The First Great Wild Man Of Rock
Jerry Lee Lewis’s reputation as a wild man of rock was partly formed by his scandalous relationships and lifestyle, and partly because of his wild performances that on at least one occasion ended up with his piano on fire. However ‘The Killer’s’ outlandish character should not be allowed to overshadow his key contribution to the development of rock n roll, which is right up there with legends such as Chuck Berry, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Elvis Presley, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, and the Everly Brothers. The fact that he is still alive and influencing contempoprary artists adds to the reasons that Guitars Exchange wishes to pay tribute to him by selecting 10 of his best songs.
When Lewis was still a boy, his father famously mortgaged his farm to buy him his first piano. The piano dominated his life and while he can be seen in a few clips playing guitar, he generally left that role to his long-time guitarist Kenny Lovelace who used to play a 56 strat, along with Tele’s and SGs; but always with a simple rig. “I just use my guitar, amp and some reverb,” Lovelace once said; but as Vintage Guitar magazine note “That ‘bare bones set up’ seems to have pleased his boss…”
10. Once More With Feeling
Lewis’s album She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye spawned this 1970 hit, which made number 2 in the US country Billboard charts. The song was written by Kris Kristofferson and Shel Silverstein, but with seven marriages among his ‘relationship CV’, it might be appreciated why Lewis was able to sing the following lyric with feeling: “We're just goin' through the motions of the parts we've learned to play […] But somehow darlin' something good got lost along the way, […] Ah you're reachin' out to touch me darlin' just the way you used to do; you're lookin' everywhere but in my eyes.”
9. What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)
This song was written by Glenn Sutton about beer, specifically a brand called Schlitz, which used to be advertised under the slogan, "The beer that made Milwaukee famous.” Rod Stewart is among a number of artists who have covered the tune, but it is Lewis’s version bemoaning how love and happiness can get replaced by alcohol that many consider the definitive version.
8. High School Confidential
Written by Lewis himself, this song about things getting steamy at a high school hop was racing up the charts until news broke that the wild man was about to marry Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old second cousin. Public uproar followed, Sun Records cancelled distribution, and the song began to plummet in the charts, as portrayed in the movie Great Balls Of Fire. There is a widespread discussion, which we have referenced in Guitars Exchange, about whether artists’ behaviour can be separated from their art, and this song certainly adds fuel to that debate.
7. Would You Take Another Chance On Me
The leading country songwriting duo Jerry Foster and Bill Rice penned this number that became one of the songs that Lewis is best known for, as it hit number 1 in the US country chart. The 1971 release had a cover of Me and Bobby McGee on the flip side, made number 40 on the Billboard Hot 100, and was his last top 40 hit (to date). “If I promise you to straighten up and put my life in order, If I swear to you woman on bendin' knees I won't hurt you again, If I become the kind of man that you want me to be, Would you take another chance on me?” Lewis implores with an intensity with which few can compare.
6. I'm On Fire
I'm On Fire was released in 1964 on Smash Records, and was co-written by Feldmam, Goldstein and Gottehrer. The arrival of The Beatles caused a number of artists to change their musical approach, and this is a good example of the effect they had on their contemporaries. On the accompanying video Lewis has fans crammed around his piano as he lets his golden locks fall over his face, throws his head back and calls for emergency aid, as he belts out: ‘I’m on fire!’
Otis Blackwell co-wrote Great Balls of Fire, and also penned this 1958 number that Lewis made into a hit. The lyric is about a girl who leaves the singer breathless, but it was Lewis’s last top 10 hit before his own breath was taken away at the response to his scandalous marriage. Nonetheless it did not stop the song being resurrected, and even sung, by Richard Gere, in his 1983 film of the same name. The LA punk group X also featured because as guitarist John Doe once explained “[The filmmakers] called us up and said, 'We hear you do a wonderful version of this song.' And we didn't, so we bull-shitted our way through it and said, 'Sure, of course we do.' We ran back to the studio, rehearsed it up and recorded it in about a week."
4. Middle Age Crazy
Lewis's last big hit with long-time record company Mercury was Sonny Throckmorton’s wistful song Middle Age Crazy, which came at a time in Lewis’s life that his hard-living was catching up with him. Now in his early forties, with his star fading and his health failing, it was perhaps the best moment for him to put his heart into lyrics that became another fan favourite: “Today he traded his big 98 Oldsmobile, He got a heck of a deal, On a new Porsche car, He ain't wearing his usual grey business suit, He's got jeans and high boots, With an embroidered star, And today he's forty years old going on twenty, Don't look for the grey in his hair, 'Cause he ain't got any…”
3. Chantilly Lace
Written and originally recorded by Jiles Perry ‘The Big Bopper’ Richardson, in August 1958, Lewis took it to another level when he released his version in 1972. It is difficult to listen to Lewis singing coquettishly “Chantilly lace and a pretty face, And a pony tail hangin' down, A wiggle in her walk and a giggle in her talk, Make the world go 'round,” without moving along to his voice.
2. Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On
This track was originally a 1955 blues hit by Big Maybelle, but it was Lewis who saw its potential as a rock n roll classic. Recorded in his second session for Sun Records in 1957, Lewis’s boogie piano-driven version became his breakthrough hit and one of his signature songs, as it made number 3 on the US Billboard charts and topped the country charts. As music critic Robert Gordon presciently wrote at the time: "Jerry Lee began to show that in this new emerging genre called rock 'n' roll, not everybody was going to stand there with a guitar."
1. Great Balls Of Fire
It would be hard not to choose Lewis’s most commercially successful single, Great Balls of Fire, as number one. As he did with Whole Lot of Shakin' six months earlier, Lewis took this song written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer and turned it on its head to produce this classic. Peaking at number two on the US Billboard Hot 100, it continues to define both a special moment in time and Lewis himself. As he said in one interview: "A person tells at least a little bit about himself in any song he cuts."
As with his previous hit, Lewis pushes boundaries of the time with lines like "let me love you like a lover should..."; although it is said that even he, with his religious upringing, had to be coaxed into singing those lines by Sun Records’ owner Sam Phillips. The legendary record mogul was proved right not just by the song’s success in the States but because it also became the first Sun Records’ cut to top the UK chart.
We end our tribute with a quote from Eric Clapton, who said: "I remember the first Rock & Roll I ever saw on TV was Jerry Lee Lewis doing 'Great Balls of Fire.' That threw me - it was like seeing someone from outer space!"