ALL ABOUT THE JERRY LEE LEWIS SUN TAPES
Jerry Lee Lewis At Sun Records: The Collected Works,
gathers together every authentic, original recording that Bear Family Records has been able to find Jerry Lee at work, on his own account, in the Sun studios. It's as simple as that; a straightforward, sonic encyclopedia of every traceable note he sang and
played at Sun, just as they were electronically etched onto magnetic tape between November 14, 1956 and August 28, 1963. Many of the recordings are interspersed with vignettes of studio chatter, preserved for posterity as the spools kept rolling between rehearsals
and takes; from the mildest self-rebuke at a false start, to the legendary, emotional confrontation with Sam Phillips during which Lewis contemplates the dangers to his immortal soul having embarked upon the recording of ''Great Balls Of Fire''.
Thus CDs 1 to 15 (BCD 17254) comprise, in a chronological sequence, all extant recordings Jerry Lee made at Sun, including a small number of damaged and clipped tapes, exactly as cut in
the studio. Any recording that proved to be available at source in stereo only have been down-mixed to mono to achieve the desired continuity in sound, thereby enabling the systematic delivery of everything concerned as a coherent body of work. It will be
noted that this continuum includes eleven recordings which, in the accompanying discography, are designated ''undubbed masters'', a term that some readers may, with some justification, consider paradoxical. The expression merely reflects the fact that the
basic tracks concerned are the original studio tapes of recordings that were subsequently reinforced with a vocal chorus and/or instrumentation prior to their initial release.
the main presentation, all the stereo mixes dating from 1960 to 1963 that have come to light in the Sun archives then follow, commencing on the latter part of CD 15 and continuing on CDs 16 and 17. Save only for minor repairs being applied to one or two damaged
items, the tapes concerned have been reproduced faithfully; no stereo remixing has been undertaken by Bear Family. CD 18 then draws together the masters, as originally issued, of those recordings that were overdubbed, or otherwise re-engineered, for release
during Lewis's tenure at Sun. These encompass not only the tracks from 1957 to 1960 that feature dubbed vocal choruses but also the spliced master of both ''High School Confidential'' and ''I've Been Twistin''', as released on the singles Sun 296 and Sun 374
respectively. All these records as first issued are, of course, rather better known than the unadorned performances featured in the main concatenation; although the accent in this set is on authenticity, the exclusion of these embellishments on a point of
principle simply couldn't be justified. And those who do wish to be reminded of a rather less well judged application of the technique of splicing, when Sam Phillips and his fellow producer Jack Clement conspired in cobbling together snippets from Lewis's
hit records to synthesise the novelty item ''The Return of Jerry Lee'' will find this at the very end of the set.
The eighteen CD also covers a selection of less familiar
augmented recordings, where a vocal overdub or instrumentation was added to the original work on an experimental basis. Foremost amongst these is a tape of ''Settin' The Woods On Fire'' embellished shortly after Lewis had finished his work in the studio. This,
and the other overdubs featured, pass muster on the grounds that these alterations were generated contemporaneously by the original studio personnel. In the case of ''Settin' The Woods On Fire'' the recording dubbed with guitar, bass and drums, was first released
in 1971 amongst the series of albums issued by Sun International Corporation following Shelby Singleton's purchase of the Sun catalogue. A not insignificant number of such tapes were concocted, many burdened with unappealing supplements that add little of
interest to the raw productions. IN one or two instances, the items in question have been published on latterday CD Sun compilations but, given that the underlying original recordings are made available within this set, the enhanced tapes have not necessarily
been included here. Rather, it has been decided to select a representative sample of such overdubs simply to unveil the process.
It should be also noted that a number
of other tapes corrupted with added instrumentation, when leased in the mid-1960s to the budget label Pickwick, have been left to gather dust on the obscure vinyl on which they emerged fifty years ago. Adhering to the same principle, any tarnished material
that Shelby Singleton contrived to transform from the original without, it might be said, a great deal of subtlety, will not be found in this box set. The only duets accommodated here are entirely genuine. And for the avoidance of any doubt, this set does
not, of course, incorporate anything of the so-called ''re-processed stereo'' effect exhibited on Sun International LPs released between 1969 and 1972.
