peter Frampton. For all the rules his music broke, Jerry Lee was fundamentally conservative on issues like how long a man’s hair should be. British rock stars in the early seventies were uptight as well, but regarding different matters. That, combined with chemicals in the air and the arrogance one would expect of young millionaires, insured that no one asked for anyone else’s phone number after the four days of sessions concluded.

Nevertheless, with the noted Head, Hands, and Feet rhythm section playing the essential rhythm parts to which the superstars would not stoop, The Session rocked, often hard. Fifteen years after Jerry Lee first recorded it, he finally cut a raucous “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee” that came out as a single. A sandpapery Jerry Lee sounded as though he had drunk too much wine on the ole spo-dee-o-dee and he did not care who was in the room with him. Directing solos, Jerry Lee said, “Take it, son.” He did not bother to learn anyone’s name. When he warned “think about it” at the end of almost every take, no one did.

Distance can create tension, and tension is an essential ingredient and great rock and roll. Take the one song Jerry Lee had come to London prepared to record, Charlie Rich’s dark blues “No Headstone on My Grave.” Perhaps because the song was written by a like-minded pianist, an absorbed Jerry Lee was comfortable leading the band through its bloody charges and changes. Because Jerry Lee did not come to London armed with any more material and there was only a limited amount of studio time slotted for the supergroup, Jerry Lee and the Brits had to come to a quick understanding regarding what songs they all knew.

They tried the Rolling Stones’ “(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction,” but Jerry Lee could not bring himself to sing the verse about the girl having her period. Inevitably the lack of planning turned the set toward early rock-and-roll songs, like Chuck Berry’s “Memphis, Tennessee” (complete with a yodel) and a steamy “Johnny B. Goode.” Also rocked-up was Jerry Lee’s own “High School Confidential,” pointlessly done as an instrumental (listeners were forgiven for thinking they were waiting for the jam to end and the song proper to begin) and a shaky “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” salvaged only by Rory Gallagher’s sublime slide guitar (Gallagher was the only Brit outside the rhythm section who had a consistent handle on the material) and a harsh ending worthy of the Killer.

Some other early rockers were enlivened: “Sixty Minute Man,” “Down the Line,” “What’d I Say,” and a medley comprising “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Jenny, Jenny,” “Tutti Frutti,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” that danced like the climax to a live show. But the pick of these remakes, one that remained unreleased for more than a decade, came from an unlikely source, Gene Vincent. His signature tune, “Be Bop a Lula,” which Jerry Lee had successfully covered years previously, got the ride of its life. In Vincent’s hands, “Be Bop a Lula” was a persuasive little rockabilly song, a celebration of his sweetheart led by the nonsense-syllable chorus.

Jerry Lee surpassed the Vincent version by the time he had completed his ten-second portentous piano introduction, and he stretched the song until it was unrecognizable as anything but what he had imagined at the moment. The stylist with his own ideas triumphed. He approached “Be Bop a Lula” as a dirty blues that he hung onto for a glorious seven minutes and eighteen seconds. This was a loose jam with purpose, Jerry Lee’s voice howling and scatting, his fingers crawling up and down his piano. After all, the most successful Jerry Lee sessions were those in which the Killer was relaxed, but not too relaxed. “This mother must be nine years long!” he shouted. And then he went on some more. This was fabulous. Perhaps in 1973 Jerry Lee had to travel far away from Nashville to work up such a sweat in the studio.

This could have been the start of a new direction, but Jerry Lee the man sabotaged Jerry Lee the artist. His next session was produced in Memphis by percussionist Tony Colton of Head, Hands, and Feet, who also contributed a strong song, “Jack Daniels (Old Number Seven),” that was executed brilliantly by a band that featured Stax masters Steve Cropper on guitar and Duck Dunn on bass. It was raucous country that anticipated and outmatched the Willie Nelson/Waylon Jennings/Tompall Glaser/Jessi Colter Outlaw movement. Mercury never put the song on an album. It deserved a better fate than being stuck on the wrong side of a single, even if the A-side, “No Headstone on My Grave,” was magnificent in its own right. Of course, the Killer being the Killer, Jerry Lee alienated Colton so completely and irrevocably in their few hours together that Colton bolted as soon as he could.

When Jerry Lee returned to the Nashville Overproduction Factory for a three-day, twenty-one song blowout produced by Stan Kesler (Mercury executive Jerry Kennedy had started off-loading some of his production chores), he also reverted to old vices. Kesler was an important Memphis music figure, as a writer and player at Sun Records and later as the producer for the delightfully whacked-out Sam the Sham and the Pharaohs. Here, though, Kesler operated as if his job was to make Jerry Kennedy seem like a producer of uncommon subtlety. Very little of this session deserved to be preserved, although Mercury insisted. Not even a motivated Jerry Lee could have made sense of songs with titles like “The Alcohol of Fame,” “Mama’s Hands,” and “Tomorrow’s Taking Baby Away,” although Jerry Lee clearly delighted in singing the last song’s line, “She still gave me her young body/In a lovely, friendly way.” In “I Think I Need to Pray,” Jerry Lee called out, “I think we all need to pray.” What he needed to pray for was a new producer. To be fair, Jerry Lee was driving Kesler crazy, and Kesler had every excuse to unconsciously sabotage the date.

The only remotely alert new song to come out of the Kesler marathon was “Honky Tonk Wine,” written by one Mack Vickery, a journeyman Alabama singer and composer who had recorded under both his name for the short-lived Playboy label and the monicker Atlanta James, neither time with much success. He had also placed a few songs with Memphis soul master James Carr. He had yet to release his definitive LP, Live at the Alabama Women’s prison. “Honky Tonk Wine was a minor song, and Kesler tried to kill it with strings, but it was immediately apparent that the tune moved Jerry Lee unlike anything else he recorded that night. He was in synch with the number.

