Jerry Lee Lewis: Listen to 10 songs from a Rock ’n’ Roll pioneer
By Erik Piepenburg
He never mellowed.
Jerry Lee Lewis, who died late last week, was an unrepentant pioneer of rock ’n’ roll: a white Southerner who steeped himself in Black music, a two-fisted boogie-woogie piano player, a blues growler, a country yodeler, a devout gospel singer and a performer who might slam his foot onto the keyboard or set his piano on fire. His personal life was turbulent, marked by barnstorming, excess, addiction and divorce. And his music, even when he was making it within the Nashville country establishment in the 1960s and 1970s, chafed at confinement. His piano erupted with tremolos and glissandos; his voice leaped, curled, soared and whooped.
His most indelible songs were the early bombshells he recorded for Sun Records in the 1950s: music that reflected and melded the church music he grew up on, the country music he heard on Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and the blues and the rhythm and blues he soaked up by sneaking into Haney’s Big House. He didn’t write many songs, but once he made his name, songwriters geared material to him. And once he chose to perform something, he showed it little respect and no mercy.
Here are 10 memorable Jerry Lee Lewis songs from a recording career that spanned nearly 60 years:
“Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1957)
Brash ambition defines Lewis’ first hit, with its pounding boogie-woogie beat, its cocky dance instructions — “All you gotta do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot and wiggle around just a little bit” — and its sudden, volcanic piano solo.
“Great Balls of Fire” (1957)
The definitive Jerry Lee Lewis song, written by Otis Blackwell, is a two-minute lesson in bedrock virtuosity and rowdy freedom. Lewis’ left hand nails down the beat while his right flings syncopated chords against it or sweeps down in sudden glissandos. His voice is unbound by anything his fingers are doing; it quavers, rattles off quick syllables and trampolines into falsetto. When he sings, “Kiss me baby — mmm, feels good!,” it’s pure self-satisfied bravado.
“High School Confidential” (Live, 1964)
Recording at the Star-Club in Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles had woodshedded, Lewis’ youthful energy was stoked by a screaming, whistling crowd. It sounds like he’s willing to smash every note on the keyboard, and the song starts fast and only accelerates from there.
“She Was My Baby (He Was My Friend)” (1964)
Lewis’ Louisiana roots are unmistakable in this swaggering bit of New Orleans-style R&B, complete with horn section and showy right-hand filigree. Lewis seems more amused than forlorn as he sings about a stolen girlfriend and — adding insult to injury — a stolen car.
“Another Place Another Time” (1968)
By the late 1960s, Lewis was being marketed as a country performer, and he proved his honky-tonk bona fides with songs like “Another Place Another Time.” The tight quaver in his voice and his frayed tone as he sings about “sleepless nights” are classic country, but the way he stretches some words and holds back others until the last moment is still his own.
“I Can Still Hear the Music in the Restroom” (1975)
Tom T. Hall wrote this song, talk-sung by a hard-drinking honky-tonk patron who’s driven to tears by a song: “Jerry Lee did all right until the music started,” Lewis sings, dropping his name into the song as he often did. But even as he wallows in heartbreak, he still lets loose some yodels and splashy piano in the chorus.
“That Kind of Fool” (1975)
In a country song tailored to Lewis’ wild-man reputation, he sings about a faithful, temperate life. “Old Jerry Lee should have been that kind of fool,” he yodels, after explaining that he’s incorrigible; years later, he’d sing it with Keith Richards.
“Who Will the Next Fool Be” (1979)
Written by Charlie Rich, “Who Will the Next Fool Be” had been widely covered by soul singers before Lewis recorded it on his self-titled 1979 album, with a studio band that included Elvis Presley’s guitar mainstay, James Burton. Lewis sings to bring out the resentful streak behind the bluesiness of the song; after spotlighting band members, he takes an assertive piano solo, then whistles nonchalantly through the outro.
“Over the Rainbow” (1980)
Lewis turned a standard from “The Wizard of Oz” into a country waltz, using the scratchiness in his road-worn voice to make that rainbow seem very distant. But with a string section playing it straight, his piano was still irrepressible, strolling casually behind the beat and cascading through his solos.
“Rock and Roll” featuring Jimmy Page (2006)
On “Last Man Standing,” his triumphant, million-selling 2006 album of all-star duets, Lewis carries Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” back to Louisiana with ad-libbed lyrics as well as his piano style. He trades licks with Jimmy Page himself, easily holding his own. “I’m not quite as young as I used to be,” Lewis said when I interviewed him in 2006. “But I can still play pretty good.”