There is a further
qualification. We are not concerned here with Jerry Lee's several engagements at Sun as a session musician during late 1956 and early 1957, when he played piano on the recordings of Billy Riley, Carl Perkins and others. The observation both of this principle
and, it has to be said, issues of copyright, explain why the celebrated ''Million Dollar Quartet'' tapes, dating December 4, 1956, likewise do not feature in the box set.
the discovery in the late 1980s of tapes from a 1960 session that revealed ''The Great Speckled Bird, ''Don't Drop It'' and ''Keep Your Hands Off Of It (Birthday Cake)'', no ''new'' distinct titles as such by Jerry Lee Lewis have been found in the Sun storeroom.
Since that time, in terms of unreleased material, fans have had to be satisfied by the occasional unheralded first outing of an alternate take, such as those of ''It'll Be Me'' and ''How's My Ex Treating You'' which slipped out on obscure US CD issues in 1996
and 1999 respectively, or an extra few seconds of a recording prematurely faded out on earlier releases, cases in point being ''Ramblin' Rose'', ''Hong Kong Blues'' and ''Money''. The full-length tapes of the latter have, of course, been used in compiling
Rumours of undiscovered titles nonetheless persist. The first to be mentioned in this connection is invariably Lewis's interpretation of ''We Three'',
a 1940 hit for The Ink Spots. When introducing the song at a live show in Memphis in June 1961, Lewis stated ''...we intend to have it coming out on record pretty soon'', but was it recorded at Sun? The indications are positive. The surviving performance,
familiar to fans thanks to an audience tape made public on a bootleg LP in 1972, bears witness that ''We Three'' had been worked on diligently; Jerry Lee's arrangement and a memorable piano solo suggest that it was well practised. Were it to have been recorded
professionally, it would certainly have been worthy of a release. Noticeably, it possesses the hallmarks of Lewis's reading of another 1940s pop song, ''My Blue Heaven'', recorded in the Sun studio at 369 Madison Avenue on June 14, 1961. Moreover, on the ''live''
tape, ''We Three'' immediately precedes a jaunty recital of ''Hello Josephine'' which mirrors the arrangement of the song as cut at the same June 14 session. So it's not inconceivable that ''We Three'' was recorded in the studio and that the tape was lost
or, heaven forefend, re-cycled. Perhaps it lies forgotten in a box abandoned in someone's attic outhouse, having been purloined from the official repository decades ago.
leaving aside that enigma, what have we actually got here that's ''new''? More than one hundred items included in this set are being issued officially for the first time, albeit as many as forty of these have been circulating privately on home-copied CDs amongst
a few of Lewis's hard-core fans over the last twenty years or so, having somehow slipped out of the archives. Even so, at least fifty of the recordings here presented have escaped prior detection and have remained unheard until now.
Listening to these ''new'' takes, it is hard to understand quite how and why such an eccentric cut of ''It'll Be Me'' (BCD 17254-2-22) remained unacknowledged and unreleased. Equally, there
are some remarkable prototype cuts of ''High School Confidential'' that have, it seems, lain undiscovered or been ignored for more than half a century. The tape boxes involved were examined by at least one authority back in the 1970s but it appears that these
alternates were overlooked. One might argue that these earliest readings of the song are representative of a different, experimental, version of the song rather than being simply ''alternate takes'', which makes their fate in remaining unreleased until now
all the harder to explain.
It has also been possible to accommodate a number of previously unheard false starts, fragments of incomplete ''lost'' takes and snippets of
conversation and banter in the studio. At the same time, published examples of the latter have, where necessary, been restored to their rightful places in the continuum; for whatever reasons a number were, on earlier releases, re-edited with a cavalier disregard
for their true origins and placed ahead of recordings to which they were wholly unrelated.
