Jerry Lee Lewis isn’t the only rock ‘n’ roll legend represented on his terrific new album Rock & Roll Time. This collection of covers includes classics from Chuck Berry, Jimmy Reed, Bob Dylan, and more. But as true greats will do, Lewis makes all these songs completely his own. With his ornate and soulful, New Orleans-flavored piano style, his unmistakable Southern voice, and the pure force of his personality Lewis is the master of his domain.
There’s a point, for example, in his cover of Berry’s “Little Queenie,”—which incidentally features guitar work by Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Waddy Wachtel, and Kenny Lovelace—where Lewis takes the music down a bit and half-speaks the lines that come after “Meanwhile, I was still thinking”: “If it’s a slow song, we’ll omit it. If it’s a rocker, that’ll get it. If it’s good, I’ll admit it. Come here queenie. Let’s get with it.” Lewis slightly alters Berry’s lyric, and in that moment, his sheer magnetism is on full display. When this 78-year-old commands, “Come here, Queenie,” it’s almost scary.
The musical genius known as The Killer is still best known for the hits he had in the 1950s with Sam Phillips’ Sun Records: tracks like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” that, along with Little Richard’s revelatory songs, changed the role of the piano in popular music. As a self-taught musician in his early 20s, Lewis found a kindred spirit in his producer Phillips, a rule-breaker himself with a passionate devotion to raw roots music.
For reasons personal and professional, Lewis’ career has needed a jump-start at various points. In the 1960s, he moved to Nashville and cut a long string of Number One country ballads, at once proving his staying power and his versatility in terms of playing style. In the 1970s, he returned to rock ‘n’ roll, charting with covers of the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace” and Sticks McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”
The 1980s saw Lewis inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Toward the end of that decade, a wild biopic, Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid, focused mainly on Lewis’ early career, but is notable for the fact Lewis re-cut all of his own songs for the movie.
In more recent years, Lewis has joined package tours with other music legends, including Chuck Berry and Fats Domino, and he’s made some wonderful collaborative records, such as Last Man Standing, which features duets with the likes of Mick Jagger, B.B. King, Ringo Starr, Little Richard, and many more.
Like Last Man Standing, Rock & Roll Time, was co-produced by Steve Bing (this time with drummer/co-producer Jim Keltner) and features stellar guests, such as Neil Young, Daniel Lanois and Robbie Robertson. However, the new record is not a duets piece; the addition of big-name musicians adds some singular moments and star power to the album. But this time out,the guest artists take a back seat, and Rock & Roll Time belongs to Jerry Lee Lewis.
Your new record sounds so good. I felt that I just went in a time machine back to the rock and country of the ’50s but with the benefit of modern recording techniques.
It came out pretty good, didn’t it? I think it’s playing in “rock and roll time” on a real good record! [Laughs.]
The title track is sort of about being judged for living on “rock and roll time” and for being a rock musician. The line “I’m judged in your airports” jumped out at me.
I often felt judged wherever I went.
Trills and grace-notes in the right hand are a trademark of yours that I hear in “Sick and Tired” and in “Bright Lights, Big City” from Rock & Roll Time.
Well, I just love my music and I love playing shows and I love recording. We’ve been doing quite a bit of that here lately and just trying to get back in the saddle again.
I noticed you have a little bit of Hammond B-3 on the album, which Ivan Neville plays on “Bright Lights, Big City.” Are you a fan of the Hammond?
Well, what I play is all about the piano, of course, and that's what people want to see. But I love the sound of the Hammond organ, so we do use one sometimes.
Who were your very early influences in terms of your piano playing style and your showmanship?
Well, I have to say I play in my own style. My folks bought me my very first piano when I was eight years old and that’s when I started to play. In two or three weeks time I was playing pretty good. I owe a lot to my momma and daddy for that.
Is it true that they mortgaged their house to buy your piano?
They sure did.
Do you remember what kind of piano that was?
A Starck. It was an old Starck.
What kind of piano do you play today?
We use Yamaha and we use Baldwin—just any real good piano. I’ve played pianos that didn’t have all the notes working, but I would figure out enough notes to make it last.
If anybody could do that, you could.
Well, it wasn’t easy but I managed to get around it.
Ferriday, Louisiana, where you were born, wasn’t exactly next door to New Orleans, but—
Yeah. It’s about 185 miles from New Orleans.
Did you ever encounter any of the early New Orleans piano players like Fats Domino?
I like Fats very much. I met him in 1957. He’s a great piano player and a great singer, but he’s really a great piano player. He’s a better piano player than most people know. I don't think most people know what he can really do.
