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A Half Century Of Hits

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Legends of American Music
A Half Century of Hits

Time – Life

Reissue Producer: Colin Escott

Executive Producer: Mike Jason
Mastering Engineer: Scott Shuman
Director, Project Management: Francesca Chalukoff

Senior Creative Project Manager: Susan Winslow
Design: Smay Vision
Editorial Research: Olivia Kim
Special Thanks: Shelby S. Singleton, John Singleton, Michael Ha, Christine Jelloian, Kate Dear, Craig DeGraff

Special thanks also to Jerry Lee Lewis and Phoebe Lewis, without whom this package would not be possible and to Beth Cocke, Esq., Michael Blitzer of Brasstacks Alliance, Cecil Harrelson, and Jim Isbell

Thanks to Alan Stoker at the Country Music Hall of Fame Media Center

Front cover montage; booklet covers: page 20-21, 22-23, 26, 27, 31; And More Bears
Page 4, 7, 10-11, 13, 14, 15, 21: Colin Escott
Page 5, 6, 24, 25, 28-19, 32: The Jerry Lee Lewis Collection
Page 8, 12-13, 18: Michael Ochs Archives
Page 9, 39 © 2006, Beth Cocke/Pont Neuf
Page 12, 16, 17, 18-19, 30: Showtime Archives, Toronto


Jerry Lee Lewis quotations from Killer! by Jerry Lee Lewis and Charles White,
Great Balls of Fire by Myra Lewis and Murray Silver,
Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story by Nick Tosches,
Rockin’ My Life Away by Jimmy Guterman
And On the Record by Joe Smith.

Sam Phillips interviewed by Martin Hawkins and Colin Escott,
Jack Clement interviewed by Colin Escott and BBC Radio 2.
Jerry Kennedy interviewed by Colin Escott, Cat Morgan and Kira Florita.

Myra Lewis and Tom Jones interviewed on BBC Radio 2.
Charlie Fach and Shelby Singleton interviewed by Colin Escott.
Quotations and Information also derive from The Devil, Me, and Jerry Lee by Linda Gail Lewis and Rough Mix by Jimmy Bowen.

Disc 1: Sun® and the Sun Records Logo® are registered trademarks in the United States and elsewhere and are used under license from Sun Entertainment Corporation (P) 2006 Sun Entertainment Corporation.
Disc 2: (P) Universal Music Enterprises, a Division of UMG Recordings Inc., Santa Monica, CA 90404. Manufactured for Time Life by Universal Music Enterprises.
Disc 3: (P) 2006 Rhino Special Projects
Produced and Manufactured for Time Life By Rhino Special Products, A Warner Music Group Company

(P) 2006 Direct Holdings Americas Inc. All rights reserved. Unauthorized duplication is a violation of applicable laws. Printed in U.S.A. TIME LIFE and the TIME LIFE logo are registered trademarks of Time Warner Inc., or an affiliated company. Used under license by Direct Holdings Americas Inc., which is not affiliated with Time Inc., or Time Warner Inc. M19232 R0005951-02 OPCD-7863


Disc One, Shakin’:
*Indicates highest Billboard chart position

1. Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On

(D. Williams, S. David)
Sun 267
No. 3 (pop), No. 1 (Country)*, No. 1 (R&B)* 1957
Sun Studio, Memphis 1957

2. It’ll Be Me
(J. Clemen)
Sun 267
Sun Studio, 1957

3. Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
(Trad. Arr. J.L. Lewis)
Sun LP 121
Sun Studio, 1957

4. You Win Again
(H. Williams)
Sun 281
No. 95 (pop)*, No. 4 (Country)* 1958
Sun Studio, 1957, Overdubbed with Vocal group October 1957

5. End Of The Road
(J.L. Lewis)
Sun 259
Sun Studio, November, 1956

6. I’m Feelin’ Sorry
(J. Clement)
Sun EP 107
Sun Studio, September 10, 1957

7. Great Balls of Fire
(O. Blackwell, J. Hammer)
Sun 288
No. 2 (pop)*, No. 1 (Country)*, No. 3 (R&B)* 1958
Sun Studio, October 6-8, 1957

9. Lewis Boogie
(J.L. Lewis)
Sun 301
Sun Studio, 1957

9. It All Depends (Who Will Buy The Wine)
(B. Mize)
Sun LP 1230
Sun Studio, 1957, Overdubbed with vocal group April 4 or 8, 1958

10. Breathless
(O. Blackwell)
Sun 288
No. 7 (pop)*, No. 4 (Country)*, No. 3 (R&B)* 1958
Sun Studio, January 21, 1958

11. Down The Line
(R. Orbison, S. Phillips)
Sun 288
Sun Studio, January 16-18, 1958

12. High School Confidential
(R. Hargrave, J.L. Lewis)
Sun 296
No. 21 (pop)*, No. 9 (Country)*, No. 5 (R&B)*
Sun Studios, April 21, 1958

13. Big Leg Woman
(Trad. Arr. J.L. Lewis)
Sun LP 107
Sun Studio, March 1958

14. Real Wild Child (Wild One)

(J. O’Keefe, J. Greenan, D. Owens)
Phillips (UK) LP 6467 029
Sun Studio, April 21, 1958

15. Let’s Talk About It
(O. Blackwell)
Sun 324
Sun Studio, March 22, 1959
Overdubbed with vocal group June or July 1959

16. Little Queenie
(C. Berry)
Sun 330
Sun Studio, May 28, 1959

17. Bonnie B.
(C. Underwood)
Sun 371
Sun Studio, January 21 – 25, 1960

18. Night Train To Memphis
(O. Bradley, M. Hughes, B. Smith)
Sun LP 114
Sun Studio, June 25 – 26, 1959

19. What’d I Say
(R. Charles)
Sun 336
No. 30 (pop)*, No. 27 (Country)*, No. 26 (R&B)* 1961
Sam C. Phillips Recording Studio, Nashville, February 9, 1961

20. Invitation To Your Party
(W. Taylor)
Sun 1101
No. 6 (Country)* 1969
Sun Studios, August 28, 1963

21. One Minute Past Eternity
(W. Taylor, S. Kesler)
Sun 1107
No. 2 (Country)* 1970
Sun Studio, August 28, 1963

22. I Can’t Seem To Say Goodbye
(D. Robertson)
Sun 1115
No. 7 (Country)* 1970
Sun Studio, August 28, 1963

23. Carry Me Back To Ol’ Virginia
(Trad. Arr. Jerry Lee Lewis)
Sun 396
Sun Studio, August 28, 1963

24. Jerry Lee Lewis and Sam Phillips:
religious discussion
Sun Studio, 1958

All tracks produced by Sam Phillips or Jack Clement
All music licensed from and courtesy of Sun® Entertainment Corporation.

