Graded on a Curve:
Jerry Lee Lewis,
Southern Roots: Back Home to Memphis

Celebrating “The Killer,” Jerry Lee Lewis on his 85th birthday.Ed.

For Jerry Lee Lewis, 1973 was the worst of years and the best of years too; despite a brief turn in prison, the death of a son, a divorce (his fourth), and rampant drug and alcohol abuse, the Killer still turned out two seminal LPs with The Session… Recorded in London with Great Artists and Southern Roots: Back Home to Memphis.

The latter LP is nothing short of a miracle; Jerry Lee somehow managed knock off ten galvanizing performances even though he was, by all accounts, out of control even by his own berserk standards. When he wasn’t abusing legendary producer Huey “The Crazy Cajun” Meaux, the heavily medicated Lewis was threatening to kill a photographer and generally being a dyspeptic old cuss. “Do you wanna try one?” asks Meaux doing the proceedings. “If you got enough fuckin’ sense to cut it,” replies the orneriest cage-rattler to ever hail from the friendly state of Louisiana.

Let’s make one thing clear from the start; neither LP comes close to recapturing the anarchic feel and demented energy of Lewis’ early recordings, or the deranged ferocity (subtlety? toss it out the goddamn window!) of his hair-raising live performance with the Nashville Teens at Hamburg, Germany’s Star Club in 1964. His vocals are lazier, and his piano playing less a frenzied hammering at the gates of Hell, the place he’s always figured will be his final destination. It may have been the pills, but the old piano burner almost sounds relaxed at times.

In short, on Southern Roots The Killer proves there’s more than one way to skin a cat. He lays back in the groove and waxes sly and lewd by turns, sounding randy even at his most relaxed and pretty copacetic for a guy who has just threatened to murder another guy for having the audacity to point a camera his way. Whether he’s singing the songs of Doug Sahm or Isaac Hayes or breathing life into novelty tune about a haunted house, Jerry Lee mostly plays it cool but isn’t afraid to blow volcanic hot when the mood strikes him.

Southern Roots boasts a veritable wrecking crew of crack musicians including Carl Perkins, Tony Joe White, and Booker T. and the M.G.’s alums Steve Cropper, Donald “Duck” Dunn, and Al Jackson, Jr. The Memphis Horns, who played on just about every album Stax Records put out, are also on hand. Put these boys together and they can’t help but swing, and while the results are loose (I don’t get the idea Jerry Lee’s a “let’s play it a hundred times until we’ve got it nailed down” kind of guy) these consummate pros never let the songs get away from ‘em.

“Meat Man” is one of the most slobberingly lascivious songs ever written, and only The Killer would have dared to release it as a single (it flopped). He plays some pneumatic piano, the horns are set to superblare, and the Sugar Sweets are there to provide some great backing vocals. And forget what I said before about Jerry sounding laid back; on this one he bops and shouts and boasts about all the meat he’s consumed from Macon, Georgia to Huntsville, Alabama and points west, only it ain’t meat he’s really singing about. That chicken he plucked in Memphis? Mama, he’s still got the feathers in his teeth. And his meat doesn’t have to be U.S. government grade-A approved either. Just has to lean and full of protein, if you know what I mean.

Jerry also goes full-tilt boogie on Doug Sahm’s “Revolutionary Man”; anchored by some great Vox organ by Augie Meyers of Sir Douglas Quintet fame and a whole lotta horn blurt, The Killer declares himself a revolutionary in every way; he lives it, he walks it, he talks it–he’s a “revolutionary mother hummer” and doesn’t give a damn what anybody has to say about it. And he’s got the Sugar Sweets behind him to add their own testimonial: “Jerry is a rebel!” they wail. “A revolutionary man!” Meanwhile, “Hold on! I’m Comin’” is soul for the NASCAR set; Lewis takes the Isaac Hayes’ number and waxes grandiloquent all over it. He howls, makes obscene noises with tongue and roof of mouth, lets it be known he’s made love to a flock of women in Tennessee, and in general makes it clear he’s enough man for every horny female from Memphis to Mobile, Alabama.

He shows more modesty and restraint on the Rosco Gordon boogie “Just a Little Bit”; over a funky beat he stutters, makes demands, then backtracks; he don’t want it all woman, he sings between “Woos!,” he just wants a little bit because, well, he’s practically hyperventilating with need. And he shuts things down with a blunt, “That’s a mother hummer!” (His avoidance of “motherfucker” is curious; the man has never been known for his clean mouth.) I keep seeing “Born to Be a Loser” attributed to the Carpenters, but I still don’t think they wrote it; it’s a blues number, for Christ’s sake. Regardless of the song’s real author, Jerry loafs his way through most of it, admitting he’s made mistakes but “ain’t nobody perfect.” Me, I love the song’s loping feel, the horns are friendly rather than lugubrious, and by the end of the song Jerry Lee just can’t believe any woman would had the unmitigated gall to walk away from him (“Think about it!” he expostulates, amazed down to his bones).

On the jaunty “Haunted House” Lewis boasts he ain’t afraid of nobody, including the horrible creatures and space aliens inhabiting his new house. Bells ring, chains rattle, but nothing is gonna drive Jerry away, not even the thing with one big eye and two big feet. What it all comes down to is this: “I bought this house and I am boss; ain’t no haint gonna run me off.” Lewis makes his sole foray into gospel country on the New Orleans-tinged “That Old Bourbon Street Church”; the horn section plays Dixieland, Jerry sings hallelujah while banging away on the old piano, and your dirty old clothes ain’t going to bother the Lord in this house full of sinners situated smack dab in the center of New Orleans’ one-street equivalent of Sodom, Pottersvile, and William Hogarth’s Gin Lane.

On “When a Man Loves a Woman” Jerry loses himself in the groove and puts it all into his phrasing, that is when he isn’t talking over the damn thing, or splattering it with his piano. As you’d expect the horns reign supreme, and the whole damn thing swings deliriously while Jerry goes from lazy-daying to slobbering. And he’s as relaxed as can be on “Blueberry Hill,” but then who isn’t relaxed on Blueberry Hill? He tickles the ivories some, even runs the length of ‘em, but nothing can harsh the mellow on this one, not the tuba, hell not even big bad Jerry himself. And he’s sounding very relaxed indeed on the Big Easy-inflected country song “Big Blue Diamond,” on which Wayne Jackson takes a very glittering star turn on trumpet.

1973 wasn’t just the year Lewis recorded two titanic LPs; it also marked his first invite to the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville Music City, which was never Jerry Lee’s kind of town. How did the Killer express his thanks to all the nice, family-values oriented folks in the audience, and to the kind people behind the scenes who gave him this big break? He declared, “Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherfucker!”

He then proceeded to ram a whole slew of rock’n’roll barnburners down his country-loving audience’s throats, exceeding the standard GOO time limit by more than 30 minutes. This little story tells you more about the man and his music than I could in an entire book. And the fact that the nice, family-values oriented folks at the Grand Ole Opry that night gave him a room-shaking standing ovation should tell you even more. The fella brings the killer out of everybody.


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