Saturday, 24 March 2018

Cover story: Jerry Lee Lewis was the best rock'n'roll cover artist of them all - don't discuss, just agree

I'm not saying Jerry Lee Lewis's "Jailhouse Rock" is better than Elvis's - but he came close with this 1958 version:
I've never been that keen on near-contemporary cover versions of pop songs. I suspect...

...that's because of all the rubbishy covers of American originals that infested the British charts in the late '50s and early '60s. I didn't feel the same way about wannabe British R&B bands covering old R&B numbers, because very few of us had heard the originals back then, and some spotty 17-year old Herbert from Penge trying to convince us that he was a hoochie-coochie man at least sent us off in search of the real thing. I also didn't mind The Beatles covering old Chuck Berry or Carl Perkins songs (or plundering the early Motown catalogue), because (unless they allowed "Sir" Ringo to sing) they made a pretty good fist of them, and the originals were usually several years old, so there was no question of them cashing in. But if the original recording had recently been in the charts, and your version wasn't a patch on it, why the hell bother?

There were exceptions. If a singer had a truly individual style, didn't try to create a pale facsimile of the original, and brought something new to the song, then that was acceptable. The likes of Elvis, Fats Domino, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Gene Vincent and Jerry Lee Lewis could get away with it because, when they sang someone else's song, they weren't afraid of falling short of original - they made every song entirely their own. Here, just as Fats Domino had triumphantly covered Hank Williams's wonderful "Jambalaya", Jerry Lee covered Fats Domino's version - and did a great job:
I know Jerry Lee Lewis's Sun recordings sound as if making them was as easy as falling off a log, but almost all of the dozens of tracks he cut while he was with the label are of a very high standard - and I doubt if he achieved that sort of consistent quality by wandering into the studio late, chugging down a bottle of bourbon, and not really caring what the hell he recorded. (According to Keith Richards, the Stones once did a recording session with The Killer, only for the old curmudgeon to walk out, complaining about the group's unprofessional attitude.)

Here, Jerry Lee covers one of my favourite rock'n'roll records - "Matchbox", by label-mate Carl Perkins (on whose original recording Jerry Lee had played piano):
Another label-mate, Warren Smith, got the same treatment on the politically incorrect "Ubangi Stomp":
In 1958, Jerry Allison of The Crickets recorded a novelty version of Australian rocker Johnny O'Keefe's "Real Wild Child", with Buddy Holly on guitar, which was released under the name Ivan. It could have been written for Jerry Lee, and sure enough he recorded a blistering version of it later that year - which was eventually released as "Wild One" in the '70s:
Back with The King, here's Jerry Lee's delightful take on "Don't Be Cruel"
Chuck Berry? Again, JLL turned "Little Queenie" into a Jerry Lee Lewis song, and ran Sir Chucklesworth pretty close (and the original is one of my five favourite rock'n'roll records):
"Night Train to Memphis" was a country classic, first recorded by Roy Acuff in 1942. Jerry Lee's Sun version is the best I've ever heard:
Similarly, his version of the Dominoes' smutty 1951 R&B classic, "Sixty Minute Man" is, IMHO, better than the original:
"I've Been Twistin'" is a 1962 single whose title masks the fact that it's a cover (if you tried twisting to it, you'd probably end up in hospital).  It's actually a cover of Little Junior Parker's superb 1953 Sun single, "Feel So Good", which, in turn, was in effect a cover of John Lee Hooker's "Boogie Chillun": 
In the unlikely event that you you haven't heard enough Jerry Lee Lewis covers to convince you that I've proved my case, I'll point you to two of the greatest live albums ever released, both from 1964 (when Mr. Lewis's career was in the doldrums), both of which are absolutely stuffed with great cover versions - Live at the Star Club, Hamburg and The Greatest Live Show on Earth. I'll close with Jerry Lee's version of "Money" from the first of those albums (Lord, but he was in fine fettle that night!): 


  1. A great performer.
    Although for sheer effrontery, Oliver Reed's version of "Wild Child" is hard to beat.

  2. I saw the Killer-diller at Wembley in 1972.
    He didn't disappoint.
    I see that it's either "Real Wild Child" or "Wild One."

