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Jerry Lee Lewis - Last Man Standing Print E-mail
Friday, 01 December 2006
format:    16-bit CD
performance:    8.5
sound:    9
release year:    2006
label:    Shangri-La
reviewed by:    Stephen K. Peeples

ImageIn summer 2001, philanthropist-producer Steve Bing and music producer Jimmy Rip got Sun Records rock and roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis out of his pajamas and back into the studio in Memphis, where he began sessions for this album of 21 Killer-styled duets performed with longtime friends and rock and roll acolytes.

As the work was in progress – with an all-A-list lineup of backing players at Phillips Recording Studio, run by original Sun founder/producer Sam Phillips, and at modern-day Sun Studios and other facilities (or even hotel rooms) as the logistics (and certain Stones) necessitated – pioneering Sun rockabilly king Johnny Cash died. Then Phillips checked out, too.

Original and long-time Jerry Lee fans who’d heard about these ongoing sessions – rock and roll Lewis’ first new, released studio album in a decade – wondered if he would live to see this thing released. He made it. Lord, have mercy.

It’s ironic, of course, that of the original Sun rockabilly cats and founding fathers of rock and roll circa 1954-1957 – Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Cash and Lewis – the sole survivor turned out to be Jerry Lee.

From the start, everybody thought Lewis, nicknamed “the Killer,” the wild, young self-described “mother-humper,” would live hard, die fast, and leave a good-lookin’ corpse.

Well, that didn’t happen, any more than it did with Keith Richards, a second-generation rocker who fooled everyone by surviving his excesses well into his 60s.

With much media fanfare, Jerry Lee’s Last Man Standing album finally dropped Oct. 3, 2006, a week after Ferriday, Louisiana’s favorite son celebrated his 71st birthday. Since Oct. 3 was also my 55th, and the Killer is the man I bless and blame for hooking me on rock and roll at the tender age of 6, I rushed out and bought it as a present from one die-hard rock and roll birthday boy to another.

In the car on the way home, I took a sneak pre-review listen to the opening track, a cover of Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll” featuring co-author Jimmy Page shredding on lead guitar, but completely restyled a la the Killer. He starts pre-take saying, “What I need’s some rock ‘n’ roll!” His vocal is drenched in echo, his piano-pounding over-the-top, and his “Rock and ROOOOOLLLLL!” whoops and piano glissandos masterfully placed, especially in the middle of Page’s solo.

“Been a long time since I rocked and rolled…/Let me get you back, let me get you back – to Louisiana,” Lewis yowls, personalizing the lyrics with an homage to the place he came from, and where he started playing piano Killer-style – at age 6.
Suddenly I’m feeling about 50 years younger, out of control, whooping and pounding on the dashboard so hard my wife thought the airbags were gonna blow. Fortunately, she was driving.

It does carry me back, to Nov. 4, 1957, when I was 6 and saw Jerry Lee perform “Great Balls of Fire” on Dick Clark’s “American Bandstand,” which had premiered on the upstart ABC television network earlier that year. It was Jerry Lee’s third Sun single but the first I’d heard.

I was watching “Bandstand” next door, where a friend of my mother’s lived and looked after my younger sister and me after school and on weekends while our mom was at work, and our father was working out of the state.

When I saw Jerry Lee toss his too-long blond hair (looking like a young, handsome, blond, hopped-up Shemp from the Three Stooges) while pounding out that visceral rhythm, and then kicking over his piano stool, I flipped, jumping all over the couch like a kid hopped up on sugar and caffeine.

Our neighbor rushed into the room to see what the fuss was about, caught me in mid-leap, saw and heard what Jerry Lee was doing and the nasty stuff he was singing about, and immediately turned off the tube.

“That’s the devil’s music!” she said. “You go sit in that chair until your mother comes to pick you up!”

Fuming, I sat, wondering WTF I had done wrong. I was just 6, having fun. Later, I told my mother what the mean lady had done. Mom was a rebel – a blessing and a curse as role model for me. She marched us to the local department store and bought me "Great Balls of Fire." It was my first rock and roll single, and I must have played it 300 times in a row on our portable record player. Screw you, babysitter.

Then, a month or so later, on Dec. 12, 1957, Jerry Lee married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, before the divorce from his second wife was finalized, which became a career-derailing scandal in summer 1958 when the British and U.S. press got wind of it. After that, even my mother banned “Great Balls of Fire” from the house.