The powers at Mercury listened and knew that they had a commercial problem. After a string of smashes, Jerry Lee’s last five singles had not scratched their way into the country-and-western Top Ten. The Killer still had an extremely loyal core audience that would stand by its man no matter what he recorded, but the tide of across-the-board monsters had clearly ebbed. They also had a personal problem. Bassist Bob Moore, who accompanied the Ferriday Fireball on most of his Smash/Mercury sessions, overstated the case when he said, “Jerry Lee has a heading and a bottom line of each page in his life. The heading is drugs and the bottom line is drugs,” but the sad fact was that there were some days when there was nothing else written on the page. The label had trouble finding people willing to work with Jerry Lee. On a move that was one part genius and two parts recklessness, they decided to send him into the studio with someone even crazier than he.

“We fought,” Huey P. Meaux told Colin Escott, “but we delivered.”

Meaux was one of those colorful characters who gave southern writers prime source material and who made outsiders wonder if they were being put on. A Cajun named after Louisiana dictator Huey (“Kingfish”) Long, Meaux had worked in all aspects of the record business, and in September 1973 he was glad to be in his own loud clothes instead of what he had been wearing most recently: prison garb. Upon his release he had re-established contact with Mercury. Now, after agreeing with Mercury’s vice president of artists and repertoire Charlie Fach that a pure Jerry Lee album was the cure to everyone’s ills, he was signed to produce such an LP.

The resulting set, Southern Roots, was recorded virtually nonstop over three days and nights in Memphis. Meaux enjoyed extraordinary connections, so he was able to assemble a group that was undoubtedly Jerry Lee’s most sympathetic accompaniment since his 1964 tour. He recruited guitarist Steve Cropper, bassist Donald (“Duck”) Dunn, and drummer Al Jackson, the essential Stax rhythm section, as the core band. Then he added other top-of-the line musicians like organist Augie Meyers of the Sir Douglas Quintet, the original Memphis Horns, members of the Memphis Beats, and Carl Perkins. Mack Vickery contributed harmonica, vocals, and enough craziness to be allowed in the same room with Meaux and Jerry Lee.

Recording conditions were chaotic, to put it mildly. Musicians, family members, delivery men, ex-girlfriends, and people just off the street wandered around, pushed engineers out of the way, and slept on the floor. Unlike the London session earlier in the year, where producer Steve Rowland tried to tone down his charges’ behavior and instead made everyone more nervous, Meaux encouraged all in his kingdom to whoop it up. The unwieldy Southern Roots sessions were not designed with controlled behavior in mind, but they did yield what was unquestionably the most spirited and sustained studio album of Jerry Lee’s long and spirited career. The album was subtitled Back Home to Memphis and featured Jerry Lee’s only post-Sun studio performances that consistently captured what made him special, different, and impossible to pigeonhole.

A filthy Mack Vickery tune written with Jerry Lee in mind, “Meat Man,” kicked off the album and pinned itself in fifth gear. “Meat Man” was two minutes and forty seconds of vivid sexual boasts, delivered furiously and convincingly: “They call me the meat man/You oughta see me eat ma’am.” He did not sing as if there were any possibility that the woman might decline his offer. Jerry Lee made listeners believe he had a “Maytag tongue with a sensitive taster.” He whooped it up in an avalanche of a solo and his least practiced shouting in years. His mind wasn’t in a studio; as far as he was concerned he was in the darkest, toughest roadhouse in Mississippi. “Meat Man” was the most frankly sexual song of Jerry Lee’s career, no small achievement. It was the first time in the studio since his glory days at Sun that he sounded truly free. Even when the song ended, he refused to stop, shouting, “Meat man, you mother!” until Meaux shut off the tape.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” was originally a hit for Percy Sledge, and Meaux’s decision to record it hinted at his agenda more than any other song on Southern Roots. Meaux loved Memphis music, but one of his more brilliant ideas on this session was to act as if Jerry Lee’s Memphis homecoming belonged at Stax, not Sun. For a decade the soul masters at Stax (and, later, Hi) had been the groundbreaking performers in town; in the mid- and late-sixties Sun was a clearing house for second-rate talent. Stax and Sun had different sounds, but they were linked because the country-blues fusion at Sun set the stage for Stax to come up with its country-rhythm-and-blues union. So in taking Jerry Lee back to a “Memphis sound,” Meaux was both returning to past glories and nudging the Killer forward.

“When a Man Loves a Woman” was a colossal ballad with a bite, and Meaux’s arrangements kept the focus on Jerry Lee’s voice and piano, a logical idea that in 1973 seemed novel. The only thing wrong with “When a Man Loves a Woman” was that it faded out after only four minutes and twenty seconds. “Hold On I’m Coming,” a suggestive hit for Sam and Dave, was another tune that originated in the Stax axis, and Jerry Lee recast it as a funky, soulful strut. “I made love to a lotta women in Tennessee,” Jerry Lee sang as if he needed to remind himself. “I’m comin, C-o-m-i-n…” An alternate version was slightly faster and much looser.

Roscoe Gordon’s “Just a Little Bit” got the Sir Douglas Quintet treatment, with Augie Meyers’s charmingly trashy organ fighting Jerry Lee for room until piano and organ merged in an otherworldly, bass-heavy keyboard crash. The Killer’s singing on this ideal funk-rocker was as ferocious as the song’s rhythms. His wild pleading danced across the studio floor until it collapsed in a heap with all the other stragglers. “Born to Be a Loser” was a strong southern ballad with lyrics that Jerry Lee obviously related to: “Ain’t nobody perfect,” he sang. “Think about it.” By the end of the song, he was addressing his potential partner as “you good-looking wench.”

