Robert Christgau: Dean of American Rock Critics

Consumer Guide:
  User's Guide
  Grades 1990-
  Grades 1969-89
  And It Don't Stop
  Book Reports
  Is It Still Good to Ya?
  Going Into the City
  Consumer Guide: 90s
  Grown Up All Wrong
  Consumer Guide: 80s
  Consumer Guide: 70s
  Any Old Way You Choose It
  Don't Stop 'til You Get Enough
Xgau Sez
  And It Don't Stop
  CG Columns
  Rock&Roll& [new]
  Rock&Roll& [old]
  Music Essays
  Music Reviews
  Book Reviews
  NAJP Blog
  Rolling Stone
  Video Reviews
  Pazz & Jop
Web Site:
  Site Map
  What's New?
Carola Dibbell:
  Carola's Website
CG Search:
Google Search:

Jerry Lee Lewis

  • Original Golden Hits--Volume 1 [Sun, 1969]  
  • The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis [Smash, 1970] A-
  • Live at the International, Las Vegas [Smash, 1970] B
  • The "Killer" Rocks On [Mercury, 1972] B
  • The Session [Mercury, 1973] B+
  • The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Volume II [Mercury, 1976] B-
  • Jerry Lee Lewis [Elektra, 1979] B+
  • Killer Country [Elektra, 1980] B+
  • When Two Worlds Collide [Elektra, 1980] B-
  • The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Featuring 39 and Holding [Elektra, 1982] B
  • 18 Original Greatest Hits [Rhino, 1983]  
  • Milestones [Rhino, 1985] A
  • Rockin' My Life Away [Tomato, 1990] A-
  • Rare Tracks [Rhino, 1990] A
  • "Live" at the Star Club, Hamburg [Rhino, 1992] A
  • The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer No Filler! [Rhino, 1993] **
  • Young Blood [Sire, 1995] C+
  • Last Man Standing [Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback, 2006] ***
  • Mean Old Man [Verve Forecast, 2010] *
  • The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings [Ace, 2014] A

See Also:

Consumer Guide Reviews:

Original Golden Hits--Volume 1 [Sun, 1969]
[CG70s: A Basic Record Library]  

The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis [Smash, 1970]
His drive, his timing, his offhand vocal power, his unmistakable boogie-plus piano, and his absolute confidence in the face of the void make Jerry Lee the quintessential rock and roller. He's a country artist out of geography and simple pique at rock's scared-shitless powers-that-be--it was the inadequacy of country's moralism, after all, that drove him to rockabilly. So though sheer talent insures that his reading of such great songs as "Another Place Another Time" and "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye" will be definitive, he doesn't sound at home goody-goodying "To Make Love Sweeter for You." Nor are all of his throwaways as startlingly on top of it as "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)." And it's only when he can repent of his sins from the luxurious slime of the pit--on "What's Made Milwaukee Famous" and "She Still Comes Around"--that he comes completely into his own. A-

Live at the International, Las Vegas [Smash, 1970]
Unlike The Greatest Live Show on Earth, a rock and roll set, this concentrates on "the country and western field of music." Jerry Lee runs through a few hits, calls upon Linda Gail for a couple of numbers, barely notices Tom T. Hall's "Ballad of Forty Dollars," and climaxes with "Flip, Flop and Fly," originated by Joe Turner in the rhythm and blues field of music. Very fast, very arrogant, and I suppose very dispensable. But Jerry Lee throws Jerry Lee away a lot easier than I do. B

The "Killer" Rocks On [Mercury, 1972]
Is Jerry Lee essaying a rock and roll revival because the country market is drying up for him or because he's never abandoned his dreams of world conquest? Only on "Don't Be Cruel" and "Chantilly Lace" does he sound triumphant, so it must be the former, which would be the only reason for him to cut this in Nashville anyway. Consequences of cutting in Nashville include a dippy chorus and the most egocentric version of "Walk a Mile in My Shoes" since the world began. B

The Session [Mercury, 1973]
The hardest-rocking Lewis album in years and the best London-meets-the-legend promotion since Howlin' Wolf's is amazingly consistent and authoritative--Lewis's patented hick cool always provides its satisfactions. But the impersonality of the no-gaffe two-disc supersession encourages his habit of expressing compassion and pain without any show of conviction. Of course, that's part of his charm. And you've gotta hear Rory Gallagher take Elmore James's part on "Whole Lotta Shakin'." B+