Disc Two, Once More With Feeling

1. Hi Heel Sneakers
(R. Higgenbotham)
Smash 1930
No. 91 (pop)* 1964 Municipal Auditorium, Birmingham, Alabama, July 1, 1964
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

2. I’m On Fire

(B. Feldman, R. Gottehrer, J. Goldstein)
Smash 1886
No. 98 (pop)* 1964
RCA Studio, Nashville, February 14, 1964
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

3. Green, Green Grass of Home

(C. Putman)
Smash 2006
RCA Studio, September 1, 1965
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

4. Memphis Beat

(D. Lee, A. Reynolds, M. Addington)
Smash LP SRS 67079
Sun Studio, July 2, 1966
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

5. Another Place, Another Time

(J. Chesnut)
Smash 2146
No. 97 (pop)*, No. 4 (Country)* 1968
Columbia Studio, Nashville, January 5, 1968
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

6. What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)
(G. Sutton)
Smash 2164
No. 94 (pop)*, No. 2 (Country)* 1968
Columbia Studios, April 16, 1968
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

7. Workin’ Man Blues
(M. Haggard)
Smash LP SRS 67128
Monument Studios, Nashville, October 14, 1969
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

8. She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye
(M. Newbury, D. Gilmore)
Smash 2244
No. 2 (Country)* 1969
Monument Studio, August 4, 1969
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

9. Me and Bobby McGee
(K. Kristofferson, F. Foster)
Mercury 73248
No. 40 (pop)*, No. 1 (Country)* 1972
Mercury Studio, Nashville, August 4, 1971
Courtesy of Mercury Records

10. To Make Love Sweeter For You
(G. Sutton, J. Kennedy)
Smash 2202
No. 1 (Country)* 1969
Columbia Studios, November 12, 1968
Courtesy of Mercury Records

11. There Must Be More To Love Than This

(W. Taylor, L. Thomas)
Mercury 73099
No. 1 (Country)* 1970
Monument Studio, March 10, 1970
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

12. Think About It, Darlin’
(J. Foster, B. Rice)
Mercury 73273
No. 1 (Country)* 1972
Mercury Studio, January 14, 1972
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

13. Chantilly Lace
(J.P. Richardson)
Mercury 73273
No. 43. (pop)*, No. 1 (Country)* 1972
Mercury Studio, January 14, 1972
(P) 1972 Mercury Records

14. Once More With Feeling
(K. Kristofferson, S. Silverstein)
Smash 2257
No. 2 (Country)* 1970
Mercury Studio, November 18, 1969
Courtesy of Island Def Jam Music Group

15. Drinkin’ Wine Spoo-Dee-O-Dee
(S. McGhee, M. Williams)
Mercury 73374
No. 41 (pop)*, No. 20 (Country)* 1973
Advision Studio, London, England, January 11, 1973
(P) 1973 Island Def Jam Music Group

16. Middle Age Crazy
(S. Throckmorton)
Mercury 55011
No. 4 (Country)*, 1978
U.S. Recording Studio, August 4, 1977
Vocal overdubbed September 1, 1977; strings overdubbed September 6, 1977.
(P) The Island Def Jam Music Group

17. Meat Man
(M. Vickery)
Mercury 73462
Trans Maximus Studio, Memphis, September 24 – 26, 1973 (p) 1989 Mercury Records

18. A Damn Good Country Song (alternate vocal)
(D. Fritts)
Bear Family LP 15229
Mercury Studio, June 19, 1975
(P) 1975 The Island Def Jam Music Group

19. That Kind Of Fool
(M. Vickery)
Mercury 73763
Mercury Studio, January 15, 1975
(P) 1989 Mercury Records

20. No Headstone On My Grave
(C. Rich)
Mercury 73402
No. 60 (Country)* 1973
Advision Studio, January 9, 1973
(P) The Island Def Jam Music Group

21. Your Cheatin’ Heart

(H. Williams)
Phillips (Germany) LP 842 945
The Star Club, Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany, April 5, 1964
Courtesy of Mercury Records

22. Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On
(C. Williams, S. David)
Phillips (Germany) LP 842 945
The Star Club, Reeperbahn, Hamburg, Germany, April 5, 1964
Courtesy of Mercury Records

Tracks 1 – 4
Produced by Shelby S. Singleton, Jr.
Tracks 5 – 14, 16, 18 and 19 Produced by Jerry Kennedy
Tracks 15 and 20 Produced by Steve Rowland
Track 17 Produced by Huey P. Meaux
Tracks 21 – 22 Produced by Siegfried Loch

Disc Three, Rockin’ My Life Away

1. Rockin’ My Life Away
(M. Vickery)
Elektra 46030 No. 18 (Country)* 1979
Filmways/Heider Studio, Hollywood, January 4 – 7, 1979
(P) 1979 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

2. Rita May
(B. Dylan, J. Levy)
Elektra 46067
Filmways/Heider Studio, Hollywood, January 4 -7 1979
(P) 1979 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

3. Don’t Let Go

(J. Stone)
Elektra LP 6E 184
Filmways/Heider Studio, Hollywood, January 4 – 7, 1979
(P) 1979 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

4. I Wish I Was Eighteen Again
(S. Throckmorton)
Elektra 46030 No. 18 (Country)* 1979
Filmways/Heider Studio, Hollywood, January 4 – 7, 1979
(P) 1979 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

5. Folsom Prison Blues

(J. Cash)
Elektra 47026
Fireside Theatre, Nashville, 1980
(P) 1980 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

6. Who Will The Next Fool Be

(C. Rich)
Elektra 46067 No. 20 (Country)* 1979
Filmways/Heider Studio, Hollywood, January 4 – 7, 1979
(P) 1979 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

7. Rockin’ Little Angel

(J. Foster, B. Rice)
Elektra LP 6E 184
Filmways/Heider Studio, Hollywood, January 4 – 7, 1979
(P) 1979 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

8. I’d Do It All Again
(J. Foster, B. Rice)
Elektra 69962 No. 52 (Country)* 1982
Fireside Studio, 1980
(P) 1980 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

9. Thirty-Nine and Holding

(J. Foster, B. Rice)
Elektra 47095 No. 4 (Country)* 1981
Fireside Studio, 1980
(P) 1980 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

10. Rockin’ Jerry Lee
(J.L. Lewis)
Elektra 46642
Fireside Studio, 1980
(P) 1980 Warner Bros. Records Inc.

11. Over The Rainbow

(H. Arlen, E.Y. Harburg)
Elektra 47026 No. 10 (Country)* 1980
Fireside Studio, 1980
(P) 1980 Elektra/Asylum Records Inc.

