Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Jerry Lee Lewis Paradox.

The Jerry Lee Lewis Paradox is simple: There is no legend bigger in rock & roll who has built their name on a smaller number of actual hits.

There were, officially, 5:

"Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (#3 Pop), 1957.
"Great Balls of Fire" (#2 Pop), 1957.
"Breathless" (#7 Pop), 1958.
"High School Confidential" (#21 Pop), 1958.
"What'd I Say" (#25 Pop), 1961.

Of those 5, only 4 fall within his crucial period of influence before his great fall: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless," & "High School Confidential."

Of those 4, only 3 are actual rock & roll classics, as in, songs that get played on oldies radio: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Great Balls of Fire," & "Breathless."

Of those 3, only 2 of the songs are actually considered top-notch rock & roll "great": "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" & "Great Balls of Fire."

The former is what no less of a source than John Lennon dubbed something that rock & roll has never improved upon; the latter is, for my money, the wildest rock & roll record of them all.

No small feat, to be sure, except for its, well, smallness.

* * *

But there is a second Jerry Lee Lewis Paradox that overlaps with the first: Perhaps no other artist has had such a small number of hits that have inversely yielded such a large number of greatest hits collections.

Ever since Jerry Lee Lewis had his (first?) comeback as a country star in the late '60s, there has been a steady stream of greatest-hits, best-ofs, boxed sets, rarities, retreads, & anthologies. Yet no one has sat down & made a definitive compilation that rivals the stone-cold compilation classics Elvis's Golden Records, Chuck Berry's The Great Twenty-Eight, Little Richard's Here's Little Richard, & Buddy Holly's The "Chirping" Crickets (OK, so those last two are "regular" albums, but they are made up almost entirely of hit singles & B-sides), although many have come close. A review:

The Original: Jerry Lee Lewis's Original Sun Greatest Hits, Vol. 1 & 2.

Counter-intiutive though it may seem, the first great Jerry Lee Lewis comp was only released to debunk an imposter. By 1968, Jerry Lee Lewis had finally found his way out of his decade in the desert, cashing in on a new sound on a new label. Rather then license Lewis's old Sun recordings (that wouldn't yield enough money—!), they simply had their star go ahead & record new versions of them, issuing them on an album (Jerry Lee Lewis's Golden Hits) that doubtless duped the majority who bought it into thinking that they were getting the real thing.

Sun Records quickly put out their own version — hence the unwieldy "Original" in the title — to stake their claim on the real thing. & for the most part, they get it right. Over the 8 of the 11 songs are the A & B-sides of his first four singles (that is, the first three listed above, plus one that came out before "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" — "Crazy Arms" — that was a local hit, but missed the national charts). The remaining three songs are a waste: a cover of Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" that added nothing to the original, the non-hit "Teenage Letter," & "Lewis Boogie," a fine (& rare!) Lewis original that should've never been included over the somehow overlooked "High School Confidential."

Not surprisingly, this set the stage for a volume two, which picked up "High School Confidential" & its flip, "What I'd Say," & several near-hits: "Break-Up" (1958, #52 Pop), "I'll Make It All Up to You" (1958, #85 Pop), "I'll Sail My Ship Alone" (1959, #93 Pop), ("How's My Ex Treating You?," 1962, #98 Pop).  Filling out the rest are 3 covers: 1 classic ("Mean Woman Blues"), 1 near-classic ("Money"), & 1 not-very-remarkable classic ("How's My Ex Treating You?").  Put together with the first volume, it's a solid, if not amazing, collection.  The thing is, since it only runs 54 minutes, you can fit at least another half-dozen of worthy Sun-era contenders to the playlist, such as "Wild One," "Lovin' Up a Storm" (1959, #81 Pop), & "Let's Talk About Us" (1959, #76 Pop), the latter two of which are his only other charting singles of the 1950s.

Taken together as a two-fer (which is how they were reissued about a decade ago), I'd say 3.5/5 stars.

The Classic: 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits.

In the early 1980s, Rhino Records was evolving from a local label specializing in compilations into the premiere label for compilations. (Arguably international too, but that depends on how you feel about the German Bear Family label — the only label, by the way, to ever release an anthology of Jerry Lee Lewis's entire Sun Records output, on 8 CDs.) One of the discs they made their name on was this.

