Wednesday, 5 January 2011

Little Richard and Jerry Lee gave us the greatest rock music programme of all time

There’s a tale, possibly apocryphal, that Jerry Lee Lewis was appearing on the same bill as Chuck Berry in one of DJ Alan Freed’s Rock ‘n’ Roll reviews, when there was a dispute over who would close the show. Much to his chagrin, Jerry Lee lost. Taking his revenge, he whipped the audience into an absolute frenzy, and finished his act by pouring lighter fluid on the piano and setting it alight. As he left the stage, with the audience howling for more, he’s reported to have turned to Chuck Berry, waiting in the wings, and snarled, “Follow that, nigger!”

Well, it has the tang of truth about it.

I wonder if he tried something similar with Little Richard when they both appeared in the greatest live popular music programme ever broadcast on television -  Granada TV’s 1964 special, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. If there was any sort of rivalry involved, it spurred both of them to give the most electric performances I’ve ever seen: if anyone ever asks me why Rock ‘n’ Roll had such an extraordinary impact, I’ll tell them to watch this show (subsequently retitled Don’t Knock the Rock).

I was eleven at the time it aired. I’d seen the Stones and the Beatles on TV, and I think I’d caught one or two performances by Gene Vincent on Oh Boy (ITV’s answer to the BBC’s Six-Five Special – both created by producer Jack Good, who ended life as a monk) – but I’d never seen Little Richard or Jerry Lee Lewis perform. However, I was a fan of both - my brother had a single EP by each artist, which were probably the records I’d played the most to date, barring Elvis’s Golden Records LP. 

The programme opened with a bunch of bikers roaring into an enormous TV studio and taking up their positions on the sort of scaffolding superstructure which would become a regular feature of Yoof TV in the 1980s. Backed by the rather lumpy but vigorous British group Sounds Incorporated, Gene Vincent – his face puffy with booze, his crippled leg trailing behind him – did decent versions of two of his hits (including a particularly nice version of “You Are My Sunshine”, in which his “sweet Virginia whisper” is much in evidence):

Then (if I remember right) it was the turn of an unknown Geordie beat combo called The Animals, featuring an acne-scarred monkey-boy with a fantastic voice, a pig-faced giant on bass, and a floppy-haired young chap trying to demolish a weird, skinny little organ-thing, and making a superb  noise while he was about it.

They were astonishingly good.

Then came Jerry Lee Lewis, who appeared to have aged 30 years since the photo on our EP had been taken, with clothes to match (although only seven years had lapsed – drink, pills, a fondness for guns and marrying your 13-year old cousin can do that to a man, I guess).
By the end of his split set, the audience was seething around The Killer’s piano. He closed, inevitably, with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On”. To this day, the sequence remains an object lesson in how to capture the sheer howling bravado of a raw rock ‘n’ roll performance at its Dionysian best. Not, of course, that rock’s greatest-ever performer – the piano-pumping wild man from Ferriday, Louisiana – hadn’t ripped TV studios apart before (this 1957 performance is particularly memorable –Eisenhower-era Americans had been stirred up by Elvis, but God alone knows how they reacted to this leering, lascivious, long-haired crazy-man acting as if he had electrodes attached to his private parts).

Brought up on an almost unrelieved TV musical diet of sad old lamos crooning cack, or fresh-faced young chaps not much older than me doing sub-standard imitations of their American heroes, Jerry Lee Lewis was a revelation. This very grown-up grown up gave every impression of having freshly emerged from the depths of hell with a mandate to deprave a nation. This was like nothing I had ever experienced: I think I knew from that moment that this would be what I’d be measuring all future music against. And that’s exactly what I’ve done.

But the show wasn’t over until the fat man sang. Okay, that’s a little unfair – but Little Richard, who was a skinny little boy wearing huge clothes on the cover of our old EP, now had a completely spherical face, and had evidently chubbed up a bit (although substituting clothes several sizes too small for clothes five sizes too large might have had something to do with it.)

I experienced another epiphany as I watched this perspiring holy-roller strut his stuff: here was another great Rock ‘n’ Roll originator, another piano-pumping legend, showing what true, God-Given talent looks, sounds and feels like.  (Though both men questioned the supernatural origins of their gifts: their southern religious roots regularly caused them to question the morality of what they were doing – Little Richard abandoned rock for gospel for many years, and Jerry Lee Lewis’s doubts led to this 1957 exchange with Sun Records owner, Sam Phillips).