The second side of Southern Roots erupted to life with “Haunted House,” originally a novelty hit for Memphis singer Gene Simmons. (In spite of its relative obscurity, “Haunted House” has garnered quite a celebrity fan club. On Halloween night 1981 Bruce Springsteen began a concert by being carried onstage in a coffin, jumping out, and singing it.) Those listening closely could hear liquor and pills rattling through the vocal. Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” was a straightforward, southern-ballad performance with a touch of Dixieland horns, still on the highest level.

The album ended with three songs as weird as the participants in the session; all three featured at least one “think about it.” Doug Sahm’s “The Revolutionary Man” was a barnstorming rocker, piano and horns once again battling organ. One suspected that good ole boy Jerry Lee’s idea of revolution was different from that of confirmed hippie Sahm, but at least Jerry Lee acted like he knew what he was singing about. The backup singers, not even remotely annoying, sang, “Jerry is a rebel,” in a melody swiped from Gino Washington’s obscure “Gino Is a Coward.” Earl (“Kit”) Carson’s “Big Blue Diamond” offered an unbuttoned solo, and the album slid home with another Mack Vickery song, “That Old Bourbon Street Church.” The strong ballad was also thematically useful in that the Vickery numbers that opened and closed the album defined the two Jerry Lees. In “Meat Man” he was a raving, cocksure stud; by “The Old Bourbon Street Church” he was vanquished, drunk, nearly crying, begging for forgiveness. In Vickery, a fan as well as a professional, Jerry Lee had found someone who could articulate his troubles better than he himself ever could.

Although they did not surface until the late eighties, another album’s worth of first-rank tunes were cut at the Southern Roots sessions. Even better, full session tapes emerged in which fans could hear Jerry Lee, Meaux, and Vickery whoop it up. Everyone at that three-day session was intoxicated by talent as well as by alcohol; unlike the typical Jerry Lee seventies session, in which a truck load of hired guns played their parts and left as soon as the clock said they could, it sounded like the Southern Roots musicians were in Memphis because they loved the music. They were all crazy, but they were also crazy about music. With them cheering him on, Jerry Lee scorched for the last time in a long time.

Instead of reviving Jerry Lee’s career, Southern Roots condemned it. The album never hit the Billboard chart because its ridiculous cover, a drawing of the Killer that looked positively antebellum, gave the LP all the appearances of yet another reissue of old cuts. All but the most loyal fans did not know that there were any new hits because nothing from Southern Roots got on the radio. In a pea-brained marketing move, Mercury opted for “Meat Man” as the first single. Granted, it was a stupendous song, but part of what made it fantastic was that it was a defiant, upraised middle finger at countrypolitan record formats. Jerry Lee made a sublime album, but nobody got to hear it. He resigned himself to the inevitable.

Even Jerry Lee’s faithful admitted that what came between Southern Roots and the end of this association with Mercury was almost lifeless. None of his more welcome trademarks showed up: no honky-tonk chords slammed against each other until they made friends, and nothing suggested that metallic-blond locks were flopping in front of his eyes while he played. His voice frequently took on a monotonic quality, as if he could not be bothered to move his mouth and tongue to enunciate different sounds. Some fans blamed the deterioration in Jerry Lee’s vocals on substance abuse; others pointed to a 4:00 A.M. fight in a night club that left his nose broken in three places and was not satisfactorily attended to for years.

For whatever reason, this was the only period in Jerry Lee’s career that did not feature an official live album, mostly because his shows were too infrequent and his singing and playing veered toward the lazy and monotonic. If live shows were out of the question, so were live-in-the studio performances. It took more takes to complete songs, unless Jerry Lee became so bored or ornery that he left the studio before anyone was happy with his performances. From now on, fans knew to expect tons of overdubs, vocal and otherwise, many of them supervised by someone who was passed-out on the floor.

Jerry Lee did not argue against this recording method, in which songs were built piece by piece, with everything “perfect” and no passion allowed. “When you’re making love to a woman, you can’t overdub it,” he told an interviewer. “You can’t phone it in.” So he knew better, but either did not want to or could not exert himself.

Right after live recordings, another idea that went out the window, at least unconsciously, was bringing up issues through songs. Through the fifties, sixties, and early seventies, fans learned about Jerry Lee’s ideas on everything from sex and drugs to family and religion through the way he performed; in the late seventies he was simply too out of it to bring his performances to a level where those meanings, intentional or not, could be discerned.

Yet Jerry Lee kept playing and playing. “Jerry Lee is onstage twenty-four hours a day,” said Bob Moore. “When we were on the road, we’d go right offstage into the limo to the plane. On the plane he went to his Casio immediately. He’d sing and play all the way home. He never stopped.” There are hundred of private tapes of Jerry Lee playing any keyboard he could find, just for the pleasure and release it gave him. He played piano in 1977 for the same reason he had turned to the instrument more than three decades earlier: it was an escape. Other people were in the room with him, so he could show off.

October and November 1974 sessions in Nashville were once again overseen by Jerry Kennedy. “Watch me,” Jerry Lee said before a take of Troy Seals’s “Boogie Woogie Country Man.” “I might get hot.” He never got past “might.” Tom T. Hall’s “I Can Still Hear the Music in the Restroom” gave Jerry Lee a reason to hold notes in his best Merle Haggard voice, but the most colorful nugget about the minor hit was its promotional campaign, which featured a copy of the single affixed to a toilet seat.

“Honey Hush” was a real rock-and-roll song, complete with ersatz-Sun echo, more speed-up than comeback, hobbled by the usual overproduction. Stuart Hamblen’s “Remember Me (I’m the One Who Loves You)” was a good ballad performance without too much interference; “Forever Forgiving” was a typically appropriate Mack Vickery weeper; and “I’m Still Jealous of You” was the occasion for what was now a rare event, a committed, comprehending vocal. Everything else from those sessions resembled the sort of self-pitying country ballads that the Killer had once set out to vanquish. Only Elvis was in worse shape.

