How many stories start with, “I know a guy…”? I know! But, having said that, I know a guy who knows a guy who knew a guy and that’s how come we’re here. The guy I know got a tape from a guy he knows who told him not to make any copies of it, and that guy got it from the guy he knew who made the tape and gave him a copy, telling him not to make any copies, but that guy made a copy and gave it to my guy, telling him not to make any copies, and he made a copy for me, telling me not to make any copies. And I haven’t until now.
I sort of wish this stuff was already on the internet, so I’m not the guy who got it put there, but my guy says I can use it, so it’s going to be today’s essay and Bob’s yer uncle. I couldn’t find it on the net, and I’m hoping no one cares and I hope I’m not breaking any laws, and it’s been over thirty years… I’m glad he made a copy for me and I hope you’ll be, too.
I talk about rock ‘n’ roll with friends and I write about it here, and of all the permutations that rock has broken up into, what I like most is pure rock ‘n’ roll. No sound effects, no auto-tuning, no large ensembles, no strings, horns or elaborate orchestrations, and no frills. Straight-ahead, balls-to-the-wall, all-out rock ‘n’ roll. Say, as practiced by the early Jerry Lee Lewis.
Rolling Stone magazine ranked him number 24 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time, and he is an interesting character for sure. Raised in a fervently religious household, even as a tyke, Jerry Lee had rock in his soul and it caused innumerable problems for him and his family. Still does, I hear. Teenage Elvis’ favorite singers were Perry Como and Dean Martin, and while he was still crooning like them to impress his mother in Memphis, down in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis had been bugging his father to buy him a piano until his dad had to mortgage the house to get it. That is dedication! Was Elvis driven like that? Fat chance. You think Jerry Lee’s dad could afford the piano? He couldn’t, and the bank eventually foreclosed on the house. Yeah, they lost the house, but the boy kept the piano, which anyway had no value by then because the kid had worn the ivory off the keys with his enthusiastic pounding.
Then they felt that if Jerry Lee was that driven, they’d give the boy some lessons, maybe calm him down. Well, that lasted all of four lessons and ended when his teacher slapped him and stormed out of the house, but by that point, barely out of adolescence, he was continuing his education at night by sneaking into a nearby black nightclub, watching, studying, learning from guys like B.B. King and Muddy Waters. Rock was still just bubbling up into consciousness, and while Elvis was going to church with his parents, Jerry Lee’s parents were still trying to calm the boy down by enrolling him in bible college. It was in the family, you know, what with Jimmy Swaggart being a cousin and all, but that lasted until Jerry Lee sat down at the keys and rocked a gospel tune with a boogie-woogie beat and got thrown out of school. Yeah, he was getting thrown out of school for rocking while Elvis was still being walked to school by his mom and practicing his crooning. Elvis had no rock in his soul; never had it, never would. If he had any rebellion in him, well… how would we know? Who’s the rebel? Who’s the rocker?
While Elvis was still spending weekends going to a church near home with Gladys and Vernon, every Saturday Jerry Lee was away somewhere playing piano with his cousin Jimmy at whatever show was close enough to drive to. Jimmy played the bass keys and Jerry Lee played the treble; together they swept talent contests around the state, and they won by rockin’ the house. At age fifteen, both Elvis and Jerry Lee were in Tennessee, Elvis attending church socials in Memphis while Jerry Lee was pounding a piano in a Natchez nightclub. After Elvis’ mistake, “That’s All Right, Mama” came out, Jerry Lee’s dad drove him right to Sun Studios in Memphis, where Elvis had recorded, and two months later, Jerry Lee’s country tune, “Crazy Arms” had sold 300,000 units. Interestingly—and remember, this was just after Elvis hit it huge— when Jerry Lee got to Sun for his second session to cut a follow-up to ”Crazy Arms,” the engineer told him, "We don't do much country around here. We're in the rock & roll business. You ought to go home and work up some rock & roll numbers."
Jerry Lee had heard the original recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’” by Big Maybelle (and produced by Quincy Jones) on the “race music” label, Okeh, and in his stage shows Jerry Lee took the R & B song and rocked the shit out of it with a driving boogie-woogie roll and a rock beat behind him. Maybe no one will ever know what songs Jerry Lee was thinking about recording for that second session, but when that engineer said that to him, Jerry Lee pulled Big Maybelle’s song out of the bag, recorded it, and shot to world-wide fame in weeks. It was recorded in February, 1957, released in April and by May, Jerry Lee was world-famous. So, by the summer of ’57 in Young Gilbertville, Elvis was white toast. Oh, not to the masses; I guess I was one of them, and I stuck with Elvis because he was, well, he was Elvis, but when I saw Jerry Lee on American Bandstand, it changed my life (video link).