Long favored by the Rolling Stone Album Guide as the best single-disc collection of Lewis's music out there, it does its job remarkably well.  It was clearly compiled to include the hits, as evidenced by the opening sweep of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless," "High School Confidential," & "What I'd Say" in an epic 5-song sweep.  The rest are a range of highlights from his debut album ("Matchbox," "Jambalaya," "When the Saints Go Marching In," "Ubangi Stomp," "Put Me Down"), fan favorites ("Lewis Boogie," "It'll Be Me," "Big Blon' Baby," "Crazy Arms," & "Wild One"), & some deep cuts ("Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee," "All Night Long," & "Big-Legged Woman").  It's one of those successful comps in that as you're listening to it, you don't notice anything missing.

But there is: B-sides.  Aside from "It'll Be Me," none of Jerry Lee Lewis's classic singles have their B-sides to go with them.  Maybe they felt "You Win Again" & "Fools Like Me" were too country sounding — but not much more so than "Jambalaya" or "Crazy Arms" — but they really have no excuse for omitting "The End of the Road," "Down the Line," & perhaps even "Livin' Lovin' Wreck."

As such, it tells a great story, but only about half of it.

I'd give it 4.5/5 stars.

The Modern Classic: The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer, No Filler!

This has become the default Jerry Lee Lewis collection of the modern era. It made Rolling Stone's list of the 200 Essential Albums, then cropped up again a little over a decade later on its list of rock's 500 Greatest Albums, even though it had been long out of print. But as Jerry Lee Lewis comps go, it was a watershed: Assembled with love by Rhino Records, the album marked the 1st time that a collection held material from all of his various labels — Sun, Smash, & Mercury — spread over 2 discs of rock, country, blues, & pop.

If the most famous era of his work — the early rockabilly — got the thrift, that was the point. The entire Sun output is summarized in a dozen songs, but with the A & B sides of each of his first 4 singles, plus "High School Confidential," it held together deceptively well. Much more time was allotted for Lewis's country hits, which took up the remaining disc & a half. Because of the huge divide between rock & country, this was all pretty unfamiliar territory to the average rock fan, but it worked because Lewis was always a stylist first & a singer second, lending his voice & key-raking fingers to material as disparate as "Chantilly Lace" & "Over the Rainbow."

This would be the perfect set it feels like, if only it included Lewis's other two Top 40 hits — namely, the how-is-it-possible? MIA "What'd I Say" & the surprise hit country flip "Me & Bobby McGee" (1971, #40 Pop) — & his one other Top 10 country song, "Sometimes a Memory Just Ain't Enough." As for "McGee," its easy to understand because IT COMPLETELY SUCKS (where Joplin took a country song, sang it like blues, & made it pop, Lewis takes a country song, makes it a weird boogie shuffle, & is then joined by the nerdiest-sounding backing vocals ever heard outside of a novelty record), but one thinks they could've included it for completist's sake. "What'd I Say" & "Memory" are more mysterious — they are both solid in & of themselves, & with each disc running a little over 60 mins, there was more than enough room to include them.

This would be 5 stars — it feels like 5 stars — but given the rockabilly years given the thrift, I'm gonna make this one 4.5 out of 5 as well.

The Post-"Modern Classic" Classic: Jerry Lee Lewis: The Definitive Collection.

All told there is only one album that actually includes all of Jerry Lee Lewis's Top 40 hits: Hip-O Records' The Definitive Collection, which, in filling the hole left by Rhino's out-of-print classic, plays like The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology Lite. Running at one disc & 24 songs, it is the only place where you can get every Top 40 hit: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless," "High School Confidential," "What'd I Say," & "Me & Bobby McGee" (the first 5 of which are included in the album's first 6 songs; only "You Win Again" got added to the Sun period). The set also adds "Memory," as though just to jab Rhino's collection for overlooking it. But with only 24 songs, it can hold at least another 4, so I made my own playlist (yer welcome) that can be made using this disc as yer base & adding a few songs from the Rhino Anthology, since they're mastered at roughly equivalent volumes:

