“There is more of the Devil and of salvation — of the power of the eternal idea of those forces — implicit in that kicking than in all their crying unto heaven combined. And in this age of safe sex and rock ‘n roll, the fire in that power seems hotter than ever before.” — Nick Tosches on a Jerry Lee Lewis box set
It’s his birthday today. He was – until he died last year – The Last Man Standing (one of Jerry Lee Lewis’ final album titles) from the first mass-produced rock ‘n roll generation. His death really rocked me. The final thread … first Little Richard, then Jerry Lee … the world suddenly seemed so much less interesting, vital.
To answer your question, Jerry Lee:
Nobody’s gonna play that ol’ piano after you’re gone.
There are so many great clips of Jerry Lee Lewis in his heyday, or even recently, and there are a few black-and-white clips of him performing making it clear how radical and out-there and frightening he really was. He made Elvis look tame.
Here he is in 1957, his first appearance on the Steve Allen Show, which was also his introduction to the national public.
Just one year before, Steve Allen put Elvis in a tuxedo for Elvis’ first appearance on the show, and made him sing “Hound Dog” to an actual – terrified – hound dog. This “skit” completely misses the point of the whole song, of course, and was an attempt to make Elvis palatable to middle America, as well as having a laugh at Elvis’ expense: “Tee hee, look at the hillbilly in a tux.” Allen tried his best to neuter Elvis. But that was 1956. Just one year later, Elvis’ impact opened the door for what was to come. 1957 was a whole different story.
Steve Allen succumbed to the inevitable. He lets Jerry Lee Lewis do his thing. He doesn’t make Jerry Lee Lewis sing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” while making him, say, stagger around the stage with bottles and plates falling off of a fake set. He just introduces him, and gets out of the way. Good thing too.
Jerry Lee Lewis’ performance here is one of the most explosive things to ever happen on national television (the Beatles’ appearance on the Ed Sullivan Show doesn’t even come close.) When he kicks the chair out of the way to stand up, you think he’s going to jump through the screen right at you. (Steve Allen tossed the chair back out onstage.)
“It was that belief in the sinfulness of his own music, the sinfulness of himself, that set the music aflame with the frenzy of wickedness and the blackness of doom. Like his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart, he was a man for whom life had no meaning without the torments of hell.” — Nick Tosches
Here’s another clip, a live TV performance on UK television from 1964 – this was during Jerry Lee’s wilderness years, when he couldn’t get a job in America. It shows Jerry Lee Lewis surrounded by kids – kids he has put into a frenzied trance – their hands reach out to touch him, they need to touch him … is he real? Can I have some of whatever it is he has? The magic of him? He takes them on a journey: he is in total command of the situation. Watch how they explode – and then subside – and explode again – depending on the cues he gives them.
What we’re seeing there is not a concert. It is a pagan ritual.
But the clip below, of a duet with Tom Jones in 1969, singing a rock ‘n’ roll medley, is one of my all-time favorites. It satisfies on multiple levels: their communication, their joy in performing, their support of one another’s awesomeness without ceding their own power.
This is good old-fashioned entertainment. Entertainers willing to just BE in front of us. Simply BE. They are full enough to handle it, full enough with fantastic talent and presence to be more than enough, just as they are.
It’s hard to do what they’re doing here. If it were easy, more people would do it. You have to know what it is to be a performer. You have to have come up in a world where you can ONLY rely on your talent. You have to have started out playing in barns and church picnics and county fairs in the middle of the day with a lot of other shit going on all around you, cows walking by, ferris wheels in the background, whatever, etc. No sounds and lights to cue the crowd that it’s time to listen to you. You had to MAKE them listen.
What we see here is the result of years of performing in front of live audiences. Years of experience. They know who they are. They know why they are there. They need us, but they need each other more. That’s confidence.
And so we in the audience get to relax. They are not demanding our attention by giving us something over-produced and in-your-face, a spectacle meant to “wow” us. They don’t need any of that.
They rely on each other, and themselves, and the joy of the music they are singing.
I don’t need to worry about them. They’ve got this.
With all of his albums, there’s very little that’s cursory, phony, or lazy. I am not sure if I have all of it, but I have most of it, and none of it gets old, or becomes less fresh with repeat listening. It doesn’t feel like a throwback, you don’t have to adjust your context to get into the music. It still leaps out at you from the speakers, claws bared. There were many different phases. The first reckoning, with the merging of boogie-woogie, country and rhythm and blues – ignited by his piano playing which is out of this world. Sam Phillips always said that of all the Sun Records artists, including Elvis, the two most brilliant on the roster – brilliant to an otherworldly degree – were Howlin’ Wolf and Jerry Lee Lewis. Elvis himself said he would trade his singing voice if he could play the piano like Jerry Lee Lewis did.