A lot of early rock ’n’ roll comes out of gospel music. Is there church music in your background?
I was raised in a little Assembly of God church in Ferriday where there was a piano in the church we [played] our music upbeat. I don’t believe we called it rock ’n’ roll, but it’s the same thing I play today.
In film of you playing in the early days, your microphone is to your right. It’s on a straight mic stand with no boom, and you have to turn to the right to sing into it while playing at the same time. Was that because you liked how that looked, or were you making due with what you had?
Hmm. It was just the way it was with me all my life. I also played like that with the mic stand between my legs and I’d loop around it with both arms and play the piano. I taught myself that way, so that’s the way I use it.
Can you point to the first time when you just knew that singing and playing piano was what you wanted to do?
Yeah. I was about five years old and I walked next door to my uncle and aunt’s house. They had a piano and nobody else had a piano. So I just kind of stopped by and my momma and daddy were walking with me and I walked over to the piano and I played “Silent Night.” My momma said, “He’s a natural born piano player” [laughs]. That’s the first time I ever played the piano.
Did you have any piano lessons as a kid?
I took one lesson from a Mr. Riordan. I took one lesson and it didn’t work out too good! [Laughs.]
When was the first time it occurred to you that the piano could be a rock ’n’ roll instrument?
Actually the first time I started playing, I just loved my music upbeat, so I think that was the root of all that. When I played “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” I introduced the world to rock and roll.
One of the things that you’re known for is playing a gliss with your elbow or your foot.
Yeah, and I always hit just the right notes, though!
Do you remember the first time you ever did that?
Not really, no. I’ve been doing it all my life, really. I play piano with my hands, feet, with my behind, and everything else. But I hit the right notes.
You make one piano sound like a whole rock ‘n’ roll band.
That’s just the way it is with me.
As far as your left-hand bass technique, do you prefer a boogie-woogie walking bass or something else?
My left hand is strictly my own style. I taught myself everything I know about piano. Nobody could teach me anything! [Laughs.] My left hand—I can play just as good with my left hand as I can with my right.
How did the Million Dollar Quartet sessions come together, with you, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Elvis Presley all in one room at Sun Records?
I can remember the day. It was 1956. They were in the studio. Elvis came down to meet me at Sun Records, and Johnny Cash was there and Carl Perkins was there. I don’t even know who invited them. But Sam Phillips was there, and we all got to singing and playing around the piano and playing the guitar. [Perkins] played the guitar and I played the piano. We had a jam session. I didn’t know Sun was recording it! [Laughs.]
That session became so legendary that there’s actually a musical about it now. There’s this kid named Jacob Tolliver portraying you in the musical. Have you seen it?
He’s pretty good, isn’t he? I think he’s great.
What did you think of the movie Great Balls of Fire and Dennis Quaid's portrayal of you?
I thought it was pretty good. It was the first time I'd ever been on a movie set or anything. They had a piano there but they didn’t have any notes in it—no strings in it! I’ve never seen that before. I kept saying, “How do you expect me to play when it doesn’t have any strings in it?”
They must have had that for Dennis Quaid, because he’s not a piano player, so he had to be able to bang on it without making sound.
That’s right, but they had sound on my piano.
Have you ever tried a modern digital electronic piano piano?
I like a good electric piano if it’s got all 88 notes on it. If it’s got all the notes on it, I can play it real good. But it has to be turned up right in the amplifier. But it’s easy to play. I don’t have to beat it, bang it or anything. You can just really play, you know?
What was the origin of the name “The Killer”?
I don’t know. I got stuck with the name when I was in high school. I guess I said to a buddy of mine, “Well, I’ll see you later,” and he said, “I’ll see you later, Killer.” And it’s been going on ever since, especially when I recorded that song “Chantilly Lace” and I put it in there. But I never killed anybody in my life.
Speaking of “Chantilly Lace,” did you ever meet the Big Bopper?
I knew him, but I never really knew him that well. I didn’t really care too much for him, but I did like that song. I didn’t even know the song and Mr. Judd Phillips [promoter , Sam’s brother] insisted that I record it. I said, “But I don’t know the words to it.” He said, “Just make them up. Do what you want to do with it,” and I did. I took one take on it and I rewrote the whole song [laughs].
Another song on the new record is a really beautiful cover of “Folsom Prison Blues.” You changed the lyrics a little bit.
Yeah, I kind of put my own lyrics to it.
What was the inspiration for those lyrics, especially the one about the Cuban cigars.
Well … let's just say it’s a fruitful song. [Laughs.]