So began my long and winding road trip down the rock and roll highway to hell. I could have been a doctor, lawyer, banker, but no – I wanted to grow up to be a rock and roll rebel and musician like Jerry Lee, because it looked so cool and felt so good to cut loose. It didn’t quite turn out that way, for better or worse. I started playing drums at age 12, moved to L.A. at 16, but wound up taking a cue from my journalist parents and theirs before them, and went for the media side of the biz instead.

On my first assignment to Nashville, to cover the October 1975 Country Music Association awards for a Hollywood-based music trade magazine, Jerry Lee played a private gig one night at the old Ryman Auditorium. The first home of the Grand Ole Opry was closed to the public by then, but not yet renovated.

Standing in the wings on that storied stage, I witnessed the Killer rockin’ the house while the pickup band, fronted by guitarist and sometime fiddle-player Kenny Lovelace, did its best to keep up. It was a pinch-me moment; still unforgettable. After the show, I joined a small party of industry-types on the Killer’s tour bus parked out back for a meet-and-greet, which lasted about three minutes before he threw everyone off. Fantastic. If he’d been all cordial and nice, I would have been severely disappointed.

Today, after a well-documented life of triumph and tragedy, the 71-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis is rejuvenated. He reminds us that when you reach a certain age, you realize there is no back. There is only now. Every nanosecond should count for something in the now.

When “Rock and Roll” came to its bluesy conclusion, replete with his echo-saturated reference to “missin’ that dad-gummed good Louisiana lovin’,” I hit the eject button and popped the CD out of the player, just to savor the idyllic, virginal purity of this exhilarating first-time listening experience. Even if the next 20 tracks totally sucked, I told my wife, that opening track was worth the price, period, case closed. “Yeah, how the hell could he follow that?” she asked.

Fortunately, I later re-opened the case. Venturing past the opener, I thought the rest of the album’s tracks stood up nearly as well, though there were a few wobbly spots. But it’s all classic Jerry Lee, his singing and playing sounding younger and stronger than his years. Last Man Standing ranks up there with Jerry Lee essentials including The Original Sun Sessions, his 1965 Star Club set (backed by the Nashville Teens), the early-‘70s London Sessions, and the mid-‘90s All Killer No Filler two-CD anthology.

On Last Man Standing, you get pure as well as finely blended country, blues, boogie-woogie and gospel along with your full-strength rock and roll.

You get plenty of Jerry Lee’s self-referencing sexual bravado, along with a fair amount of conflicting guilt and regret. You get the perspective of a young man full of himself, but now also the view of an old man who’s still full of himself and not yet ready to roll over.

With his production team’s deft, usually transparent assistance, Jerry Lee runs each song and performance through his own mojo filter so it sounds like he created it. That’s been the Killer’s M.O. since he began playing.

Adding to the fun is the pre- and post-take studio chatter between Jerry Lee and some of his superstar fans.

Following “Rock and Roll,” octogenarian and fellow Sun alumnus B.B. King brings in his guitar Lucille to spread some tasty licks on a soulful country-blues version of “Before the Night is Over,” a Ben Peters song Jerry Lee first recorded some three decades ago for Mercury. Also on guitars are Rip and Lovelace, still the Killer’s axemen after all these years. Lovelace, Rip, drummer Jim Keltner and bassist Hutch Hutchinson form the rhythm section that recorded most of the basic tracks.

Cut at Phillips as well as Sun Studios in Memphis, Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac” is a perfect choice for the Killer and the Boss. It revs up when Bruce calls out, “C’mon, now, Killer!” then burns rubber from there, with Dave Woodruff wailing Big Man-esque tenor sax solo, and Jerry Lee throwing out an Orbison-esque “Grrrrrr!” and “Yeah, Baby, put the seat down – Ol’ Killer knows your tricks!” on the fade.

Mick Jagger’s original “Evening Gown” was the first track cut for Last Man Standing in 2001; it’s rough and gloriously sloppy. Jagger trades vocal lines, sings harmony and call-and-responses with Jerry while Ronnie Wood contributes a taste of pedal steel. “I can still paint the town/With all the colors of your evening gown/While we’re waiting for all your blonde hair to turn gray,” they sing. The girl with faraway eyes is now a grandma.

A grizzled Neil Young joins Jerry Lee on vocals and the guitar solo for “You Don’t Have to Go,” a bluesy, strolling shuffle by James Matcher Reed which the Loner and the Killer also performed on “Late Show with David Letterman” the night after the album’s release. “Jerry Lee Lewis backin’ up, darlin’, and down the mother-humpin’ road I go! – I got your number, baby!” he says at the end.