    1. He certainly didn't disappoint at Wembley (unlike Little Richard).

      As for the title of the song, it was first released in Australia as "Wild One". O'Keefe then re-recorded it, and the new version was released in the US as "Real Wild Child" (I've no idea why, but maybe because of the film "The Wild One"?). Jerry Lee used the original Aussie title, but most other artists opted for "Real Wild Child". When Iggy Pop recorded it in 1986, he called it "Real Wild Child (Wild One)". And - yes - I really do need to get out more.

  3. It's a debate which entirely overshadows minor matters like Brexit. In verse four of Jailhouse Rock, should we sign up to Shifty Henry's opportunistic proposition that the distraction created by the Warden's party provides the perfect cover for an escape attempt; or accept Bugs's counter-argument that the prospect of freedom is actually less attractive than sticking around in the jail to get our kicks? Friendships have ended over this issue, families have been rent asunder.

    Great as Jerry Lee's version is - and all of the rock and roll covers you feature show what a great pianist he was, as well as singer - Elvis wins, as you acknowledge. This may be because it was at that period of his career before the awful Jordanaires and their out of genre harmonies were brought in to tame his wildness with some cabaret respectability. Whatever, it shows Elvis at the height of his career and untouchable as a rock and roll singer.

    I remember Richard Williams on the Old Grey Whistle Test narrowly avoiding getting thumped by the Killer for arguing that his rock and roll and country records were two separate entities with separate appeals. I'm on Williams's side, though it's obviously best to keep quiet about it in case JLL follows the blog. I could never take Green Green Grass seriously and in every version of the song that I've heard, including this one, I just wish the hangman would come in at verse two and get on with the job. Bending the great You Don't Miss Your Water into a country tune doesn't work (and he's totally flat between 1.18 and 1.20 although I don't blame the producer for not telling him.). In short, career advice to the Killer: stick to rock and roll and leave country to chaps called Travis or Dwayne with large hats.

    1. If No. 47 had informed me I was the cutest jailbird he ever did see (an unlikely scenario, I'll admit), I'd have been inclined to second Shifty Henry's proposal - eagerly. (As for the warden urging Sad Sack to pick up a wooden chair - what was he thinking?)

      I agree entirely about the Jordanaires. I also agree that Jailhouse Rock was the point at which Elvis's second voice (the rock'n'roll as opposed to the rockabilly one, which started off perfect) reached its peak.

      As for the idea You Don't Miss Your Water doesn't make a great country soul song, and your contention that Mr Lewis should have eschewed the country genre - that'd be a big nix nix to both. And I'm not sure you're right about rock'n'roll and country - rockabilly and country came together nicely to produce the hot country genre of the '80s and early '90s, and the best argument for some form of mash-up was probably Jerry Lee's great .1972 album, "The Killer Rocks On"

  4. Just caught up with your two posts on Jerry Lee Lewis. A very satisfying trip down Memory Lane. Great Stuff! Was it you who told me that he once crashed into The Music Gates at Graceland, half fell out clutching his hand-gun and told the encircling Memphis Mafia: " Just tell that Presley Boy the Killer is here." Even when "out of his gourd" his diction apparently was pure. Anyway, many thanks!

    1. It happened in November, 1976. He reportedly rammed a brand new white Lincoln Continental into the Graceland gates at 2.30 in the morning, and was apparently in possession of a handgun (borrowed from the owner of a nearby bar). Given the state Elvis was in at that stage of his life - and his own penchant for firearms - God alone knows what would have happened if the two of them had come face to face. Mind you, as one of them was pissed out of his head and the other was probably off his tits on Class A drugs, the chances of either of them aiming straight enough to kill the other were probably slim (unlike Elvis), but I wouldn't like to have been an innocent bystander.