“Great Balls of Fire”: Wake Up, Country Music Hall of Fame!

Peter Guralnick makes his sharpest case yet for Jerry Lee’s Lewis’s genius and backs it up with two great videos in this piece, which he originally posted at his soul-deep blog www.peterguralnick.com.

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There are, certainly, graver injustices in the world.

That goes without saying.

But it doesn’t mean that situational injustices can’t be addressed. And while everyone knows that industry awards and recognition are, in the end, mere bagatelle (it’s the work, after all – in this case the music – that’s the only measure of the man or woman), can anyone imagine a greater absurdity than the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis is not in the Country Music Hall of Fame?

Jerry Lee has called himself The Greatest Live Show on Earth – and he is (though even he might concede, there are, certainly, others). Who else could go toe-to-toe with Jackie Wilson on a month-long tour of the Deep South in the early ‘60s? He could appreciate – he always appreciated – the talent of a Jackie Wilson, a Tom Jones, a Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, or Little Richard, any one of whom he was happy to share a stage with. But he never took it as anything less than a challenge – as he saw it, only one person was going to come out on top, and he never had any doubt as to who that person was going to be. As he said one time of an appearance on Tom Jones’ television show, “I cut his ass, and he knows it. Love him like a brother – but I don’t want him to forget who the old master is.”  Even the audience had to live up to his expectations.  I’ve seen him shush a blonde (“Honey, will you kindly quit your yakking? There’s lots of our loud numbers where you can do all the talking you want. But this here’s a real sad song and you ought to listen”) and stop a couple from dancing with the admonition, “I’m the show.”

And then, of course, there was always Elvis. – Elvis was there from the start. You have only to listen to the recording of their first musical meeting, at the fabled “Million Dollar Quartet” session in December 1956, where it becomes immediately apparent that even a young, untried and unproven Jerry Lee Lewis is not about to yield the stage to anyone, even if Elvis was coming off five #1 hits and Jerry Lee, whose first single had just been released, was glad of the $15 he received to play piano on the Carl Perkins recording date that gave the impromptu jam session its impetus. He was never, as many people have thought, jealous of Elvis – in fact, said Sun session guitarist Roland Janes (who played on virtually every great Jerry Lee Lewis hit, not to mention countless other memorable Sun recordings) he had the highest regard for him. “But in his mind he thought he was a better performer than Elvis. And who’s to say he wasn’t?”

Well, take a look at the video. The circumstances become immediately apparent in his introduction to the song. He has just been out for Elvis’ 1969 opening in Las Vegas – at Elvis’ invitation, he is quick to add – and he has words of praise for the performer and the show. But what does it prompt him to do but to raise the stakes on one of Elvis’ greatest recordings, as he has so often in the past – only this time on guitar. “Now don’t get too shook up,” Jerry Lee suggests with a certain amount of wry amusement, and you’ll have to make up your own mind about this. (I’ve got to admit I got pretty shook up when I first saw the clip a few weeks ago.) But see if you don’t catch the humor and self-awareness here, not to mention the irrepressible life force that lies at the heart of all his music.

Jerry Lee has always cited Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Al Jolson as his models – though on any given day he might just as likely speak of the inspiration he took from Ray Charles, B.B. King, Gene Autry, or Sister Rosetta Tharpe. There is no question that his genius puts him in the company of each and every one of them. Remember Sam Phillips’ unqualified declaration that of all his discoveries Jerry Lee was the most musically talented. This was to take nothing away from Howlin’ Wolf and Charlie Rich, who were “the most profound,” Elvis, who was “the most charismatic,” or any of the other great Sun artists, for whom Sam always had a well-chosen superlative. But in Sam’s words, “Jerry Lee Lewis was the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white. One of the most talented human beings to walk on God’s earth. There’s not one-millionth of an inch difference [between] the way Jerry Lee Lewis thinks about his music and the way Bach or Beethoven felt about [theirs].” This may sound a little over-the-top  (well, all right, more than a little), but immerse yourself for a few hours, or a few days, or a few weeks, in Jerry Lee Lewis’ musical world – and see if you can discover any deeper feeling than you’ll find in his greatest country numbers (from one of the earliest, “You Win Again,” to his heartbreaking version of Mickey Newbury’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”), see if you can find anyone whose music manifests more powerful, all-out emotional abandon.

Something that is rarely acknowledged: Jerry Lee Lewis is a person of the keenest intelligence and wit. He can size up a person at a glance, dispose of a troubling argument with a pithy insight. It should be noted, however, that like certain presidential candidates he refuses to be defined in anyone’s terms but his own, and a foolish consistency is definitely not one of his hobgoblins. I remember one time I was interviewing him in New Orleans, and he was casting about for some of the farther-flung sources of his inspiration. “Fats Waller,” he said. “You know that song –” And he paused, unable to come up with a title.

Now I was casting about – flailing would be more like it. “Honeysuckle Rose?” I ventured at last, dredging up, with great uncertainty, one of the two or three songs I could think of. “Yeah, that’s it,” he said, and I felt like the brightest sexagenarian in the class. The next day we returned to the subject, looking to some of the early sources of rock ‘n’ roll. “How about Fats Waller?” I said, mustering as close to confidence as I could ever get. “Fats Waller?” Jerry Lee said, as if he had never heard the name before and his eyes narrowed in that familiar expression of dismissive indignation.“Fats Waller,” he said, after a suitable pause. “I don’t know what the hell he’ s got to do with it!”

I’ve seen people try to give him advice – sometimes the best advice in the world. But if it comes down to acting the way they expect him to act, he will invariably – invariably – turn it down, even if, as often seems to be the case, it may be to his own detriment. “I am what I am, not what you want me to be” he proclaimed long ago in song. Or, as he announced to his sisters, who complained, or failed to grasp, why as a teenager he should be allowed to practice piano five, six, seven hours a day, every day, when they were forced to do ordinary household chores: “I am the great I AM.” Which may or may not have cleared up the misunderstanding.

To say that he is a person of supreme self-confidence would be begging the question. Maybe that’s the reason he’s not in the Country Music Hall of Fame: he has never been one to curry favor, certainly, he has never been one to live up to anyone’s expectations but his own. Just look at his reaction to the catastrophic drop in his popularity when he returned from England in 1958, after news of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin was revealed. It was said that he went from $10,000 a night to $250 a night at that time, but he never complained, said Roland Janes. “But it did get to him – there was a certain sadness [and] he probably became a little more arrogant as a self-defense mechanism.” “What could I do?” said Jerry Lee. “Holler and scream?” Nor was he about to apologize in anything more than cursory fashion. He wouldn’t give the world that satisfaction. He was still Jerry Lee Lewis – the only one.

And he still is. As much as Merle Haggard, as much as Hank Williams, as much as Sam Cooke, as much as any of his predecessors and heroes, he has created an astonishing body of work that is his own. Every song he sings might just as well have been written by him for all the individual panache he gives it. Like Alan Lomax, like a whole school of trained ethnomusicologists, he has uncovered a treasure trove of American song, from raw blues and hillbilly laments to fervent gospel, from “Goodnight Irene” to “The Marine Hymn” – and then, quite unlike the trained ethnomusicologist, he has put his own distinctive brand upon it. He is an American Original, he might just as well be called the American Original, he is, as it might once have been said, a credit to country music – now let country music give some credit to itself by finally installing Jerry Lee Lewis in the Country Music Hall of Fame.

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First thanks Peter Guralnick for allowing us to reprint this post.

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