Marking Time: Jerry Lee Lewis – A Lifetime in an Hourglass

Emma Connolly

Emma Connolly

Emma lives in England. Ace the dog keeps her feet and heart warm while she writes about music and culture.
Emma Connolly

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Jerry Lee Lewis has been rocking since an era when the verb was either used to describe the motion of a porch chair or, in conjugal relation with its sister verb ‘to roll’ (rocking and rolling) used in down and dirty blues to describe relations that were likely anything BUT conjugal. The vocabulary of Rhythm’n’Blues emerged on recorded music termed ‘Race Records’ in the segregated south. While the daily practicalities of life could be shaped by regulations, however, it seemed that there were some things that just refused to be suppressed or contained. Music is a primal means of communication, and communicate it did, between black and white, hillbilly and urbanite, country and blues, north and south. Something new was fashioned, and we called it Rock and Roll.

There are few touring artists from whom an audience can now receive direct transmissions of the embryonic kicks of Rock and Roll. In 1949 a Tennessee bluesman named Stick McGhee released a song on Atlantic Records which rose to #2 on the Billboard Rhythm’n’Blues chart. That song, called ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’, reached the ears and fingers of a blonde fourteen year-old boy living in the small town of Ferriday, Louisiana. He played the song for a local crowd at the opening of a new car dealership, and they went wild. That day led him to a career – playing piano in the nearby town of Natchez, a place sitting in ante-bellum time, atop a bluff overlooking the Mississippi river, where road and river traffic-men met with raucous results. It was there that Jerry Lee learned another song with deep roots; “I mostly sang up-tempo songs. ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’, ‘Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’ – the fast songs they liked best”.

The London Palladium, exteriorSunday, September 6th, 2015, London, England: Jerry Lee Lewis’ 80th Birthday Tour. He walks deliberately across the stage at the London Palladium. He sits down at the piano, right leg angled out, the way he has been sitting at pianos for six decades. His hair, now silver, shimmers in the spotlight, halo-like. He nods to his bandleader Kenny Lovelace, smiles slightly, and launches into song. Stick McGhee’s jump blues song still gets them going. The crowd rises as one and surges forwards.  

It wasn’t long before gigs at the Wagon Wheel in Natchez and other local spots became insufficient for Jerry Lee, who had his sights set on the big time. Shortly after his twenty first birthday in 1956, he focused his gaze up-river, on a small record label in Memphis Tennessee, where the newly famous Elvis Presley had started his recording career. At Sun Record Company, Jerry Lee joined a roster which included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Between them, they would lay the foundation stones for much of what is now music history. Without those individuals, the Beatles, the Stones and a host of other legendary artists would not have existed as they do.

09/06/2015, London: Ringo Starr and his wife, Barbara Bach, are in the audience with Olivia Harrison, George Harrison’s widow. May Pang, former girlfriend of John Lennon, is backstage. She recalls how John knelt down and kissed Jerry Lee’s feet when they met in the 1970s. Albert Lee watches from the wings with James Burton.

The musicians at Sun Records played on each other’s sessions, recorded each other’s songs and toured together. It was at the end of a Carl Perkins session during which Jerry Lee had been playing piano that Elvis and Johnny Cash joined the others in the studio and the legendary banter and ad-hoc songs of the Million Dollar Quartet were preserved on tape by a canny Sam Phillips. In 1956, Roy Orbison released his first single, ‘Ooby Dooby’. The B-side was ‘Go Go Go (Down the Line)’. Jerry Lee covered ‘Down the Line’, wrenching something far more vitriolic from the lyrics and driving beat. It was released in 1958, a few months before he was due to tour England for the first time.

09/06/2015, London: Jerry Lee pauses. He looks out at his audience. “I messed up when I first came to London.” He laughs wryly and returns to the keyboard.  The vowels of Roy Orbison’s lyrics stretch into contemptuous snarls: “Well you can’t be my lovin’ baby, you ain’t got the style.”  Time moves forward, backwards, shifting beneath his fingertips.

