Jerry Lee Lewis
Rock & Roll Time (Vanguard)
By Christopher Hollow
Jerry Lee Lewis never surrendered. He never got defeated.
Now 79, the man known as ‘The Killer’ is a kinda Paul Bunyan-type figure in the world of rock n’ roll. Big talker, big presence, big aura. One of those mad-cut cartoon-like characters that sprang from the American South in the ’50s, who screamed like he was crash-landing a flamed-out fighter plane.
With Jerry Lee comes a whole lotta back story. And the songs he’s selected for this album have a fabulous history too.
The story goes the first time he set his piano on fire was 1957, and it was to grandstand and intimidate another cold-eyed SOB in Chuck Berry. They’d had an argument about who should feature last.
“Top that!” is the PC version of what Lewis is meant to have spat at Berry at the end of his fiery performance.
But Lewis must’ve been impressed with Chuck. Back in ‘56, he sang “Too Much Monkey Business” and “Brown-Eyed Handsome Man” with Elvis Presley and the Million Dollar Quartet. Close to 60 years later, he’s still paying his respects – singing not one but two of Berry’s songs on Rock & Roll Time.
A song Berry wrote staring at his prison wall, the audacious “Promised Land”, is played as a real stomper with Jerry Lee hitting the piano hard. Of course, it sums up Jerry Lee’s trip too. Breakdowns and disasters at every turn, yet he keeps charging on. “Little Queenie” features Keith Richards and Ron Wood and the way Lewis drawls, ‘Meanwhile, I’m still thinking…’ suggests he’s never put too much thought into thinking.
As you might suspect, there’s nothing as wild as “Breathless” on Rock & Roll Time. There’s nothing as waywardly brilliant as “Lincoln Limousine”, but it does have the Killer touch.
The title track was originally written by the dream team of Kris Kristofferson, Byrd Roger McGuinn and long-time Dylan acolyte, Bobby Neuwirth, who all did quite disparate versions.
Kristofferson went for a woozy 3/4 late-night barroom meets gospel version on Spooky Lady’s Sideshow. McGuinn played it straighter on Peace on You, rocking out in 4/4 with a fabulous sounding 12-string through a Leslie speaker. Neuwirth tackled the track like a Phil Spector-session with saxophone and stacked vocals on his eponymous 1974 LP.
Jerry Lee has stated it’s his favourite track on the album and his own take – unlike any of the above – is punched out with a great 6/8 feel. The sentiment also befits his life-story much more so than the original writers [despite their credentials]– especially when he sings: ‘I fought for my freedom, some called it a crime’. He also comes alive on Bob Dylan’s “Stepchild”, an outtake from 1978 that Solomon Burke also transformed on his 2002 lp, Don’t Give Up On Me.
One of the slower highlights is the duet with Shelby Lynne on Kristofferson’s “Here Comes That Rainbow Again”.
Fellow Million Dollar Quartet member Johnny Cash gets a shout-out on a rollicking “Folsom Prison Blues”, with Robbie Robertson and Nils Lofgren along for the ride. Of course, all the anticipation rests on how Jerry Lee is gonna deliver that line. After revealing his Mama told him not to mess around with guns, he states that he shot a ‘boy’ in Memphis rather than Reno, and he really just wanted to watch him die.
It doesn’t have Johnny Cash’s coldness but the delivery does exhibit what Jerry Lee has always been about – the thrill. It’s a quality that’s all over this record – just for the hell of it, just for the thrill of it all.