Four sessions in the first half of 1975 could squeeze out only five songs worth preserving. One of those was a ringer (“Your Cheatin’ Heart”), and two of them were spontaneous readings of songs Jerry Lee loved as a child that were never intended for release, “Crawdad Song” and “The House of Blue Lights.” The two new songs, both custom-written ballads for the Killer’s teetering self, let Jerry Lee show his pain and his self-loathing. Mack Vickery’s “That Kind of Fool” yearned for unattainable domestic bliss: it was the tale of a rockabilly cat who grew up too late. Donnie Fritts’s “A Damn Good Country Song” covered similar ground almost as comprehensively. Jerry Lee sang the song hard. It meant a great deal to him and was one of the numbers he turned to during the “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” sessions. His piano sneaked higher up in the mix, which meant that either Jerry Kennedy was finally letting him play his own way or he had thrown in the towel. Either way, it was a passable performance of a more than adequate song that deserved to climb higher on the country-and-western charts than Number Sixty-eight.

Mercury’s Charlie Fach, frustrated that Jerry Lee was deteriorating in every way, specifically in completing the number of albums he was contracted to deliver per year, booked sessions the week before Christmas 1975 to meet the annual quota. He should have gone shopping instead. All but three of the songs were originally unissued, and they did not include the only two worthwhile tunes from the sessions. Even “I Can’t Keep My Hands Off of You.” The contribution from Mack Vickery, the only reliable Jerry Lee speechwriter, was written and performed with minimal energy. But Billy Swan’s rollicking, “I Can Help” was recorded and performed with gusto. Jerry Lee immediately identified with the lyrics: “Your child needs a daddy/We can discuss that, too.” However, by the end of the song the Ferriday Fireball had retreated to his own world, shouting “Think about it, Elvis” to someone who would never hear him. Abnormal but effective was Little Richard’s “Slippin’ and Slidin’,” done as a cigarettes-and-coffee style, late-night blues jam.

It took almost six months for Mercury to get Jerry Lee back in a studio, and it is unclear why they expended the energy. The Killer was in no condition to record, and the third-rate material with which he was saddled did not shake him out of his stupor. “The Fifties” was the worst song Jerry Lee had recorded since “Lincoln Limousine,” fake rock and roll with lyrics that strung together titles of early rock-and-roll classics. All that survived the most cursory inspection were “The Old Country Church,” interesting only for the psycho-dramatics inherent in hearing a stoned Jerry Lee talk to himself, and “I Sure Miss Those Good Old Times,” a Mack Vickery-penned outtake from Southern Roots that, by comparison, did not reflect well on Jerry Kennedy’s recording methods. By now, Jerry Lee was skipping live shows as frequently as he was blowing studio dates, which cost him much money. On December 5 Jerry Lee received an early Christmas present when he turned on his television and saw his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart begging Jesus to save the Killer’s soul.

In 1977 Jerry Lee bottomed out. His comrade and competitor, Elvis, had his misery terminated, but the Killer was forced to rock on. His two competent vocal performances that year were on “Ivory Tears,” a marrow-cutting Mack Vickery ballad of piano-man regret, and Sonny Throckmorton’s “Middle Age Crazy,” a tale of a man Jerry Lee’s age trying to pass himself off as a rock-and-roll kid. The performance was so vivid that someone in Hollywood expanded it into a movie, à la “Ode to Billy Joe.” The song was a natural hit, all the way to Number Four, because it felt real. The Killer was beat; he admitted it; and he found an appealing way to convey it.

Jerry Lee’s manager, Bob Porter, and the lawyers at Mercury spent the summer of 1978 trying to hammer out a new contract, but nobody on either side truly cared. Jerry Lee was estranged from all the people at Mercury who could or would set him on the right course; the divorce was swift and as amicable as it could be considering that one party was disappointed and the other was too out of it to know what was occurring. Except for overdub quickies, the last song Jerry Lee recorded for Mercury was the anorectic-rock “Pee Wee’s Place,” which, apparently, was a place where ennui ruled. Jerry Lee left Mercury, not with a bang, not with a whimper, but with a yawn. He tried to rock, but he could not; and he faded before the song got around to doing the same thing.

Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis’s post-Southern Roots side for Mercury is a numbing experience, especially when compared to detailed examination of any of his four distinct previous periods: pre-scandal Sun, post-scandal Sun, pre-hit Smash, post-hit Mercury. No theme but dissolution emerges from the period; no stories worth chewing over the next day reverberate in your head. Listening to these records is like watching one of your favorite baseball players three or four years after he should have retired, in poor shape, playing only as a replacement, not particularly committed, afraid to hang up his cleats because he could not think of anything else to do but play ball.

“I thought I was indestructible,” a contrite Jerry Lee told Jim Neff around the time his Mercury contract expired. “I thought the world had finally come up with a superman. I came to find out I wasn’t.” He was alone now, and he had to think up something new. Soon.

Chapter 8: Fragments of Autumn

The thing is dead … Everything is dead

Except the future.

– Wallace Stevens, “Mr. Burnshaw and the Statue”

“History is history. The future is perfect.”

