Jerry Lee Lewis
Last Man Standing
Artists First AFT-20001-2
Jerry Lee Lewis, piano and vocal duets with (in order of appearance) Jimmy Page, B.B. King, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger & Ronnie Wood, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, John Fogerty, Keith Richards, Ringo Starr, Merle Haggard, Kid Rock, Rod Stewart, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Eric Clapton, Little Richard, Delaney Bramlett, Buddy Guy, Don Henley, Kris Kristofferson
One of the advantages of being my age is that I had the privilege of growing up in the Golden Age of Rock 'n' Roll, from the mid-1950s through the British Invasion of 1964. One of my fondest musical memories is from when I was 11, and just knocked out by listening to Jerry Lee Lewis pounding out "Great Balls of Fire" on the AM radio, back in January, 1958.
An enthusuiasm for this larger-than-life living legend of rock 'n' roll and his burning music that has persisted to this day. That's why, when he went back into the studio at age 70 and recorded this CD of duets, Last Man Standing, I was immediately intrigued and wanted to listen. I was not in the least disappointed. This is classic Jerry Lee, showing this artist as still the great rocker who thunderously emerged on the pop music scene in 1957, still burning the ivories and the vocal mics the same way he did when he was in his early 20s.
The frontispiece photo to the booklet of notes accompanying this CD says it all. The Sun Records' Million Dollar Quartet, with Elvis sitting at the piano and surrounded by, from right to left, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis. Now, only Jerry Lee is still alive, truly the Last Man Standing, and virtually alone among the original classic rockers still alive.
But Last Man Standing is musically much more than just scintillating rockers, as truly befits this complex and existential artist, who demonstrates his versatility and artistry not just in rock, but also in country, where he performs here with artists ranging from fellow septuagenarian legends Merle Haggard, George Jones and Willie Nelson, but also doing country with Rod Stewart, along with three Rolling Stones, Mick Jagger and Ronnie Wood, and Keith Richards, and the mournful "Lost Highway" with Delaney Bramlett.
There's solid blues here as well, with the blues-country "Before the Night Is Over," with its lead guitarist none other than B.B. King, and also two traditional blues numbers, "You Don't Have to Go," and "Trouble In Mind," with Neil Young and Eric Clapton respectively. And the best track on the CD is hard-driving blues-rock, "Hadicol Boogie," with yet another blues legend, Buddy Guy, where Lewis and Guy point-counterpoint truly incendiary vocal and instrumental licks.
That Jerry Lee Lewis should be an accomplished and soulful blues player as well should come as little surprise, given that, as a lad growing up in Louisiana just across from the Mississippi border, he'd sneak into blues clubs to hear B.B. King and Sunnyland Slim, and was also an admirer of rocking gospel singer/guitarist Sister Rosetta Tharpe.
And getting back to rock, that's displayed amply and extremely well all the way from Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" with Ringo Starr, and in turn-around, with the Beatles' "I Saw Her Standing There" with Little Richard. Ex- Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page opens up the CD with that band's "Rock and Roll." After Page lays down the signature opening guitar licks, Jerry Lee chimes exultantly, "Oh that is rock 'n' roll!" then proceeds to match Pages incendiary guitar with equally incendiary piano. Bruce Springsteen, always an admirer of Lewis's music, joins him on "Pink Cadillac," and John Fogerty joins with the song his group, Creedence Clearwater Revival, made a notable rockin' hit, "Travelin' Band," while Jerry Lee and Kid Rock contribute with a lushly-arranged but fully soulful version of the Stones' "Honky Tonk Woman."
Most surprising for those who stereotype Jerry Lee Lewis as a hard-driving, lecherous rocker and country singer/player whose breadth lacks depth, are the substantive emotiveness he expresses here on three existential ballads: "Twilight," written by and performed with the Band's Robbie Robertson; Van Morrison's elegy for his people, "What Makes the Irish Heart Beat," with Don Henley; and ending the CD, Kris Kristofferson's poignant tale of the ups and downs of life, "The Pilgrim," done here with Kristofferson himself. Although in the notes Lewis admits his disturbance over the songs final lyrics, "From the rockin' of the cradle to the rollin' of the hearse/The goin' up was worth the comin' down" (Kristopher Kristofferson, "The Pilgrim," Resaca Music Publishing Co.), Lewis not only existentially sings these words on the album track, but then repeats them in spoken word, a masterful touch that truly captures, sums up, and expresses all.
Considering that Jerry Lewis is at bottom still a redneck Louisiana boy, it's not surprising that he does a duet with Toby Keith of the patriotic "Ol' Glory," a track on the CD that leftists and progressives are likely to just hate. But this writer got another take on patriotism and the desperation of the working class last summer when he went to a David Allan Coe concert, and the show opened with an audience sing-along of "America the Beautiful."
But what, then, would be expected of these working people of limited life opportunities, sent off to be cannon fodder in war after war, from Vietnam and Korea to Iraq within recent memory, with no way to justify it to themselves except to believe they were truly fighting in a noble cause? For there was no college deferment, nor any stateside National Guard service for them!
And I thought to myself at the time, "How appropriate it would be as a medley, to follow a verse of 'America the Beautiful' with a verse from Phil Ochs's "I Ain't Marching Anymore.'" Not that I recommend it, but remember, fellow members of the left, this country of ours, the United States, did begin as a revolutionary movement against reactionary tyranny, a movement that did indeed expressed a political heresy, the inherent equality and right to freedom of all, high-born and low-born alike. And our revolution did inspire the French Revolution, and from there the modern socialist and communist movements. And those ideals then expressed still inflame and inspire us, still inspire others worldwide today, despite all the manifest backsliding and broken promises over the tortuous course of U.S. history.
So maybe, just maybe, a patriotism of sorts is called for: not to this nation the United States, nor to any other nation-state, but to those ideals expressed in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution, "We hold these truths to be self-evident: That all men are created equal..." and "Congress shall make no law abridging the freedom of speech..."
All this vocal and instrumental mastery, carried out by Jerry Lee not just in tandem with the celebrity artists, but also with the magnificent core accompanying band and additional musicians who provide pedal and lap steel guitar, sax, harmonica and fiddle for several of the tracks, make Last Man Standing not just an exciting and seminal CD well worth anybody's listen, but also a significant affirmation of one of our era's greatest pop musicians. Further, the booklet of notes by Peter Guralnick provides excellent information, detail and interpretation, with the booklet's center pages devoted to a display of vintage photos of Jerry Lee, and more photos of Jerry Lee today also elsewhere in the booklet and on the CD cover.
A magnificent tribute to a magnificent artist is Last Man Standing, which beautifully limns a portrait of an artist who's been daunted neither by all his personal adversity, nor by his septuagenarian age, but still carries on the way he's done now for fifty years. "Goodness, gracious great balls of fire!"
George Fish can be reached at .