There was a magical moment in the movie American Hot Wax when the camera panned to a vintage Cadillac with Louisiana license plates and tail-fins so sharp you could
shave on them. The unmistakable figure of Jerry Lee Lewis got out and declared "I'm here to rock and roll" His youthful raw energy had dissipated from too many nights on the road and from looking at the bottom of too many bottles but his presence was undiminished.
There remained the swaggering self confidence that had seen him through the best and worst of times: backwoods poverty, global recognition, scandal, playing small clubs as a has-been and finally rekindling a career in country music. Jerry Lee has always been
larger than life.
Only the greatest musicians can stamp their personality indelibly on everything they record. Jerry Lee has showcased his talent in a variety of settings; hillbilly, storming rock and roll, soul, dixieland, gospel and blues. There have been high points and low points but a Jerry Lee Lewis record is usually identifiable
from the first few bars.
Jerry has been recording since 1956, mostly through two long term label affiliations,with Sun Records from 1956 until 1963 and with Mercury from 1963 until 1978. His latter day association with Elektra dissolved in a flurry of lawsuits and, at the time of writing (1983), he had just signed a pact with MCA. There
can be no doubt that many of the artistic high points from this long career date from Jerry's original seven year association with Sun Records.
years there was considerable doubt about unreleased Sun recordings. Jerry himself fueled this speculation by asserting that he had left enough material behind for 40 albums. When
Shelby Singleton bought the Sun catalogue in 1969 he immediately found some sale able titles in the mountain of tape boxes he had acquired and he rode the coat-tails of Mercury's recent success with Jerry in the country charts. This was followed by tantalising
glimpses of unissued masters on albums designed for the American country market. During the 1970s we discovered more tapes on visits to Nashville and more previously unissue masters were issued, but the complete story had yet to be told. Finally, 25 years
after Jerry sat on the steps at Sun Records demanding an audition we have put together the story behind the recording of the 155 different titles that survive his remarkable association with the legendary Sun label.
SAM PHILLIPS AND SUN RECORDS 1949-1956
In October 1949 when Jerry Lee was a teenager
sneaking into Louisiana roadhouses to soak up the blues, Sam Phillips was opening the doors of the Memphis Recording Service at 706 Union Avenue while still working at two other jobs.
In 1950 after a complete breakdown, Sam got his wife's support to concentrate on his studio and for three years he pitched masters to the rhythm and blues labels which had been proliferating
since the end of the Second World War. At the same time, he was paying most of the rent by recording weddings, social functions, sermons and almost anything else on a little portable wire recorder and transcribing the results onto acetate discs.
The next logical step was to start his own label and, after a couple of false starts, Sam launched Sun Records into
the rhythm and blues market. In 1953 he issued his first hillbilly record by a group called the Ripley Cotton Choppers, acknowledging the fact that Memphis was a stronger market for hillbilly than blues. As the blues scene moved north Sam realized that if
he was to drive a coral coloured Cadillac like Savoy's Herman Lubinsky then it was hillbilly bop rather than the blues that would pay for it.
after the Cotton Choppers had disappeared back into Ripley, Sam issued his first record by Elvis Presley and he began the long uphill struggle to get his little label and distributed.
The company hovered on the brink of bankruptcy until November 1955 when Phillips sacrificed the last year of Presley's contract in return for $35,000 from RCA Records .The cash settlement from RCA together with another settlement from Duke Records over Junior Parker's contract gave Phillips the resources he needed to promote Carl Perkins' ''Blue Suede Shoes'' and within a few months the financial picture had changed from deep red to
Other successes during 1956 included Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison as Sun quickly joined Dot, Imperial and Cadence among the leading independent record labels. Sam hired Jack Clement as an engineer (the term 'producer' was unheard-of in those days)
and Bill Justis as musical director. By the time Jerry Lee arrived in Memphis there were line-ups to audition at most times of the day and night. The mailman brought a daily crop
of demo tapes, many of which remain unopened to this day. As Jerry looked enviously at the Cadillacs outside 706 there seemed to be only one essential difference between himself and
the other good ol' boys. He played piano.
JERRY LEE LEWIS 1935-1956
By late 1956 Jerry had packed a lot of living into his twenty-one years. He was barely educated, twice married and good for nothing much other than pounding his piano,
which he had been doing every day for over 10 years.
Since his expulsion from the Tallahatchie Bible Institute, Jerry had been dedicated to playing
music professionally despite incessant carping from both his wives. Like Perkins and Presley, Jerry had only one talent - his ability to make music and make the folks sit up and take
Jerry had been playing in a variety of settings since his debut at the Ferriday Ford dealership in June 1949. By 1934 he was sufficiently encouraged
by local reaction to try for the Louisiana Hayride where Elvis Presley was starting to make a name for himself. The Hayride was broadcast over KWKH and manager Horace Logan was assembling a Slim Whitman tour. Jerry auditioned and was turned down. However,
Logan invited him to cut a demo in the KWKH studios and Jerry recorded If I Ever Needed You'' and ''I Don't Hurt Anymore''. He returned to Ferriday in Aunt Stella's car clutching his acetate.
Undaunted, Jerry tried to crack the country music establishment in Nashville. He booked himself a room at a dingy hotel and toured the record companies, most of whom advised him to learn the guitar One person to offer him a job was Roy Hall, a piano player and racountuur, who owned an after hours drinking house, the Musicians Hideaway. "I
hired him'', said Hall, "for $15 a night. He worked from one 'til five in the morning pounding that damn piano 'til daylight. Folks would give Jerry Lee their watches and jewellery in case there was a bust, figurin' that he would be the one let off, you know,
on account of his age''. After one bust Jerry left Nashville and went back to Ferriday. playing the Wagon Wheel in Natchez, Mississippi
Quite a few
people have taken credit for getting Jerry to Memphis for his audition with Sun. In any event, it was a logical move and it should not have been a matter of surprise to anyone that
Jerry would find himself outside Sun one day in lace 1956.
Jack Clement takes up the story from there "I remember it like it was yesterday, Sun Records
was very hot. We had people flocking in from everywhere. I would watch the board while Sam would listen to the talent. But Sam happened to be in Nashville at the Disk Jockeys' Convention
and I was working with Roy Orbison. Sally Wilbourn (Sun's secretary) brought Jerry Lee back to me and said, I've got a fella up here who says he plays piano like Chet Atkins', and I thought I'd better listen to that. He started playing things like ''Wild Wood
Flower'' and he was strictly country. In those days, Jerry played piano with his right hand and drums with his left.
