How sweet the sound? Yeah, right. Jerry Lee Lewis howls at God.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ ferocious wailing version of “Amazing Grace” is hard to find – off an obscure album recorded in a Memphis church in 1970, following his religious conversion. I tripped over his “Amazing Grace” one day on YouTube – I had never heard it before. It stunned me. I couldn’t MOVE listening to it. I couldn’t find reference to it anywhere else, it wasn’t available for purchase on iTunes, and so – a desperate woman – I downloaded it from YouTube, and then uploaded to my iTunes because I needed to HAVE this thing, whatever IT was, I had never heard ANYTHING like it.

Then it vanished from YouTube and I was very glad I stole it. I so wanted to link to it today and in a discussion with Cal (see post below) he tracked it down for me, after much Google searching. He knew instantly what I was talking about.) He found it, on Daily Motion. And so I post it for you now after the jump (the video loads automatically so I didn’t want it to be blasting over my main page indiscriminately).

His performance is hair-raising in many ways. I may be alone in feeling that way. He is filled with faith but above all you can hear – no, you can FEEL – that this man has been THROUGH. IT. He has been to the depths. He is now emerging, and he feels the light. He is not graceful or gentle or even humble about his journey, where he has gone to and where he is now. He cannot hide anything. He is in the light now but he is still dangerous. There’s something tentative about all of it, like … he can’t even believe in grace, maybe because it can’t last? Or he’s not worthy? Or he knows that … he will descend again? (I know Nick Tosches’ version of JLL has definitely influenced me.)

At any rate: below the jump: more thoughts on this absolutely extraordinary once-in-a-lifetime performance:



“Amazing Grace” is usually sung in either a gentle way, like a hymn, or a rousing joyful way – pure church. Mostly, it’s slow and holy, with beautiful harmonies (that’s how Elvis did it). NONE of that is present in Jerry Lee’s version. In his version, I hear anger in his voice, and belief, but also fear, fear which he roars against because it is intolerable. In HIS performance, you know this man has had NO experience of grace, “grace” is supposedly “amazing” but he has been denied the experience of it. Grace was promised, but he’s never felt it before, and maybe he knows he doesn’t deserve to feel it, but it’s all been devastating to him nonetheless. He’s repented, he’s repented from the depths of him … WHERE’S THAT AMAZING GRACE, LORD? By the end he is literally hollering, SHOUTING the words. Goosebumps break out everywhere hearing this man howl like that.

The thing about Jerry Lee is: he was always sincere. No bullshit. No pretense. It’s why he was so difficult and why he could be scary. Even his scandals were sincere. You can hear it in the music, you can see it in the performances, sincerity like that cannot be manufactured. He was a hollering Holy Roller, and his gospel stuff is, in general, great, but in “Amazing Grace” you can HEAR that he knows he’s sinned, and he’s sinned badly, and he will have to pay for that sin. In the face of his fear of the final judgment (fear which you can hear in his voice), he makes his last stand, shouting at God to bless him, to bring him some grace. Add to that his religious awakening, a sense that he has been saved from the darkness, led out into the light …

With all of this experience, you’re not going to sing “Amazing Grace” in a calm, holy, grateful way. You are going to howl up to God.

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2 Responses to How sweet the sound? Yeah, right. Jerry Lee Lewis howls at God.

  1. Joseph Clark says:

    I am very conflicted. Maybe I too have the right string but the wrong yo-yo?

    The easy point made first: I always loved Elvis’ bluesy Amazing Grace rendition (the one that didn’t make the He Touched Me LP).

    But the other point…I never knew what to make of Jerry Lee except to keep away. Of course I like Whole Lotta Shakin’ and Great Balls of Fire, Breathless etc etc.
    But I’ve always kept him at a distance in a way I never did with Johnny Cash or Roy Orbison. The kid inside me said “Jerry’s not a nice man” so I refused to warm up to him. Like an Uncle you want to spend time with but always smelled the liquor on his breath when you had a conversation. That’s how I felt about Jerry Lee.

    My dad died in 2015. Among his possessions was a CD of Jerry Lee Lewis. I popped it into my car and the first song I played was “Over The Rainbow”. It made me veer into oncoming traffic. Still packs an emotional wallop. I started to let him in a little closer after that.

    Elvis takes me and my conversations into unexpected directions. It’s impossible to avoid. I’ve gotten better. But I was galvanized by Presley at a very young age; his death was very traumatic in my household. Maybe it was because I saw Lewis as Elvis’ rival. But whatever the jumbled syntax in my head is trying to convey, I love and appreciate every praise you give to Jerry Lee. I thank God for Sun Studios and Lewis is a big part of that. I’m working my way into his catalogue.

    • sheila says:

      // I always loved Elvis’ bluesy Amazing Grace rendition //

      Sure, I do too. I love lots of versions. But Jerry Lee’s hits different.

      // The kid inside me said “Jerry’s not a nice man” so I refused to warm up to him. //

      I mean, he definitely was not a nice man! Those things don’t matter to me at all but I understand how they are a factor for others.

      // and the first song I played was “Over The Rainbow”. It made me veer into oncoming traffic. //

      Ahhhhh!! I know!!

      I suppose for me it doesn’t matter that he was Elvis’ rival – I love Elvis but I love lots of others too. And he and JLL were so different! Elvis could “play the game” – JLL couldn’t. EP might have paid a price for how well he could play the game – and JLL paid a price for how much he COULDN’T play the game. Jerry Lee also did not have a controlling manager – and you can really tell. JLL was not shielded from the hellfire of judgment raining down on him.

      The great thing about JLL’s catalog is that it is vast. I am STILL discovering gems – like his gospel stuff, much of which is pretty hard to find. There were recent rumors that he might have a new album coming out – obviously delusional hopes from fans – the man was practically bed-ridden. I have hopes that in the wake of his death we might get a nice box set of all his gospel tracks, plus out-takes and rehearsals. This stuff should be widely available!

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