[6 October 2006]
One look at the cover of the first release in a dozen years for Jerry Lee Lewis says it all. The title, Last Man Standing, refers to all those legends of the early days at Sun Records. Founder Sam Phillips, and artists Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison (down there, referred to as the “Founders of Rock & Roll”), have all passed away, leaving Lewis as—quite literally—the last man standing. And nearing 71 years old and living the life he’s lived, that’s quite a feat. Just as accurate is that the cover is a shot of Lewis playing a scorching piano on fire. When it comes to boogie-woogie rockabilly swing, or his forays into country, nobody could hammer the 88s quite like Jerry Lee.
One word that’s never quite found a home in Lewis’s vocabulary is apologetic. He makes no quarter for the things he’s done in the past, which have included not one, not two, but three haul-ins by the IRS for tax evasion. At one time, Lewis was just as likely to greet you by punching you in the jaw as he was to saying hello (the alcohol had a lot to do with that). And, well, we’ll just leave the marriage to his then-13-year-old second cousin alone (you can create your own punch line). It was one of five marriages for Lewis, who’s been unencumbered for about a year now. But beyond and in spite of all that, boy, could he play his ass off.
Next year, both “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” will each turn 50 years old. Both were recorded in 1957 at the fabled Sun Studios in Memphis, and those two songs are arguably Jerry Lee’s biggest and longest lasting musical legacy, though he’s certainly had other successes since. But for this Louisiana native (born in 1935), he was setting up a career that other musicians admired, even emulated. The Brits simply loved his boogie-woogie style and flamboyancy at the piano, even as much as they loved the old blues guitar masters. And because he was a US talent, a lot of homeboys took notice as well. So, as is the seeming norm in the aught decade, a tribute to Lewis would be a natural. But unlike other tribute albums, Last Man Standing is less of a genuflection, and more Lewis having his admirers along for the ride to lend him a hand. The results are beyond anything hoped for.
The only genuflections here are the guest stars’ appearances on the album. Lewis simply put everybody to work. Some guests are used on their own songs, such as Jimmy Page playing guitar for Lewis’s take on Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll”. But here’s the great thing about this disc: Page does it Lewis’s way. Lewis somewhat reconstructs the song to be a swinging hip-shaker in the realm of his early Sun classics. Page smartly never fights this, and his solo fits the reconstructed version to a T. After a brief riff by Page to open the song, Lewis verbalizes “All I need is rock and roll!”, and for the next 2:10, Lewis gets his rock and roll—in spades.
As with Page, Lewis never intrudes upon what his guests do, but his guests all follow Jerry Lee’s way of thinking. One of the guests in attendance is Ringo Starr. One of the songs performed is “I Saw Her Standing There”. You’d assume that this would be Ringo’s guest spot, but no—Ringo sings (and plays drums) on “Sweet Little Sixteen”. So now who do you think Lewis paired up the Beatles classic with? Why, none other than Little Richard. And if you say that makes no sense, who else is more qualified to do the “Woooo” part after the line “I’ll never dance with another”?
Lewis takes on blues and country, as well as straight-ahead rock and boogie. He throws a honky-tonk edge into “Before the Night Is Over”, but guest B.B. King’s guitar work is pure blues. Blues boogie gets a full-blast treatment with “Hadacohl Boogie”, Jerry Lee trading vocals and piano-vs.-guitar licks with Buddy Guy. He even teams with Neil Young on “You Don’t Have to Go” (remember, Neil did his blues thing with the Blue Notes, so this isn’t exactly foreign territory).
As far as country, the only song where two guests appear is the duo of the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood on the unlikely country ditty “Evening Gown”. (Keith Richards gets his own guest turn on the bluesy “That Kind of Fool”). Merle Haggard meshes wonderfully with Lewis on “Just a Bummin’ Around”, while a more upbeat and jovial duet with George Jones happens on the aptly titled “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age”. The album closes with the poignant “The Pilgrim Ch. 33”, with the piano just a background player as Lewis and Kris Kristofferson do the song proud.
Bruce Springsteen is (happily) reduced to backing vocals on Lewis’ take on “Pink Cadillac” (after the first few notes of the song, Springsteen exhorts “Come on now, Killer!”), while in one mega-powerful, short burst, Lewis and John Fogerty duet nicely on Creedence’s “Travelin’ Band”, complete with sax breaks. It may seem odd reading this, but hearing it is all the understanding you’ll need. Jerry Lee also flexes his trademark flirtatious, rollicking growl—just try not to crack a smile when you hear it. On the flip side, Lewis tackles a slow blues number with Mr. Slowhand himself, as Eric Clapton’s trademark guitar and the elder’s keys hook in for “Trouble in Mind”.
Lewis turns everything into gold on here—he even takes on both Rod Stewart and Kid Rock, and wins the battles that those two bring to a duet setting. There is simply no question that this is one of the only duets-type albums that consistently works, because the honoree is the one in charge of each song. It also helps that the guests seem to genuinely enjoy hanging and playing with one of their favorite legends. And with seven decades of living under his belt, this album shows that there’s no slowing down Jerry Lee Lewis. The only speed that you, the reader, need is whatever it takes for you to go out and get Last Man Standing—pronto! No question about it, this is one of the most surprising and inspiring—and best—releases of 2006.