"I finally made a tape with him
because he was different. We recorded ''Season Of My Heart'' but I told him to forget country because (it) wasn't happening at that time. Rock had almost devoured it. I advised him to go home and learn how to play rock music. I took his name and said I'd let
Sam hear it when he got back and let him know. After he left, I started listening to the tape and I found that I liked it. It really grew on me''.
came back from Nashville and I played it for him. He dug it right away. In fact, he told me that anytime anyone came in who sounded like that I should sign him''
''I was just about to call Jerry and tell him to come back in when he walked in the door with his brother-in-law, J. W. Brown. He had written a song called ''End Of The
Road''. That was on Tuesday, I told him to come back Thursday and we'd put it down. There were a couple of cats around the studio and we just sort of messed around''.
had all kinds of problems. We only had two musicians and the circuit breaker in the studio kept going. In fact everything was going wrong but the singing and playing was right. As
a matter of fact, I started to play the master for Sam the following Monday and he listened to only the first line. He stopped the tape and said, 'I can sell that''.
got him jobs in and around Memphis because we wanted him to stay there. We didn't want him going back to Louisiana, We wanted him available to record''.
Sam Phillips remembers being struck instantly by Lewis talent. ''I knew if he could do anything at all, even tooth a mouth organ. I had my next star'', recalled Phillips. "He looked like a born
THE RECORD INDUSTRY, A SNAPSHOT
Phillips signed Jerry to a contract after the second audition and his first single was released in December 1956, but the record was sharply different from today's industry. What were the major trends and new developments as Jerry's first record hit the stores?
Firstly, of course, the industry was dominated by Elvis Presley Who was
almost an industry within himself, generating more income than most small countries. No-one else even came close.
Jerry Lee was starting out with a cover version of ''Crazy Arms'' which had been the biggest selling country record of 1956 for Ray Price and still
high in the charts at year end. Remember that cover versions were an industry practice in those days. A record buyer often had the choice of three or four versions or any hit. Ray
Pries original was much too close to hillbilly heaven to stand a chance in the charts and Jerry's version just got lost in the Christmas shuffle.
were other developments, too. 10" LPs were almost a thing of the past but EPs and 12" LPs, or ''packaged products'' as the industry liked to call them, were a growing business. Their
volume had doubled in 1956. 78s were losing out badly in the battle of the speeds but some markets, such as gospel, still registered up to 90% of their sales on 78s. The major record companies had taken a beating in the singles market and were concentrating
on albums, even dropping their prices in an attempt to discourage the independent labels. And the first mass-produced stereo records were almost ready to roll off the presses,
Jerry Lee was also facing some stiff competition. More new records by new artists were being issued than ever before. New Iabels were springing up every
week (over 150 were started in the first quarter of 1957) and the leading DJs were starting to call a halt to the practice of young hopefuls dropping into the studio clutching a copy of their latest record. There were just too many of them
And, as always, the industry was seized by crazes. At the dawn of 1957 , as Eisenhower was elected for his second
term, the word was ''calypso''. To his eternal credit, Sam Phillips issued nothing that even hinted at banana boats but everyone else was caught up in the rush to dash out a Harry
Belafonte sound-alike. Anyone who thinks of 1956/57 as a golden age should remember that these records sold in the hundreds of thousands while Charlie Feathers barely scraped into four figures, ''Day-O''!
Despite some solid local reaction it was obvious that Jerry's version of Crazy Arms was going
nowhere. Jerry had done a little session work and had participated in the legendary Million Dollar Quartet session but he began 1957 playing local gigs. Clyde Leoppard, whose band
played regularly in West Memphis, remembered Jack Clement hustling dates for Jerry. ' 'Jack asked me if we needed a piano player. I said no but I went over to meet him anyway.. ... I agreed to let (Jerry) play some that night and he stopped the dance. Man,
he beat that piano sore. "
On February 23 Jerry got his first crack at a major audience when he was booked onto the Big D Jamboree in Dallas. Three weeks later he was in Kansas City at the bottom of a bill that featured Johnny Cash, the Louvin Brothers and Smiley & Kitty Wilson. Two weeks after that, he was back on the Big D with Columbia's
prototype rockabilly band, Sid King and the 5 Strings.
Then, starting the next day, March 31 , he began an exhausting tour with Cash, Carl Perkins,
Onie Wheeler and Glen Douglas. We have heard a lot about Sun package tours. If you look at this itinerary you can appreciate
the huge distances involved between shows. They travelled the long hauls in second hand family automobiles with side trips to visit influential DJs and attend record store openings
or anything else which would bring them before a few people. They began in Little Rock, Ark., where Billy Riley joined them for one show, then onto Monroe, La., Sheffield, Ala., Jackson,
Miss. and Odessa, Tex. on successive days. There was a short break while Cash prayed the Big D and Perkins played the Hayride, then the trek resumed. They appeared in Abilene, Tex.
on April 8 then Texarkana, Ark. and Winfield, La. They took off another week then Jerry joined Cash and Sonny James on a tour of Canada that started in Sault Ste. Marie, Ont. on April 21 then swung down to Ottawa and doubled back through the West where they
were joined by Wanda Jackson. The tour finished in Billings, Montana on May 5.
It was probably during this tour that Jerry first came to the attention
of Sam Phillips' brother, Jud, who had rejoined Sam as National Promotion manager. "I saw in Jerry Lee Lewis something I had seen in no other artist, " recalled Jud. "The first time
I really noticed him was when he was part of a tour with Cash and Carl Perkins. We stopped by at my house in Florence, Ala. to eat but Jerry sat down at the piano and started to play. I heard him play tunes like Summit Ridge Drive and tunes you wouldn't believe
he had in his repertoire. I had in my mind that this was not a cat that was well rehearsed on just a few tunes. This guy had depth." So began a relationship that extended beyond Jud's on/off involvement in Sun and beyond Jerry's own Sun contract.
Before starting the tour, or possibly while Cash and Perkins were fulfilling other commitments,
Jerry recorded Whole Lotta Shakin ' Goin ' On and It'll Be Me for his second single. On May 20 the record entered the Memphis charts at No. 2. Meanwhile, Bob Neal booked Cash, Sonny James, Wanda Jackson, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee into Beaumont, Tex., for
the Annual Police Show on May 23-24. Everyone who heard Shakin ' was convinced that it was a winner. Billboard reviewed the record on May 27, calling it "a sure hit... (a) driving blues shouter in the typical Sun tradition. " It was an R&B and C&W pick too.
following week, ''Shakin''' was number I in Memphis. This was hardly a guarantee of a life free of financial worries because the next week Jerry, together with Cash and Perkins and Onie Wheeler, were playing the Annual Tomato Festival in Warren, Arkansas.