Jerry Lee Lewis, The Palladium

The story is well known: a marriage that was tabloid fodder, fuel on the fire of burning outrage and grist to the mill of those who would hasten the demise of the new music that was causing unspeakable occurrences in the minds and bedrooms of teenagers across the Western world. For a while, it seemed that the music had indeed died. The decision to bring his young bride to England meant Jerry Lee was in disgrace. Elvis was in the Army. Little Richard had renounced secular music. Chuck Berry was in prison. The seminal disc jockey Alan Freed had been convicted in the ‘Payola’ scandal – taking money in return for airplay. Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper had all perished in a single plane crash. Fallow years followed for Jerry Lee, but he never deviated from his course; making music and performing all over the world, no matter how small the venue. Asked about his favorite producer, Jerry Lee says “My most favorite was Jerry Kennedy. He produced all of my Jerry Lee Lewis country songs.” In the late 1960s, a tide began to turn for Jerry Lee. He had parted ways with Sun and signed with Smash/Mercury. In 1968 Jerry Kennedy, a fellow Louisianan, session musician and producer, took over the running of the label. He recorded Jerry Lee with strong songs (penned by songwriters such as Kris Kristofferson and Merle Haggard as well as covers of older artists such as Jimmie Rodgers) and a strong Country sound. Hit after Country hit followed.

09/06/2015, London: Jerry Lee slows the pace with ‘She Even Woke Me Up (to say Goodbye)’, the title track of a 1970 Country album. He luxuriates in Mickey Newbury’s lyrics, which naturally lend themselves to the rolling piano flourishes that trademark his version of Country music.

palladium01 For Jerry Lee, as with so many others since, commercial success seemed to go hand-in-hand with an unsuccessful personal life. Death and addiction were the increasingly dominant themes of the 1970s and early 80s. A son and two wives were lost. Cars were wrecked, fights were had, guns were discharged. His body failed him. In 1981 he was rushed to hospital with a ruptured stomach. Obituaries were dusted down and updated, but after three months he emerged, pale and gaunt but most certainly alive. He immediately resumed touring. Jerry Lee lived on somehow, enduring through the carnage, and where those around him fell by the wayside others took their place, a parade of faces in the audience, in his band, in his bed.

09/06/2015, London: The unmistakable introduction to ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’ echoes down through the decades, from Jerry Lee’s Wagon Wheel days in Natchez and the heady days at Sun when it seemed that the whole world was his for the taking. The audience believes they are about to barrel headlong into ‘Great Balls of Fire’, but Jerry Lee knows better. There are a scattering of notes, which resolve into chords: “Somewhere, over the rainbow, way up high…”

Jerry Lee’s 1980 recording provided the counterpoint to Judy Garland’s youthful song of hope and belief, laying bare the lyrical confection yet maintaining a devastating shred of innocent yearning. When asked about gospel music, Jerry Lee says, “I hardly perform gospel at my live shows any more but you never know. I love ‘The Old Rugged Cross’. I also love ‘Life’s Railway to Heaven’.” In ‘Rainbow’, he finds a place to communicate experience, fear and belief in a way that is more powerful than any conventional gospel song. It should be ridiculous, but it is transcendent, epitomizing the contradictions that lie at the very heart of Rock and Roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis sings Great Balls of Fire

09/06/2015, London: It is time. Four staccato chords. The song which is his more than any other. The Ferriday Fireball holds court. History and the present meet within this song which he has performed night after night for so many years. As he takes his hands from the keys a birthday cake is brought onstage. He is surrounded by famous fans, his family, his band, his audience. Jerry Lee Lewis is on stage, where he is everything he has ever been, and where all that has passed is present. This is his moment.

The staff of The Chronopages would like to extend our heartfelt appreciation to Mr. Jerry Lee Lewis and his wife, Mrs. Judith Coghlan Lewis, for their support, time and dedication, without which this article would not have been possible. Thank you both and Happy 80th Birthday Jerry Lee!