12. Down The Road A Piece
(D. Raye)
Sire CD 61795
Your Place or Mine Studio, Glendale, California
House of Blues, Memphis, Sunset Sound, Los Angeles;
Bluejay Carlisle, MA; or Lewis house, Nesbitt, MS
(p) 1995 Sire Records

13. Miss The Mississippi and You
(W. Halley, E. Schoenberg)
Sire CD 61795
Your Place or Mine Studio, Glendale, California
House of Blues, Memphis, Sunset Sound, Los Angeles;
Bluejay Carlisle, MA; or Lewis house, Nesbitt, MS
(p) 1995 Sire Records

14. Crown Victoria Custom ‘51
(J.L. Lewis, J. Burton, A. Paley, K. Lovelace)
Sire CD 61795
Your Place or Mine Studio, Glendale, California
House of Blues, Memphis, Sunset Sound, Los Angeles;
Bluejay Carlisle, MA; or Lewis house, Nesbitt, MS
(p) 1995 Sire Records

15. It Was The Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)

(A. Paley, J. Paley, N. Claflin, M. Kernan)
Sire CD 61795
Your Place or Mine Studio, Glendale, California
House of Blues, Memphis, Sunset Sound, Los Angeles;
Bluejay Carlisle, MA; or Lewis house, Nesbitt, MS
(p) 1995 Sire Records

16. Good News Travels Fast
(R. Klang)
Previously Unissued
Nashville, December 3, 1981
(P) Jim Isbell Productions and Pont Neuf by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.
Courtesy of Jim Isbell Productions and Pont Neuf, Inc., by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.

17. One Has My Name…The Other Has My Heart
(E. Dean, D. Dean, H. Blair)
Previously Unissued
Nashville, December 3, 1981
(P) Jim Isbell Productions and Pont Neuf by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.
Courtesy of Jim Isbell Productions and Pont Neuf, Inc., by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.

18. Hadacol Boogie
(B. Nettles)
Previously Unissued
Nashville, December 3, 1981
(P) Jim Isbell Productions and Pont Neuf by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.
Courtesy of Jim Isbell Productions and Pont Neuf, Inc., by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.

19. Don’t Stay Away (‘Til Love Grows Cold)

(L. Frizzell, L. Southerland)
Previously Unissued)
J&M Studio, New Orleans, 1952
(P) 2006 Cecil Harrelson by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance
Courtesy of Cecil Harrelson and Pont Neuf by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.

20. New Orleans Boogie
(J.L. Lewis)
Previously Unissued
J&M Studios, 1952
(P) 2006 Cecil Harrelson by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance
Courtesy of Cecil Harrelson and Pont Neuf by arrangement with Brasstacks Alliance.

Tracks 1 – 4 and 6, 7 Produced by Bones Howe
Tracks 5 and 8, 11 Produced by Eddie Kilroy
Tracks 12 – 15 Produced by Andy Paley
Tracks 16 – 18 Produced by Jim Isbell
Tracks 19 – 20 Produced by Cecil Harrelson

CD 3 – Tracks 16 – 20 are previously unissued anywhere

We at Time Life are inaugurating a series of definitive, career-spanning boxed sets, Legends of American Music, featuring artists who truly made a difference. Where to start? During our preliminary discussions we were surpised to disvoer that there has never been a truly definitive Jerry Lee Lewis anthology. This year seemed the right time because it was 50 years that, as Jerry Lee himself told us, he and his father, Elmo, sold 33 dozen eggs and used the money to get from their home in Ferriday, Louisiana, to Sun Records in Memphis. Jerry Lee was discovered at Sun and made some of what are now acknowledged as the all-time greatest rock ‘n’ roll recordings. In 1968 he switched to country music, scoring more than 65 country hits before becoming an elder statesman of both rock and country.

When we began research on this project, we heard rumors that even before signing with Sun Records Jerry Lee had made a private recording. Upon investigating further, we discovered that in 1952 he and his buddy, Cecil Harrelson, had driven from their home in Ferriday to New Orleans, and, wandered around the French Quarter, they had come across a recording studio. They went in, paid to dollars, and Jerry Lee made his first record. It was a “one-off” record; there were no tapes and no safety copies. The engineer handed the fragile disc to Cecil, who, incredibly, has hung onto it all these years. We were able to secure it for this collection, so instead of celebrating 50 years of Jerry Lee’s recording career, we’re happy to celebrate 54!

The beginning of Jerry Lee’s professional recording career came in December 1956, when his first Sun record was released. “That first record meant the world to me,” Jerry Lee told us recently. “It opened life’s door.” But only a crack; the second record, Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On, was the one that introduced most of us to Jerry Lee Lewis. The entire story is here, and we believe that it’s one of the epic careers in American music. Asked if today’s rock and country stars could learn something from his life and music, Jerry Lee said, “Yeah, they need to sit back and take notes.” So take notes, or simply enjoy.


At one time or another Cecil Harrelson has been Lewis's best friend, brother-in-law and manager. For many years, whenever he left his house he would bring along the 1952 disc in a battered briefcase. The disc was a 'one-off' recording in that it was recorded directly to an acetate disc. There were no safety copies and no file copies in the studio. Often, acetates can be played only a few times before the coating flakes off the aluminum disc, but somehow this acetate survived 54 years.

Transferring acetates is an art in itself. Only a handful of studios in the United States can make a successful transfer, and one of them is the Country Music Hall of Fame's media center.

The Hall of Fame's engineer, Alan Stoker, is the son of Jordanaire Gordon Stoker (for many years the Jordanaires backed Elvis, Patsy Cline and many others in Nashville studios). On January 31, 2006, Harrelson drove to Nashville with Lewis's attorney, Beth Cocke, and Harrelson handed over the acetate. Stoker cleaned it, tested it to determine the besty stylus for the groove width, and transferred it to digital media for Time Life. Inevitably, there was some surface noise, but the sound was vibrant and clear, transporting Harrelson back to the J&M Studio in New Orleans in the spring of 1952.

“Jerry Lee Lewis should be given an award for being himself.” – Kris Kristofferson

December 4, 1956

He had given up his place at the piano stool, which probably didn’t sit well with him, and he was staring over Carl Perkins’s shoulder as Elvis Presley chorded the piano. Johnny Cash looked on. Then a photographer snapped Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet. It was late in the afternoon of December 4, 1956. Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t a star yet; his first record had been out just three days and he was there as Perkins’s pianist. But far from being overawed in the presence of three stars, Lewis took the lead whenever he could and later asserted that Elvis had come to Sun especially to meet him. Elvis was coming off a career year and hadn’t in fact returned to Sun to meet Lewis, but he was a fan by the time he left. “That boy can go,’ he told a reporter who had dropped by. “He has a different style and the way he plays piano just gets inside me.” So Elvis was one of the first to know what we all now know.

There was a time when Lewis would have been voted the least likely survivor of the Million Dollar Quartet session, but now he’s the last man standing. These days his voice is careworn and his face betrays the heartbreak and tragedy that have always tempered the success, but his presence remains indomitable. For many years the myth of Jerry Lee Lewis has been inextricably confused with the story, and he seems to like it that way: the miles, the wives, the hits, the pills. It’s the stuff of legend, and if anyone can truly say that he has done it his way, it’s Jerry Lee Lewis. There are but four stylists in music, according to him, and he’ll waste no time telling you who they are: Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson, Hank Williams and himself. God-given talents, all of them. “Other People,” Lewis once said, “they practice and they practice. These fingers of mine, they got brains in ‘em. You don’t tell them what to do; they do it.”