Cash went from there to the Opry while Perkins and Lewis played the Big D. Jamboree. The following week there was more good news as ''Shakin''' entered the country and western at number 15. On June 24 it entered the Hot 100 at number 70, the same week as 10
year old Dolly Parton made her debut on the East Tennessee Jamboree in Sevierville.
If Jerry Lee was to capitalise on this success, he had to start
playing places where people wore shoes. In an interview, Jud Phillips, who had taken over Jerry's management, explained how he came to pivot him into the national consciousness.
"I took him to New York and presented him to Jules Green who was managing Steve Allen
and Henry Frankel,who was talent co-ordinator for NBC. I took a real gamble in terms of Sun Records to see whether a mass
audience would accept this man. There was another big gamble in ensuring that our distributors made certain that every retail outlet in the United States had copies of ''Shakin''' so that it was available. This represented a lot of merchandise that could have
been returned. "
On Sunday July 28, 1957 Ferriday's pride and joy appeared on the Steve Allen show which was only one slot behind the Sullivan show in the ratings. Jerry's first appearance on the Allen show was one of the landmarks in the history of rock and roll. Jerry pounded the piano, his eyes fixed above, with an almost religious intensity
and when it came time to sing he glared at the camera with a wild-eyed fury. "Whose barn? Mah barn''! It was demonic set alongside the jugglers and ventriloquists who were the staple of television variety shows in those far off days. Two minutes later it was
over but it could stay in your mind for the rest of your life. Jerry was indisputably the real thing.
Sam and Jud Phillips were in New York for the
occasion. Sam took the opportunity to announce the formation of his Phillips International label and also announce that Jerry had been re-booked on the Allen show for August 11 and again when his third single was released. Sam was also on hand while Jerry recorded his portion of the movie , ''The Big Record'', later retitled ''Jamboree''. ''Shakin''', which had
started to peg out in the charts around number 35 renewed its upward movement.
By mid September ''Shakin''' was up to number 10. It was number 3 best
seller in the stores and number 1 in country and western and rhythm and blues. The top pop spot was monopolized by Tammy. Jerry's bookings were mildly schizophrenic. He played the rock and roll caravan tours but also played the hillbilly circuit. In September
he had played at the Apollo, the hub of black music in New York City. During late October he was touring the southwest with Cash, the Wilburn Brothers, George Jones and Bobby Helms. In December he was in Chicago at Howard Miller's Rock And Roll Bash with Sam
Cooke, Pat Boone, the Four Lads and the Rays.
By the end of 1957 Jerry's career was just about as hot as it was going to get. In late October his first
EP was issued. It had a rivetting jacket which billed him as "The Great Ball of Fire" , anticipating his next single which hit the stores two weeks later. Billboard waxed enthusiastic
and Sam Phillips even took out a rare full page advertisement couched in even purpler prose. "The original Sun Records has its own satellite, the Ball of Fire, Jerry Lee Lewis'', all this surrounded by hand drawn exploding stars and comets. Phillips, who rarely
took out advertisements larger than a postage stamp, must have recouped his money two weeks later when ''Great Balls Of Fire'' swept into the national Hot 100 at number 28.
was seen coast-to-coast in ''Jamboree'' which was also released in November. To ensure the widest possible circulation, the producers had included guest shots from DJs in nearly every
corner of the country and even a couple from Canada and England. Carl Perkins had been signed to the production before Jerry but his single from the movie was not even shipped until the movie had been in the theatres for a month.
At some point in October 1957 Jerry's management was taken over by Oscar Davis who had previously worked with Hank
Williams and, more recently, as a front man for Colonel Tom Parker. Davis formed Jerry Lee Lewis Enterprises with Jim Denny from Cedarwood in Nashville as vice president and treasurer. One of the duo's first moves was to book Jerry on a tour of Australia with
the Crickets and Paul Anka starting in late January 1958. They also got him a place on Alan Freed's tour starting at the end of March with six weeks on the road. By December 1957 ''Great Balls Of Fire'' was number 1 in most charts and with Elvis half way into
the Army,Jerry was just about the hottest thing in pop music.
Jerry quickly proved that he was not a one trick pony. He had made his name as a brash
rock and roller but on country ballads he could be as smooth as a travelling salesman's seduction. The real proof of his versatility lay in an ever growing pile of tapes in the corner
of the control room at 706 Union but at the end of 1957 he was branded as a rock and roller. There were already pointers towards wimp pop on the horizon and Jerry would have been hard pushed to survive those times but he never had an opportunity to try. At
the end of 1957 while the trade was handing out its plaudits and awards Jerry was sneaking off to Hernando, Mississippi, to marry Myra Gale Brown, his thirteen year old cousin. It was not common knowledge to even Jerry's family for a while but within six months
it would just about ruin his career.
toured almost continually. His fourth single, ''Breathless'', was shipped during the middle of February. Billboard applauded his '''vigorous rendition of these two rockabilly blues"
and Standard Distributors got on the wire to say that they had sold 5000 copies in two days. Alan Freed's Big Beat tour commenced at the Brooklyn Paramount Theater and headed up into the northeast and then out through the midwest. Jerry was in stellar company
- Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and the Crickets, The Chantels, Dicky Doo, Larry Williams, Screamin' Jay Hawkins, Frankie Lymon and the Pastels. The tour grossed dollars a day.
moved up the charts, finally settling around number 15 in mid April. Jerry was criss-crossing the country. He was on the Dick Clark show on March 8 and the kids were invited to send
in 50c together with five Beech Nut chewing gum wrappers to receive an autographed copy of ''Breathless''. The deal had been set up between Jud Phillips and Dick Clark's management and the response was overwhelming. Sun's new promotional lady, Barbara Barnes,
ordered a rubber autograph stamp and everyone in Sun's tiny operation had to lend a hand autographing and mailing thousands of singles. Jerry appeared on Dick Clark again when the promotion ended on March 18.
While the promotion was in full swing, Jerry was in Chicago with the Phillip Morris country show on March 13 and then chased down
to Fort Lauderdale for a show with the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and the Royal Teens. Jerry appeared in a vest trimmed with ocelot fur and made a point of combing his hair after every song. Finally, toward the end of the show he broke the piano. A few days
later he was in Denver with the Four Preps, the Silhouettes, Bill Justis and Bobby Helms. Promoter Irving Granz had hidden discs by the artists all over town to whip up interest in the package. On April 10, Alan Freed introduced Jerry on NBC's ''Today'' show
doing ''Down The Line''. With Elvis in the Army, Jerry became the keeper of the flame. Newspapers began referring disparagingly to ' 'Jerry Lee Lewis and his ilk" when they were taking pot shots
at rock and rollers.