Robbie Robertson of the Band and solo renown contributes the original slow, gospel-tinged “Twilight” and plays lead guitar on the track. Jerry Lee sinks his teeth into this one about a lifetime of memories: “Don’t leave me alone in the twilight/’Cause twilight’s the loneliest time of day – yes, it is,” he testifies.

Picking up the tempo again, Jerry Lee tells John C. Fogerty to “Kick it off, Killer!” and Fogerty jumps on it, conjuring up the Sun fire and brimstone with Jerry Lee on “Traveling Band,” one of Fogerty’s best Creedence Clearwater Revival barn-burners.

The other aforementioned Man Still Standing, Keith Richards adds rhythm and lead guitar and fair backing vocals to Lewis’ version of Mack Vickery’s “That Kind of Fool,” another country blues, this time featuring Greg Lieze on pedal steel. “Look at that fool who goes home to his wife,” the boozy bounders intone. “Wished Jerry Lee could have been that kind of fool.” More shades of the Stones’ “Faraway Eyes.” As the last notes ring out, Richards says cheerfully, “Got the feelin,’ Jerry!” Lewis agrees: “Killer, I think we got it.”

The scene shifts to the Record Plant in Los Angeles for Jerry Lee’s vocal duet with former Beatle and still-standing solo artist Ringo Starr. With guests including Keith Allison (guitar), Nils Lofgren (steel guitar) and Ivan Neville (organ), with Keltner playing drums, they turn in a salacious take on “Sweet Little Sixteen” by Chuck Berry, who is otherwise conspicuously absent from this enterprise. “Had to get that last note in,” Jerry remarks at the end. “Your lungs are better than mine!” says Ringo.

Country legend Merle Haggard – damn, aren’t all these guys survivors? – drops in for a load of fun with his old pal Jerry Lee on “Just a Bummin’ Around.” Jerry Lee asks what key it’s in, somebody says “F,” and he piano-rolls right into the intro. These guys sound just like the seen-it-all geezers they are, and free as the breeze, doin’ as they please, they make no apologies.

One of the album’s more off-the-hook tracks teams the Killer with Detroit bad boy Kid Rock on Jagger-Richards’ “Honky Tonk Woman.” It’s a two-steppin’, cut-time take with James Stroud guesting on drums and a trio of Rock-ettes – Stacy Michelle, Jewel Jones and Phyllis Duncan -- on backing vocals, and tagged with Jerry Lee’s excited “Man, that just blew my MIND!”

The Rod Stewart duet on Jerry Lee’s 1968 country hit “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous,” keeps it simple – just their voices and the Killer’s barroom piano, as though they were cryin’ in their beer at the local tavern, don’t-cha-know, even though Rod laid his vocal track down in L.A. after Jerry Lee cut the basic track in Memphis.

Bob Wills’ “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” matches Jerry Lee with George Jones, another guy who’s beat the odds to death. This take has even more homespun hilarity than the Haggard duet. “My big toe’s hurtin’,” Jones complains as the tape rolls. “Wait till it gets down to your little toes – then you can holler!” the Killer retorts. He takes the first verse while George ad-libs a la Wills, then George sings and Jerry throws out the responses.

Willie Nelson and Jerry Lee stray into the depression zone with a dirge-like “Couple More Years,” a country waltz penned by Dennis Locorriere of Dr. Hook & the Medicine Show and his writing partner Shel Silverstein. Maybe it’s Mickey Raphael’s mournful harmonica. Or that Willie seems disconnected – he cut his tracks at his Austin studio. Let’s just say it’s a lot more fun on Willie’s bus.

From there, it’s into the America, Mom and apple pie zone as country superstar Toby Keith joins the Killer for “Ol’ Glory,” which Jerry Lee co-wrote with Shelby Darnell and Paul Robert. Greg Lieze on pedal steel further countrifies the flag-waving session.

On “Trouble in Mind,” an eight-bar shuffle blues variously suicidal, homicidal and hopeful, Eric Clapton adds some gritty rhythm and a nasty solo, but no vocals at all. Slowhand overdubbed his parts at Olympic Sound in London with Alan Douglas engineering. Jerry Lee takes the first solo and his fingers float floridly up and down the keys. A verse later, Eric takes a pair of eight-bar solos, and Jerry Lee takes it out: “The sun’s gonna shine/On my back doorstep some low-down, lonesome, mutha-humpin’ day.” Then: “Probably shouldn’t-a said that, but it accidentally come out.”

