JERRY LEE LEWIS
“What The Hell Else Do You Need?”
Bear Family release the complete Sun recordings & much, much more in 18 cd set + two books
Jerry Lee Lewis turned 80 and embarked on a farewell tour. Germany’s Bear Family Records marked the occasion by releasing one of its’ most incredible packages. Titled “What The Hell Else Do You Need”, it’s the complete collected works of The Killer’s time at Sun Records, not only the commercial recordings but everything else that could be found in the famed Memphis Studio’s archives – alternative cuts, false starts, studio chatter, extended masters, mono and stereo recordings and several tracks which were re-engineered after he had left the label! Plus there’s 100 previously unheard versions.
The music is spread throughout 18 cd’s and the story covered by text and photographs in two hardcover LP sized books. During his period with Sun, November 1956 to August 1963, Jerry Lee Lewis had 23 singles (including one as “The Hawk” on Phillips International) and two LPs – “Jerry Lee Lewis” and “Jerry Lee’s Greatest” - released, with a handful more following his departure from the label. Now this collection gives the listener a massive 623 tracks, adding up to nearly 24 hours of music.
Very much a labour of love by Pierre Pennone, Vice-President of the International Jerry Lee Lewis Fan Club since 1966, and writer Andrew McRae, overviewed by Bear Family’s Richard Weize, this iconic artist’s music is complimented by the two books. Rather than retread familiar ground with biographical information, “the narrative” – writes author McRae – “is focused squarely on Jerry Lee’s musical accomplishments as an artist under contract to the Sun Record Company .... how the story unfolds will for the most part be evident from the music itself.”
So, in the smaller paged book, the focus is squarely on his musical accomplishments, leading off with a foreword by J. M. Van Eaton, Sun session drummer, who recalls the early days in the studio and on the road, and how Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On was recorded, after being first heard at a club date and becoming the follow-up to the artist’s first single Crazy Arms .... and, of course, launching a career that’s still in the headlines after almost 60 years!
This book accompanies the music, to quote “a straight forward, sonic encyclopaedia of every traceable note that he sang and played at SUN, just as they were etched onto magnetic tape ....” and several studio conversations including, near the beginning, reflecting upon his Southern gospel heritage “.... the legendary, emotional confrontation with Sam Phillips during which Lewis contemplates the dangers of his immortal soul having embarked upon the recording of Great Balls Of Fire”.
The complexity of the task in compiling the collection is not made easier by lax filing of session details, referencing to tracks that may never have been recorded (a cover of The Ink Spots’ We Three for instance), tracking down exact recording dates (Frankie & Johnny or a non-helpful Jerry Lee, when asked, responding “what does it matter?”) or collecting together the many versions of any particular song.
Presented in chronological order, with full discography (wherever possible) provided, the recordings commence with first session on November 14, 1956 when Crazy Arms and End Of The Road came together as the debut single, and Born To Lose alongside two versions of You’re The Only Star (In My Blue Heaven) also being recorded. This was followed, within days, by another session before the third, and ground-breaking, early 1957 session that resulted in Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On. Here there are five takes (including one fragment) as well as six versions of Jack Clement’s It’ll Be Me. The fourth session produced Jimmy Long’s Ole Pal Of Yesterday (4 takes), All Night Long (2) and the first dip into gospel realms with the singer’s distinctive arrangements of Old Time Religion (2) and When The Saints Go Marching In. All sessions were produced by Jack Clement and/or Sam Phillips - once again, there’s lack of precise session details – with Bill Justis’ name also appearing on later sessions.
And so the recordings progressed over the years, with songs laid down in either one take or many. Among the former, he struck it right first time with such as Don’t Be Cruel, Honey Hush, I’m Throwing Rice, Little Queenie, Lovesick Blues, Night Train To Memphis, Turn Around and Ubangi Stomp while others were tackled many times, sometimes spread over several sessions. Among these, Baby Baby Bye Bye (13), Good Golly, Miss Molly (10), Great Balls Of Fire (16), It’ll Be Me (16), Let’s Talk About Us (19), Little Green Valley (9), and Waiting For A Train (18), as well as 25 versions of the title song for the movie High School Confidential with the versions well discussed in the book’s appropriate section.
Then, away from his usual surrounding Sun studio surroundings, and in search for a different sound, four sessions (during 1961 and 1962) took place at the Phillips Studios in Nashville with Billy Sherrill producing with bigger instrumental and vocal backups. Among the resulting recordings were Cold, Cold Heart, C.C. Rider, I Love You Because, Save The Last Dance For Me, Ramblin’ Rose and Waiting For A Train. Obviously the listener will spend many hours in picking out differences between the songs’ various versions and deciding for him/herself which is the best.