''Breathless'' was hardly off the radio when ''High School Confidential'' was shipped at the end of April. It was the title song from a movie, also known as ''The Young Hellions'', which tried to deal with the high school drug problem. Unfortunately, neither the script not the cast were up to addressing such a relatively
serious theme. In particular, an account of the discovery of America in bop talk can make you shudder years after having seen the movie. Mamie van Doren was stupendously bad; she had been horrifying audiences with her wooden acting for four years but was now
a double threat with her Prep-Capitol recording contract. The only redeeming point in the whole movie was Jerry, flanked by J. W. Brown and Russ Smith, playing the title song off the back of a flat bed truck.
At this point Jerry's marital problems began to intervene. Jerry had first married in 1952 and had tied the knot again 18 months
later before divorcing his first wife. This could have been lost in the dust of Louisiana courthouse records if Jerry had not married Myra Gale who was thirteen years old when they
married and departed for England.
Myra accompanied Jerry on his British
tour which began on May 23. Following the first, successful, show at Edmonton on May 24 the press picked up on a chance remark by one of Jerry's management entourage about Myra being rather young. The following day reporters hounded Jerry as he and Myra went out shopping for the ting he had omitted to buy her on the occasion of their marriage. The pressmen decided that Myra was
indeed rather young. Hounding a rock and roll singer who was wearing a red lined black jacket trimmed with ocelot fur and sporting an underage bride was welcome relief for Fleet Street's finest, jaded by their diet of queer politicians and embezzling clergy.
Jerry was hardly a moving target for their heavy guns and within days he was greeted with derision at his concerts and cries of '''Go wheel your wife in a pram'' and ''Go home baby-snatcher''. J. Arthur Rank cancelled the bulk of Jerry's 37 date tour and replaced
him with 16 year old Terry Wayne. "He's good, he's clean, he's wholesome'', declared J. Arthur. And 25 years later he's totally forgotten.
did such a good demolition job on Jerry's career that the Lewis case was even aired in the British House of Commons. One M.P. asked the Minister of Labour whether he was, "aware that
great offence caused to many people by the arrival of this man with his 13 year old bride"? The question went on to ask whether we did not have "more than enough rock and roll entertainers of our own without importing them from overseas"? Iain Macleod, the
Minister, replied, "this was of course a thoroughly unpleasant case, which was ended by the cancellation of the contract and the disappearance of the man".
criticism showed none of the understanding which was reported to have been contained in the Immigration Officer's report on Myra: ''she was travelling on her own passport; this showed
her surname as Lewis, and the space for occupation was blank although she described herself on the landing card as a housewife. It was noted that the date of birth in her passport was 11 July 1944. This seemed to be an unusually young age for a married woman,
but since both parties came from the south-east part of the United States, where the legal age for marriage is lower than is usual in other parts of the world, no action on my part seemed to be called for".
A few weeks after Jerry arrived back in the States he signed an advertisement placed in all the music publications billed as an ''Open
Letter''. Some passages rang false with excessive modesty, "I sincerely want to be worthy of the decent admiration of all the people, young and old, that admired what talent (if any) I had..'' but the final paragraph contained these words. "I can cry all I
want to but I can 't control the press or the sensationalism that these people will go to to get a story started to sell papers. If you don't believe me then you can ask any of the other people who have been victims of the same''.
Alan Freed, who was to be a victim of another scandal a few years later, defended Jerry on CBS TV on May 31 saying
that jazz musicians and the Hollywood crowd were far worse. "Jerry's a country boy'', added Freed, "and Tennessee boys get married quite young. This was courageous, particularly when
compared with Dick Clark who hastily disowned Jerry, but it missed the point that no-one had complained about the age at which Jerry had married. Elvis Presley, who barely lived to
see the scandal that years later began erupting around himself, offered a rather limp wristed defense, ''I'd rather not talk about his marriage, although I guess if he loves her it's alright''.
The whole situation was made worse by Jerry's management who booked him into the Cafe de Paris in New York as a belated stab at respectability. Jerry was resplendent in a spangled tan suit and played ''Johnny B. Goode'' and ''You Win Again'' before launching into his hits. He introduced every song in the same way, "And now we'd like to do a little number we have on record and it goes something like this... ".Almost
nobody showed up and the engagement was cancelled by mutual agreement after the second show on opening night. Jerry returned to Memphis to lick his wounds.
still had a sizeable hit with ''High School Confidential'' which had leaped into the Hot 100 at number 34 and reached number 25 before fading away. George Klein and Jack Clement concocted
''The Return Of Jerry Lee'' which was designed as a radio-only platter and shipped to DJs in the middle of June. "We think it's a cute disk'', commented Sam Phillips. "It makes light of the British episode which is the way we think the whole thing should be
treated anyway''. The record was released commercially but went nowhere.
The vinyl flood from Sun continued unabated. Jerry Lee's first album was also
shipped in June and was followed in short order by three EPs drawn from it. Two previous album compilations had been canned together with the six EPs that were to have been drawn
from them. This accounts for the fact that Sun's first EP, ''The Great Ball Of Fire'', was numbered EPA 107. The previous six EPs had been scheduled but not pressed.
waiting a couple of months for the furore over his marriage to die down Sun released Jerry's version of ''Break Up'' which was introduced to the industry in Barbara Barnes' Sun Liner
as a "calming down''. It went quickly to number 50 in the Hot 100 and then declined. The flip side, ''I'll Make It All Up To You'', made its debut in the country charts during the
week that ''Break Up'' disappeared from the pop charts but the single had died in all markets by the following week. By August the trade papers were already asking "Whatever happened to Jerry Lee Lewis''?
It was the beginning of twilight time for Jerry and despite grandiose expansion plans which were announced at this time, Sun was reeling from the loss of Johnny Cash in September 1958 and from the lack of artists to replace the departed hitmakers. The industry was changing and most of the new faces at Sun did not have the talent to dominate
and lead the musical scene. Bill Justis and Jack Clement were sacked in the Spring of 1959 and Sun's new contenders simply failed to develop any lasting clout in the marketplace which was again dominated by the majors.
Jud Phillips had also departed and set up Judd Records in August 1958. In June 1958 he took over Jerry's management
which had been in limbo. Jerry had been booked onto a tour of small halls in Texas with Carl Perkins but otherwise little had been heard from him. In November he joined a galaxy of
stars in a memorial concert for Carl's brother J.B. Perkins, who had died in October leaving a wife and family without support. Among the other participants were Ernest Tubb, Webb Pierce, Porter Wagoner, Merle Travis, Hawkshaw Hawkins, Sonny Burgess, Slim Rhodes, Jean Shepard, Dicky
Lee, Thomas Wayne; Curtis Gordon and Johnny Cash,who travelled in from his new base in California. Quite a show.
