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.
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.