– Orel Hershiser

By the end of 1978, Jerry Lee had found a new recording sponsor, the Nashville arm of Elektra Records. When he signed, representatives of his new label promptly told Jerry Lee that they would not be recording him in Nashville. Fans cheered. During a four-day blowout in the Filmway/Heider Recording Studio in Hollywood, California, Jerry Lee recorded what will likely be his last stable album, titled simply Jerry Lee Lewis, perhaps as a hopeful gesture that this was the beginning of something new. Bones Howe, who had worked with Jerry Lee’s arch-enemy, Elvis Presley, assembled a tight, responsive band around James Burton, a guitarist whose terse rockabilly elaborations had enlivened work by everyone from Rick Nelson to Elvis himself. Other key players included Jerry Lee’s tenacious friend and occasional in-law, Kenneth Lovelace, on fiddle and guitar, and ace West Coast session drummer Hal Blaine. Some Nashville sins were repeated–background choruses, strings, and horns–but the informality of the sessions made them rock in spite of such extraneousness.

“We’re going to have to do the record in four days,” Howe told Jerry Lee before recording began, afraid that the Killer would go tense under the pressure of having to complete an LP so quickly.

Jerry Lee was nonchalant. “What are we going to do the other two days?” he asked.

The need to work quickly and the simple excitement of working with new people in novel settings without the usual bevy of cronies and sycophants liberated Jerry Lee to work way beyond the monotone to which he had confined himself since 1974. Here the theory that delayed attention to his broken nose restored his voice carries some weight. “Don’t Let Go,” a Jesse Stone song he had recorded at Mercury, started the party, and its ebullient tempo carried Jerry Lee past even the obligatory “think about it.” The backing vocalists aped the sound of early rock-and-roll choruses, and for the most part did not get in the way. Only a step below was “Number One Lovin’ Man,” a jumpy rocker that gave the chorus a bit too much room and James Burton not nearly enough room to maneuver his outbursts.

Part of what made the Bones Howe sessions so successful was the idiosyncratic choice of material. Howe introduced Jerry Lee to a charming uptempo tune called “Rita May,” and the Killer burned his way through it in a few feverish takes. It was a fine, guileless rock-and-roll song, Jerry Lee thought, different from what he was used to hearing.

“Who wrote that song?” Jerry Lee inquired.

“Bob Dylan,” Bones Howe said and smiled. He thought he had delivered a punch line, but Jerry Lee showed no recognition.

“That boy’s good,” Jerry Lee said. “I’ll do anything by him.”

The possibility that Jerry Lee was putting Howe on can not be overestimated, but it was not much of a stretch of the imagination to believe that the Ferriday Fireball’s musical tastes were so insular that he had not heard of Bob Dylan.

Jerry Lee was a country-blues-rockin’ Midas those four January days and nights. He recast Arthur Alexander’s classic “Every Day I Have to Cry” as a mainstream country ballad, not as pure as it would have sounded twenty years previously, but not overwrought either. Chris Kenner’s “I Like It Like That” was executed with the same organ-heavy sprightly fun of “Just a Little Bit” from Southern Roots. Sonny Throckmorton’s “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again” was the type of I’m-aging-and-nostalgic country ballad at which a committed Jerry Lee could excel.

The retro move in the session that worked most successfully was a soulful strut through Charlie Rich’s “Who Will the Next Fool Be” that showed off the band, especially Burton, without turning into a mere showing-off, which Jerry Lee was still doing between takes. The key to the session was a customized Mack Vickery song, “Rockin’ My Life Away,” a wonderful autumnal rocker that immediately became Jerry Lee’s statement of intention and all-purpose theme song. Jerry Lee had always counted on Vickery to articulate for him, and here his Cyrano outdid himself. The sparkling lyrics vacillated between the complete obscure and the completely bizarre, but the feel was right.

What did those words mean? The first line of the song was “Fourteen, twenty-five, forty, ninety-eight,” and the lines rolled out of Jerry Lee’s mouth as if they had some deep meaning. In fact, Vickery had conceived of the song as a Specialty-era-Little-Richard-style rocker, with the first line scooping up tension like a quarterback calling signals before a play. But in popular music how something is said is far more important than what is said, and that was why the adventure of “Rockin’ My Life Away” was so intense and enjoyable. Performance was more important than composition. “Watch me now,” Jerry Lee shouted before his solo, and in a few seconds he erased five years of bad memories. Artistically, Jerry Lee Lewis was a completely successful comeback. The combination of a Number Twenty country-and-western hit and the appearance that he was lucid again made Jerry Lee a more lucrative, that is, safer, draw on the road.

The triumph did not last long. In February agents from the Internal Revenue Service showed up at his ranch to claim everything there. Jerry Lee’s approach to paying taxes had been extremely passive. In July his father, Elmo, died. A second session with Bones Howe was more erratic than his predecessor, with a terrible version of Bog Seger’s kneejerk-nostalgic “Old Time Rock and Roll” standing beside the finest “C.C. Rider” of his career. The album was shelved and never released; one song, “(Hot Damn!) I’m a One Woman-Man,” appeared on the soundtrack LP to a film about a roadie.

Nashville sessions in 1979 and 1980 were produced by Eddie Kilroy, the former used-car salesman and promo man at Mercury whose idea a dozen years previously to cut Jerry Lee country had saved the Killer’s career. The dates were not as overblown as Jerry Lee’s last in hillbilly heaven, but there were still too many people on every song. The fact that none of them was James Burton hurt the record when compared to Jerry Lee Lewis. Two albums were culled from the sessions, When Two Worlds Collide and Killer Country. Each was halfway successful; together they add up to one fine record. At least five terrific performances were spread over the LPs, and some of them were hits, like “When Two Worlds Collide,” a deep country ballad sung with great intensity. “Alabama Jubilee” and “Toot-Toot-Tootsie Goodbye” stand as Jerry Lee’s most blatant Jolson-derived vocals. Even better was “Thirty-nine and Holding,” an autobiographical tale of both Jerry Lee’s imagined self and the audience that stuck and aged with him. It earned its Number Four placing on the country list. “I’d Do It All Again” covered similar territory almost as well, but did not chart as highly. Jerry Lee’s chart success in the eighties was as random as it had always been.

