This article is about country singer Jerry Lee Lewis, who occupies and inhabits the same body as the somewhat demented rock ‘n roller about whom we will speak little further.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born on September 29, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, and is a first cousin to famed evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and a second cousin to fellow country singer Mickey Gilley. Swaggart and Lewis were born in Ferriday, and Gilley across the river in Natchez, Mississippi, all within a ten month span, and grew up together.
Like most of his era Jerry Lee grew up singing in church. He also was influenced by the country and rhythm and blues music that surrounded him. While Jerry Lee has cited few specific influences to his music, one of those cited was Texas-born Moon Mullican, an exuberant performer who frequently toured Louisiana during the 1930s and 1940s. Moon, who is worth an article himself, played a pounding piano, barrelhouse boogie style, that would vibrate beer bottles off the tables.
Jerry Lee made his way to Memphis and the attention of Sam Phillips at Sun Records. While Jerry Lee was to gain great initial success doing other forms of music, Jerry Lee continued to record country music. His 1957 cover of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again” reached #2 for two weeks, and other songs, while not charting, demonstrated an artist comfortable with the most country of country songs. Jerry Lee’s cover of the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms”, while bearing no strong resemblance to the Price hit, is worth seeking.
A minor scandal that erupted while Jerry Lee was touring England derailed the chart career of the ‘Ferriday Fireball’ after 1958 (Jerry Lee hadn’t actually done anything illegal – or even unusual for folks of his upbringing). While “Cold Cold Heart” would chart at #22 during August 1961, Jerry Lee would only hit the country charts once more time through 1967.
Jerry Lee Lewis never quit performing, playing small southern ‘tank towns’ and the ‘chitlin’ circuit’. After his Sun Record contract expired in 1963, Jerry Lee signed with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury, which had Jerry Lee re-record his old Sun hits and record modern rhythm & blues classics. Several live albums were released that demonstrated that Jerry Lee had lost a thing when it came to live performing but between the lingering effects of scandal and the influence of Berry Gordy’s slick Motown enterprise, and the “British Invasion” of the mid-1960s, American audiences just weren’t buying Jerry Lee’s brand of pop music.
In November 1965 Jerry Lee released an album of country covers that would point the way toward future success. While Country Songs For City Folks wasn’t quite country enough to sell country disc jockeys on it, with its mixture of R&B, country and hybrid arrangements, it was almost there. Full of classic songs such as “Green Green Grass Of Home”, “Wolverton Mountain”, “Funny How Time Slips Away”, “North To Alaska” and “Wild Side Of Life”, it sold fairly well to country audiences. The next three albums for Smash would not be country as Smash Records still hoped to break Jerry Lee back onto pop radio.
Enter Eddie Kilroy. Eddie Kilroy joined Smash as a producer just before Jerry Lee’s contract was due to expire. Firmly convinced that Jerry Lee Lewis could be huge on country radio Eddie convinced Smash to let him record Jerry Lee as a staright-ahead country artist and convinced Jerry Lee to stick around for one more round of recording sessions. The end result was the single “Another Place, Another Time”, officially credited to Jerry Kennedy as producer but actually produced by Eddie Kilroy. A bit leaner than most “Nashville Sound” productions of the time, the record featured a more mature Jerry Lee Lewis, with a solid dose of fiddle and steel guitar soared to #4 on the Billboard country charts and even saw some pop chart action. The album of the same name reached #3 on Billboard’s country album chart and charted pop as well.
The follow up single “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” cemented Jerry Lee’s country credentials. A classic barroom lament with easily absorbed lyrics (I had the song memorized by the time I heard it twice) the song reached #1 Cashbox/#2 Billboard, and so did the next song out of the box, “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left Of Me”)”. From 1968 through 1972 Jerry Lee Lewis would inhabit the top ten as a regular tenant, with fifteen songs. During this period of time Shelby Singleton, owner of Sun Records, began reissuing singles of old country material Jerry Lee had recorded for Sun. Some of these songs reached the top ten, the rest at least charted. In the five year period 1968-1972, twenty two songs would chart for Jerry Lee Lewis. In 1970 Jerry Lee was moved to Smash’s parent label Mercury.