In the 50 years since Lewis’s first record was released he has imprinted himself across the broad sweep of American music. His records never leave unanswered questions. From the first trill to the last imperious note, a Jerry Lee Lewis record can only be a Jerry Lee Lewis record. In all that time he has barely written any songs. “All your great writers, it takes something out of you,” he once said. “It’s not worth it.” But his interpretative skill is such that his records would be no more individualistic if he had written every word and scored every note.


Lewis: “I came into this world naked, feet first and jumpin’. I’ve been jumpin’ ever since. I just am what I am, Jerry Lee Fucked Up Lewis. Anyone who doesn’t like it can kiss my ass. I always done what I wanted to do and been what I wanted to be. I got music in my soul, rhythm in my veins and a lotta thunder in my left hand. I can play music ‘til it drives you insane. I’m the rockin’est muthahumper that’s ever been.”

Lewis’s mother, Mamie, stopped him from listening to records because she didn’t want him sounding like anyone else. Every day Jerry Lee would pound the old Starck upright piano, discovering something that was inalienably his. The Lewises lived in Ferriday, Louisiana, and Jerry Lee was born on September 29, 1935, six months after his cousin Jimmy Swaggart and six months before another cousin, Mickey Gilley. “I got talent, you two got the scrapin’s,” Jerry Lee joked at a family reunion.

Lewis: “My family was poor: We grew up in a shack. We didn’t even have a bathroom. My mother would pick cotton all day. It was real hard work for her, but she was a strong woman – physically and mentally. My daddy was a carpenter; a sharecropper; a bootlegger and a construction worker. We moved home thirteen times one year. My daddy was a fantastic singer and guitar player. We would have family sessions all the time when I was a little boy. Gospel songs. My parents sang in church and I’ve never heard people that sang that good in my life.”

Jerry Lee’s father, Elmo, was in jail for bootlegging when Jerry Lee’s older brother, Elmo Jr., was killed by a hit-and-run driver. Elmo Sr. was brought home in shackles for the funeral. From that point on it seemed as if all of Mamie’s attention was focused on Jerry Lee. Perhaps he would amount to something and deliver them all.

Jerry Lee’s early years revolved around Saturday morning shoot-‘em-ups, Sunday morning church, surreptitious trips to the local black juke joints, and the piano. Always the piano. Mamie went deep into debt to buy the Starck upright. Jerry Lee played it until he literally wore the ivory off the keys. He loved the gentle lilt of old pop songs, the fury of traveling evangelists, the inexpressible sadness of country music, and the boisterous of roadhouse R&B. It came out as rock ‘n’ roll.

In June 1949, Lewis made his first public appearance at the opening of Babin-Paul Motors in Ferriday. He performed a country hit of the day, Bill Monroe’s Hadacol Boogie, and an R&B hit, Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. Both stayed in his memory after that, and both are reprised here. Hadacol, incidentally, was a foul-tasting patent medicine that contained alcohol and laxative in equally large doses; it was the closed thing to a nip you could get in “dry” areas of the South.

In the spring of 1952, Lewis and his best friend, Cecil Harrelson, went to New Orleans because they had never been. At the corner of Rampart and Dumaine Streets they found the J&M Studio. it was where the area’s R&B stars, notably Fats Domino, recorded, but, like most studios, it had a sideline in “record your own voice” discs. Home recording was in its infancy, so the only way most singers could hear how they sounded was to make a private recording in a professional studio. (That’s why Elvis first went to Sun.) Lewis saw J&M and decided to hear how he sounded. Harrelson paid two dollars, and Lewis cut Lefty Frizzell’s then current hit Don’t Stay Away (‘Til Love Grows Cold) and an improvised boogie. He gave the disc to Harrelson, and the double-sided record makes its first appearance here, recorded four and a half years before Lewis’s first commercial session.

Shortly before the New Orleans trip, Lewis married for the first time. Dorothy Barton was a preacher’s daughter. She and Lewis dropped out of school together, and Lewis followed his new father-in-law into the ministry. He enrolled at the Southwestern Bible Institute (now the Southwestern Assemblies of God University) in Waxahachie, Texas. Lewis has always said that he was expelled for jazzing up the hymn My God Is Real.

Lewis: “I kinda put a little feelin’ into it. A little Louisiana boogie-woogie. The students all clapped and rose to their feet, but the dean expelled me. I come home. Momma said, ‘You’re a preacher now.’ I read the bible, wrote sermons. I thought, ‘Waxahachie can kiss my ass.’”

In the discussion with Sun Records president Sam Phillips that concludes the first disc of this set, we hear the preacher that Jerry Lee Lewis might have been, and the preacher that his cousin Jimmy Swaggart became. “I couldn’t live up to what I was preaching,” Lewis said later. “Too many good-looking women out there.”

Across the river in Natchez, Mississippi, Lewis worked the clubs, and it was there that he met his second wife, Jane Mitcham.

Lewis: “We was havin’ fun, then she became pregnant. Boy oh boy. I was still married to Dorothy. Jane’s brothers arrived in town with horsewhips and guns, so I done the decent thing and I married her. That was one week before my divorce from Dorothy.”

In 1954 the Lewises had a son, Jerry Lee Jr. Trying to support his young family, Lewis sold vacuum cleaners door-to-door, but music was never far from his thoughts, and Elvis’s firs Sun record turned his head right around. “Wow,” he told Jane, “looka right here, I don’t know who this dude is, but someone just done opened the door.” Later that year Lewis drove to Shreveport, where Elvis was making a name for himself on The Louisiana Hayride. The show’s emcee allowed Lewis to make another demonstration record as an audition for a Slim Whitman tour, but didn’t encourage him to stay. A little later Lewis went to Nashville. Pianists were rare in Nashville circa 1955, and his reception was as frosty as it had been in Shreveport. Only Webb Pierce’s supporting act, pianist Roy Hall, offered a glimmer of hope when he allowed Lewis to fill in for him at an after-hours nightspot. Hall had just recorded an R&B tune, Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going ON, and Lewis returned to Ferriday and Natchez with what he could remember of that song echoing in his mind.

By 1956, Elvis was no longer on Sun Records or The Louisiana Hayride, he was the biggest star in popular music. In Country Song Roundup, Lewis read how Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis had discovered Elvis. Surely if Phillips had the intuition to respond to Elvis, he would understand Jerry Lee Lewis. Memphis was an easy drive, so Elmo Lewis sold eggs and Jerry Lee saved a little money from his club dates to pay for the trip and they drove on up.