The one performance from the Kilroy Nashville sessions that cut the deepest by far was a phenomenally gorgeous excavation of the pop standard, “Over the Rainbow.” There had been several hit versions of the song by the likes of Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, Larry Clinton, and Glenn Miller (all in 1939, the year The Wizard of Oz came out), but they were all versions by people who sounded young, alive, and possessing the fortitude to track down the metaphorical pot of gold. In Jerry Lee’s version, the narrator was an old man. His voice showed its cracks, hinted at its long-ago triumphs, sounded bitter, and searched for a reason to hope. Jerry Lee was only forty-five years old when he recorded this song, but he looked and sang at least a decade beyond that. If Jerry Lee had retired after he recorded “Over the Rainbow,” one could have stated that his mission had been complete. He started at the end of the road, traveled places no one had ever seen before, and was now wise enough to accept that the rainbow was unattainable.

One of the problems with real life is that it does not provide the sense of closure that one can get from great art. Jerry Lee did not stop rocking after his inconsistent behavior led to his departure from Elektra. His two albums for MCA, My Fingers Do the Talkin’ and I Am What I Am, and two subsequent ones for the independent label SCR, Six of One, Half Dozen of the Other and Get Out Your Big Roll Daddy, repeated many of the same songs and performances. They were tired, listless paydays. Other sessions, run by long-time collaborators like Roland Janes, Eddie Kilroy, and Bob Moore, were somewhat more successful, but none of them led to the goal of a major-label signing. Jerry Lee had burned too many bridges.

The Killer still had life in him, especially onstage. One night in Sweden in the middle of the breakdown of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” he cautioned his paramour, “Don’t have an epileptic fit or nothin’/Just stand in one place.” Moments like that happened all the time. But a recorded-live album with Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash called The Survivors (one imagines the irony was unintentional) was a dud. Still, throughout the eighties it became clear to all that the Sun experience now meant something new to these men who knew Elvis, all the King’s men.

In the years since Elvis Presley died, dozens of rock and country performers have striven either to understand what set Elvis apart or to take unto themselves part of his triumph, which cannot be shared because it’s both unprecedented and unrepeatable. Some, like Buck Brody Mozingo in novelist William Price Fox’s Dixiana Moon, have been content to stand back as Elvis shoots by and to listen for the deafening ricochet. Some, like Bruce Springsteen in his dark update of Chuck Berry’s Elvis parable, “Bye Bye Johnny,” have sought to champion Presley’s boldest stroke, the (temporary) destruction of nearly all American musical and cultural barriers. But most merely join in chorus to praise the King, without probing below the glittering surface that hid the ugliness and deterioration beneath.

Class of ‘55, released in 1986, fit in the latter, cluttered category. It was one of the most eccentric of the Elvis tribute records, partly because it never announced that as its intention. In September 1985 Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and a pre-comeback Roy Orbison returned to the site of their earliest triumphs and attempted to rekindle some of the period’s exuberance. The press releases claimed the members of the “class of 1955″ were united by the Sun origins and their friendship with Elvis, but that was superficial. Orbison, for one, did his most lasting work after he left Sun, and it’s safe to assume that none of these men were drinking buddies of Elvis.

Instead, what pervaded and undermined this reunion was the burning wish, on the part of each man, that it had been he who had descended from Sun and established a kingdom. Class of ‘55 was subtitled Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming, almost identical to the subtitle of Southern Roots. Like all class reunions, this was a bittersweet reflection on salad years. The awkward song titles, such as “Birth of Rock and Roll” and “We Remember the King,” underlined the concept. In spite of all the “we’re-rockin’-tonight” rhetoric in the lyrics, Class of ‘55 shook down to a country album with spots of spunk and a tentative, start-and-stop mood. Producer Chips Moman’s slightly overwrought settings were just cushy enough to keep the featured vets going without emphasizing the way they were propped up.

On three tracks the grizzled, marked-down quartet emerged from its reverent opportunism, making this a worthwhile musical document as well as an inevitable historical one. Lewis’s slow, leering cover of the Crests’s “Sixteen Candles” was as slyly lecherous as the adolescent-marriage specialist could make it. Even he had stopped counting how many times he had said “I do.” (The recent overdose death of his fifth wife had led to allegations that Jerry Lee was somehow responsible.) Orbison’s light-rockabilly “Coming Home” underscored the warmth of the get-together.

The clincher was the eight-minute dive into “Big Train (From Memphis),” the John Fogerty song based on Elvis’s cover of Junior Parker’s “Mystery Train.” Here, all the participants switched off the cruise control and floored it. They glided into the track as if it were a standard, which it may yet become, repeating verses, drawing strength from every easy breath. They were accompanied by Fogerty, June Carter Cash, Jack Clement, Sam Phillips, and, in his last recorded performance, Rick Nelson. “Big Train (From Memphis)” was a meeting ground for the members of the class, the intersection at which their differences disappeared. The song repeated its near-gospel chanting chorus like a soothing prayer: “Big train/From Memphis/Now it’s gone, gone, gone/Gone, gone, gone.” Fogerty’s song was both a celebration of Presley’s life and a tersely phrased lament for what was lost with his death. The conductor was gone, but the train kept on moving. And if there was pleasure in hearing its echo, imagine how it must have felt to have been, like the members of the class of ‘55, privileged passengers. Jerry Lee, of course, lightened the proceedings by yelling his name and whatever else came to mind over the fade.

The eighties were an up-and-down decade for Jerry Lee, all fits and starts, no coherence. He recorded at least half a dozen albums after he left the major labels, none of them distinguished, and he blew several deals that could have put him back on a major. His songs were used in all sorts of awful movies, like Breathless, Tremors, and Loverboy, as well as in television commercials. But some chronic problems had not been solved. As late as 1990, Jerry Lee was still a patient of Dr. George Nichopolous, best-known as Elvis’s private physician and all-around procurer.