Ever a restless spirit, Jerry Lee and his producer Jerry Kennedy (Kilroy having left) started having pop aspirations again and in mid-1971 started issuing records with the two sides marketed to different audiences. “Would You Take Another Chance on Me” (#1 country) was paired with a rockin’ version of “Me and Bobbie McGee” (#40 pop). The next single was ”Chantilly Lace” paired with “Think About It Darlin’“ . Chantilly Lace went #43 pop while Billboard also charted it at #1 country. Record World felt that Think About It Darlin’“ was the main side and charted that song at #1. In Central Florida I hardly ever heard “Chantilly Lace” whereas “Think About It Darlin’“ received a lot of airplay and reached #1 on several stations charts, usually for two or three weeks.
After 1972 Jerry Lee and his producers quit targeting country radio and released a mixed bag of songs some country, some R&B , some covers and some original material. Given the right material Jerry Lee could still chart a top ten country record, but these became scarce as the 1970s wore on, with “Middle Age Crazy”, an exquisite song, becoming the last top five record on Mercury on 1977.
Jerry Lee Lewis left Mercury at the end of 1979 experiencing a brief country renaissance in 1981 with “Thirty Nine and Holding” which elaborated on the theme of “Middle Age Crazy and also reached the top five. By the end of 1983, Jerry Lee Lewis, by now a little long in the tooth at age 48, no longer was regularly charting.
Never one to avoid cashing in on a good thing, Shelby Singleton had Sun Records release a number of country and gospel albums on Jerry Lee Lewis. Not satisfied with the product on hand, Singleton did a large amount of overdubbing on Jerry Lee’s material. Note: Jerry Lee would re-record many of these songs for Smash and Mercury. The Sun recordings will be no more recent than 1961, and usually much earlier. On the Sun albums I will simply list songs and chart positions (country/pop). Singleton issued a ridiculous number of albums on artists such as Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and there is a ridiculous amount of overlap on the various Sun albums so I am listing only Jerry Lee Lewis albums that were predominantly country material.
The Golden Cream of Country – Sun 108 (1969)
Invitation To Your Party (6/-); Jambalaya (On The Bayou); Ramblin’ Rose; Cold Cold Heart; As Long As I Live; Seasons Of My Heart; One Minute Past Eternity (2/-); I Can’t Trust Me In Your Arms Anymore; Frankie And Johnny; Home; How’s My Ex Treating You
A Taste Of Country – Sun 114 (1970)
I Can’t Seem To Say Goodbye (7/-); I Love You So Much It Hurts; I’m Throwing Rice (At The Girl I Love); Goodnight Irene; Your Cheatin’ Heart; For The Last Time Am I To Be The One; Crazy Arms; Night Train To Memphis; As Long As I Live; You Win Again; It Hurts Me So
Ole Time Country Music – Sun 121 (1970)
Waiting For A Train; Carry Me Back To Old Virginia; John Henry; Old Black Joe; My Blue Heaven; You’re The Only Star (In My Blue Heaven); Crawdad Song; Hand Me Down My Walking Cane; You Are My Sunshine; If The World Keeps On Turning; Deep Elem Blues
Jerry Lee Lewis was nothing if not prolific. In listing albums on Smash, Mercury and Elektra, I am restricting the discussion to country albums:
Another Place, Another Time – Smash SRS 67104 (1968)
What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (2/94);Play Me A Song I Can Cry To; On The Back Row; Walking The Floor Over You; All Night Long; I’m A Lonesome Fugitive; Another Place, Another Time (4/97); Break My Mind; Before The Next Teardrop Falls; All The Good Is Gone; We Live In Two Different Worlds
A solid album, but Jerry Lee’s version of “Walking the Floor Over You” will not remind you of Ernest Tubb. “Before The Next Teardrop Falls” was recorded by a number of artists before Freddy Fender’s 1975 hit. Jerry Lee does the song entirely in English.
