Saturday, 24 March 2018

Jerry Lee Lewis was the greatest popular music singer of the 20th Century: discuss

A few years ago - because I realised I didn't have a clue - I asked my wife who her favourite pop music singer was. She astonished me by choosing Jerry Lee Lewis, as she's neither a great rock'n' roll or country fan (partial to a bit of '70s funk, mind). Until then, I'll admit, I hadn't really paid much attention to the man's voice, viewing him more as a potentially destructive (or self-destructive) force of nature. Sure, he probably had more presence than any performer (with the exception, perhaps, of Elvis Presley or Frank Sinatra - although the latter never meant diddley to me). Hell of a piano player and a forceful singer, but a great voice? Well, I've listen to a lot of Jerry Lee's stuff since then - and I've reached the conclusion that my wife was right. In his prime, Jerry Lee Lewis had the best damn voice of the lot - and not just the best rock'n'roll voice. Here he is, live on stage in 1969, performing that hokey country tear-jerker, Green Green Grass of Home (not a particular favourite of mine), and making it sound as if he wrote and lived it - this may be the best prerformance of a country song I've ever seen:


Here, in a recording released as a single in 1980, he takes another old chestnut - "Over the Rainbow" - smears it with violins and backing singers, and, despite that, makes you forget anyone else ever sang it:
  

The reason I'm confining this post to country material is that, while there's an argument to be made that Elvis was a better rock'n'roll singer (hell, he taught white folk how to sing rock'n'roll), there's no doubt that Jerry Lee was the better country singer - more natural, less mannered: Elvis sounds as if he's manufacturing emotion, while Jerry Lee sounds as if he doesn't have to - he knows whereof he speaks. And, boy, can he perform vocal pyrotechnics when the fancy takes him - just listen to the keening falsetto passages on this superb version of William Bell's beautiful, self-penned Stax soul ballad, "You Don't Miss Your Water"
Of course, the country side of Jerry Lee Lewis was there right from the start. His first Sun single in 1956 was this version of Ray Price's classic country shuffle, "Crazy Arms":
The "B"-side of his third single, "Great Balls of Fire", was a cover version of Hank Williams's "You Win Again". Time, and countless cover versions have proved that it's practically impossible to screw up "You Win Again": nevertheless, Lewis's version is effortlessly accomplished:
One of my favourite  JLL country performances for Sun was this lovely, understated, almost delicate version of the gospel standard, "Will the Circle Be Unbroken", on which the young man sounds as if he's singing for his own enjoyment and feeling every word of it:
I'll finish with the country song most often associated with Jerry Lee Lewis - Glenn Sutton's classic "tear in  my beer" number, "What Made Milwaukee Famous", which reached No.2 on the US Country chart in 1968:
In case you're one of those dyed-in-the-wool British rock'n'roll fans who annoyed The Killer by booing at his concerts when he insisted on performing country numbers back in the '60s and '70s , there'll be plenty of his rockier stuff in the next post. 

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