Sam Phillips was out of town the day that Jerry Lee Lewis arrived at Sun, and Jack Clement was in the control room. “The receptionist brought Jerry Lee back to me,” Clement said later. “She said, ‘I’ve got a fella here who says he plays piano like Chet Atkins.’ I thought I’d better listen to that. I believe he was playing piano with his right hand and drums with his left. I made a tape because he was different. I took his name and told him I’d let Sam hear the tape when he got back, but after Jerry left I started listening to the tape and it really grew on me.” Clement was a skilled musician, and saw that Lewis’s bravado enabled him to get away with things that others couldn’t. “He was unique as a piano player,” said Clement. “He doesn’t care if he hits a bad note. It doesn’t bother him a bit. He thinks that everything he plays is great and because of that, it is.”

On November 14, 1956, Clement called in Lewis and some other musicians for a formal session, then held onto the tape until Phillips’s return. “I don’t know if I’d told Jack this,” Phillips said later, “but I had been wanting to get off this guitar scene and show that it could be done with other instruments. They put that tape on and I said, ‘Where in hell did this man come from?’ He played that piano with abandon. A lot of people do that, but I could hear, between the stuff that he played and didn’t play, that spiritual thing, I told Jack, ‘Just get him in here as fast as you can.’” Clement didn’t even have to call; Lewis returned with a song that he had written, End Of The Road, and Phillips immediately scheduled the first Jerry Lee Lewis record. It was released on December 1, 1956.

Elmo returned to Ferriday, while Jerry Lee hustled a few gigs around Memphis and slept on J.W. Brown’s couch. Brown was Mamie’s sisters son, and he had moved to Memphis in 1950. By then he had a daughter, Myra Gail, who was twelve when Lewis moved in with them. Lewis felt sure he was falling in love with her and she with him.

At every opportunity, Lewis went to play for Phillips. They were destined to come together, the former divinity student and the former mortician’s assistant. Phillips understood that he must let Lewis play song after song to find the one that held promise. That’s how Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On came to be recorded. In the opening four bars Lewis made the piano into a percussion instrument. Phillips’s contribution was to feed the signal back on itself at just the right increment of tape delay, fattening the sound to the point where the record throbbed with its own hypnotic life by the time the drums came in. It became Lewis’s second record and first hit, but was pegging out halfway up the charts when Lewis made his first network television appearance on the Steve Allen Show. That night, Sunday, July 28, 1957, was a landmark night in rock ‘n’ roll history: the intensity went up a notch. Lewis hammered the piano, eyes fixed above. Then he glared at the camera with wild-eyed fury: “Whose barn? MAH barn!” Shakin’ resumed its upward movement, eventually peaking at No. 3.

The record’s impact was felt far beyond the United States. “I was walking through Pontypridd, where I come from in South Wales,” remember Tom Jones, “and I was with some of my friends and we were talking about rock ‘n’ roll and all of a sudden Whole Lot Of Shakin’ comes out of the loudspeaker outside of the record shop and my friend said, ‘Is that what you’re talking about?’ and I said, ‘That’s exactly what I’m talking about!’”

Lewis: “When Mister Phillips gimme my first royalty check for Whole Lot Of Shakin’, he put on an extra thousand dollars. I could see a nice Cadillac in a car window someplace and go in and buy me one. There was money comin’ in from every direction. I never had no money before, and I didn’t know what to do with it. I went home and bought my kinfolk anything they wanted. My cousin Jimmy Swaggart come over and asked if I’d get him a car. I took him to the Ford place, but Jimmy said he didn’t want no Ford. He wanted an Oldsmobile.”

Up in New York, songwriter Otis Blackwell, who had written Elvis’s Don’t Be Cruel and All Shook Up, was asking to write some songs and find some artists for a low-budget rock movie, Jamboree. “I went to a friend’s record store in Brooklyn and listened to records in his back room,” Blackwell told Ralph Newman. “I must have listened to one hundred records until I came across this record. He only had one copy of it, way in the back. I took it to the producer and said, ‘I’m gonna tell you, man, I hear this dude as being one of the top artists. Maybe even bigger than Presley!’ It was Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin On. They approached him and got him, and a few days later a writer named Jack Hammer brought me a song called Great Balls Of Fire. I liked the title, so I said, ‘Give me the title, I’ll write the song.’”

It’s a statement to Lewis’s genius that he could take a slight song manufactured for an equally slight movie and transform it into one of the era’s classics. Some claim to hear a rhythm guitar, but it’s essentially Jerry Lee Lewis and drums. If there’s a third “instrument,” it’s Phillip’s reverberation, adding depth and presence. “You can recut Great Balls Of Fire.” Phillips said later. “Big digital sounds and all that shit, but that just won’t get it. Just go back to the original and listen to the spontaneity. How are you soing to improve on perfection?” The B-side was Hank Williams’s You Win Again, and 10 years later it would enable Lewis to tell interviewers that he had always been country.

Blackwell wrote Lewis’s follow-up, Breathless. In a tie-in between Sun, Dick Clark and Beech-Nut chewing gum, kids could send in 50 cents and five Beech-Nut wrappers to receive a “free, autographed” copy of Breathless. Even minor Sun Artists were put to work autographing and shipping the record. When Lewis sang, “I burn like a wood in flame,” it came out as, “I boin like a wood in flame.” Ten years later John Fogerty sang, “Proud Mary keep on boinin’.” They didn’t talk like that in Northern California, where Fogerty was from, but they did in Louisiana. The B side, Down The Line, was written by a hard-luck Sun artist named Roy Orbison.

Lewis’s last top-20 pop hit titled another quickie exploitation movie, High School Confidential, starring Mamie Van Doren. The film was supposed to be an expose of the high school drug problem (yes, there was a high school drug problem in 1958). Try as he might, songwriter Ron Hargrave couldn’t work the title into the song, and surrendered half of his writer’s share to Lewis. It was released just as Lewis left for a tour of England in May of 1958.

Many of Lewis’s friends and family married young. He couldn’t understand the fuss, and believed that he would return home to find that the disclosures would have no impact. He couldn’t have been more wrong. “I think that somebody out there was looking for a place to stick the knife in rock ‘n’ roll and Jerry provided ‘em a real good place,” Myra said later. “They pulled Jerry’s record off the air. They cancelled TV shows. They cancelled dates. He was making thousands and thousands of dollars a night and he went back to working for two or three hundred dollars.” Sam Phillips was equally devastated. “He was the hottest thing going. I think Jerry’s innocence back then, trying to be open and friendly and engaging with press, backfired. They scalped him. So many people wanted to do in rock ‘n’ roll, and this was just what they were looking for. It should never have played a role of such significance in Jerry’s life.”

“God,” Lewis said later, “I didn’t know the hole could be that deep.” Three years passed before he placed another record in the top 30, and it was a version of Ray Charles’s recent hit What’d I Say. The follow-ups sputtered and died, just as Sun itself was slowly dying.

