Jerry Lee Lewis is not the kind of guy you are likely to name when someone asks, “Which famous person, living or dead, would you most like to date your sister?” Jerry Lee was very bad—In the distinctive and predictable way of a white, Southern American singer from the first wave of rock ‘n’ roll: he was free in his use of overtly racist slurs; and, at the age of 22, Jerry Lee married his cousin, who was either 13 or 15 at the time. He is known for that far more than he for his musical contributions. Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed “The Killer”, offered few, non-piano related, innovations to the emerging genre.
Chuck Berry invented the sound of rock ‘n’ roll. The Chuck Berry sound and the rock ‘n’ roll sound are the same thing. Unlike Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee instigated neither cultural revolution, nor lust in the hearts of millions. Jerry Lee was rock ‘n’ roll’s first disgusting creep, that's his claim to fame. I hate Jerry Lee Lewis. But, if you are asking me to compile a list of my all-time favourite male singers--rock, soul, jazz vocal—motherfucking Jerry Lee always pops into my head, all sort of sneering with his slick, killer charm saying to me, “Come on now, son!—you and I both know I can sing the hell out of Al Martino.” And then it gets complicated and I scratch both of them and go: Bobby Womack, Jackie Wilson, Jon Hendricks, Eugene Record, Solomon Burke there, fine, are you happy?
And Jerry Lee just shakes his head and says to me, “Jon Hendricks? Name one song of his off the top of your head, then sing me the chorus.” Naturally, I refuse to dignify this sort of microaggression with a response, which Jerry Lee takes for proof that I can’t, and then I remember that Jerry Lee is also the first cousin of Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist, who had a sex scandal of his own, and so I say to Jerry Lee, “Jerry Lee, is it true you married your cousin Jimmy, Jimmy Swaggart? Because that is what I heard and that is what people are saying and good golly but that must have been the scandal of the century back in the 1960s!” and Jerry Lee says to me, he says, “Say what now?” and I know that he has forgotten about the whole Jon Hendricks thing.
The Return of Rock (1965) was the last rock ‘n’ roll record Lewis made first time 'round. He switched to country after that, and stayed a country singer for a good long while. The cover of this album gets blamed a lot for the death of Lewis as rock ‘n’ roll singer. It’s not hard to see why. The four teenagers behind him are not dancing to the rocking beat. They are making fun of the weird pervert playing the piano and wishing he was The Beatles or in jail. I’m sorry Jerry Lee, but look at you! Good god, man, wipe that disgusting look off your face, why don’t you! Also, why is the entire head of one boy hidden? Why are the eyes of the first girl closed? I think The Return of Rock album cover is, pretty much, as close to a visualization of karma as we are ever likely to see in our lifetimes.
The stupid thing is, Jerry Lee Lewis maybe didn’t invent rock ‘n’ roll but he knows how to sing it as good as anyone else who ever did it. Especially as an interpreter of Chuck Berry songs Lewis kills it, and this record has three of them: “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Maybelline” and “Johnny B. Goode.” Chuck Berry himself eventually seems to have been won over by the sheer relentlessness of Lewis’s talent. If you can’t beat ‘em, tour together, I guess—which Berry and Lewis did, often. Lewis, who is alive and aged 83, knows his reputation. His penultimate album (to date), released in 2010, is titled Mean Old Man. Mean old man can sing. Lewis was hospitalized after suffering a stroke in March, 2019.