The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Volume II [Mercury, 1976]
Decadence, decadence. Even at his so-called best he parodies himself, and his delight in his own insincerity seems narrow, joyless. Jerry Kennedy, formerly a model of restraint, throws on choruses, strings, horns, flutes. The nadir is the lachrymose "Middle Age Crazy," about a forty-year-old "trying to prove that he still can." Forty-year-old Jerry Lee takes that one at about half the tempo of his manic "Sweet Georgia Brown," which together with "Chantilly Lace" proves that he still can. B-

Jerry Lee Lewis [Elektra, 1979]
In which Bones Howe and some crack studio pros spend four days getting a hot album out of the Killer, his first since the 1973 London sessions (and more consistent, too). Think of it as autumnal rock and roll--undiminished tempos under fadeaway phrasing. Best tune: Bob Dylan's "Rita Mae," the simple rock and roll ditty Dylan's always wanted to write. B+

Killer Country [Elektra, 1980]
First time he was trying, second time he wasn't, third time he gets lucky, from a "Folsom Prison Blues" that far outgrooves groove numbers like last time's "Rockin' Jerry Lee" to the magnificently over-the-hill "Thirty-Nine and Holding" to various generic throwaways about his mama and his pianner and his tomcat ways. Even "Over the Rainbow" ain't bad. B+

When Two Worlds Collide [Elektra, 1980]
The title weeper's a cut above the rest, but new producer Eddie Kilroy doesn't push Jerry Lee the way Bones Howe did on Jerry Lee Lewis. In fact, all that rescues this record from boredom and arrogant excess are two ancient throwaways--"Alabama Jubilee" (1915) and "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye" (1922)--plus an obscure BMI copyright called "I Only Want a Buddy Not a Sweetheart" that also evokes prerock tradition. His voice is on its way out and he's lucky if his spirit shows up on alternate Thursdays, but if he wants to tell us he's a classic I'll nod my head. And pat my foot. B-

The Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Featuring 39 and Holding [Elektra, 1982]
Though like most country best-ofs this isolates some strong songs, it also courts the middle-aged crazy market by picking titles old farts will recognize, like his lame-ass "Who Will Buy the Wine" and "Good Time Charlie's Got the Blues." We don't get his loose-as-a-goose "Toot, Toot, Tootsie Goodbye." We also don't get his rockin' "Rita Mae," his rockin' "Don't Let Go," his rockin' "Folsom Prison Blues," and I could go on. Lewis made three albums for Elektra. Two of them beat the best-of. B

18 Original Greatest Hits [Rhino, 1983]
[CG80: Rock Library: Before 1980]  

Milestones [Rhino, 1985]
Incredibly enough, this 24-cut double-LP is Lewis's finest US compilation, post-Sun side and all. And though Charly's 20-cut UK Essential Jerry Lee Lewis is clearly the better deal--Rhino's four extra songs, which bring the set to barely an hour and include the intrusive spoken-word novelty "Return of Jerry Lee," will cost you three bucks--I can see why this might be preferred by somebody who wanted to commune with the doomed man in all his multifarious glory. Jerry Lee is and always has been more than just a rock and roller. With a lesser artist, the boogie-woogie "Saints" and solo "Lucky Old Man" might not mesh, but Lewis makes them his own a lot more convincingly than he does the one-two-three Elvis covers on the Charly disc. A

Rockin' My Life Away [Tomato, 1990]
Last time I saw this fugitive from Madame Tussaud's was a 1984 performance video that convinced me Mr. Scratch had collected his half of the bargain in advance. So I expected nothing from this live-at-the-Palomino rehash, James Burton or no James Burton. And was immediately confronted with a "You Win Again" so bitter, so reconciled, so defeated, so above-it-all, so miserable that for a few songs I suspected the monkey-gland shots had worked--except that he sounds old, old and lecherous, old and lecherous and determined to enjoy it. Things do wear down in the middle, and the voice can get weird, and caveat emptor: if these versions aren't identical to the 11 duplicated songs on Tomato's companion volumes, the country Heartbreak and the rockin' Rocket '88, Jerry Lee taught his best tricks to Milli Vanilli. Nashville-haters may prefer Rocket '88--"Chantilly Lace" and "Headstone" are keepers. But the true-pop "Harbor Lights" and "You Belong to Me" suit his ecumenical voracity, and James Burton is hot wherever. When and if he finally dies, Jerry Lee's gonna challenge Mr. Scratch to a piano-playing contest. Then he's gonna show Cousin Jimmy his ass. A-

