Graded on a Curve,
Jerry Lee Lewis,
The Knox Phillips Sessions

Placing Jerry Lee Lewis in a studio with a working piano and rolling tape machine is a recipe for interesting results. Deep at night in the midst of the late-‘70s that’s just what happened; after nearly four decades in the can, The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings documents the Killer colluding with Sam’s son. The finished product, grooved into 180gm wax by the Saguaro Road label, is an at-times fascinating historical curiosity falling significantly short of Lewis’ finest moments, though flashes of brilliance are in evidence.

By now, the amount of combined ink and bytes employed to describe, discuss, and evaluate Jerry Lee Lewis is immense. A truly bedrock rock ‘n’ roll figure, when Lewis exploded out of Sun Studios in 1957 with “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Elvis suddenly seemed considerably less threatening.

Attaining status as a rockabilly crossover with a ten ton personality substantially wilder than Presley’s is enough to ensconce one in the tomes of history, but inspection of Jerry Lee’s ‘50s sides, and there are many, reveals deeper substance. For starters, the piano; along with his partner in pounded-ivories Little Richard, Lewis embodied a legitimate lead-instrument alternative in the years when R&R’s fate was uncertain.

No doubt Lewis will bristle at getting lumped in with Richard Wayne Penniman. Even casual fans of the Killer know that he self-assesses into a class, if not by himself, then including only a select few. Specifically cited on this LP; Stephen Foster, Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams. But in truth, outside of a pure oldies context, there are hardly any casual Jerry Lee Lewis fans, in part due to his oversized ego; many simply can’t accept the man’s arrogance, a manner that has frequently bypassed swagger to reach a level of borderline hostility.

The other, larger aspect is social behavior that hasn’t gotten less problematic over time. When one marries an underage blood relative people tend to remember. The situation is therefore thus; one either pardons Lewis his transgressions or one doesn’t. This writer makes no apologies for being a forgiver, and one that finds the contents of The Knox Phillips Sessions pretty agreeable for the duration.

As any linguist will decree, agreeable is not the same as excellent, though this shouldn’t suggest Lewis is off his game; limber fingers are abundant and brash attitude runs rampant. The promo writing for this set sorta pits the ten tracks (eleven on the vinyl) against the country material Jerry Lee recorded for Smash-Mercury, but the extended, half extemporaneous cover of “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” and the proceedings as a whole don’t eschew C&W but rather strip it of commercial possibilities; indeed, a swaying fiddle wastes no time in making a welcome appearance.

Becoming clear just as quickly; on the late nights/early mornings in question, in the general proximity of Phillips Recording studio, a seal of a bottle was cracked. Loose, lubed-up and foulmouthed, Lewis turns the Jim Croce original onto its ear and then kicks it in the ass, his ever mounting shit-talking rollicking pretty well for the majority but unsurprisingly stumbling towards the end, at which point he immediately anoints it as a “14 million selling underground record.”

That might seem like a contradiction, but his use of underground, more descriptively the stuff sold under the counter/behind the curtain/beyond the saloon doors in the Adults-only section, fits “Bad, Bad Leroy Brown,” if not this entire LP, to a tee. Well, sort of; Lewis stops short of uttering the epithet motherfucker, substituting the less salacious yet still impolite motherhumper, though other expletives fly without hesitation.

Frankly, this is for the good; the prospect of Jerry Lee cutting a full-blown X-rated party record is kinda depressing. Flirting but not totally succumbing to the idea does illuminate this expelled bible college enrollee’s constant grappling with the spiritual and the secular. While flagrantly informal and laced with mistakes, Lewis even calling himself out for a clam, the sheer boisterousness of impromptu braggadocio is still a blast; along the way the titular character morphs into another soubriquet for the Killer, and the only person badder than he is apparently “that Watergate cat” Richard Nixon.