Lewis: “When the DJs stopped playing my records, I never said anything. What could I do? Hollar and scream at ‘em? For a while they wasn’t playing Elvis, Chuck Berry, or none of them. You’d think rock ‘n’ roll had died in the night. All they played was them Bobbys – Bobby Vee, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Rydell, Bobby Darin. If your name was Bobby, you were in with a sporting chance. I must be the only artist in the world who’s been down as many times as I have. I mean down to rock bottom. I was making ten thousand a night, and got knocked back to two-fifty. I couldn’t care less. Money don’t mean nothin’ to me.”

Things only got worse. Over Easter 1962, Jerry Lee and Myra’s son, Steve Allen Lewis, died in a tragic pool accident. Jerry Lee was in the middle of a return trip to England and Myra, heartbroken, flew to join him. She was just 17, and must have felt as if she had lived a lifetime. Stevie’s death caused problems in their marriage, but their daughter, Phoebe Allen Lewis, was born 16 months later. In fact, she was born the week that Jerry Lee left Sun Records.

Lewis and Sam Phillips had argued about royalties, they’d argued about promotion, they’d argued about religion, and they’d argued about arguing. The Sun contract was up in 1963, and Lewis wanted to move on. His last single on the Sun label was a rocked-up minstrel song from 1878, Carry Me Back To Ol’ Virginia. Three other songs were recorded at that session: One Minute Past Eternity, Invitation To Your Party and I Can’t Seem To Say Goodbye. They weren’t released at the time, but within five years Lewis would be in the country charts with a very similar sound. It’s almost as if the answer to his problems was right there, but no one saw it.

When fans asked Lewis if anything remained unreleased from his tenure at Sun, he would reply that he had left enough for 40 albums… and he wasn’t too far off the mark. Excavations of the Sun vaults have yielded treasures like Johnny O’Keefe’s Australian hit Real Wild Child (Wild One), the lascivious blues Big Leg Woman and Roy Acuff’s Night Train To Memphis. Who but Jerry Lee Lewis could make such diverse songs into a unified musical statement?


In September 1963, Jerry Lee Lewis signed with the Smash division of Mercury Records. Their team had written one of Mercury’s biggest hits of 1963, the Angel’s My Boyfriends Back, came up with I’m On Fire. Mercury held the presses, thinking they had found Lewis’s comeback hit, and it might have happened if the Beatles hadn’t arrived in America, changing radio playlists almost overnight. Mercury didn’t really know what to do with Lewis after that. R&B, soul, rock – nothing clicked. He made an early return to country music with the Country Songs for City Folks LP. One of the few sales to Lewis’s longtime fan Tom Jones, who immediately copied the arrangement of Green, Green Grass of Home and transformed it into a top-20 hit.

In an odd reversal of fate, Lewis became a conquering hero in Europe. His return had coincided with his son’s death, but if anything lifted his spirits, it was the tumultuous reception he received overseas. He returned almost every year thereafter and became a hero to those who put grease in their hair. His shows redefined the performing art of rock ‘n’ roll. The last two cuts on Disc Two of this collection were recorded at the Star Club in Hamburg in 1964, the site of some of the Beatles’ earliest successes. Lewis’s British backing group, the Nashville Teens, tried in vain to keep pace with him as he closed with Whole Lot Of Shakin’. He left the crowd chanting “Jerry Lee” in heavily accented English. God-given talent; it sometimes finds a home in the unlikeliest place.

European concert receipts didn’t impress Mercury Records, and in 1968 the company decided to drop Lewis when his five-year contract expired that September. Shelby Singleton, who had been Lewis’s champion at Mercury, had departed to start his own label and was on the point of buying Sun Records. The left Lewis in the hands of fellow Louisianan Jerry Kennedy, who took up a suggestion from a DJ in Knoxville that Lewis cut an all-country session with new songs. Lewis had tried to do just that at his last Sun session, but the songs were still unreleased, and the Country Songs for City Folks album was all standards. Kennedy’s promo man, Eddie Kilroy, found Another Place, Another Time. As it climbed the charts, promoters looked for Lewis and discovered him in Los Angeles playing Iago in a rock ‘n’ roll version of Othello. Fortunately, the show did poorly and closed, otherwise Lewis wouldn’t have been able to support a record and it might not have done as well as it did.

“Sales were so strong, Mercury thought it was a pop hit,” said Kennedy. “We needed a follow-up and I put out the call to music publishers. Al Gallico was a publisher and he had a writer named Glenn Sutton. He’d call Glenn and say, ‘Have you got a song for Jerry Lee Lewis?’ Glenn would say, ‘Yeah, I’m working on it.’ One Sunday morning Gallico phoned Glenn, and Glenn was hungover, and he said, ‘I got it, Al.’

He didn’t have a thing, but he was looking at a beer ad in the paper. He said, ‘The Beer That Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out Of Me.’ He changed it to What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser out of Me). Big record. It even got in the bottom of the pop charts, and Jerry Lee saw it, and he called Billboard magazine and told them to take it out of the pop charts. Called the pop editor and said, ‘You wouldn’t back me when I was down. Take my records out of the damn pop charts,’ I couldn’t believe it.”

Lewis: “It was a way to get in through the back door; to get the disc jockeys to play my records again. I went country, but to me it was still a rock ‘n’ roller. But I lived a lot of those songs. As the years go by, you get into it. You’ve lived it.”

Suddenly the hits came in abundance. Top country songwriters were holding their best songs for the next Jerry Lee Lewis session. Mercury picked up their option on his services, and Singleton, now the owner of Sun Records, began issuing the songs from the last Sun session. More hits. Lewis began telling the press that he had always been country. Not entirely true, but who would begrudge him this success after 10 years in the wilderness?

What’s Made Milwaukee Famous reached No. 2; To Make Love Sweeter For You reached No. 1; and one of Lewis’s Memphis pals, Bill Taylor, wrote a song about a man trapped in a hopeless affair with a married woman, There Must Be More To Love Than This, and it too topped the country charts. Kennedy didn’t dare release an uptempo single because he couldn’t risk radio programmers declaring that Lewis was returning to his rockabilly past. Up-tempo songs, like Merle Haggard’s blue-collar anthem Workin’ Man Blues, were consigned to LPs.

Kennedy liked to record in closed sessions, and winced when Lewis arrived with a retinue of hangers-on. “It was all we could do to stop them from burping or opening beer cans on tape,” said Kennedy’s partner, Charlie Fach. Eventually, Kennedy came to appreciate that Lewis needed an audience. “Bad as I hated it, he did better with a crowd,” he admitted later. “I can remember 70 or 80 people in the control room and standing around the studio. one time we almost had a song nailed and there was a thunk right at the end. Some guy had left the studio and slammed the door. The engineer went down and was chewing him out. “Why’d you do that?” The guy said, “The ice in Jerry’s drink was melting.”