No one punishes a piano like you do, and I’m wondering: With how energetic you play, have you ever had any problems with your hands?
No, no problems. I’ve been blessed.
Is there anybody you’d like to play with or write a song with that you haven’t yet?
No—I'd say I have worked with the best. We did shows with me and Fats Domino and Ray Charles together, and that came off great.
Is there any music that you like to listen to that you think would surprise your fans?
Maybe just that I listen to all kinds of music.
Anything that you really don't like?
If it’s done right and it’s really good, from classical to rock ‘n’ roll to country to blues—I like it all.
Would you say you play in Southern style? In New Orleans style?
Well, in terms of my own sound, I come from Louisiana. I was born and raised in Louisiana, and I’ve done all my work and played piano in Louisiana and Mississippi.
Did you find that the sound and playing styles and expectations of record labels were a little different from what you were used to when you went to Nashville?
I found that quite different, yeah. I cut a lot of good slow songs in Nashville with Jerry Kennedy. For Mercury Records, I recorded a lot of beautiful ballad songs.
How do you approach a ballad differently from an upbeat song like “Great Balls of Fire” or “Whole Lotta Shakin’”?
For that, I'll direct you to the flip side of “Great Balls of Fire,” a song called “You Win Again.” That was a brilliant solo on that song. It's an old Hank Williams tune.
I think you were maybe the first real rock ’n’ roll rebel. Was that intentional?
If I’m a rebel, I don’t really know. I’ve been called that, but I just do my music and if they like it, they like it. If they don’t, they’re crazy. [Laughs.]
Playing show after show over decades, I know a lot of musicians might get cynical and jaded. But it seems like you’re still having fun.
If I didn’t have any fun, I wouldn’t do it. I’d be lost if I couldn’t do my shows and watch my audience and really dig what they’re doing. I can tell exactly what they want to hear whenever I feel it. I know what they want, and I give it to them.
How did your cousin Jimmy Swaggart feel about you playing that kind of music at first?
Well, he kind of preaches against me sometimes, but he preaches for me, too. Jimmy’s a fine person, he’s a great preacher, he’s a great piano player, and a great songwriter. I think a lot of people don't know he's a great piano player.
Do you have any advice for a young musician who might look at you playing and go, “That’s what I want to do”?
My advice to the younger musicians coming up these days is, don’t get married so young [laughs]. Wait until you’re a little more established. Really!
Recording Rock & Roll Time
Basic tracks were cut live in the studio. “There’s not a single piano overdub on this record,” says Ken Sluiter, the mix engineer on the project. Sluiter’s job was to track and add many of the guest appearances—such as Keith Richards’ guitars—and create exciting, balanced mixes that keep the spirit of Jerry Lee Lewis, bassist Rick Rosas, drummer/co-producer Jim Keltner, and guitarist Kenny Lovelace live on the floor.
“Jerry sits down and starts playing, and the band has to follow,” says tracking engineer Martin Pradler. “Sometimes you just get one shot; sometimes you get another. But guys from that era don’t sit around all day doing take after take. So, the musicians on those dates are really sharp cats. They can jump on a groove really fast and be right there.”
Lewis played the House of Blues Studios’ (Memphis, Tenn.) Yamaha C7 concert grand, which Pradler miked with two AKG C414s spaced apart, high and low, inside the lid, plus an RCA 44 ribbon mic underneath. “I saw Al Schmitt do that, so I figured I can do that, too,” Pradler says. “The 414s are perfect for piano, because you get a nice top end extension. Especially when he starts hammering away, you still get everything really clearly. That ribbon mic is for warmth.”
Pradler brought some Neve outboard modules into the studio to compliment the House of Blues’ Neve console; he used model 1073 preamps on Lewis’ piano as well as his vocal, which also went down live. However, unlike the classic image of Lewis singing into a mic on a stand, Pradler hung a Neumann U47 on a boom for vocals.
“He had lyric sheets in front of him and his daughter helped him turn the pages. A mic stand looks cool, but it would’ve been in the way,” Pradler says. Also on Lewis’ marvelous voice were a Pultec compressor and a Fairchild 660 tube limiter. “We always had a slap machine running also,” Pradler says. “That was probably an Ampex four-track machine, just one track of it. That’s a really important part of his sound.
“In general, I tried to keep everything simple,” Pradler continues. “I don’t want to overcommit [to a specific sound] because there are a lot of surprises—something will change and there’s no warning. But at the same time, I’m trying to do something really special, because you don’t see this kind of [live playing in the studio] very often now with piano bands. I’m lucky to work with guys who treat music this way.”