The year closed on a sorry note for
Jerry. Another single, ''It Hurt Me So'' b/w ''I'll Sail My Ship Alone'', had been released. As a promotional gimmick to get the record in the stores Jud arranged for a limited edition of 100,000 bearing the number SUN 312-A to be shipped at a royalty and
profit free price of 16c. Jud handled the orders himself from his home in Florence, Alabama. However, it showed no signs of rekindling the man's career. In Jerry's own words, "From $ 10,000 a night to $250 a night is a hell of a disappointment''.
Realistically, the fiasco in England had done no more than expedite the inevitable. Jerry was almost the last of a dying breed. Hard rockers were becoming noticeably absent
from the charts and the radio. Middle America was fighting back with a vengeance and Jerry Lee with his blues drenched music, his ocelot trimmed coat, unseemly long hair and wild and woolly ways stood as much chance as a snowball in hell of surviving the new
market conditions. It is true that Elvis survived but he had a stint in the Army to improve his image, more versatility as a performer, a sharper manager and the concern of RCA to protect their investment. He also forsook the shaking music, which Jerry never
1959 got off to an indifferent
start. Another single was released in February and Sam took out full page adverts to promote Jerry's ''Big Blon' Baby'' (''Jerry Lee's Back and Sun's Got Him") and a single from the departed Johnny Cash. Jerry's record went nowhere; Cash's did quite well.
Nevertheless, Jud had all kinds of plans for Jerry. He filed a report with the media from Hattiesburg, Mississippi, in April 1959 saying that he had put Jerry on tour with
his Judd Records act Cookie and the Cupcakes, who were unknown at that point. "He's been doing real well'', enthused Judd. "We've got big plans a foot''. These plans included a tour of Australia in the unlikely company of Sammy Davis Jr, followed by the possibility
of dates in Hawaii, Tokyo, Alaska and the West Coast. On a personal note, Jud added that Jerry's son, Steve Allen Lewis, was born a few weeks previously.
career was now seriously in the doldrums. It was obviously time for a change in direction. Sam was having some success with Carl Mann in the soft rock vein and he talked in May 1959
about the changing climate. "The kids got tired of the ruckus'', declared Sam, "and we're moving to a period of greater variety of taste. But rock and roll has engraved itself on pop music and its beat, somewhat subdued, will remain a requisite ingredient
and may even invite at some early stage the return of authentic rhythm and blues. " By this time Sam was a millionaire owning two radio stations, a zinc mine in Arkansas and oil properties in Illinois. He was also on the point of opening his third radio station
in Lake Worth, Fla. It followed the format of WHER in Memphis; all female announcers and an easy listening policy. The call letters of the new station were WLIZ ("You'll love LIZ - LIZ loves you"). Changing times indeed.
It looked as though the train had gone and Jerry had been left standing at the station. If it had not been for a couple
of sound career moves a few years later Jerry might have been eternally condemned to playing his greatest hits for drunken yahoos in small halls throughout the South.
Jerry's next single was a double sided stab at the pop and country charts. ''The Ballad Of Billy Joe'' was an answer disc to Johnny Cash 's monster gunfighter ballad of
that era, ''Don't Take Your Guns To Town''. The other side, ''Let's Talk About Us'' made a small dent in a few charts but there was still a boycott of Jerry's singles by some stations and neither side did as well as it deserved.
This was the low point in Jerry's career. He bowed out of the tour of Australia with Sammy Davis Jr. and went back
to Louisiana. He was also having problems with the Musicians' Union. "Oscar Davis had left'', recalled Jud, "and created a lot of difficulties that Jerry was accused of and Jerry was out of the Union''. Totally discouraged, Jerry told the media that he was
Sun issued one more single in 1959; a revival of the previous season 's Chuck Berry hit, ''Little Queenie'', coupled with ''I Could Never Be Ashamed Of You''. Two key words in the Billboard review of September 28 highlighted Jerry's problem
during this period: "Powerful outings that with exposure, could easily coast in''. (Our emphasis).
The media, who controlled his chance of getting another
hit, had not forgiven Jerry for flaunting convention. There were more cheap shots when a 'comedian' appeared on the Ed Sullivan show and talked about rock and rollers running the government. Jerry Lee, sneered, he would be responsible for child welfare.
During this period Sam Phillips was completing work on his new studio on Madison Avenue, which set him back
$400,000, and his growing chain of radio stations. The first sessions in the new studio were cut in late October 1959 although the old facility on Union was still used during the
early months of the following year. Bill Fitzgerald had joined Sun from ''Music Sales One Stop'' in August 1959 and he went on the road with promo man Cecil Scaife in February 1960. They were pushing new titles by Charlie Rich, Carl Mann, Johnny Cash, Tracy
Pendarvis and Mack Owen. Where was Jerry?
Jerry was reportedly completing his third movie. ''Young And Deadly''. No-one can remember much about this movie which could be because it was a long time ago or because it was never completed or released. A trade magazine dating from March 1960 mentioned it in the same breath as Conway Twitty's unforgettable appearance in ''The Teacher Was A Sexpot'' co-starring (you guessed it) Mamie van Doren.
four singles released during 1960. Three of them sank without a trace; the fourth was released under a pseudonym on the Phillips International label. The motives for this were obvious.
It would avoid the partial radio blacklist and neatly sidestep Jerry's problems with the Union. Also, another countrified piano instrumental, Floyd Cramer's ''Last Date'', was hitting the high spots at that time. The record started getting a little action in New York but did not gather momentum. Some Sun insiders attributed this to the unmasking of Jerry's
identity but the real reason is probably that it was released too late. Ernie Fields' revival of ''In The Mood'' had been released in June 1959 and by autumn 1960, when Jerry's version was shipped, there were reissues and cover versions by Crazy Otto, the
Andrews Sisters, the Bulawayo Sweet Rhythm Band, Jerry Gray, Johnny Maddox and probably others. It was simply overkill. Too late for another cover version and too early for another revival.
January 1961 found Jerry in the frozen north playing his greatest hits to scant acclaim at the ''Coq d'or''
in Toronto. The gig was not even advertised. He seemed to have resolved his problems with the Union, though. In February Jerry became the first act to record at Phillips' new Nashville
studio. The new facility was previewed in November 1960 and opened in February in what was becoming the Music City Row area. Billy Sherrill, rescued from near starvation in an rhythm and blues band, was manager and in-house producer.
Jerry seemed to be back with a vengeance. Less than three weeks after the session Billboard had a copy of ''What
'd I Say'' in their hands and were enthusiastic: "It's been a long dry spell for Lewis but this outstanding rendition of the old Ray Charles song can bring him back with the proper
push. Lewis's pumping piano work is tops and the vocal matches it. This can go''.