A great debt is owed to the producers of the several progenitors of this collection,
including the first box set of Lewis's Sun recordings, the twelve LP set ''The Sun Years'', released in 1983 by Charly Records in the UK. Charly's ambitious approach which, for fans of early rock music, took the idea of a retrospective of an artist's work
at a single company to an unprecedented level, established a template that was later adopted for the even more extensive eight CD box set issued during 1989 both by Charly Records and by Bear Family. At last, the collector could find almost every Lewis Sun
recording thought worth having in one, or another, convenient package, the painstaking assembly of a library of scores of LPs, involving the repeated purchase of the same recordings of familiar songs for want of a particular title or an alternate take, was
made a redundant exercise.
On all three occasions the compliers decided to present everything in a simple chronological order insofar as the dates of origin could reasonably
be ascertained, it having been stated in the notes accompanying the 1983 vinyl set that a number of assumptions had been made to fill in the extensive blanks where conclusive information was unavailable, i.e. for almost entire two year period from November
1956 to the end of 1958. Notwithstanding this and similar disclaimers upon the release in 1989 of the rival CD products, Charly's ''The Sun Years'' and Bear Family's ''Classic'', such assumptions have subsequently come to be regarded by many as facts.
Thus the prevailing wisdom surrounding the chronology of Lewis's work at Sun dates from the materialisation of Charly's twelve LP collection and the dispositions arrived at in 1983 which
since that time, subject only to minor revision in 1989, have remained largely unchallenged. To be fair, those involved were at pains to quality the vast majority of the quoted recording dates during the period concerned with either of the words ''probably''
or ''possibly''. Furthermore they conceded that much of their understanding, not only in respect of the allocation of particular recordings to discrete sessions but also the attribution of the names of backing musicians to specific events, amounted to nothing
more than guesswork.
In 1993, Charly withdrew from sale its 208-track 1989 set and averred that it had produced ''The Ultimate'' collection of Jerry Lee's work at Sun,
spread over twelve CDs nominally containing 318 separate tracks. Although the size of the box was increased by some fifty per cent it was again a case of simply adding to the inventory numerous alternates of familiar songs, the vaults having been emptied of
any new titles per se with the release of ''Don't Drop It'' and others some four years previously. However, rather than proffer six or seven consecutive takes of ''Great Balls Of Fire'' or ''Breathless'', in ''The Ultimate'' Charly adopted an atypical course
compared to that taken in the compilation of the earlier sets. The modus operandi was the marshalling of songs by reference to express themes; a collection of rock titles here, ''country roots'' there, ''rhythm and blues covers'' on the next CD and so on and
so forth. This neatly avoided the tricky question of the assumed chronology, serious doubts about which, with the benefit of hindsight, were already beginning to surface.
problem with ''The Ultimate'', leaving aside the misidentification and repetition of several recordings and the inadvertent exclusion of two titles altogether, was that from a fan's perspective the concept just didn't produce the goods. Amongst the well intentioned
jumble, with different takes of individual titles scattered at random across the twelve CDs, there was no opportunity to make sense of how a particular song had been worked on by the musicians in the studio and how it had evolved into a finished master, something
which the earlier sets had selectively allowed; rather, both the listener and, as it had turned out, the compilers, could become all too easily confused in trying to assess the distinctions between take ''x'' and take ''y'' of a particular title.
And so, to the current set, ''The Collected Works''. It has already been pointed out that the filing of session details at Sun had been notoriously lax, or, for much of the time, had been
subject to deliberate obfuscation on the part of Sam Phillips. The rules of the American Federation of Musicians specified that recording sessions might comprise up to three hours work, involving work on four titles, but no more than that. Sam was required
to submit returns to the union demonstrating compliance with these rules and it would seem that he wasn't averse to producing paperwork that would somehow stand up to official scrutiny, no matter that it bore little relationship to what had actually gone in
the studio. As Colin Escott put it in his 1989 essay accompanying the ''Classic'' box set, Sam's reports were, to all intents and purposes, ''largely a work of fiction''. So, during the years 1956 to 1959, a key discipline had effectively been disregarded
at Sun. And this was, of course, the period in respect of which such information would have proved most useful to the archivist, given that it was when Jerry Lee was at his most prolific in the recording studio, working intensively and regularly on the development
of his hit records.
