Music

Jerry Lee Lewis: Last Man Standing

Lou Friedman

Sun Records, the IRS, alcohol, and marrying his 13-year-old second cousin had been the brunt of Jerry Lee Lewis' legacy -- until now. Here's a "duets" record that actually works completely.


Jerry Lee Lewis

Last Man Standing

Subtitle: The Duets
Label: Artists First
US Release Date: 2006-09-26
UK Release Date: 2006-10-02
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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.

9

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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