on 14 August 2013
I love the new 2cd set of Southern Roots, an amazing album where the Killer meets the MGs, Doug Sahm, Tony Joe White, Carl Perkins, and Huey Meaux.
People will, justifiably, feel that Huey Meaux wasn't the most salubrious of people, and that his personal life was deplorable. Yes, that's true, but he also got the last great album, with the exception of 1979's Elektra album, Jerry Lee Lewis, out of the Killer, and for that we should be thankful.
The sleeve notes state that the Killer was starting to sound just a little bored with being swamped in strings, and that Nashville was stultifying the Killer. A little bit of perspective is required, I think, and we need to look at previous years. In 1970, the Killer recorded a Live @ Church gospel album, which was never released: his mother was dying, and Myra, his third wife, had left him for the last time. In 1971, Dallas Frazier and Al Owens wrote a stone-cold Killer classic in Touching Home. There were strings on the Touching Home album, but When He Walks On You was also a great single. Mercury must have thought that the Killer and strings would make an excellent format, and sure enough, he had another huge country hit with Would You Take Another Chance on Me, a Foster / Rice tune centred on the breakdown of his marriage to Myra.
However, in 1972, Jerry Lee decided to rock again, totally transforming Me and Bobby McGhee into a 190 mph rocker. Likewise, he revived Chantilly Lace to stunning effect, and Lonely Weekends too. However, these rockers also had a plethora of strings and backing vocalists. The Killer also cut some string-heavy country numbers, such as Think About It Darlin', Who's Gonna Play This Old Piano, and No Traffic Out of Abilene, but the urge to rock again remained. Jerry Kennedy passed the Killer to Roy Dea, though, and they cut a single of Tom T Hall's Me & Jesus, with Linda Gail Lewis, but it sank without a trace.
In 1973 Jerry went to London, recorded the Session at Advision Studios, and saw only one small hit from it, Drinkin' Wine Spo Dee O Dee. The Session, with Rory Gallagher, Albert Lee, Chas Hodges, Matthew Fisher, was, in the main, a rock album, but it was also a retread, with many of the songs oldies. A postscript to The Session was the Jack Daniels Old No 7, produced by Tony Colton, with Steve Cropper on guitar, but that also sank without a trace. So, where next ? Stan Kesser, of Goldwax and I'm Left Your Right, She's Gone, produced two overproduced sessions, but Sometimes A Memory and He Can't Fill My Shoes, were fair-sized country hits. Honky Tonk Wine could have been a rocking good hit, were it not overproduced, and Ride Me Down Easy was an excellent early Billy Joe Shaver cover.
Huey Meaux was the next option, and the album rocked better than The Session. It wasn't just the backing musicians, it was the way the piano and vocals were miked. Also, Meat Man, written by Mack Vickery, was lascivious, filthy, and had a lethal combination of piano, organ, guitars, and backing vocalists. When A Man Loves A Woman was top drawer, so too Hold On I'm Comin, yet this was southern soul, not rock, not country, and it was a seriously brilliant curveball. Has Jerry Lee done soul since ? No.
Likewise, Just A Little Bit, the Roscoe Gordon number, was transformed into a howling falsetto-esque rock number: a far better treatment than what Elvis did to it some months' prior, down in McElmore Avenue at Stax. Born To Be A Loser was a return to swamp pop, a la Jerry's cover of Cookie & The Cupcakes' Mathilda. Blueberry Hill was a fantastic Dixieland brass arranged reinvention of both Fats Domino and Louis Armstrong. Haunted House rocked like crazy, and you wonder if Bruce Springsteen got his cover-version from the Killer. John Fogerty may have done so, too, as he recently covered it for the Blue Ridge Rangers Ride Again.
Revolutionary Man, the Doug Sahm cover, may be a minor misfire, but it still has a Jerry Lee committed vocal, and the combination of Jerry on piano and Augie Meyers on organ, is worth listening to. Big Blue Diamonds, the Little Willie John tune, is given a raw country flavour, sans strings, and That Old Bourbon Street Church, is a fantastic conclusion. The album began with the profane Meat Man, and concluded with the sacred Old Bourbon Street Church, which summed up an artist torn between Sunday worship and Saturday honky tonk.
But wait ? There's extra tracks, and they're just as good as what was released. All Over Hell & Half of Georgia is, quite possibly, the greatest ever unreleased Jerry Lee Lewis track, written by Charlie Daniels, and performed with more than enough gusto. I Sure Miss These Good Old Times turned up, radically different, on 1976's Country Class, but Jerry Kennedy ruined it by overproducing it. Cry and Margie, I think, were old songs; Cry from Johnnie Ray in the 50s, and Margie from Eddie Cantor in the 1920s. Jerry Lee may have heard them by Ray Charles, as they also turn up on Sweet & Sour Tears and Dedicated to You.
So, you may ask, why the second disc ? Well, such music was created in surroundings of serious conviviality, or, to be more exact, Bacchanalian excess. Jerry Lee and Huey Meaux, from the dialogue recorded, were absolutely plastered, and the dialogue only highlights just how talented both men were in creating this absolute gem of an album. To dismiss it as only great in parts, suggests that you don't really know the true history of a great album.