A friend tells me there are moments when he’s all but convinced that Jerry Lee Lewis is the greatest country singer of them all. To champions of Connie Smith, say, or of Merle and George, or of Marty, Hank and Lefty, such a conclusion probably sounds a little goofy. Then again, the odds that people don’t know much about Lewis’ second-chance career on the country charts are pretty high: Jerry Lee’s albums from the ’60s and ’70s have been mostly out of print, at least in the U.S., for decades.
That’s why the current reissuing of Lewis’ Smash and Mercury albums by British label BGO is such a revelation (the label just completed a two-fer line of Haggard’s 1970s Capitol albums as well). The best country singer title will naturally vacillate a good deal, depending upon which singer you’re listening to at the moment. But a fresh listen to these too-long-forgotten albums confirms that ol’ Jerry Lee always belonged in the running.
He almost didn’t get a chance to prove it. Right before word got out that he’d married his 13-year-old cousin Myra in 1958, Lewis was a Top Ten fixture on the pop, country and even R&B charts. Immediately afterward, everyone who’d figured this particular poor white southerner was just a little too cocky, too enamored of his own curly golden locks, too wild and randy with that piano of his, and, you know, just too trashy all around — not at all like that polite young Presley boy — now had the excuse they needed to ruin him outright. As it turned out, this accounted for a lot of people, or at least a lot of the ones who owned newspapers and magazines, and radio and television stations. As far as his radio career was concerned, it was as if Jerry Lee had gone down in the same plane with Buddy Holly, the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens.
In the years after, Jerry Lee’s singles and albums routinely tanked, but that didn’t mean they weren’t any good. Far from it. Take, for example, Lewis’ fourth Smash LP, his latest in a string of commercial flops, this one called Country Songs For City Folks from 1965. Sure, it has its weak spots: Lewis’ reading of “Ring Of Fire” feels unaccountably flame-retardant, and his “North To Alaska” isn’t the sort of number that rewards repeat hearings, no matter how game Lewis’ attack (“Mush!”).
But…on a rocking roadhouse version of “Crazy Arms”, on an embittered “Funny How Time Slips Away”, on intensely emotional covers of Porter Wagoner’s “Green, Green Grass Of Home” and George Jones’ “Seasons Of The Heart” (with Jerry Lee on clavichord!), Lewis’ reedy tenor and distinctive phrasing are mesmerizing. The Killer, as he later nicknamed himself, sounds here at once desperately alone and entirely self-sufficient, both tender and malevolent: Is he going to start sobbing on your shoulder or kick in your teeth? His piano work, too, is muscular and brimming with unexpected nuance, galvanizing.
Every bit as strong, and just as commercially unsuccessful, 1966′s Memphis Beat (the two-fer disc partner of Country Songs) leans a tad more to the rock ‘n’ roll side in tempo and material. Lewis steals both “Hallelujah, I Love Her So” and “Sticks And Stones” from Ray Charles, leaving us glad to have aided and abetted the theft, and he slow-grinds us through a single-entendre dance number called “The Urge”. On the country cover front, Jerry Lee’s highway-speed take on “Just Because” just might be the best version of that standard ever put to vinyl; it’s certainly the most taunting and pissed off.
Thing is, though, as remarkable a rock ‘n’ roller as Jerry Lee Lewis is, he’s an even better saloon singer. “Another Place, Another Time”, the 1968 country hit that returned his star to the heavens, revealed Lewis to be an incomparable stylist and balladeer. A left-handed piano intro and tinkling, rolling flourishes; a delivery that was cocky as all hell even through tears; a dramatic opening line — in this case, “One by one, they’re turning out the lights” — these became the elements of Jerry Lee’s country style.
After the new single started selling, Lewis and producer Jerry Kennedy raced back into the studio to cut an album that turned out to be a masterpiece. Another Place, Another Time is every bit as great as anything Haggard or Cash, or the Stones or the Beatles, or whoever else you care to pick, produced during the same period. Besides the title track and its even bigger follow-up single — that ode to the pleasures and pains of Schlitz, “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” — the album included a “Walking The Floor Over You” that seems to shout “Walk, hell!” and then races about like a madman. The album also includes the original version of “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” (co-written by the late Ben Peters), as well as gut-wrenching and risky versions of “Break My Mind” and “I’m A Lonesome Fugitive”.
The album Kennedy and Lewis put together as encore, 1969′s She Still Comes Around, is barely a shade below this high-water mark. The same is true of Lewis’ two other albums from ’69. Collections of the songs you’d expect from Hank Williams, Don Gibson, Harlan Howard, Leon Payne, and so on, Jerry Lee Lewis Sings The Country Music Hall Of Fame Hits, Vol. 1 & 2 were clearly designed to cash in on the Killer’s sudden country cache, but they are not sell-outs. First, covering country classics is where Lewis came in; two of his earliest Sun singles were “Crazy Arms” and “You Win Again”. Second, the Country Music Hall Of Fame sets include some of the quietest, most intimate, most graceful and accomplished music Lewis ever made. (BGO released these on one disc in 2002.)
Lewis was a huge country star throughout most of the 1970s, but he never forgot how to rock — indeed, the difference between a Lewis rock record and a Lewis country record often comes down to tempo, volume, and the presence or absence of a pedal steel guitar, and even then there are no sure bets. The Killer Rocks On, from 1972, is one of Lewis’ rare straight-ahead rock ‘n’ roll efforts from his second stint in the spotlights. It’s one of his better albums, too, giving the A-Team rhythm section of bassist Bob Moore and drummer Buddy Harman a rare chance to floor it on a pair of Joe South covers, a Fats Domino cover, William Bell and Bobby Bland covers, and a version of the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” that became Lewis’ fourth and final country chart-topper after his comeback.
By the time of Boogie Woogie Country Man in 1975, Lewis was no longer hungry, and his indelible style had become his inevitable formula, embellished with lots of references to himself as “the Killer” and entreaties to “think about it, darling,” the closing line of 1972′s “Would You Take Another Chance On Me” which he apparently couldn’t resist shoe-horning into subsequent singles.
But so what? Jerry Lee Lewis is the Killer, after all, and even on Boogie Woogie Country Man, he proves it again, and several times over. That’s especially true on a searing, pleading, desperate, danceable rendition of “Jesus Is On The Mainline” that doubtless made Jimmy Swaggart at once proud and fearful for the fate of his cousin’s soul. Is Lewis’ performance here gospel or country, rhythm & blues or rock ‘n’ roll, heaven bound or gone to hell?
Yes. Yes, it is. And no one does it any better.