Little Richard is the only other first-generation rock ‘n’ roll pioneer on the album, and another influential piano-pounder at that, guesting on Lennon-McCartney’s “I Saw Her Standing There,” Track 17 (cute). Richard pokes his falsetto “wooo!” in the appropriate places and at the end (if you didn’t know he taught Paul McCartney how to do that, in person, London, 1962, Richard will tell you all about it), and adds a bit of ragged harmony in the chorus, but plays no piano. This is the Killer’s show; he completely dominates the performance.

Delaney Bramlett of Delaney & Bonnie and Friends renown is still alive and kicking, and adds his whiskey-soaked vocals to Jerry’s on Leon Payne’s bluesy “Lost Highway,” a.k.a. the Highway to Hell for Wayward Souls. Rip also adds several interweaving guitar parts – electric, acoustic, slide – plus boots and claps to Jerry Lee’s otherwise solo piano.

“Hadacol Boogie,” the Bill Nettles jump-boogie classic inspired by the notorious and eventually banned cough and cold remedy, features Buddy Guy, just about the last man standing when it comes to blueprinting electric Chicago blues as a kid at Chess.

Consider that a few years later, another kid named Jimmy Jones who idolized Buddy went to his concerts and copped every guitar lick and crowd-pleasing move in Guy’s bag of tricks. Hendrix choked and died 36 years ago, and has been a rock guitar godfather posthumously ever since. Not to take anything away from Hendrix, but give credit where it’s due.

Guy today is still a force, and widely revered among musicians as a national treasure, just like Jerry Lee. They’re just as evenly matched on the jacked-up “Hadacol” as the Killer was with Page, Springsteen and Fogerty. Guy added his stuff at home in Chicago to a Memphis track laid down by Jerry Lee, Rip, Keltner, BB Cunningham (bass) and Bill Strom (organ), but as they throw out call-response vocals and trade and complement their guitar and piano riffing, they sound more connected than any of the album’s other long-distance duets.

“Why’d they call it ‘Hadacol’? They hadda call it something!” the Killer quips at the wrap.

Segueing to Van Morrison’s bluesy waltz-time “What Makes the Irish Heart Beat” is less a stretch than it reads on paper. Country’s roots, after all, extend back to Ireland, England and Scotland. Don Henley’s harmonies are dead-on with Jerry Lee, and their line swapping later in the song sounds better rehearsed than many of the albums tracks. Paddy Maloney of the Chieftains on pipes and whistles joins Lovelace on fiddle for a solo-section duet that’s just as dead-on.

Last Man Standing closes with Lewis easing back on piano and wrapping his head around “The Pilgrim,” composed by Oxford scholar and one-time raconteur Kris Kristoffersen. The author added his parts in a studio on Maui to the basic track Jerry Lee and the band cut in Memphis, with Greg Lieze again on steel. Kristoffersen could also have been describing Lewis when he wrote these immortal lines: “He’s a poet he’s a picker/He’s a prophet, he’s a liar/He’s a pilgrim and a preacher and a problem when he’s stoned/He’s a walking contradiction/Partly truth and partly fiction/Takin’ every wrong direction/On his lonely way back home.”

These days, though, the Killer seems to have found the shrine the Pilgrim never found. He’s content to spend most of his time at home on his ranch in Mississippi, and, at least publicly, has cleaned up his act in the past few years, with a little help from his watchful daughter Phoebe, born to Myra and Jerry Lee in 1963. As Charles M. Young reports in his Rolling Stone feature (Oct. 19, 2006), the strongest thing the Killer drinks these days is grape soda.

The last thing you hear on the album, out in the clear when “The Pilgrim” is over, is the Killer confirming, and personalizing, the song’s central conclusion: “From the rocking of the cradle to the rolling of the hearse, the going up was worth the coming down.”

Jerry Lee was referring to his entire 71 years, but that about says it for Last Man Standing, too.

The challenge here was keeping the sound quality consistent when tapes and files were being sent all over the States and to London for overdubs. Sonically, it’s nearly seamless. The giveaways are the performances themselves. The producers used JVC’s K2 process to correct anomalies that sometimes happen in digital music transfers. They also cut the glass master in real time. This makes the CD’s sound quality as close to the master tapes as you’re going to get with current technology.

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