Then of course came Jerry Lee Lewis’ extremely rapid fall from grace, the result of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. He was on tour in England when the news broke, causing a firestorm of controversy, and he basically had to flee the country. When he returned to America his career was over. Untouchable. (This was one of the benefits of a Colonel Parker-type figure. Colonel Parker had many flaws but he knew how to control the press, how to manage publicity. The tight rein he held over Elvis was constricting to Elvis but it protected him. Jerry Lee Lewis had no such protection.) Then came a lengthy period for Jerry Lee Lewis out in the wilderness. He continued to tour, in smaller venues, and mostly in Europe. Eventually, Jerry Lee Lewis started going back to his country roots, coming out with a series of country music albums catapulting him to the top of the country charts. And the notoriously socially conservative Nashville embraced him (perhaps reluctantly, but numbers don’t lie: JLL’s sales spoke volumes). It was an unbelievable and unforeseen resurrection of a demonized figure. And since then he became an institution. Amazingly, his work was never compromised throughout. You can always hear HIM, and always feel the Jerry Lee Lewis fingerprint.
During his time in the wilderness, he played a show at the Star Club in Hamburg. It was 1964. It’s a miracle, but the show was recorded – and the sound quality is out of this WORLD. Clear as a bell. The Star Club became legendary because it was there that the Beatles really cut their teeth and got a taste of the worldwide frenzy that was to come. They played three gigs at the Star Club over the course of 1962, and the crowds went apeshit. Those shows were recorded, too. The club had a good set-up for recording, placing the microphones close to the instruments – so it almost feels like a studio recording – but the club was small enough that the crowds come across on recordings as a visceral entity, you feel like you’re in the room. So, two years after the Beatles shows, Jerry Lee Lewis – a relic himself – after the initial promise of the 1950s – played a gig there. The whole thing was recorded, and an album was put out but it was only available in Europe. For decades.
I am not alone in saying this: Jerry Lee Lewis: Live at the Star Club is one of the greatest live albums ever made. Rolling Stone wrote:
Live At The Star Club, Hamburg is not an album, it’s a crime scene.
He is there to MURDER the crowd. And he does. And they love it. There’s a moment during the album when the crowd starts to chant, “JER-RY. JER-RY. JER-RY. JER-RY.” It’s so ferocious and insistent it sounds like a battle cry, a political rally, some frightening display of love and adoration ready to trample anything in its way. And Jerry Lee Lewis? He blasts the ROOF off that joint. If you have not heard the album, not sure what you’re waiting for.
Any list of “great concert films” that doesn’t include Live at the Star Club is not a serious list.
Here’s the opener of the show, “Mean Woman Blues”:
A couple years ago, I went to the Play It Loud exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum, an exhibit showing the instruments of rock ‘n roll legends. At the entrance to the exhibit was Jerry Lee Lewis’ gold-painted piano, straight from his home.
AND LASTLY: my post about the brief moment when Jerry Lee Lewis played Iago in a rock ‘n roll adaptation of Othello, and yes, there’s audio from one of the rehearsals. It’s astonishing.
“That boy, that fourteen-year-old boy up there, sat there, rocking, howling a song that was about nothing but getting drunk and fucking up, and all the people there started howling along with him, loving it. For that boy, that fourteen-year-old boy up there, was making the sort of music that most folks had only heard in conjunction with the Holy Ghost, but the boy wasn’t singing about any Holy Ghost. He was singing something he had taken from the blacks, from the juke-joint blacks, but he had changed what he had taken, not so much the way someone might paint a stolen pickup to hide his theft, but rather the way that Uncle Lee had changed those cattle into horses: changed it by pure, unholy audacity. And he had changed it into something that shook those whitefolk, something that would hae shaken Leroy Lewis and Old Man Lewis before him. And he was doing it, that boy was not old enough to shave, right out in the open, in broad daylight. And as he was doing it, Lloyd Paul was running among the crowd with a felt hat in his hand, and people were putting coins into the hat. When Jerry Lee quit playing, Lloyd Paul gave him what was in his hat – almost thirteen dollars. Jerry Lee and Elmo lugged that great jangling mass of copper and silver home in a sack and poured it on the table before Marnie, and they grinned and laughed through their noses like highway thieves as they beheld it: hosanna.” — Nick Tosches, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story