1. Crazy Arms*
2. Whole Lotta Shakoin' Goin' On
3. Great Balls of Fire
4. You Win Again
5. Breathless
6. High School Confidential
7. Break-Up*
8. What'd I Say
9. Another Place, Another Time
10. What's Made Milwaukee Famous
11. She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left of Me)
12. To Make Love Sweeter for You
13. One Has My Name
14. Don't Let Me Cross Over
15. She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye
16. One Minute Past Eternity*
17. Once More with Feeling
18. There Must Be More to Love Than This
19. Touching Home*
20. Me & Bobby McGee
21. Would You Take Another Chance on Me?
22. Chantilly Lace
23. Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
24. Sometimes a Memory Just Ain't Enough
25. He Can't Fill My Shoes
26. Middle Age Crazy
27. Over the Rainbow
28. Thirty-Nine & Holding

So 4 songs were added in total: "Crazy Arms," which has somehow been written out of Lewis's chronology these days — his 3-disc Half Century of Hits & 2-disc Gold both omit it, with the latter clearly trying to use "The End of the Road" in its place — & is the biggest overlook of the initial Definitive song list; "Break-Up" to grab one more Sun-era slot &, outside of "What'd I Say," the only other Top 50 hit he would ever have; "One Minute Past Eternity," which made it all the way to #2 Country; & "Touching Home," which made it to #3. With this playlist, you have all of Lewis's Top 40 Pop hits & Top 5 Country hits. (For the record, it is possible to fit all of Lewis's Top 10 Country hits — he had 28 — onto a single disc, but it doesn't tell the story as clearly).

I also corrected some screw-ups with chronology — mainly, "Another Place, Another Time" coming before "What Made Milwaukee Famous," a choice that made no sense at all. & finally, I replaced the version of "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" with the classic version that was almost a Top 40 hit (1973, #41 Pop), because the original running order mysteriously used a different version from a decade earlier.

The original version: 4/5 Stars; my version with bonus tracks: 5/5 Stars.

* * *

Now I know what yer all thinking, "Hey man, you got really off-track here. I just want Jerry Lee Lewis the rocker, man, the rocker & none of that country junk."

Well, would you believe that I have been writing this whole article fer one reason & one reason only: To single-handedly petition the powers at Sun Records to release what I call...

My D.I.Y. Classic: Great Ball of Fire: The Original Sun Discography (1956-1959).

It turns out that Jerry Lee Lewis released so little (he recorded a ton more) that you can make it through his entire hit career & then some, with the only Top 40 hit lost "What'd I Say."  Check it:

Singles (1956-1957):
1. Crazy Arms
2. End of the Road
3. Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On
4. It'll Be Me [Single Version]
5. Great Balls of Fire
6. You Win Again.

The Great Ball of Fire EP (& source of this album's "cover") (1958):
7. Mean Woman Blues
8. I'm Feelin' Sorry
9. Turn Around

Singles (1958)
10. Breathless
11. Down the Line
12. High School Confidential
13. Fools Like Me

Jerry Lee Lewis LP (1958):
14. Don't Be Cruel
15. Goodnight Irene
16. It All Depends (On Who Will Buy the Wine)
17. Put Me Down
18. Ubangi Stomp
19. Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
20. When the Saints Go Marching In
21. Matchbox
22. It'll Be Me [LP Version]

Singles (1958-1959)
23. The Return of Jerry Lee
24. Lewis Boogie
25. Break-Up
26. I'll Make It All Up to You
27. I'll Sail My Ship Alone
28. It Hurts Me So
29. Lovin' Up a Storm
30. Big Blon' Baby

You get Lewis's first 9 singles, plus his first EP & LP, taking you from the original sound to the post-scandal oblivion.

& it all works because he has so few hits.

In fact, maybe it wasn't that he had so few hits as he had so little put out in the first place.

Putting it all together in this "Original Discography" comp is a very tempting solution — who knew that everything you could ever want — i.e., not just the best of his career, but the entire main arc of his career — could fit onto a single disc? I think I just out-paradoxed the paradox.

Well, probably the good folks at Sun Records know this, & fer want of selling records, have purposely never released it.

Although I think they really should.


[Ed. Note: If you dig this, check out a similar American Wolf post about Elvis: The Elvis Anthology Problem.]


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  2. also wild one and i'm on fire are great tracks!