Perhaps Jerry Lee’s last big chance came at the end of the decade when a movie was made of Myra Lewis and Murray Silver’s Great Balls of Fire. He received a great deal of money, said to be in the mid-six figures, to rerecord his hits and – more important to the producers – to keep his mouth shut when people asked him why the film version bore little relation to the true life it belittled. The filmmakers were monumentally cynical. One said to Jerry Lee as he prepared to cut the soundtrack, “We know you can’t match the original. That’s OK. Just try to get close.”

Jerry Lee snapped back, “Then why the hell did you fly me out there?”

Jerry Lee justified the airfare. He believed he could beat the original versions. Whether he did or not is immaterial. The simple fact that he thought he could, that he insisted he must, screams loud and clear in his rerecordings with a band led by usually sharp producer T. Bone Burnett. And once, on a thundering “That Lucky Old Sun” that made bitterness sound like love, he managed a truly definitive version of a Sun-era standard. Challenged, the Killer delivered. Perhaps one day he will deliver again.

Today Jerry Lee does not play live much and hardly records at all. He is said to feel betrayed by the Great Balls of Fire film experience. He has risen and fallen many times, never in the way expected. In early 1990 he booked a British tour but blew it off, apparently as a result of a battle with sixth wife, Kerrie. His promoter sued him and badmouthed him to the Fleet Street press that was now in its second generation of bothering Jerry Lee. The Ferriday Fireball wanted to tell his side of the story, so he wrote a letter to the British rock-enthusiast magazine Now Dig This. The letter starts off as an apology to fans, wanders through an explanation of the events that conspired against him, and climaxes in an all-capital-letters payoff boast. Anyone cynical enough to believe that Jerry Lee is incapable of further great moments has only to read the conviction behind “THE KILLER WILL RETURN!” to become at least temporarily converted. The Killer is not at the controls all the time, but when he is you had better watch out. Think about it.

Chapter 9: Let the Jukebox Keep On Playing

Don’t have the inclination to look back on any mistake;

Like Cain, I now behold this chain of events that I must break.

In the fury of the moment I can see the Master’s hand;

In every leap that trembles, in every grain of sand.

– Bob Dylan, “Every Grain of Sand”

Giants sometimes rise from their slumbers invigorated. Onstage, the only place of work that consistently matters to him, Jerry Lee is still capable of virtually anything. Many of his performances verge on sleepwalks; but the Killer, even as he inches out of his fifth decade, still has few peers when it comes to live performance if one catches him on a night when he gives a damn. He can rock more ferociously than most heavy metal kids; he makes groups like Poison and Motley Crue sound like the pathetic comic book characters they are, all show and no threat. He can lay into country ballads with more intensity than Nashville’s New Traditionalists; only Dwight Yoakam shares his all-encompassing dread. He can plow through intoxicating blues harder than a young practitioner like Robert Cray. If he wants to, Jerry Lee can cut anybody on anything. The problem is getting him to make an attempt. When something is at stake, he usually still delivers, as the riveting soundtrack to Great Balls of Fire evidences.

What makes seeing Jerry Lee perform nowadays such a frustrating experience is the knowledge in every fan’s mind that if Jerry Lee happens to be inspired he will put on a great show, but the likelihood is that Jerry Lee himself will not know if he will commit to the evening’s show until he is onstage. He may toss off a few rockers, often the monotonic “Rockin’ Jerry Lee” or a tentative version of one of his lesser Sun hits. But he will follow them with stately ballad performances, such as “Over the Rainbow” and the timeless “You Win Again,” in which every syllable matters to him. Not surprisingly, ballads of emotional and spiritual devastation are the performances closest to Jerry Lee’s heart. That has been the case at least as far back as “Crazy Arms.” Sister Linda Gail reports that Jerry Lee recently told her, “I’ve done everything. I’ve got nothing left to do.”

Jerry Lee’s original intentions were modest and honorable enough: he wanted to make a living playing piano, enough so that he could live a more comfortable life than his parents had, and he wanted to serve his Lord. On the face of it, those aspirations should have been accomplished and maintained simply and cleanly by someone of Jerry Lee’s genius. But it was clear even when he was a teenager that his talents were so mammoth and so malleable that they could conquer the world if he wanted them to, and matters became wildly complicated. Jerry Lee tried to live a double life for a time – family man and preacher by day, showman and sinner by night – and to this day he still feels the pull of both sides. One night he performs a steamy, gin-soaked set at some Memphis club; the next day he may be announcing to a local paper that he has finally been saved and will devote the rest of his life to his Savior and his family. Both times his sincerity is transparent.

These are not callous flip-flops. Just as Jerry Lee has never recovered from the shock of the 1958 scandal and his subsequent fishbowl existence, he has never escaped the fierce ambivalence regarding his career choice fostered in him by his mother. Instead of perceiving the fundamental incongruities of his life as a shortcoming of other people’s expectations, he sees them as representative of deficiencies within himself. So he continues to punish himself for not conforming to the mores of a hypocritical world.

The culture that Jerry Lee loves and exploits is far different from what it was when he and Elmo embarked on their first fateful trip to Memphis. Jerry Lee’s boyhood dream of becoming an all-encompassing performer, one who could do anything, makes no sense to all but the most ambitious kids now growing up in the many Ferridays that dot the South. Popular culture in the United States becomes more compartmentalized each year. As the market for leisure grows, so does the gradual narrowing of what one can find at any time. As a Ferriday child, Jerry Lee could track down perhaps a dozen stations on his uncle’s radio. Now, even in Ferriday, he can turn on cable television and have access to more than one hundred channels, most of them extremely specialized. The sports channels show only sporting events, the pop-music channels show only music-videos from some limited part of the pop field, and so on. If you want something different, you usually have to change the channel. Nearly all the cable channels seek to show one small slice of the world; few of them even hint that there is anything out there beyond their provincial offerings.

