Graham Reid | | 3 min read
Given the amount of death and damnation which has attended Jerry Lee Lewis' life, it seems remarkable that in 2012 -- at age 76 -- he is still with us. He has seen off wives, children, cousins, friends, the FBI, prison sentences, more liquor and amphetamines than we can imagine, honkytonk nights, rivals like Elvis . . .
And he's still here.
At one time Jerry Lee could have been the biggest rock'n'roll star of his generation, Elvis excepted.
In the late Fifties with Chuck Berry in jail and Little Richard back in the arms of the church, the carpet was rolled out for Jerry Lee to walk on.
Just a pity he took his wife with him in May 1958 when he stepped off the plane in London. When the press in Britain found out the child traveling with him on his first UK tour was not only his cousin but his third wife -- and he had yet to divorce the previous Mrs Lewis -- there were howls of outrage. They told the UK press she was 15 (cue outrage) when she was actually only 13.
Despite his protestations, the tour was cancelled -- after a couple of well received if undersold shows -- and Jerry Lee went back home to lick his wounds, face the same kind of press and hit the bottle. There was an ill-conceived single released by Sun Records to hang tough and make light of the controversy.
The beckoning carpet grew even wider when Elvis went to the army in Germany (and began secretly dating 14-year old Priscilla Beaulieu), then when Buddy Holly, Richie Valens and the Big Bopper were all killed in that plane crash in Fabruary '59. But Jerry Lee was no longer welcome to walk it. Not for a while anyway.
For years there were no more hits -- as Nick Tosches wrote in his superb biography of Lewis "he had once played for thousands of dollars a night, now he played for hundreds" -- and although he had some small successes with the cover of Ray Charles' What Did I Say and Hank Williams' Cold Cold Heart, the great piano-hammering Jerry Lee Lewis was reduced to small clubs, his label Sun was in slow decline and not investing in him and . . .
Then his three year old son Steve Allen drowned in the pool at his home in Memphis while he was in Minneapolis.
In one of the many ironies of his career however, even when he couldn't get a hit record back home in the early Sixties -- and when the Beatles and their like effectively killed any thoughts of a comeback -- he could still pull huge and loyal crowd in, of all places, Britain when he began touring there again.
Although he tried to cancel his first tour back there after the death of his son, the promoter refused him and so, five days after the funeral, Jerry Lee Lewis was back in the country which kicked and abused him four years previous.
In a sense he sang out his demons, went back for another tour a short time later, walked away from Sun when his contract ended, toured Britain again, began appearing more regularly on US television shows like Shindig . . .
And began recording again. But while there was still a smattering of his irrepressible rock'n'roll spirit there was also as much careworn country in his sound now. The rehabilitation of Jerry Lee Lewis (the artists, the wild man remained unchained) had begun and he was a huge draw on the country circuit in the South.
During the mid to late Sixties, he cut a number of albums where the rockn'roll held equal place with country ballads and tear-jerkers, and introduced his younger sister Linda Gail Lewis to audiences.
The double disc Original Classic Albums 1965-1969 (Raven through EMI) brings together five albums from Mercury.
In 58 songs you can hear him cover rock'n'roll standards (Rockin' Pneumonia, Maybelline, Roll Over Beethoven, Johnny B Goode, Big Boss Man) as well as classic country (She Thinks I Still Care) and some songs which went cruelly ignored (Pen and Paper, She Was My Baby) plus a bit of rocked up soul.
And of course some ridiculous songs (Herman the Hermit) which he manfully pours himself into despite them being unworthy vessels.
But then he hits you with something like his original What a Heck of A Mess, and if anyone could sing about watching the former wife remarry it was him.
It is a pity this collection doesn't go as far as his pivotal Another Place Another Time and yes, some of what is here sounds like he's on remote.
But here was a man at rock bottom (still only in his mid 20s) rebuilding a career, finding a new voice . . . and sometimes still unable to constrain that furious fire that burned within. At those times you can hear why he was the self-style "KIller".