“Bad, Bad Leroy Brown” is The Knox Phillips Sessions ace in the hole; after hearing it, everything that follows goes down easy, though nothing matches it for knocked-off spirits-fueled gusto. “Ragged but Right” scales back to just Lewis and an accenting harmonica, though mid-way through the full band emerges. They stick around for “Room Full of Roses,” a tune his cousin Mickey Gilley took to #1 on the C&W chart in ’74.

The atmosphere remains loose, but as the studio was chock with baseline competence things never stray too far from the objective; especially appealing is the whiny steel guitar in “Room Full of Roses.” Picking up the rocking imperative is a serviceable Chuck Berry medley, though the persistence of pedal steel in “Johnny B. Goode” lends it an almost contempo Western Swing feel. On “Carol” Lewis bangs the boards quite heavily.

“That Kind of Fool” was written by longtime Lewis associate Mack Vickery; under the moniker Atlanta James, he cut it for MCA in ’73. Vickery also played harmonica on some of Jerry Lee’s Mercury discs and in fact might be the harp-blower here. It’s a song further reinforcing this album’s C&W nature, basically sounding like a rough demo for the version that appeared on ’75’s Odd Man In.

Side two opens strong with “Harbor Lights,” a pop standard Jerry Lee also recorded for Mercury (it’s on the 10-CD Mercury Smashes…and Rockin’ Sessions box set, anyway), though it’s easier found in more sedate form on Tomato’s live from the Palomino Club LP Rockin’ the Night Away. Here’s it’s boogied-out and comes with what’s possibly a Jaws reference near the end. Following it is “Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior,” a worthy though not exceptional hunk of gospel from a lifelong sinner.

I’ll note that Lewis’ playing is vibrant throughout, with his handiwork the main attraction of “Music! Music! Music!/Canadian Sunset,” a medley dragging two oft-recorded middle-of-the-road sources straight into Lewisland. It helps to illustrate the range and age of the guy’s influences, though his versatility isn’t exactly a secret; the Louisiana spice of “Lovin’ Cajun Style” might surprise a newcomer, but for those familiar with his “Jambalaya” it’ll be no shocker. I think I know which listener is more likely to buy The Knox Phillips Sessions.

Edging into weirdsville is a tribute to/cover of Stephen Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer,” with (I’m guessing) Knox’s spoken introduction and epilogue purposely blending the awe-struck and the maudlin. As much as it praises Foster it naturally serves to honor Lewis as a member of that aforementioned succinct list of Killer-approved greats. It bookends well with the opener’s bold lack of commercial viability, but vinyl buyers receive a bonus track, a solid full band workout of “That Kind of Fool” that’s tougher than the one on Odd Man In.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is probably the greatest non-jazz live LP ever (it’s only competition is from the same era, James Brown’s Live at the Apollo), one that continues to give me gooseflesh. Issued by Philips (no relation) in ’64 and unavailable for decades in the US, made by a flawed, complicated man cast aside by the public at large with the Brit Invasion breathing down his neck (and backed up by the UK’s Nashville Teens), it finds Lewis turning neglect and desperation into an incendiary device, the detonation simultaneously serving as an artistic highpoint and personal cleansing.

He didn’t hang up those rock ‘n’ roll shoes, but by the ‘60’s close Jerry Lee had safely transitioned into C&W with deserved success. Sure, he over-recorded (10 CDs worth) and the production is sometimes suspect (e.g. backing singers, though they additionally figure into the Sun scenario), but Another Place Another Time, She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me), and She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye are masterpieces of the country genre.

Those albums, a liberal dose of the Sun work and of course Star Club comprise the essentials. Others aren’t far behind. The Knox Phillips Sessions is not in their league, though fans will certainly want to investigate. If it leaves one a little underwhelmed, at least there’s a potential drinking game; every time he says motherhumper/ing take a nip of the hard stuff, whenever he utters his own name gulp a mouthful of suds, and on each occasion where he speaketh the Killer, just chug it all down, baby. It’s a surefire blueprint for turning circumstances sideways, and methinks Lewis would approve.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
B

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