Pop Goes The Country Double Feature: Jerry Lee Lewis – “The Killer” Within

Jerry Lee Lewis

Pop Goes The Country is an ongoing series where I explore country music’s biggest crossover hits.

To continue from where we left off on the last edition of ‘Pop Goes The Country,’ we’re in the process of discussing the rockabilly movement from the rockabilly artist’s perspective. Thus far, all discussions of this movement have circled back to Elvis Presley in some way, and they still will. But there’s another entity at play behind that big magic curtain.

In 1952, producer Sam Phillips established Sun Records as an outgrowth of his Memphis Recording Service. Initially, the label’s only employee was Marion Keisker, Phillips’ secretary. His brother, Jud, and Jim Bulleit were early investors in the label.

Initially, Sun Records recordings were mostly based in blues and rhythm and blues (R&B). The first single to appear on the Sun label was Johnny London’s “Drive Slow.” In 1954, though, Sun released Earl Peterson’s “Boogie Blues” and began moving into recording country music. The rest, as they say, is history.

Phillips believed in the sanctity of the performance above all else. As such, he failed to embrace modern technological innovations of the time such as multitrack recording. “I understand all the techniques and the bullshit, but I just don’t see the spontaneity. You can have too many crutches,” Phillips said. Basically, Phillips embraced being different.

And that shows in the way he handled his artists. Nothing like Presley’s “That’s All Right” sounded like anything else before. That comment also extends toward our main conversation piece for today – Jerry Lee Lewis.

Thus far, we’ve discussed how rock ‘n’ roll appealed to a younger generation, but we haven’t discussed the “how” or “why” of that discussion. In a nutshell, this music contributed toward a sense of liberation for southern rural youth, providing an outlet for creative expression. It was wild, visceral, aggressive, and cathartic for this younger demographic. Lewis was evidence of that statement.

Like Presley, Lewis grew up through Pentecostal faith, but while he was drawn to the church physically, spiritually, Lewis was drawn to the “music of the world.” A piano player by the age of eight, Lewis was dismissed from his church after playing a “boogie” version of “My God Is Real.” Needless to say, it’s no surprise to hear that Lewis would find himself one day at the doors of Sun Records.

But Sun didn’t initially want Lewis. He was “too country,” but once two singles – “Crazy Arms,” a cover of the Ray Price song, and “End Of The Road” – took off, Lewis, like Carl Perkins before him, was thought to be the artist to dethrone Presley from his perch.

But Lewis would have two bigger, career-defining hits before that claim was refuted. The first, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” was originally recorded by R&B singer Big Maybelle. Again, rockabilly was a way to sell black music through white performers, and Lewis’ raw, explosive energy complemented by his piano-pounding performances of the song was the perfect outlet to channel it. Like with that song, “Great Balls Of Fire” was another song in the same explosive vein.

Originally, like many members of his former church, Lewis found the song blasphemous. On a fall afternoon, Lewis took a piano at Sun Records and pounded out the song in a handful of takes. The phrase itself was improper for Christians, something that worried Lewis. Nonetheless, both songs were No. 1 country songs and No. 2 pop songs.

But again, like Perkins before him, Lewis would not dethrone Presley. Unlike Perkin’s unfortunate situation, though, Lewis’ was all his own doing. While on tour in England in 1958, it was revealed that Lewis had married his 13-year-old cousin. This didn’t exactly sit well with British or American audiences. It further developed that Lewis’ second marriage was bigamous. Presley was squeaky clean and obedient in comparison. Lewis, on the other hand, was the trashy, dangerous rebel. Lewis would eventually bounce back and make a moderate return as a country and honky tonk singer, but between chronic alcohol and drug problems, owing debt to the government, being sued for shooting his drummer twice in the chest and being arrested for waving a pistol outside Presley’s mansion one night, Lewis didn’t exactly didn’t find God again right away. He was rocking his life away, quite literally.

As for Sun Records, by 1960, all of the label’s major performers except Lewis were gone, and certain new signees like Charlie Rich wouldn’t blossom just quite yet – another day and time. Independent label rivals like Hi and Satellite/Stax were picking up on Sun’s method in new, exciting ways. The glory days were over.

As you might be able to guess, we’re almost done discussing the rockabilly movement. Before that, though, we have to switch perspectives once again to look at country artists operating from within this movement, so join me next time as we discuss Ferlin Husky (once again) and “Gone.”

This piece was written thanks to the following sources:

  • Parts of Jerry Lee Lewis’ biography were lifted from The Encyclopedia of Country & Western Music by Rick Marschall.
  • Basic information regarding the formation of Sun Records was taken from The Encyclopedia of Country Music, with an excerpt taken from a discussion of the label by Jimmy Guterman.
  • Further information on Lewis and the rockabilly movement was taken from Country Music U.S.A. by Bill C. Malone, with a specific focus on the chapter, “Country-Pop Music And The Nashville Sound.”

 

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