Today’s record company head is most likely someone who has excelled in selling or promoting product, not someone with experience in discovering or generating music. That makes for an industry with vastly altered priorities. The narrowing of individual cultural offerings has been accompanied by a consolidation of power in the music industry among five major multinational companies. The days of someone like Sam Phillips, who was able to pump out consistent national hits without major-label support, are gone, the occasional one-shot from a rap entrepreneur notwithstanding. To be truly heard, a performer has to hook up with a major label. And these major labels have departments within themselves, such as pop, rock, country, black, and dance, that further pigeonhole music. Then there are different “boutique” sub-labels with specific agendas. When someone like Michael Jackson or Prince succeeds across multiple artificial formats, it is a shock; for prime performers, it once was the rule.

These conglomerates are not geared for someone like Jerry Lee, who belongs on a label that recognizes no market-influenced limits on creativity. Jerry Lee transcended small-minded ideas like genres virtually from the moment he started performing, and that is one of the reasons why he does not have a major-label deal. These people want clinical specialists, not wide-eyed generalists. They want people who show facility at regurgitating past triumphs, either their own or those of others, which is the reason why so many films, books, and records produced nowadays end with a number. Sequels and reunions are easy money. Cultural retreads are not merely accepted by the powers that be, they are encouraged.

Pop culture has become extremely compartmentalized, perhaps irrevocably so, since Jerry Lee left Ferriday. The present boom in compact-disc reissues of classic blues, country-and-western, and early rock-and-roll records is at least partly fueled by a sophisticated audience’s inability to relate to current performers who have more to do with demographic research than music. If a Ferriday kid, a potential Jerry Lee, is going to be inspired to begin a career in music by what he or she hears on the radio, it is likely that he or she is listening to an oldies station. There is much magnificent music being recorded these days, although as the market expands, less of it gets heard by a mass audience. Some of the greatest pop music of the eighties was recorded by the Los Angeles-based punk band, X. However, none of their many unrelenting performances, among them a movie-soundtrack cover of Jerry Lee’s “Breathless,” spent much time on commercial radio. It is no accident that one of their most durable compositions is called “The Unheard Music.”

Through all this Jerry Lee endures, even if contemporary culture has fragmented to the point that it can not produce another like Jerry Lee. Sometimes his concerts resemble dramatizations of internal monologues. He plays a dirty “Big Legged Woman” and scolds himself; he lays into a gorgeous “You Win Again” and offers up a dirty joke; he philosophizes on the dangers of drugs and sings “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee. He still exemplifies nearly all the major dilemmas that Southerners have faced in this century, and his inability to resolve them says more about the unresolved problems of the nation than the unsettled state of the man.

Yet the man cannot be the primary issue. We care about Jerry Lee for what he says through his work. That is the voice that we will care about a generation from now, just as his music from a generation ago rings true in today’s world. The true spirit of Jerry Lee and what he still represents showed up most clearly in the sparkling “It Was the Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)” session. Touchstone Pictures, the company bankrolling Dick Tracy, had already pumped untold millions into the film by the time Jerry Lee got his call from Andy Paley. Several of those Touchstone millions had been tossed in the direction of costar Madonna, whose preeminence as a pop star made her the Elvis of her time. If any music from Dick Tracy was going to get the corporate push (the soundtrack was being recorded for Madonna’s record label), it was going to be that of sure-thing Madonna.

So Jerry Lee was recording a pretty-good tune that he surely must have been told would not capture the ears of the masses. He was playing second fiddle to a woman young enough to be his daughter, a bold woman who had taken up his mantle of shocking the audience into considering new ideas. But he played the song hard, as if by sheer will he could beat out the newcomer. Back at the Memphis Recording Service, looking up at a massive photograph of himself in his mid-fifties prime, he knew. And for one blessed moment, he felt vindicated.

Jimmy Guterman

http://guterman.com/guterman_jerrylee/guterman_jerrylee.html

1 Comment

  1. Shirley said,

    What a wonderful talent and what a tragic life. I’m sure Jerry Lee had a lot of fun times, but he also suffered terribly in his personal life. The religious fanatics that made him doubt the salvation of his soul should burn in hell themselves for doing that to a young boy. His tormented mind wouldn’t allow him to cherish Myra, and he tried to make her feel as bad about herself as he felt about himself. Sadly, he was acting on what he was brainwashed into believing about women! How sad for both of them. The tragic loss of his brother as a child, then the loss of two sons would make a weaker person lose sanity. It is a tribute to him that he has gone on and refuses to give up.

    As to his marrying Myra, it was common in the rural south to marry young in those days. Loretta Lynn married at thirteen and wasn’t castigated as a horrible person! Elvis was dishonest for sleeping with a fourteen year old Priscilla, but carefully not marrying her until she was eighteen–to avoid Jerry’s fate. At least, like Jerry said, he “plumb married the girl! ” I’ve often wondered if Elvis’s management team helped stir the pot on Jerry’s bad press just to prevent him from surpassing Elvis. Just a “conspiracy theory”, I know, but stranger things have happened. So much jealousy in show business!

    Anyway, I have been a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis all my life, and still wish him the best. Making mistakes is human, and sometimes we are victims of our upbringing, no matter how well meant that upbringing was. I’m sorry he has suffered so. I believe in a merciful and loving God–I’m a Lutheran–and I have no doubt that Jerry Lee Lewis will play for all of us someday and the Lord will smile. You’ll go to Heaven, Jerry. Trust me. You are already saved.

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