As always, personal tragedy and public scandal combined to cast a pall over the success. Lewis’s beloved mother, Mamie, died in 1971, just as Myra Gail began divorce proceedings. Together those events sent Lewis reeling, and he decided to follow in the footsteps of his cousin Jimmy Swaggart and once again become a man of God. Mercury hastily concocted a desperate Plan B to market him as a gospel artist, but for reasons unrevealed, Lewis soon returned to the only life he had ever really known.

Since the country breakthrough in 1968, Lewis’s records had been spare, unornamented and unremittingly slow-paced. After three years Kennedy decided to break out of the artistic straitjacket. When Lewis arrived at Mercury’s studio in August 1971 he was greeted by a 10-piece string section rehearsing a Kris Kristofferson song. Kennedy wanted to give the big-budget treatment to Me and Bobby McGee. The song had been a country hit for Roger Miller and a pop hit for Janis Joplin, and so if Lewis was to do it, he would have to rethink it. And that’s what he did. In losing Kristofferson’s whimsicality, he created a new song.

Lewis’s big-budget, amped-up Me and Bobby McGee became a pop and country hit at an opportune moment. Vintage rock ‘n’ roll was experiencing a rebirth. It had been less than 15 years since Buddy Holly’s death was heralded as the symbolic finale of the rock ‘n’ roll era. The music had changed beyond all recognition since then, and the revival was for those who couldn’t stomach the new stuff. For many ‘50s artists the revival was a lifeline, but Lewis didn’t need to trade endlessly on the hits he had enjoyed in 1957 and ’58; he did, however, need to rock. At a session in February 1972, he tackled an old favorite, “Out of Nowhere,” remembered Jerry Kennedy’s assistant, Roy Dea, “Jerry said, ‘Let’s do Chantilly Lace.’ The arranger said, ‘We don’t have the charts.’ Jerry said, ‘We’re just running it down. Don’t worry ‘bout the mules. Just load the wagon.’ The arranger just about had a heart attack, Jerry Lee took off his turtleneck sweater. Played it twice.”

Lewis: “Sam Phillips’s brother, Jud, was managing me. he was well oiled on that session. Just before he passed out on the floor he said, ‘You gotta do Chantilly Lace.’ I told him I didn’t even know Chantilly Lace. He said, ‘Well, make it up.’ I did one take on it.”

Chantilly Lace was a lewd song, but its originator, the Big Bopper (who had perished alongside Buddy Holly), had played it for laughs. When Lewis said, “Oh, baby, that’s what I like.” It was abundantly clear what “that” was. If Kennedy had misgivings, he needn’t have. Released as a single, the song topped the country charts and reached No. 43 on the pop charts.

Mercury began to think that Lewis’s country success could be a springboard back to the pop charts. He was brought to London in January 1973 to work with superstar guests like Peter Frampton and Rory Gallagher.

Lewis: “I walked in. I seen all these cats standing around. Real long hair and everythin’. I turned to Junior [Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., - his son by Jane Mitcham – who came along as a drummer] and I said, ‘Boy, have I made a mistake comin’ over here.’ I sat down at the piano, put the headphones on and started to record. These kids, there wasn’t any one of them smokin’ pot, takin’ any pills or liquor. They were clean. Real nice, and they were the greatest musicians I ever heard.”

The master and his disciples (the age difference was not that great – just a few years, in most cases) brought a fresh slant to rock and blues standards, including the song that had set Lewis on his path, Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. It reached No. 41 on the pop charts almost 25 years after Lewis had first performed it at Babin-Paul Motors and his dad had passed the hat. The follow-up, No Headstone On My Grave, was a song that Charlie Rich had written when both he and Lewis were scuffling at Sun.

Shortly after returning from London, Lewis made his debut on the Grand Ole Opry. It was 18 years since he had left Nashville broke and disheartened; if only all of life’s disappointments could be reversed so deftly. But for all the success (65 country hits at last counting). Lewis was never truly accepted in Nashville. He didn’t move there and didn’t schmooze there. He didn’t fit in with the family values crowd. Lewis family values weren’t necessarily worse, but they were different. Three top-10 pop hits made Lewis made Lewis one of the charter inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but he has yet to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Mercury’s plan to broaden Lewis’s success didn’t work. The hits tailed off, just as Lewis’s personal life seemed on the verge of once again spiraling out of control. In 1973 he was jailed and fined for driving while intoxicated. Just after his release, his son junior was killed when a car he was towing jackknifed and hit the abutment of a bridge near Hernando, Mississippi. Three weeks later, Lewis’s fourth wife, Jaren, filed for divorce.

A change came over many of Lewis’s later Mercury recordings. He found songwriters who understood his feelings, and he in turn etched himself indelibly on their words. Mack Vickery’s That Kind Of Fool elicited one of Lewis’s most brutal performances. The regret was almost palpable. In June 1975, Lewis arrived at Mercury’s Nashville studio with his voice almost shot. Kris Kristofferson’s keyboard player, Donnie Fritts, had written a song especially for him, A Damn Good Country Song. Lewis turned in an artlessly affecting performance. As always, the remorse was tempered with arrogance. His burned-out vocal was re-recorded before release, but the original “scratch” vocal heard here remains a precious Jerry Lee Lewis moment.

Middle Age Crazy was the last big country hit on Mercury, and it came in 1978. Sonny Throckmorton had written a short story-song about a self-made man getting over his midlife crisis with a fling. “I didn’t know anything about being middle age crazy at the time,” Throckmorton admitted later. “I wasn’t old enough. Then when I passed 40 I went through the whole deal.” Lewis told an interviewer that he had been middle age crazy at 15, a statement that, like many of his off-the-cuff remarks, was truer than it seemed. The session coincided with one of Lewis’s first hospitalizations. “Oh, man, he was white as a sheet,” said Jerry Kennedy. “I was surprised we got anything from him.” Released immediately after the session, Middle Age Crazy leaped to No. 4 on the country charts and gave Lewis his best showing since Chantilly Lace. The song later became one of those rare instances of a song inspiring a movie (starring Ann-Margret and Bruce Dern) rather than vice versa.

On Middle Age Crazy, Lewis overdubbed his vocal to a pre-recorded track. He wasn’t even playing piano. He didn’t like to work that way.

Lewis: “Middle Age Crazy was one of the last things Mercury done on me. That’s why I left the company. You’re losing out on something when you record like that. But it was a great record.”

It was a very different Jerry Lee Lewis who left Mercury in 1978. 15 years after he had signed with the label. The endless party and endless highway had taken their toll. “I’ve lost my mother,” he told interview Jim Neff around that time. “Lost my two sons. Nobody knows that feeling until they walk by the casket and see flesh and blood lying there. It’s a hard pill to swallow. You can’t get over it. I thought I was indestructible. I thought the world had finally come up with a superman. I come to find out I wasn’t.”