Oddly, Little Richard also included a version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” in his equally mesmerizing Granada set (why the producers allowed both performers to do the same song is a mystery). Good Lord, what a voice! (He sounds uncannily like Otis Redding – unsurprising, given that his fellow-Georgian started as a Little Richard clone: just listen to Redding’s early single, “Shout Bamalama”, which sounds like flattery taken to extremes.)

The only performance I’ve seen to surpass either Jerry Lee’s or Little Richard’s was the live segment of Elvis’s 1968 Comeback Special, in which the King shows how he earned his  title.

For obsessives (like me) here’s Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’s running order:
Gene Vincent - 'Be-Bop-A-Lula'
Jerry Lee Lewis - 'Great Balls Of Fire'
Sounds Incorporated - 'William Tell Overture'
Little Richard “Rip It Up”
Gene Vincent 'You're My Sunshine'
Little Richard - 'Lucille' / 'Long Tall Sally' / 'Send Me Some Lovin' / 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On' / 'Hound Dog' / 'Good Golly Miss Molly'


  1. I also saw the show at the time. If I remember correctly, Jerry Lee was wearing a suit like a real grown up and appeared outwardly respectable. Big mistake. By about half way through, his combed back hair was all over his face ( and not in a wholesome mop top fringe ) and he was sweating profusely. There was an air of menace and suppressed violence about the whole performance, even before he started taking it out on his piano and not because he looked like the meanest sonofabitch that had ever taken a shine to a 13 year old cousin. It was thrilling.

    I never really took the Stones' "look at us we're a bit wild and Keef went to art college" image seriously after that.
    Thursday, January 6, 2011 - 11:13 AM

  2. However, I really don't get 1968 Elvis comeback other than that it shows what might have been if the fake Colonel hadn't tried to turn him into a family entertainer and convinced him that starring in "ClamBake" and singing "Old MacDonald" would be career-enhancing. "And when those chicks got out of line, chicken fricasee". Mmm.. nice.

    It's a return to form admittedly, the voice is still there but it's all very carefully rehearsed including the banter and a bit cabaret. I think the spark went some time as the 50s turned into the 60s, never to return.
    Thursday, January 6, 2011 - 11:31 AM

  3. I must disagree re Elvis, Ex-KCS. The “live” part of the Comeback Special was very unrehearsed – they just let the tape run for a long time, which is why you get him singing Jimmy Reed’s “Baby, What Do You Want me To Do” over and over again on the extended version. The fact that Elvis takes the electric guitar off Scotty Moore so near the start proves, I think, that they were making it up as they went along. His voice on the Reed number, “One Night”, “Trying to Get to You”, “Lawdy Miss Clawdy” (and “If I Can Dream” from the later part of the show) reached peaks of rawness and power which he’d never produced before (I loved his voice on the Sun Sessions, too, but it was so young and light it might as well have belonged to another singer). After the Special, Elvis formed the TCB band and various release since his death show them to have been a really blisteringly outfit, with Elvis in truly fine voice again – the Elvis Nashville 1970 LP, featuring alternative versions and rehearsals is a real favourite of mine (in particular, “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water”): I think the spark returned all right, but it didn’t last for that long, and was soon snuffed out by industrial quantities of drugs and wasting months arsing around in a cape in front of Vegas audiences.
    I remember seeing the Comeback Special at a New Year’s Eve Party at Steve Brady’s house, and, my God, it was a revelation! Although I was obviously disappointed he hadn’t included “(There’s) No Room to Rhumba in Sports Car” with those immortal lines:

    Cause there's no room to rhumba in a sports car
    You can't move forward or back
    There's no room to do what the beat tells you to
    Without throwing your spine outta wack!
    Friday, January 7, 2011 - 09:41 PM

  4. Let's agree that the voice was still there. He also appears to be having great fun singing. I am sure it is ridiculous but I have this feeling that eventually some hot shot producer would have got him away from the Jordanaires and the full band wall of sludge, fixed him up with a tight rhythm section, given him decent songs and stripped back the sound to highlight the voice.

    You're far more of an expert than I am, Scott, but I'll always skip Suspicious Minds, Always on My Mind etc and go back to I Got Stung and All Shook Up, not because he was necessarily a better singer then but just for the raw simplicity.