Two weeks later the record started getting a lot of action in New
York and on April 3 it entered the Hot 100 at number 89. Sun backed up this action with a concerted promotional effort ("He's back with a big one") and by the middle of May it had
reached number 30.
Jerry seemed to be back on the rails again. He had new management, National Attractions in Memphis, and there was talk of a reunion with the dethroned Alan Freed for a tour of Europe. In the fall he toured in a "Battle of the Century" with Jackie Wilson, following his appearance in a 10 day festival at the scene
of one of his greatest triumphs, the Brooklyn Paramount theatre. However, this was not supported by much national chart action. The follow-ups to ''What'd I Say'' largely failed to make a dent.
Jerry was in a dilemma. He did not write his own material and depended on revivals or submissions. Because he did not hit the charts with regularity
he did not get a crack at the cream of the new songs. This in turn reduced his chances of placing a record on the charts.
The year ended on a happier
note than the previous two or three but Jerry was still a long way from recapturing sustained success. Others had seen their careers suffer too. Almost everyone who had worked with him on Alan Freed's Big Beat tour in 1958 was scuffling. Chuck Berry was playing fraternity dances on Southern campuses and
went into the slammer in February 1962. Larry Williams and Screamin' Jay Hawkins were back playing the small halls, Frankie Lymon was cultivating the drug habit which would kill him in 1968 and Buddy Holly had died in 1959. Freed himself faced trial in September
1962 and died three years later. Only Big Dee Irwin who had played the bottom of the bill with the Pastels in 1958 had a hit record in sight. Would you like to swing on a star or
would you rather sing in a bar?
The Mercury hierarchy in Chicago was making some changes which would affect Jerry in the long term. In March 1961 Shelby Singleton and Jerry Kennedy, who would produce virtually all of Jerry's Mercury albums, moved from Shreveport to Nashville. In the same month Mercury reactivated the Smash label (which
was a Nashville indie they had bought in the late 1950s) and started the policy of signing faded hit-makers from the 1950s, such as Clyde McPhatter. Jerry's turn was not too far away.
Jerry Lee's contract with Sun was due to expire on September 6, 1963. The records still kept coming, usually coupling an uptempo rhythm and blues song with a slower country number. This formula netted one minor success when ''Sweet Little Sixteen'' made a small dent in the bottom of the Hot 100. The country side ''How
's My Ex Treating You'' was a regional break-out in Dallas-Forth Worth in mid September 1962 but it never gathered momentum from there.
and last, Sun album was also shipped in 1962, a pot-pourri of titles recorded between 1957 and 1961. Sam Phillips never really came to terms with the age of the long playing record. By comparison, Fats Domino had fifteen albums to his name by mid 1962.
These were lean times for Sun. The hits had dried up and some distributors were not paying. This meant that
Jerry's records were sometimes poorly distributed because Sam would refuse to ship to a delinquent account. In order to get around this problem Sam entered into discussions with Mercury
in late 1962. He envisaged a wide ranging deal in which Mercury would act as a sales agent for Sun product and lease the studios in Memphis and Nashville. The reality of Sun's situation was obvious. "Generally speaking''', said Sam at the time, "I feel that
the business is going to have to consolidate. The big companies are the only ones who can do an effective job of distribution. The distribution will wind up in the hands of the bigger companies while the creative aspect will be in the hands of the independent
producers or smaller labels". This arrangement was working well between Stax and Atlantic and Hi and London. Sun's new releases were held up awaiting outcome of the discussions but
the deal was never finalised.
Shortly after the negotiations broke off Sun issued Jerry's revival of ''Teenage Letter'' coupled with his version of
''Seasons Of My Heart'', poorly harmonized by his sister, Linda Gail. Sun announced that Linda Gail had been signed to a contract and a single was planned but never issued.
and Jud visited England again in May 1962. Here is Jerry's own account of opening night in Newcastle:
"I was very worried indeed. I knew this was one
of the most important nights of my career. After the incident four years ago I was determined to make a comeback in England. I knew I could do it but would the fans accept me? I was
just as prepared to be booed off the stage as I was to receive a quiet reception. I can't tell you how worried I was. I was setting off onto something that was important to me and could be a disaster''.
''What happened? (It) was great. I was shivering in my boots when I arrived at the theater. First sign I had that things could be
alright was when I was mobbed for autographs. Then there were big banners saying ''Welcome back Jerry Lee Lewis". It was one of the great moments of my life''.
"On stage I really seemed to wow them. I have never had a reception like that. No sir, not even in the States.
They really gave me a big hand. It has been a life ambition of mine to be a success in Britain and, after everything, I feel this has really happened. Everybody is really starving for action, not only in Britain but in the States. When the kids go to a concert
they don't want to hear what they hear on records alone. They want to see some action and that's what I try to give them''.
On his return to the States
Jerry was back playing the small clubs. At the end of October he was playing the Peppermint Lounge West in Pittsburgh. At the end of the year his management contract with National
Artists Attractions expired and he signed with Conway Twitty's manager, Don Seat of New York, but that pact fell apart in April 1963 and after contemplating going it alone he finally
signed with Frank Casone in Memphis. In April 1963 he was back on the plane to England for two weeks followed by two weeks in Germany. Returning to New York Jerry declared that it had been ' 'the greatest of the three tours I've made. They stormed the stage
Jerry was still a dynamo on stage as anyone who witnessed those European tours in the early 1960s will recall. He was starting to generate a lot of interest again but it was not being reflected in record sales. It was obviously time for a major career
On arriving back in Memphis he was greeted by Casone with a champagne buffet at the Oriental Lounge which Casone owned and where, it was announced, Jerry would be playing when he was not on the road. Casone's style seemed to be a little more forceful than Jerry's previous managers. "Las Vegas offered me $2500 a week for
Jerry. I told them that if they couldn't reach $ 10,000 a week - Forget it''. Casone also booked him into the Chez Paree nightclub in Chicago and started talking to MGM about the leading role in the Hank Williams bio-pic, ''Your Cheatin ' Heart'', which was
being cast at that time.
The good times seemed to be returning. In July Jerry was back at his old stomping ground, the Cadillac Club in Memphis, where
he was mobbed every night. Casone was also opening negotiations with Mercury, Columbia, Liberty and RCA for a new record deal when the Sun contract expired. Sam Phillips sensed what was happening and brought Jerry into the studio for two successive sessions
at the end of August. A third album was projected for release in late 1963. The previous month Phillips had lost Charlie Rich to RCA and when it became obvious that Jerry would not re-sign with Sun Sam lamented that "the present state of competitive bidding
among major labels will ruin the independent record companies''.
On October 5, 1963 seven years of crazy history ended when Jerry signed with the Smash
division of Mercury Records. He immediately went into the studio to recut his greatest hits.
