In this media-saturated age, it’s difficult to conceive of a time when a single television performance could make a superstar out of a nobody. But 50 years ago, when Jerry Lee Lewis first appeared on The Steve Allen Show, that’s how the world worked: one storming romp through “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” – which Sam Phillips thought was too “risque” to be a hit or to get the Killer on the tube – set Lewis’ career in motion. Anyone who thought Elvis screamed “SEX!” must’ve thought Jerry Lee was hollerin’ something much, much worse. The kids certainly responded, and “Whole Lotta Shakin'” became one of the mightiest records of the day.
The Allen performance is one of several that appear on Time Life’s new (and unimaginatively titled) Greatest Live Performances DVD, a modest but mostly fulfilling collection of clips from a variety of antique sources. Despite the usual printed caveat regarding “occasional flaws” in source quality, the earliest performances here suffer from rather wobbly audio, especially the clips from Dewey Phillips’ Pop Shop. “You Win Again”, which required a bit more careful fingerwork than “Great Balls of Fire”, is particularly painful to listen to, but if you can get past the fact that the piano sounds out of tune, you’re in for a treat. Lewis was, along with Elvis Presley, one of the most facile of the early rockers when it came to performing country music, and “You Win Again” points the way to his late-’60s career renaissance (as well as to the clips that conclude this DVD).
The real find here is a 1964 British TV special, A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, which features Lewis – looking a lot older at times, certainly chubbier, and sporting a short tie – performing six songs and working the audience into an absolute frenzy. There’s some poetic justice at work here: Lewis was practically run out of England years earlier when the news of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin surfaced, and the so-called British Invasion had effectively knocked American rock ‘n’ roll (if not pure pop) from its pedestal. It’s a wonder that Jerry Lee Lewis, who hadn’t had a US hit in years and whose only recent UK successes were covers of Chuck Berry and Little Richard, could summon up whatever it took to drive a bunch of British teens wild.
Somehow he did, and he’s surrounded onstage by dozens of them mid-set. It’s a shining example both of Lewis’ undiminished power and the golden ideal of punk: the audience and the performer are in this thing together, pushing each other to ever-increasing levels of ecstasy. It’s just as much fun to watch the rhythms of the kids, many of whom are singing and dancing, as it is to watch Lewis, who pulls out all the stops, playing the piano with his foot, shaking his hair, and standing atop the piano as though he’s just conquered the world. Although he plays his classics, this is no mere oldies show.
After this, the ’70s clips from Pop Goes the Country are a bit of a letdown, even if “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano?” is kinda touching. And the duets with Mickey Gilley are fun, but not the sort of thing you’ll go back to.
Although it’s a bit short at 71 minutes, and even if there’s surely some other footage out there – only four clips from the ’50s? – this is an absolutely essential DVD for Jerry Lee Lewis fans, if only for the incendiary 1964 set. For everyone else, it’s a worthwhile history lesson with a Killer soundtrack.
(The extras include the trailer for High School Confidential, teen-sploitation at its most shameless, and a 1993 interview with Lewis. The interview isn’t especially revealing, unless you were unaware that Jerry Lee Lewis is the possessor of one of rock ‘n’ roll’s largest egos. He often refers to himself in the third person – even in his songs – and even in these short clips, his audacity is on full display. He claims to be one of the four “stylists” in popular music (the others: Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and Jimmie Rodgers), relates the story of asking Elvis whether he would go to heaven or hell, and recalls his first meeting with Jack Clement. Cowboy Jack was apparently not impressed by Jerry Lee, although he evidently came around in time to supply the b-side for “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, the great “It’ll Be Me”. (Best lyric: “If you find a lump in your sugar bowl / Baby, it’ll be me / And I’ll be lookin’ for you.”) But even if Lewis’ extreme confidence can be a bit off-putting, his charm might win you over.)