To complicate matters further, Phillips habitually used up any remaining free space at the end of previously recorded tapes and sometimes re-cycled
them completely; this is yet another of the underlying causes of confusion about how sessions evolved, given that certain recordings had a habit of ending up in tape boxes where they bore no obvious relationship to many of the other contents. This consideration
also begs the question of just what was lost by the indiscriminate erasure of many rehearsals and outtakes. What price just one ''alternate'' of ''Mean Woman Blues''?
the absence of any definitive indication about exactly when particular recordings had been made, it was felt that there was every justification in trying to reassemble the jigsaw puzzle of the hundreds of tapes that have survived. The intention was to examine
and where appropriate re-evaluate, though certainly not to traduce, any earlier studies of the subject. For the greater part the work of the 1983 team of experts has been revalidated. But it is deemed appropriate to amend the nominal chronology at certain
points, in view of some fairly obvious anomalies in the 1983 list and with the benefit of thirty years hindsight.
The starting point was a conspicuous misunderstanding
about the recording of Frankie And Johnny''. Having analysed various aspects of the performance it was realised that this track could not, as had been supposed by those involved in the compilation of the 1980s box sets, date from March 1958 but that it was
much more likely to be the product of a session some nine months later. Listen to the drums and guitar; the much fuller sound indicates that this tape is out of place when set amongst relatively unpolished jewels such as ''Hello Hello Baby'' and ''Your Cheatin'
Heart'', whereas it does share many of the atttributes of ''Lovin' Up A Storm'' and ''Big Blon' Baby'', songs with which it has now been realigned.
Prompted by that reflection,
what else might be amiss? This narrative will not explain every change to the chronology; listeners accustomed to the 1983 running order can make comparisons and assess for themselves the conclusions put forward here. Perhaps some cherished notions have been
subjected to what may be regarded by some as inappropriate revisionism, but the team which worked on this project throughout much of 2013 and 2014 is confident of the outcome of its findings.
It's only fair to acknowledge that one facility the pioneering researchers lacked was the luxury of time, a benefit granted in rather greater measure to those reassessing their work some thirty years later. The compilers of this set have
been listening to the antecedent publications countless times over the course of several decades, rather than being new to much of the material and then having to make appraisals in a period of just a few weeks. Moreover, the ease of communication afforded
by the internet, with the ability to exchange sound files instantaneously across vast distances, fostered the creation of a ''virtual'' committee that could pore over the details of each track with relative ease.
Modern technical conveniences not available to original researchers in the comfort of their own homes in the 1980s have provided other advantages. For example, the comparison of tapes from different sources is made possibly
by listening at the same time to two recordings, with appropriate adjustment of their respective speeds as separate channels, in one test stereo track. In this way an undetected minor variation between successive takes may suddenly be made very apparent. Conversely,
the existence of a supposedly distinct recording may be disproven; the dismissal of the identification of a bogus third take of ''Ramblin' Rose'' being an example of this.
for all the sins ascribed to digitalised sound files there's no doubt that ''flac'' files and MP3s provide an immense convenience when it comes to analysing subtle distinctions between successive takes of the same song. The fact that we can now enjoy no fewer
than nine takes of ''Little Green Valley'', rather than the three previously determined, may well be down simply to the six new additions having been overlooked by the 1983 team, due both to time pressures and to the remarkably analogous sound across the entire
suite of recordings. Is it possible that some alternates were dismissed by those erstwhile investigators in the belief that the tracks in the ''newly found'' batch were merely copies of other tapes found in another box? The nine variants of ''Little Green
Valley'' also give a lie to the maxim that Lewis never recorded a song the same way twice; eight of nine are superficially consonant and one can spend hours poring over the detailed differences to tell them apart. Similarly, the manifold examples of ''Great
Balls Of Fire'', ''Milkshake Mademoiselle' and High School Confidential'', though usually more recognisable as distinct entities, still require analysis of the slightest detail, be it a glissando buried in the mix during a guitar solo, or the substitution
of an endearment such as ''sugar'' in place of ''honey'' somewhere in the lyric, to tell them apart with complete confidence.
