Elvis Presley might have been crowned the ‘King of Rock and Roll’, but it was Jerry Lee Lewis who was the ‘Wild man of Rock and Roll’, a moniker he had little trouble in cultivating much less sustaining throughout much of his long career. Compiled in 1958 by Sam Phillips, founder of the iconic Sun Records label, these thirteen tracks manage to cover an incredible amount of musical ground – which isn’t surprising, since rock and roll in the 1950’s was generally far more eclectic and less didactic than it tends to be nowadays, not to mention far less pigeonholed. Boogie woogie, blues, gospel, rockabilly, country, hillbilly, it didn’t matter, so long as it worked. Because at that point the rules were still being written, and does to some extent explain why Jerry Lee’s debut LP sounds just as fresh today as it did more than sixty years ago.
“Don’t Be Cruel” is the first track, and while Elvis’ rendition is family friendly, Lewis’ own has a certain edge to it, as if to say “If you ever cheat on me baby, I’ll kill you”. Such was the contrast between Jerry and Elvis. The country/honky tonk/fill in the blanks of “Goodnight Irene” would become one of Lewis’ signature tunes (even if he didn’t write it), and one of my favourites. A soulful song concerned with suicide and the consequences of failed love. Not exactly cheerful stuff, but important subject matter nonetheless, and a theme Presley would never have dared go near, especially since by then he had a successful film career to consider.
“Put Me Down” is a high energy number full of Jerry’s signature piano style, while things slow down on the sentimental country/honky tonk “It All Depends”, before raising the room temperature with a fun and frantic (and some might say racist) “Ubangi Stomp”. The first side concludes with the classic “Crazy Arms”, a song that Lewis first recorded in 1956 as part of his audition for Sun, and another song concerned with lost love and loneliness.
Side two commences with a cover of Hank Williams’ “Jambalaya”, proving that Lewis could be a master interpreter when he wanted to be. “Fools Like Me” tends to drag, even though it only lasts a mere 2:48. Not so “High School Confidential”, which is the perfect vehicle for Lewis’s almost schizophrenic piano. The traditional “When the Saints Go Marching In” gets a Jerry Lee Lewis makeover, so much so that it should probably have been called “When the Devil Goes Marching In”. Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox” gets a guernsey, and what a fine version it is too, possibly even superior to the original. The album ends on a lighter note with the humorous “It’ll Be Me”, a country-oriented number that would portend Lewis’ later career as a country artist.
Interestingly, my vinyl copy contains “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, which was not included on the original release. It’s a smart move, because its inclusion here improves the album exponentially. The exclusion of hit songs in those days on LPs might seem irrational, except if one realises that many teenagers who bought the singles, wouldn’t have seen the need to own them twice on any album. Just think “Strawberry Fields” b/w “Penny Lane” and Sgt Pepper’s.
There are many compilations and box sets on offer that provide a far more complete overview of Lewis’ recorded legacy at Sun than this measly little LP. However for anyone who is interested in experiencing these songs as they were originally presented, way back in the day (including liner notes by Sam Phillips himself), may find it a far more satisfying listen than all of those multitudes of expensive box sets and anthologies. Because if you’re not that familiar with his music, then I recommend you digest it first in small doses. Because the last thing you want to do is O.D. on Jerry Lee. And while it all may sound simple and archaic to modern ears, let’s remember that it was Lewis who was setting fire to his piano some ten years before Jimi Hendrix doused his own instrument in lighter fluid and igniting it with a match.
Jerry Lee Lewis was a maverick, without a doubt, and one of the original hard-living, hard-drinking rock and roll musicians with a genuine volatility to match (to the extent that he even shot one of his own band mates during an argument. No wonder he was called ‘The Killer’) – which leads us back to Elvis. Although Lewis may not have been as gifted vocally, he was certainly far more intense, both in his music and in life. Like a white Little Richard, only wilder.