    Steve Brady's NYE party??? The ghosts of my life.....
    Saturday, January 8, 2011 - 05:17 PM

  5. This is a great blog. Brought back the happiest of memories. Little Richard in his classic bulgy-eyed, vodoo-mood [still miss the shantung zoot suit and pompadour] and The Killer representing the epitome of sleaze and evil and retaining his white vinyl loafers with the gold chains. It is obvious that both of them are on the raggedy edge of lunacy.
    Your- setting -fire- to -the piano story reminds me of the time Jerry Lee visited Gracelands. He careered into the fron-gate in his Elderado, fell out clutching a bottle of Wild Turkey, fired off his weaponry into the air and then asked the guards very politely "Tell that Presley boy the Killer's here." And he is still with us and performing at 80! No, the meek shall not blah blah...
    I vaguely remembered two other televised events which I would love to see again - a concert given by The Killer in Bristol [JLL: "It's wunnerful to be back with you good people of....what's the name of this goddamned place?"] and a documentary about Keith Richards mounting a Chuck Berry concert during which it became plain that Berry was also off his rocker and that Keef was terrified of him.
    In my search on the internet I came across other great artists who had slipped my memory - Bo Diddley, Buddy Holly, Jackie Wilson, Wilson Pickett, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochrane and the ineffable Alphonse Dominique Domino. Over Christmas I watched 5-minutes of a concert by a group called Take That [ in front of a vast crowd at Wembley]. Jesus - where did it all go so badly wrong? Why would you pay to watch something like that?
    Finally, I didn't think Gene Vincent looked as good in his leathers as Elvis, but there's no accounting for taste.
    Sunday, January 9, 2011 - 05:01 PM

  6. If Peter Sharman were participating, he would be making a spirited case for the self name-checking Mr Ellas Otha Bates in the pantheon of rock and roll greats. As some one who has always been fascinated by electric guitars, I remember finding Bo's home made variations on conventional shape and structure rather exciting and a bit unsettling but didn't rate him in the same class as Elvis, Eddie C etc. I once wittily remarked to Sharman that Bo's next release should be "Bo Diddley is a modestly talented egomaniac" and was placed in a headlock.

    I imagine that Take That was your son's choice of viewing. Just be grateful that you have avoided Girls Aloud and the Sugababes.
    Sunday, January 9, 2011 - 05:29 PM

  7. Ex-KCS, agreed re old Elvis tracks – I wouldn’t put any post 1962 track ahead of any of the great 1950s RCA rockers, although “Guitar Man”, “Burnin’ love” and “I Washed My Hands in Muddy Water” came very close. The last one was recorded in 1970 with the TCB band in Nashville, and I think they’re the outfit you were hankering to hear backing him – it’s just that the material was extremely variable (hear it here: And I’m not surprised Sharman took umbrage at your Bo Diddley remark! (Nick Lowe used to introduce his cover version of one Bo Diddley classic by claiming it was from the LP, “Bo Diddley Sells Double-Glazing”).

    SDG, Keith Richards tells a story about finding himself in a lift with Chuck Berry in America one time. He said, “Hi, Chuck!” and was rewarded with a punch in the face. Bruce Springsteen recalls being roped in with some other kids to act as Berry’s backing band at some New Jersey venue – at one stage Berry turned round to the band and hissed, “Play for that money, boys”, to which Springsteen had to stop himself asking, “What f*cking money?”
    Monday, January 10, 2011 - 03:54 PM

  8. I once played one of those 'turn up and see if we get on' auditions with a bunch of aspiring musicians, including a bass player who was so far behind the time that he would have been fined if he was running a train service. About a year later, I saw a picture in Sounds of Chuck Berry's UK tour and there was Mr Bassman plunking away in the background, looking confused by the complexities of the 12 bar R and B format.

    I've since heard that Chuck used to pick up his band on arrival, without much in the way of vetting for competence. As to Elvis, he needed to get out more, lose Scotty Moore and the Nashville Cats and hire some hot young gunslingers. Early Marshall Crenshaw records, to pluck one name out of the air, give a clue as to what could have been. Later, recruiting a band like Jeff Beck and the Big Town Playboys would have provided the King with the royal kick up the arse that he needed.

    AS SDG said, great post.
    Tuesday, January 11, 2011 - 06:28 PM