The underlying methodology employed to arrive
at the new timeline is much the same as that used hitherto, with the few irrefutable facts, such as the release of Lewis' singles, being taken as pointers to the recording dates of specific titles. Although an attempt has been made to define a calender of
events, it often remains necessary to qualify the supposed date with an appropriate reservation. Consequently the emphasis is very much on treating the period concerned ''in the round'', and on simply charting the evolution of the Lewis sound over periods
of months and years rather than trying to reconstruct what, given the deficiency of source date, will inevitably be an imprecise diary.
In so doing, we chart progress
not simply in respect of individual titles, for example across the more than twenty takes of ''High School Confidential'', but also from one song to the next, as in the cases of ''Ubangi Stomp'', ''Rock 'N' Roll Ruby'' and ''So Long I'm Gone'', a trio which
are obvious bed-fellows. This is an important principle to follow given that there are so many songs of which only one performance was recorded. In this way, we can accommodate everything into the story of the development of the Lewis sound and highlight,
where appropriate, the significance of a notable aspect of one recording to other titles in a linked sequence.
The written analysis is purposely selective. A few of the
songs that Lewis performed once only at Sun, or at least where only one take has endured, will not necessarily receive a mention here; the accompanying discography is the authoritative guide to the content. Nor does this text furnish comprehensive details
of the origins of all the songs that Lewis recorded; it is reasoned that such facts will be known to many readers by virtue of earlier releases while in the twenty-first century online resources can easily be referred to for this information. A core function
of this text is simply to emphasise the slight distinctions between separate takes of the same song where the listener might not be expected, without spending a disproportionate amount of time and effort, to be able to segregate recordings with confidence.
But those who independently wish to analyse each track to establish their singularity may, of course, chose to leave this essay aside!
In providing this commentary it
is hoped that the listener will become all the more cognisant of the often painstaking work undertaken, on the part of Lewis, the backing musicians and the recording technicians, in arriving at the finished product. This thought prompts a further word of explanation.
The authors of the first detailed account of Jerry Lee's work at Sun, Martin Hawkins and Colin Escott, having invited Jerry Lee to help in trying to establish the facts, had been told ''I played on them, what the hell else do you need to know''? It remains
difficult to offer definitive pointers to who else was actually involved on specific occasions, although some guidance is offered in the accompanying discography. The presence of Roland Janes as guitarist on most of the early sides is not in doubt, not least
thanks to Jerry Lee habitually identifying him at the start of each guitar solo, while Jimmy Van Eaton is likewise an almost constant companion on the recordings made at 706 Union Avenue.
There is nonetheless cause to mistrust previously published session lists detailing the supposed involvement of certain personnel; and to be candid, good reason to be wary of some of the revisionism presented here! This work is not devoid
of speculation. But much of that now postulated reflects the careful analysis of individual performance traits, while any obvious anomalies in earlier works have been addressed. For example although the Charly discographies stuck resolutely to the idea that
Sidney Manker was the sole guitarist involved in the session which produced ''Ooby Dooby'', this suggestion openly disregards the fact that Jerry Lee is heard calling Roland to attention in the usual way before the delivery of his readily identifiable contribution.
It also needs to be said that the assertions of some of those directly involved have been treated with a degree of circumspection, given that all too frequently they contradict one another,
and the statements volunteered sometimes don't tally with the few documented facts. In Rick Bragg's exposition' (''Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story'' - Rick Bragg: Harper Collins Publishers, 2014), Jerry Lee claims not to have known the name of the drummer on
the ''historic recording'' of ''Great Balls Of Fire'', while his recollection of the bass player's identity, ''Sidney Stokes'', is at odds with that of Jay W. Brown, who suggests in his own book (''Whole Lotta Shakin''' - J.W. Brown with Rusty Brown: Continental
Shelf Publishing 2010) , that it was Al Stanger. As Lewis also told Bragg, ''...people like to remember things in a certain way''. In this instance, though, they might both be right; the most positive lead we can follow out of the melee of memories is that
these rival stories lend weight to the proposition that the recording of ''Great Balls Of Fire'' was by no means as straightforward as many would have us believe.
McRae, 2015 (*)