Rare Tracks [Rhino, 1990]
Rare doesn't mean unheard, or minor, or even especially obscure. More like bloody. Or like "So Rare," the Jimmy Dorsey hit he doesn't cover, preferring Glenn Miller as he does. I heard 13 of these 16 selections when I labored through The Sun Sessions end to end, and to the best of my recollection noticed about four--"Big Legged Woman," "Whole Lotta Twistin' Goin' On," Glenn Miller, and the (nearly) eternal "Sixty Minute Man." In this company I notice every one. Filthy, corny, classic, omniverous, it's the perfect complement to 18 Original Greatest Hits. And almost as essential. A

"Live" at the Star Club, Hamburg [Rhino, 1992]
Assembled from two shows recorded in one night in 1964, released in Europe shortly thereafter but in the U.S. not till a 1986 Mercury LP that's barely a rumor, this legendary 37-minute performance is our last and clearest glimpse of Jerry Lee as a young world-beater. Not only has he bulled his way past the incest 'n' bigamy tour of 1958 and the drowning death of his son in 1962, he's some kind of hero in a Europe rediscovering '50s rock and roll via Beatlemania. Without cracking the charts or drawing crowds commensurate with his ego on the endless tour that is his life, he believes so profoundly in his pact with the devil that he remains unbowed. Here that faith is both made manifest and recorded for posterity, which otherwise never happened on the same night. Admirers attribute this ungodly miracle to one emotional resource or other, but I find Lewis so impenetrable psychologically that I hesitate to put a name on it. Instead I'll list a few technical attributes. Both performance and recording are very clean. Tempos are speedy, and the backing band--the Nashville Teens of "Tobacco Road" renown--keep up manfully. "Mean Woman Blues" and "Money" are definitive. And the piano kills. A

The Jerry Lee Lewis Anthology: All Killer No Filler! [Rhino, 1993]
not the post-Sun comp he has in him--and the compiled-to-death Sun tracks are only half the problem ("Money (That's What I Want)," "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee O'Dee") **

Young Blood [Sire, 1995]
If the blood were literally young, the Killer would now be the Vampire. Instead, producer-wunderaltekacker Andy Paley is the Ghoul. Jerry Lee can still rock the 88s, but his natural voice is a croak or a wheeze, as he proves by heroically holding "Gotta Travel On"'s final "long" until it tails into the pitchless pit he's already filled with croaks and wheezes. He couldn't get away with "Thirty-Nine and Holding" at 45. Yet at 60 he still wishes he was 18 again. C+

Last Man Standing [Favorite Gentlemen/Canvasback, 2006]
Decades later, generation-gap duets are just a bunch of old guys singing--pretty good, too ("That Kind of Fool," "Rock and Roll"). ***

Mean Old Man [Verve Forecast, 2010]
The Killer's many wives etc. (those who are alive, anyway) will tell you he's not really mean--that's just Kristofferson kidding around ("Mean Old Man," "Sweet Virginia") *

The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings [Ace, 2014]
He's always preferred to call himself a stylist, not a rocker, and these impromptu late-'70s recordings with Sam's son cohere into a lost concept album that proves him right. After transforming Leroy Brown into a Memphis motherhumper who stomps all over Jim Croce's stupid cartoon and wears the tatters around his neck like a victory garland, he rewrites a Moon Mullican blues, matches a 50s Chuck Berry medley with a 50s Teresa Brewer-Hugo Winterhalter medley, covers a humble Fanny Crosby hymn and a schlocky Mickey Gilley hit, posits a humble country hit of his own, and--after anointing America's first fulltime professional songwriter "one of the greats of all time" along with Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Al Jolson theirself--goes out on the greatest weeper Stephen Foster ever wept. His piano pumping irrepressibly, Jerry Lee defines his musical identity in the middle of the night with nobody listening: a stylist who can't stop rocking. A

See Also