She Still Comes Around – Smash SRS 67112 (1968)
To Make Love Sweeter For You (1/-); Let’s Talk About Us; I Can’t Get Over You; Out Of My Mind; Today I Started Loving You Again; She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left Of Me) (2/-); Louisiana Man; Release Me (And Let Me Love Again); Listen They’re Playing My Song; There Stands The Glass; Echoes
The two singles off this album are songs only Jerry Lee Lewis can get away with singing. In anyone else’s hands they’d be too maudlin. “Louisiana Man” is an outstanding cover.
The Country Music Hall of Fame Volumes 1 & 2 – Smash SRS 67117 & 67118 (1968)
I Wonder Where You Are Tonight; I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry; Jambalaya (On The Bayou); Four Walls; Heartaches By The Number; Mom And Dad’s Waltz; Sweet Dreams; Born To Lose; Oh Lonesome Me; You’ve Still Got A Place In My Heart; I Love You Because; Jackson
Can’t Stop Loving You; Fraulein; He’ll Have To Go; More And More; Why Don’t You Love Me; It Makes No Difference Now; Pick Me Up On Your Way Down; One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart); I Get The Blues When It Rains; Cold Cold Heart; Burning Memories; Sweet Thang
No singles were released from either of these two volumes. I think they were issued to prove that Jerry Lee Lewis really was a country boy – I’m convinced. I especially love his cover of the Johnny Bond classic “I Wonder Where You Are Tonight”, but if you like traditional country music you’ll be more than happy with these two albums.
Together (with Linda Gail Lewis) – Smash SRS-67126 (1969)
Milwaukee Here I Come; Jackson; Don’t Take It Out On Me; Crying Time; Sweet Thang; Secret Places; Don’t Let Me Cross Over (9/-); Gotta Travel On; We Live In Two Different Worlds; Earth Up Above (Grand Ole Moon Up Above); Roll Over Beethoven (71/-)
I really wish that Jerry Lee and his sister Linda Gail Lewis had done more recording together. They are one of the truly great male-female duos in any genre. On the other hand, Linda Gail is said to be even wilder and crazier than her brother; if so, it was probably best for them not to work together too much.
She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye – Smash SRS-67128 (1970)
Once More With Feeling (2/-); Workin’ Man Blues; Waiting For A Train (11/-); Brown Eyed Handsome Man; My Only Claim To Fame; Since I Met You Baby; She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye (2/-); Wine Me Up; When The Grass Grows Over Me; You Went Out Of Your Way (To Walk On Me)
This album is another solid effort, although the hard country sound is beginning to soften a bit. “Waiting For A Train” is terrific (did you know Jerry Lee could yodel?). I am not that fond of the Mickey Newbury penned title track but Jerry Lee makes it work. The one real flaw on this album is that the fiddle goes completely out of tune on “When The Grass Grows Over Me” and no one ever catches it, thus ruining what would otherwise be the standout track on the album.
There Must Be More To Love Than This – Mercury SR-61323 (1971)
There Must Be More To Love Than This (1/-); Bottles And Barstools; Reuben James; I’d Be Talkin’ All The Time; One More Time; Sweet Georgia Brown; Woman Woman (Get Out Of Our Way); I Forgot More Than You’ll Ever Know; Foolaid; Home Away From Home; Life Has Its Little Ups And Downs
The title track is another one of those tracks only Jerry Lee can sing. “Sweet Georgia Brown” finds Jerry Lee taking the song at such a fast tempo that he’s not making much sense by the end of the song. “Life Has Its Little Ups and Downs” was written by Charlie Rich’s wife Margaret Anne Rich, and is not covered nearly enough. Jerry Lee does a very effective job with the song.