When I was researching my book, “FAT CHANCE,” I was amazed to find that two other people I interviewed told me the same thing happened to them on that same day: we all saw that performance, and at the same moment, we felt inspired by rock ‘n’ roll. It was that show on that day and it was Jerry Lee Lewis that moved us. I remember his hair, and this was before all the hair revolution by the Beatles; his hair wasn’t rebellion, this hair was just long, which made him dangerous. Attractive, but dangerous, and rock ‘n’ roll should be dangerous. And when he was onstage, it was as if he couldn’t control himself- like he was pounding on that piano to get the demons out but the music wasn’t getting out fast enough. He was explosive, and for a kid in the mid-Fifties, it rocked me to my soul. I don’t think anyone of us teens had ever seen someone so possessed, so barely in control, so… dangerous. And he was singing live, not lip-synching like all the other new teen heart-throbs. As poor as my memory has become (age and… gypsies!), for some reason I still remember this figure: his locks were being thrown back and forth as he rocked. Exciting! Electric! He nodded violently as he played and the locks went backward and forward and up and down and it was mesmerizing and he was still pounding furiously when he jumped up so violently that the bench flew backwards as he stood there and pounded at the keys! It was clear and simple: right before my eyes I saw someone rock! I mean really rock!
Imagine this: Elvis opened the door, but once the marketers saw the opportunity, the next guys through the door were manufactured teen idols, like some Bobby’s, a couple of Jimmy’s, some Frankie’s and a Fabian. The record industry was ready to flood the charts with tame, marketable crooning Elvis clones that threatened no parents and sold respectably. They called it rock, but it wasn’t, and I didn’t know better until the day I saw Jerry Lee. Elvis was rebellious because of his sideburns and his sneer, but that’s all he had, and after him the clones were tame. And then there was Jerry Lee Lewis. I’ve written an essay called “The Problem With Elvis,” in which I establish that while Elvis was a factor in opening the rock door, he wasn’t a rocker, and after he sold his soul to “Colonel” Tom Parker, he ceded control of all aspects of his life to his manager and never rocked again. It’s a long essay, so this isn’t the place for it, but the point is made: Elvis was a pussy and a phony all his life and Jerry Lee rocked his ass off every night. But that’s not why we’re here today.
Sam Phillips had long been saying that if he ‘could find a white boy who sang like a black boy, he’d make a million dollars.’ Phillips had no idea what was in his studio that day, fumbling to make a demo record and failing badly until they took a break and Elvis fooled around on a guitar by speeding up a bluegrass standard. They recorded it, and after that mistake went public and blew the doors open, Jerry Lee’s dad drove him to Memphis to record at Sun Studios. And now we are at the nub.
Jerry Lee’s family was and remains deeply religious. I think the word I’m looking for is fundamentalist. Remember cousin Jimmy Swaggart. Anyone with an ear could tell that Jerry Lee was a rocker, and a pioneer rocker at that, and after getting slapped by his teacher and tossed out of bible school, he knew he was driven to play it, but he also knew it was the devil’s music. He’s been deeply conflicted all his life and it has fucked this guy’s life up so much. He loved his music, but he also believed it was sinful. And then The Fall From Grace: on his first tour of England, at the top of the charts, he lost his career when it was revealed that he’d married his 13-year old cousin, followed by the time he shot up the gates of Graceland, the
I don’t know what chemical compound plays out in Jerry Lee’s head these days, but now we go back to the days of "American Bandstand," when the dude was severely conflicted by loving rock ‘n’ roll and believing it was a sin. He was living through a nonstop cycle of rock and repent. The recording I’m not supposed to have and you’re not supposed to hear? I believe it was made at Jerry Lee’s second recording session. I looked for it on the internet, and maybe it’s there and I couldn’t find it, but I doubt it. Even if you didn’t know the originals to a couple of them, they’re still a unique peek into a young performer as he was creating rock ‘n’ roll. One of my personal favorites here is when Jerry Lee and Sam Phillips are arguing and one of the musicians, tired of sitting around and listening to this bible shit, keeps trying to stop the chatter and cut the track. He’s about to record “Great Balls Of Fire,” he knows what’s coming and he wants to rock! You’ll hear it. I love that guy!
I’ve included some studio chatter, some alternate takes, and some songs from those sessions that you might not have heard. It’s pure rock in its earliest stages. Remember: what you’re going to hear is a young man at his second recording session, inventing rock ‘n’ roll. It was a simpler time, friends, a simpler time. This is an essential look into the birth of rock ‘n’ roll by one of the masters, so enjoy it, d-d-dammit.
Here’s what we have:
• Jerry Lee argues with Sam Phillips about God, religion, Jesus and sin “If I didn’t have the devil in me I’d be a Christian!”
• So they stop arguing about sin and cut an alternate take of “Great Balls of Fire”
• An alternate take of GBoF, a little chatter about pussy and back to recording
• False start, studio talk and “Milkshake Mademoiselle”
• “That was crap” /studio talk/ milkshake Mademoiselle”
• Chatter/ High School Hop
Gilbert Klein has enough degrees and not enough stories. He’s been a radio talk show host, a nightclub owner, event producer, and has written two books: FAT CHANCE about the legendary KFAT radio, and FOOTBALL 101. He threatens to write one more. He spent 25 years in New York, 25 years in San Francisco, and is now purportedly retired in Baja.