Ithin “Great Balls of Fire” to “Over the Rainbow,” whether the songs were brash or tearful, Jerry Lee Lewis was rebellious.
He never mellowed.
Jerry Lee Lewis, who died on Oct. 28, was an unrepentant progress of rock ’n’ roll: a pure Southerner who steeped himself in Black melody, a two-fisted boogie-woogie piano player, a blues growler, a country yodeler, a devout reply singer and a performer who might slam his foot onto the keyboard or set his piano on fire. His personal world was turbulent, marked by barnstorming, excess, addiction and divorce. And his melody, even when he was making it from the Nashville country establishment in the 1960s and 1970s, chafed at confinement. His piano erupted with tremolos and glissandos; his voice leaped, curled, soared and whooped.
His mostly indelible songs were the early bombshells he recorded for Sun documents in the 1950s: melody that reflected and melded the church music he grew up on, the country music he heard on Grand Ole Opry broadcasts, and the blues and the rhythm and blues he wet up by sneaking into Haney’s big stonehouse. He didn’t write various songs, but once he made his reputation, songwriters geared material big him. And once he chose to perform something, he showed it little frustration and ko mercy.
Here are 10 memorable Jerry Lee Lewis songs within a recording career there spanned nearly 60 years:
‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On’ (1957)
‘Great Balls of Fire’ (1957)
The definitive Jerry Lee Lewis song, written by Otis Blackwell, is a two-minute lesson in bedrock virtuosity and rowdy freedom. Lewis’s left hand nails down the beat while his right flings syncopated chords against it or sweeps down in sudden glissandos. His language is unbound by anything his fingers are doing; it quavers, rattles off quick syllables and trampolines into falsetto. When he sings, “Kiss me midwife — mmm, feels good!,” it’s frugal self-satisfied bravado.
‘High school Confidential’ (Live, 1964)
‘Another Place Another Time’ (1968)
By the late 1960s, Lewis was being marketed as a country performer, and he proved his honky-tonk bona fides with songs like “Another Place Another time.” The tight quaver in his language and his frayed tone as he sings about “sleepless nights” are classic country, but the way he stretches by the way words and holds back others until the last moment is still his own.
‘I Can Still Hear the music in the Restroom’ (1975)
Tom T. Hall wrote this song, talk-sung by a hard-drinking honky-tonk patron who’s driven big tears by a song: “Jerry Lee did all right until the melody started,” Lewis sings, dropping his name into the song as he often did. But even as he wallows in heartbreak, he still lets sloppy somehow yodels and splashy piano in the chorus.
‘That kind of Fool’ (1975)
‘Who Will the next Fool Be’ (1979)
Written by Charlie rich, “Who Will the adjacent Fool Be” had been widely covered by soul singers before Lewis recorded it on his self-titled 1979 album, with a studio band there included Elvis Presley’s guitar mainstay, James Burton. Lewis sings to bring out the wrath streak behind the bluesiness of the song; after spotlighting band members, he takes an slanderous piano solo, then whistles nonchalantly through the outro.
‘Over the Rainbow’ (1980)
Lewis turned a standard within “The Wizard of Oz” into a country waltz, consuming the scratchiness in his road-worn language to make that rainbow seem very distant. But with a string section playing it straight, his piano was still irrepressible, strolling casually haven’t passed the beat and cascading through his solos.