Touching Home – Mercury SR-61343 (1971)
When He Walks On You (Like You Have Walked On Me) (11/-); Time Changes Everything; Hearts Were Made For Beating; Help Me Make It Through The Night; Mother The Queen Of My Heart; Foolish Kind Of Man; Touching Home (3/-); You Helped Me Up When The World Let Me Down; When Baby Gets The Blues; Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone; Coming Back For More
This is one of my favorite Jerry Lee Lewis albums. I love both of the singles (both songs that only Jerry Lee could get away with performing) and there are several other outstanding tracks – his version of “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone” is my favorite of several dozen versions I’ve heard.
Would You Take Another Chance On Me – Mercury SR-61346 (1971)
Would You Take Another Chance On Me (1/-); Another Hand Shaking Goodbye; Swinging Doors; Thirteen At The Table; Big Blon’ Baby; Lonesome Fiddle Man; Me And Bobby McGee (1/40); For The Good Times; Things That Matter Most To Me; Hurtin’ Part; Goodbye Of The Year
A little over-produced, especially the title cut, and the album is a little less country and a little more something else. Only one single was issued from this album – most stations either played “Would You Take Another Chance On Me” or “Me and Bobby McGee” but not both.
Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano – Mercury SR-61366 (1972)
Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano (14/-); She’s Readin’ For My Mind; Too Many Rivers; We Both Know Which Way Of Us Went Wrong; Wall Around Heaven; No More Hanging On; Think About It Darlin’ (1/-); Bottom Dollar; No Traffic Out Of Abilene; Parting Is Such Sweet Sorrow; Mercy Of A Letter
The title track has a strong Dixieland feel to it (complete with brass), which limited its sales appeal. “Too Many Rivers” was an interesting cover of a Brenda Lee pop hit from some years earlier. “Think About It Darlin’” was a tag line that Jerry Lee would say at the end of ballads in concert and on some of his recorded tracks. For whatever reason, someone made a song out of it. While “Chantilly Lace” and “Think About It Darlin’” were paired on the same single, they were released on different albums. The two sided hit would be Jerry Lee’s last #1 record.
Jerry Lee’s next album The Killer Rocks On, other than “Me and Bobbie McGee”, was composed of old rock and R&B covers. Sessions was more of the same. Moving along this brings us to …
Sometimes A Memory Ain’t Enough – MercurySRM1-677 (1973)
Sometimes A Memory Ain’t Enough (6/-) ; Ride Me Down Easy; Mama’s Hands; What My Woman Can’t Do; My Cricket And Me; I’m Left You’re Right She’s Gone; Honky Tonk Wine; Falling To The Bottom; Think I Need To Pray; Mornin’ After Baby Let Me Down; Keep Me From Blowing Away
An okay album, but Jerry’s vocals don’t seem to have the same spark as before. The two albums before this had decent pop success but didn’t generate any huge pop radio hits (nothing breaking into the top forty) and perhaps what I’m hearing in Jerry Lee’s vocals is the realization and resignation that despite pandering to the pop market with several singles, none reached higher than #40 . Jerry Lee’s next album Southern Roots is perhaps my least favorite of his albums. The album sold reasonably well but it generated no radio hits of any kind
From this point forward Jerry Lee’s Mercury albums were country and rock and roll mixtures, leaning slightly to the country side. None of them are great albums but I-40 Country, Boogie Woogie Country Man, Odd Man In, Country Class and Country Memories (from which came “Middle Age Crazy”) all have their moments
Jerry Lee moved to Elektra in 1979. While the move didn’t generate a lot of radio hits, it did produce some surprisingly good music:
Jerry Lee Lewis – Elektra 6E-184 (1979)
Don’t Let Go; Rita May; Everyday I Have To Cry; I Like It Like That; No 1 Lovin’ Man; Rockin’ My Life Away (18/-); Who Will The Next Fool Be (20/-); You’ve Got Personality; I Wish I Was Eighteen Again; Rocking Little Angel