END OF THE ROAD"
Jerry's departure from Sun almost coincided with the end of the label itself. There were another 20 releases spread out over four years, most of which were for local consumption. Among these was Jerry's version of ''Carry Me Back To Old Virginia'', released in August 1965 when he started getting a little reaction
to his revival of ''Rockin ' Pneumonia'' on Smash.
In 1968 Jerry Lee and Jud Phillips were reportedly trying to buy back Jerry's old Sun masters but
the deal was never consummated. "We thought we had a deal'', recalled Jud. "We all met one Sunday morning and agreed on a price and then the only thing to work out was the mode of
payment. The idea was for us to release these tracks on the Jerry Lee Lewis label with Mercury distributing but... the next thing we know, (Sam) sold out to Shelby Singleton''.
Shelby bought the Sun catalog on July 1, 1969. It was a propitious moment to acquire Jerry's back catalogue because Jerry Kennedy had apparently made a tacit
deal with some big wheels in country and western radio programming that gave Lewis's new country records a much wider exposure. It made the man almost a permanent fixture in the country and western charts for the next 10 years. When Shelby looked inside the
mountain of tape boxes that arrived in the truck from Memphis he found some very saleable country titles that sounded as though they had been recorded yesterday. He lost no time in getting them on the market and scored major hits in the country charts with
titles like Waiting For a Train and ''I Can 't Seem To Say Goodbye''.
Jerry may never again become a regular contender in the pop charts but he has
become an institution. Despite his success in the country market he has always referred back to his classic hits on Sun Records, Before we start looking at these recordings in detail we would like to offer a few thoughts on his hugely influential style.
"ALL YOUR GREAT WRITERS. IT TAKES SOMETHING OUT OF YOU... IT'S NOT WORTH IT."
is how Jerry explained his unwillingness to write more songs. As a consequence, he has relied throughout his career on his ability to interpret other writers' work. He has often relied excessively on revivals of other artists' hits or, more recently, on songs
generated from within his own publishing company or from drinking buddies. His revivals and cover versions have not always eclipsed the originals, especially during his last few years with Sun when he was working with rhythm and blues material. In part, the
problem was that he was dominated by the arrangements rather than vice versa. By comparison, his earlier recordings had emerged spontaneously in the studio down to the final glissando or crashing chord.
Jerry's unwillingness to write his own material is really our loss because his conversation is peppered with striking, if occasionally
profane, images. His poor memory for lyrics has forced him to extemporize on many songs but he has rarely taken the final step of creating his own material.
"YOU SAY YOU CAN FALL IN LOVE WITH ELVIS..."
That line from ''It
Won 't Happen With Me'' hinted at the comparisons with Elvis that have dogged Jerry for 25 years. Perhaps Jerry was never quite ready for prime time. It's hard to imagine him in ''Blue Hawaii''. Would he have drawled "Listen to ol' Jerry, darlin''' in the
middle of the ''Hawaiian Wedding Song''? Could he have sung ''Can 't Help Falling In Love'' without giving his co-star an outrageous leer that would have got the movie an 'X''' rating? Did he belong on the same beach with anyone other than Jaws?
Quite simply, Jerry had too many rough edges to sand down. If he had wanted a career to parallel Elvis then
he would not have married Myra. Someone in his entourage, if not Jerry himself, must have known that he was flirting with disaster when he married a thirteen year old cousin. He had spent a few months looking at the bright lights, he must have known that a
few conventions altered north of Natchez. It goes hand-in-hand with Jerry's personality. He is an open book. He could not have participated in the elaborate cover-up of a bizarre life style that Elvis achieved.
Jerry is a meat man and has never tried to hide it. His overt sexuality played a part in frightening away part of his potential market. Jerry was not in the least cuddly; in fact, he was almost intimidating.
Elvis and Ricky Nelson had learned how to be sexy without being threatening. They had also mastered cloyingly tender ballads which were in a different league from the gritty hillbilly laments that Jerry turned to when the situation called for a ballad.
He paid the price. By the time Jerry left Sun his market had shrunk.
Jerry Lee was one of the first artists to bring the piano to the forefront in rock and roll. Fats Domino had been stomping away to the delight
of the teens for a few years but he brought none of the calculated fireworks to his act that became Jerry's trademarks.
By the time Jerry's first record
appeared Sam Phillips had dubbed his style the ''Pumping Piano'' which probably referred as much to the pumping action of Jerry's arms as he played. Whatever the origin of the phrase, it stuck with him until almost the end of his career on Sun.
Jerry's style seemed to be fully
developed by the time he arrived at Sun. It was a unique blend of backwoods boogie woogie, rolling church music, honky tonk and the blues. His playing was already laced with the distinctive
trills and glissandi that have become his trade marks and made him one of the instantly recognizable instrumentalists in rock and roll.
Jerry has borrowed
liberally from boogie woogie with its distinctive rolling left hand and occasionally complex cross-rhythms. He also has shades of honky tonk (which was the style originally associated
with movies about the gold rush era) and honky tonk pianist Del Wood definitely had an influence on his playing. Del
had one of the first hits in country music with a piano instrumental which must have inspired Jerry to keep pounding those keys. When he moved to Nashville in 1955 they became friends.
Of course, Moon Mullican was an influence although he played with considerable restraint. In fact, there was hardly a long tradition of country pianists for Jerry to draw
upon so his style probably emerged spontaneously as he tried adapting his favourite songs to the piano. When rock & roll took over, his style became more percussive to the point where it could drive rivets through steel plate but even within the confines
of rock and roll his playing retained the delicate balance between flash and filigree that makes him such a unique stylist. His stage act and his unique piano style have influenced every rock and roller who ever sat down before a piano, including Elton John
and Billy Joel.
THE KILLER IN BABYLON
Lee Lewis left Louisiana in 1956 overbrimming with talent and unbridled, sometimes misdirected, energy. Nothing can detract from his achievements, not even his weaker recordings or
lacklustre appearances later in his career. His earlier recordings set a standard that he could never hope to match or even continue as the musical climate changed around him. He could not work in a time warp. For a few years there was the magical combination
of boundless talent, favourable market conditions, unsophisticated recording techniques and hugely symphathetic supporting musicians.
Would Jerry have
made the same recordings if he had been snapped up by a New York label and force fed with songs about summer romance and teenage angst from the Brill Building?
