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Throwing down the gauntlet
on 8 February 2007
"Killer" Jerry Lee Lewis is the man a lot of first generation rockers claim "coulda been bigger than Elvis". In 1958, just over a year into his recording career, a bigamous marriage to his 13 year old cousin (twice removed) hit the tabloids. Many radio stations and concert venues blacklisted Lewis, and it nearly finished him for good. With characteristic defiance, he carried on playing regardless, and after 10 long years of struggle, 1968's 'Another Place, Another Time' started a second run of hits, this time on the country charts, that lasted all the way to 1980. By then, Lewis had become a living legend, and in 2007, he is still touring the globe, having just released a star-studded duets album, 'Last Man Standing'. Of course, the memory of the scandal never completely faded, and five additional wives, a bullet in his bass player's chest, a cadillac crashed through the gates of Graceland, and a phenomenal amount of pills and booze have all added fresh fuel to the fire over the years. And yet, despite the self-destructive streak that has cost him Elvis's huge commercial success, on record, the music of Jerry Lee Lewis is preserved to be judged on its own merit. So, who is the REAL "King of Rock 'n' Roll"?
'The Essential Jerry Lee Lewis' offers 40 tracks from Lewis's early career at Sun Records, from 1956-1963. Although this pre-dates his country comeback in 1968, Jerry Lee's influences were always eclectic - this compilation contains country, blues and boogie-woogie as well as vintage rock 'n' roll, often blended together to create what the artist simply described as "Jerry Lee Lewis music". As a musician, Lewis was a master piano player. While Elvis's guitar was never more than a glorified prop on stage, "The Killer" was capable of improvising intricate piano solos, and playing them with awesome speed and precision. Like Elvis, Jerry Lee almost never composed his own material, but his ability to reinvent and personalise the music of others was second to none. His trademarks included name-checking himself in the lyrics, throwing in adlibs ("easy now!"), and peppering his songs with lascivious laughter, purring and panting (!). Best of all, his irrepressible sexuality, sly humour and supreme arrogance were not part of an act. They came from the very core of his wild nature, untamed and untempered, and this gave his music a raw authenticity quite unlike Elvis's safer, more commercial style.
All the early hits are here, including 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On', 'Great Balls Of Fire' and 'Breathless'. However, as Lewis's songs are often under 3 minutes, there is room for at least another 10 tracks, which is all the more frustrating when noticing that superb cuts like 'It Won't Happen With Me', 'I Can't Seem To Say Goodbye', 'Hang Up My Rock 'n' Roll Shoes' and 'Teenage Letter' have all been left out. These tracks can be found on 'The Essential Sun Collection', which despite one or two omissions of its own - 'Wild One (Real Wild Child)' is disgracefully ignored - is a slightly better buy. As an introduction to the artist, then, this album is not ideal (thus only 4 stars). As a challenge to Elvis Presley's title, though, it throws down the gauntlet with fearsome conviction.