The debut disc for Elektra is more pop covers than country but the sound is surprisingly country, and Jerry Lee sounds invigorated. I guess being reunited with Eddie Kilroy helped. Jerry Lee would have two more albums issued on Elektra, neither as good as Jerry Lee Lewis. At the end of his two years with Elektra, the label would wrap up his career there with:
The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis – ElektraE1-60191 (1982)
Thirty-nine And Holding (4/-); Honky Tonk Stuff; Good Time Charlie’s Got The Blues; I Wish I Was Eighteen Again (18/-) ; Rockin’ My Life Away; When Two Worlds Collide (11/-); Who Will The Next Fool Be; Who Will Buy The Wine; I’d Do It All Again (52/-); Over The Rainbow (10/-)
This album is a fitting finale for Jerry Lee’s time with Elektra. Jerry’s road-weary take on “Over The Rainbow” brings something entirely different to the table than did the 1930s hit versions by Judy Garland and Bing Crosby (both much younger than Jerry Lee at the time of their hits). “Thirty Nine and Holding” was the last top ten hit for Jerry Lee. “I Wish I Was Eighteen Again” was an outstanding track – so much so that I prefer it to the George Burns pop hit of earlier. “When Two Worlds Collide”, written by Roger Miller and Bill Anderson, was a hit earlier for Jim Reeves, but seems tailor-made for Lewis. I think the frayed condition of Jerry Lee’s voice adds conviction to the songs on this album.
From Elektra Jerry Lee would move to MCA where he released two albums, one album, My Fingers Do The Talking, being basically a pop album and the other, I Am What I Am, being an album of country covers
Jerry Lee Lewis would continue to record occasionally over the next thirty-five years, many of the albums being essentially rock ‘n roll revivalist albums. Probably the most interesting album for country fans since Jerry Lee’s hey days is Young Blood. Released on Sire in 1995 the album is a mixture of everything Jerry Lee Lewis assimilated in his career, blues, rock, country, Dixieland, etc. My favorite track on the album is “It Was The Whiskey Talkin’ (Not Me)”, a song I could easily hear Leon Redbone performing.
I wish I could afford the Rolls Royce of Jerry Lee Lewis collections – Mercury Smashes – Complete Country Recordings is a 10 CD Box Set from Bear Family that sells for $289.00 (it may be available elsewhere for less money) and contains 233 tracks (including a pair of radio shows). That said, if I could afford it I still wouldn’t buy it – that much Jerry Lee Lewis is overkill.
More manageable is Killer Country, a twenty song collection of Jerry Lee’s Mercury material. It’s not all hits, there are some album tracks, but it is an excellent collection.
Sings The Country Music Hall Of Fame Hits – Vols. 1 & 2 – this album is a two-fer issued in England that is a great introduction to Jerry’ way with a country song > I would regard this as a must buy.
Rockin’ My Life Away covers the Elektra years – it is only about half country but if you want ”39 And Holding “ in its original form, this is where you will find it.
For Jerry Lee’s country recordings on Sun Records, the best place to turn is the two-fer A Taste Of Country/Ole Tyme Country Music, a reissue of two of the Sun reissues of 1970. The song list will tell you all you need to know bout this collection:
1. I Can’t Seem to Say Goodbye
2. I Love You So Much It Hurts
3. I’m Throwing Rice
4. Goodnight Irene
5. Your Cheatin’ Heart
6. Am I to Be the One
7. Crazy Arms
8. Night Train to Memphis
9. As Long as I Live
10. You Win Again
11. It Hurt Me So
12. Waiting for a Train
13. Carry Me Back to Old Virginia
14. John Henry
15. Old Black Joe
16. My Blue Heaven
17. You’re the Only Star (In My Blue Heaven)
18. The Crawdad Song
19. Hand Me Down My Walking Cane
20. You Are My Sunshine
21. I’ll Keep on Loving You
22. Deep Elm Blues
All aspects of Jerry Lee’s career are well represented on CD. The Ernest Tubb Record Shop has forty-five different items listed for the Ferriday Fireball and there are some good collections only recently out of print that are worth seeking such as the Rhino collection All Killer – No Filler.