There’s also the LP releases with full page reproductions of the front and back covers. The first, Jerry Lee Lewis, had Sam Phillips providing sleeve notes, “.... a little unusual for a record manufacturer to write his own liner notes for an artist’s album. But in this case, Jerry Lee Lewis’ first LP, I want to express personally how proud Sun Record Company is too present this fabulous showman in his interpretation of a variety of songs” while the second, Jerry Lee’s Greatest, provided brief biography albeit with a promotional slant.
The book concludes with Jerry Lee’s final session at Sun, on August 28, 1963, where he recorded One Minute Past Eternity (3), Invitation To Your Party (9), I Can’t Seem To Say Goodbye (2) and Carry Me Back to Old Virginia (7) and, like previous sessions, the discs feature false starts and moments of studio chat and, with the last named song, an extended master. And, as the author notes, it might have been the end of his association with the famed label, but he was back in Phillips’ Nashville studio a month later, this time recording for Smash Records.
Of course this only covers a small section of what’s to be discovered in the book – lots more spread over 46 pages of small text followed by a full discography, cd and cross-referenced track listings. The book is divided into two sections (named Acts) with various subdivisions (Scenes), all titled with quotations from John Milton’s “Paradise Lost”, “a very much older tale about a fallen angel” writes Andrew McRae, adding that “not all readers will agree with the author’s assessment of the merit of certain recordings”.
So, as the first book fully details the recordings and the songs, the second book – titled Anecdotes and Illustrations – covers other aspects of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life and career during the Sun years, with photographs collected over 55 years by Pierre Pennone, “a sort of fan scrapbook” he says.
With over 400 pictures, combined with newspaper clippings and comments from people associated with The Killer, each year is prefixed with a timeline of events that lists such items as concerts, tour dates, tv appearances and recording sessions. It commences in 1957 and among that year’s activities were touring with Wanda Jackson, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, appearances on the Steve Allen, Big Beat and American Bandstand tv shows, and the preview of Jamboree, the movie that also featured Fats Domino, Buddy Knox and Jimmy Bowen among the rock ‘n’ roll star line-up.
December 12, 1957 was also very noteworthy as that was the date that he wed 13 year old Myra Gale Brown – a marriage that would hit national press headlines the following year with the ill-fated UK tour. Several pages of national and music press stories are featured here – headlined with such “We Hate Jerry, Shout Ex-Fans” and “Clear Out This Gang” - accompanied with stage photos and sightseeing shots with his 13 year old bride, concluding with an open letter in Billboard from the star in which he attempted to make the best out of a bad situation.
Also, in the 1958 section, nine pages are devoted to High School Confidential, with stills and a reprint of the film’s press book while, in 1960, there an item on his ban by the Musicians Union (AFM) because of an outstanding debt of $10,000. Sam Phillips tried to get around the problem by issuing an instrumental single (In The Mood c/w I Get The Blues When It Rains) with the artist credited as “The Hawk” on Sun’s sister label, Phillips International.
Then, in 1961 and ’62, press articles heralding the comeback, with the successful US recordings opening the doorways for a return to Britain, although one writer (in November 1961) commenting on What’d I Say, critiqued “the most irritating aspect of the disc was Lewis’ untidy, inaccurate and barely rhythmic piano playing”. One wonders how familiar this unnamed journalist actually knew about his subject. But such negative comments hardly impacted on the April-May ’62 appearances which had the fans out in force, ensuring that the past was well and truly forgotten – and they were ready for more the following year!
Nearing the end of this 215 page book, a couple of comments from fellow musicians. Gene Vincent named Jerry Lee “the wildest man I know” and Chas Hodges (then a member of backing band The Outlaws) penned a lengthy article being on the road with him. “Jerry Lee taught me the piano without knowing it” he concludes. Then, talking with NME’s Chris Williams in June 1963, he revealed that he wanted to be in a Bible film though adding “it would be a little hard to imagine.”
The insightful articles and news clips are backed up with a mass of “through the years” photographs, off stage with Myra, family, friends, fans, industry folk, at home, portraits and photo sessions, and behind the scenes while, on stage, there’s numerous action shots from US and UK concerts with the wild man pumping piano, on top of the piano, heeling the keys, foot stompin’, standing on stage centre, holding, caressing and swinging microphone, and more, creating 100% excitement throughout, both for himself and his equally wild audiences. That’s what made him The Killer and many of the photos show him at his wildest!
Of course, over the years, there’s been numerous repackages of Jerry Lee’s Sun recordings but none like this, everything within the covers of a highly distinctive box set. As the title says, “what the hell else do you need?” .... and what else would you expect from the world’s most prestigious reissue record label?