Rockin’ My Life Away

Jerry Kennedy made no attempt to keep Lewis under contract. “I thought it was healthy that he left,” he said. “He was tired.” Elektra Records’ Nashville division wanted him. Instead of recording in Nashville, Lewis was sent to California to work with Bones Howe, who had produced Elvis’s 1968 comeback TV special. Howe assembled some top players, including Elvis’s guitarist, James Burton. “We’re going to have to do the album in four days,” Howe told Lewis. “What are we gonna do the other two days?” Lewis replied.

The first Elektra album, simply and enigmatically titled Jerry Lee Lewis, was an astonishing return to form. Once again Lewis was recorded “live” in the studio. critic Robert Christgau called it “autumnal Rock ‘n’ roll,” but we should all wish the September of our years to be so wild and productive. The song selection was inspired, including Bob Dylan’s Rita May. “Who wrote that?” asked Lewis. “Bob Dylan,” said Howe. Lewis appeared not to know who Dylan was. “That boy’s good,” he said. “I’ll do anything by him.” Lewis had been know to taunt record label people, and might have been having a private joke at Howe’s expense, but then again, he might not.

Mack Vickery had written Rockin’ My Life Away for and about Jerry Lee Lewis. The message was clear: Elvis might be gone, but “my name is Jerry Lee Lewis and I’m durn sure here to stay.” It was part affirmation, part threat. The song began obscurely with “14, 25, 40, 98,” leaving listeners wondering if Lewis was garbling words or dates, but Vickery later told interviewers he wanted the song to begin with a quarterback calling signals as if Lewis were shouting out the game plan for his life in a code only he could understand.

The other songs on the album included Charlie Rich’s gin-sodden Who Will The Next Fool Be. Like No Headstone, it was a song that Rich had written when he and Lewis were languishing at Sun, wondering if they would ever get another hit. Lewis turned the song into a poisoned dart hurled at every woman who had done him wrong. Critics loved the album, but sales were disappointing.

Lewis: “When I cut that first Elektra album, Daddy was passing away. We got through the last song, and I was told my Daddy died, and I went on home. Elektra had given me a $300,000 guarantee an album, and they got mad about that.”

Trying to salvage the deal, Elektra brought Lewis to Nashville and placed him with Eddie Kilroy, who had been Jerry Kennedy’s promo man (he currently programs country music for Sirius satellite radio). Kilroy took aim at the country charts with Thirty-Nine and Holding and I’d Do It All Again, but was sufficiently moved by Lewis’s performance of Judy Garland’s Over The Rainbow to schedule it as a single. In most versions Over The Rainbow is a profoundly optimistic song, looking for what should have been rather a vision of what might be: “There was a rainbow ol’ Jerry dreamed of once upon a lullaby.”

And then Elektra Records’ Nashville division was taken over by Jimmy Bowen. Instead of appreciating the chance to work with someone from his era, Bowen saw no chance of recouping the $300,000 Lewis was to be paid for his next four albums. In his autobiography Bowen says he offered Lewis $350,000 to leave the label, then tells an astonishing tale of sending some of his guys to mollify Lewis, only to have him pull a gun on them. “Then he muttered something about killing me,” Bowen writes. If anything, the story became even more bizarre as Bowen sent a crew to tap Lewis’s phone to gather evidence, only to find the FBI already tapping it for other reasons.

The three live recordings from Nashville on Disc Three of this collection date from the troubled aftermath of the Elektra deal. Good News Travels Fast was a song from the second Elektra LP, but the other two, One Has My Name … The Other Has My Heart and Hadacol Boogie, were ancient songs that Lewis had retrieved from distant memory. One Has My Name, from 1948, was one of the very first cheatin’ songs. Lewis had tackled it in 1969, but this version is suffused with regret. Lewis struggles to remember who first did Hadacol Boogie, a song he had performed at his first paying gig in 1949. Bill Nettles was the performer, and Lewis had probably seen him around north Louisiana in the late ‘40s and early ‘50s, but it had been a long time.

If half the stories are half true, these were Lewis’s troubled years. His life was a gift to the tabloids. Elvis’s former “personal physician,” George Nichopoulos, was in Lewis’s retinue before being indicted by the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners for overprescribing. There were lawsuits, hospitalizations, marriages, divorces, the unexplained death of Lewis’s fifth wife, the accidental shooting of his bass player, and IRS troubles that landed him in exile in Ireland for a while. Lewis could still laugh at it all, though. Playing a gig at the Palomino in Los Angeles, he stared into the audience and said, “Elvis killed himself over a broad. It took five of ‘em to put me in the shape I’m in today.” In April 1984, he married his sixth wife, Kerrie McCarver, with whom he had a son, Jerry Lee Lewis III.

In 1994, Lewis returned to the U.S. from Ireland and negotiated a settlement with the IRS. Ironically, after the acrimony associated with his departure from Elektra’s Nashville division, he signed a deal with Elektra’s Sire Records that yielded one album, Young Blood. In the photographs and in the self-penned liner notes, Lewis seemed very much a man at peace. The title gave every reviewer a cheap shot, but Andy Paley’s production was spare and to the point, and the reception was good. Songs from Lewis’s childhood like Down The Road A Piece and Jimmie Rodgers’s Miss The Mississippi And You sat comfortably alongside new songs like It Was The Whisky Talkin’ (Not Me) (a song he had recorded for the Dick Tracy soundtrack) and Crown Victoria Custom ’51.

In June 2005, Lewis and Kerrie McCarver Lewis divorced. “It’s been a long day, and an expensive day,” Lewis joked as the left the courtroom, but the divorce freed him up to accept bookings, so there’s a good chance he will once again come to a theater near you. In his 70th year, he can still turn a master class in rock ‘n’ roll.

Lewis: “I like good whiskey, good workin’ women, and good music. If God made anything better than a woman, he kept it for himself. He gave man a woman to love, and I’ve done the best I can. When the Lord’s book is opened, we’ll stand before Him and be judged. He will judge me. No man or woman can. I don’t question God, but He don’t scare me a worth a damn. If it’s Hell I’m going to, I’ll face it, but I don’t think I’ve done no wrong.”

Had Jerry Lee Lewis been born 100 years earlier, he would have been a minstrel in a traveling show; instead he’s a rock ‘n’ roller who could never quite get the country out of his soul, and a country singer who could never forget that he was once rock ‘n’ roll’s best and brightest star. Like the minstrels of old, he is a natural-born entertainer. He has dominated every stage he has walked upon for 50 years, and outlasted those who have prophesied his own doom along with that of his music.

- Colin Escott
Nashville, January 2006

Colin Escott is the author of Good Rockin’ Tonight: The Story of Sun Records, Hank Williams: The Biography and Anthology of Music Journalism, Tattooed On Their Tongues. He co-wrote and co-produced the PBS/BBC Documentary Hank Williams: Honky Tonk Blues.

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