For the first time, all of his Sun recordings have been brought together and placed alongside some illuminating out-takes to show the full dimensions of Jerry's remarkable
talent. The vagaries of his personal life are inconsequential when set against the achievements of his career. The ruined marriages, bigamies, wrecked automobiles, booze and pill consumption, personal tragedies and in unfathomable religion only became significant
because Jerry made these great recordings. It is now 25 years since Jerry was banished from England and replaced with Terry Wayne. It is almost 20 years since Joey Dee was the delight of the wee ones at the Peppermint Lounge while Jerry was playing in godawful
Pittsburgh at the Peppermint Lounge West as a "has been". Talent is the ultimate criterion,which is why Jerry is still looming and Joey Dee and Terry Wayne have been relegated to outdated catalogues and trivia lists.
As usual, Sam Phillips had the last word when he dubbed Jerry THE GREATEST ROCKER OF THEM ALL.
THE SUN SOUND
Jerry Lee Lewis's records for Sun represent the
artistic high points of his career. This is hardly surprising; it seems to be true for the large majority of artists who recorded for Sun before moving on to a major label (e.g. Elvis
Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash).
What, though, are the qualities of Jerry Lee's records that retain their power a full quarter of a century after they were made? Some of the answer lies with Jerry Lee himself. He was fresh, enthusiastic and unsullied by the years, miles and disappointments. Moreover, he was still riddled by the inner conflicts about
making the "devils music" , which fed his creative fires.
Credit must also be given to the musicians who worked with Jerry Lee during his peak years
at Sun. Roland Janes' guitar breaks may not always have been the tastiest in the land, but he knew the ins and outs of Jerry Lee's music. He knew when to bear down and when to lay
back and he sensed, with clairvoyant precision, just where Jerry Lee was headed at all times. Jimmy Van Eaton shared this telepathy and managed to provide an incessantly full and driving rhythm section. It was a good thing, too, because his drumming typically
constituted the entire rhythm section.
But a large measure of artistic credit must also go to that little piece of real estate located at 706 Union,
and to the very special conditions which it brought to the recording process. For one thing, the sessions at the Sun studio were legendary for their informality. The refreshment flowed
and time passed unnoticed. Experiments were welcome and many - in the form of unusual material or arrangements - survive to this day. When someone suggested "Hey, why don't we try..." to a roomful of well lubricated friends at one in the morning, they didn't take much convincing. Provided the tape was running, history was made.
On many occasions
they were warm-up takes, serving roughly the same function as Elvis's gospel recordings made prior to his movie soundtrack sessions. But in Jerry's case there was a deeper reason.
Sam Phillips and Jack Clement had the good sense to turn Jerry loose in the studio. Jimmy Van Eeaton explained, ''Whole Lotta Shakin'' came about the way. It was a song that Jerry
had been doing in the subs where he was playing. It was a monstrous hit and I think they were searching for something else that might be in the back of his mind. Sam would just ask him, ''Look, just do any of those old songs''. The big question was obviously
what other musical gems lay buried in the fertile memory of Jerry Lee Lewis? These musical experiments, examples of which are heard for the first time in this collection, were certainly spontaneous jams - but not simply for the hell of it. Always there was
the possibility that Jerry would incidentally create another multi-million seller.
The studio provided more than just Fortunately, it was too small
for many instruments; overproduction was out of the question (although examination of recently discovered original Sun tapes reveals that Jack Clement actually carried out a lot more overdubbing than anyone had realised). The main quality of the Sun studio
was a special kind of echo. Not the big Spacey kind found in more technically advanced studios. Rather, Sam Phillips and Jack Clement used a primitive tape delay or "slapback" technique. This kind of echo has very special properties which both Sam and Jack
developed to an art form.
Modern echo is like looking down the wrong end of a telescope. It tends to separate the listener from the sound and gives the illusion of one lonely voice or instrument bouncing back and forth off the walls of the cavern. It is echo without
intimacy. When the instrumentation is sparse to begin with, as it nearly always was at Sun, modern echo accentuates the shortcomings of the recording: It ends up sounding very sparse.
Slapback echo, on the other hand, turns the telescope around. The listener is drawn into the small room; voices and instruments vibrate together. The sound is actually enhanced and magnified. Every detail reverberates together and fuses. In fact, early Sun
records pre-date Phil Spector's "wall of sound" by about ten years.
Nowhere is this more in evidence than on Jerry Lee's first records. Listen closely
to ''Crazy Arms'' , ''Whole Lotta Shakin''' or ''Great Balls Fire''. New listeners are usually surprised to learn that the fullness of these records has been produced by essentially two instruments - piano and drums. Part of the magic of the opening two bars
of "Whole Lotta Shakin"' is the reverb on Jerry Lee's piano. How many people have thrown away years of classical training and pounded away on the family upright trying to produce that sound? And reached the same conclusion. It can't be done. The notes are
there, all right, but the driving, pounding sound of that Sun record came from miking the piano just fight and feeding the sound back upon itself at just the right rate in order to fatten it up. By the time the drums join in and Jerry Lee begins to sing, the
record is throbbing with its own hypnotic life. Words like "pounding" or "incessant" don't even scratch the descriptive surface. In a sense, the entire record is a rhythm section. No wonder Jerry Lee's vocal or piano glissandi work so well; anything that moves
in counterpoint to or breaks the underlying tension is bound to succeed.
For those who have wondered why recreations of original hits nearly always
fail, it pays to consider that, aside from the artist's obvious lack of enthusiasm, the modern 16 (or 24) track production will be as likely to generate the original Sun sound as Arthur Fiedler and the Boston Pops Orchestra did on the Beatles' greatest hits. In short, Nashville's (or Los Angeles') finest are no match for 706 Union. Whether they happened by design
or by accident, the recording techniques at 706 were quite innovative for the mid-1950s. The battle to record voice and guitar with echo had only just been won. No-one had ever considered that piano and drums, instruments which thrived on clarity, might also
snake their way through a tape delay circuit!
By June, 1960 Sun had left 706 Union and was trying to tame the studio at 639 Madison. It's a battle they
never won during the lifetime of the label. A number of Jerry Lee's final sessions for Sun were recorded in Nashville. This studio was surely better than the one on Madison, but was
still more sterile than 706 Union. To make matters worse, by the early 1960s, some of Jerry Lee's fire had been quenched by public disdain. He had fallen very far, very unfairly, and in far too brief a time. Also to produce a credible record in the early 60s,
Jerry Lee depended upon a fuller production. Slapback echo was no longer there to fill in the gaps. Although Sun sessions were beginning to draw upon musicians who were among the finest in the business, they lacked the deep rapport that Jerry Lee had shared
with his original
Memphis sidemen. If not for the best, it was at least inevitable that rock and roll was no longer the primitive liberating force it had been in the
1950s. The throbbing sound of slapback echo born at 706 Union had given way to modern technology which substituted competence and precision for primal enthusiasm.
- 706 UNION AVENUE SESSIONS - ©