Jerry Lee Lewis
All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology (Rhino)
Before 2010, my favorite album would have been a box set by Etta James, Otis Redding, Sam Cooke, Bessie Smith, Aretha Franklin, Jimmie Rodgers or Mahalia Jackson. Or, if I was feeling clever and self-conscious today about my pick, I may choose an album by an influential artist in the modern era like the Velvet Underground or the Gun Club, or maybe even be super cool and obscure and cite my most recent addiction and glorious find, Arthur Russell.
However, the truth is, in 2010, because my then-boyfriend (a professional music journalist and author) wrote, among other things, advance obituaries for the entertainment world, I was forever altered 10 straight days aurally, spiritually, and musically. A virtual living god among men in my estimation was born when the advance obituary assignment became The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Because I identified always as a rockabilly-goth type fashionista in my all-around aesthetic, it was not as if the well-known Jerry Lee Lewis or his songs like “Breathless” and “Great Balls Of Fire” were unknown to me. Nor did I think of him as basic. People know he’s great, but people don’t know how great. The Killer’s panoramic scope of influences, sleek acrobatic nuance, sly country stylings— an ability to conjure a frontier saloon vaudevillian flourish both as a pianist and vocalist— were a combination I hadn’t even fathomed possible (although another favorite of mine, Lee Morse, comes close).
Song after song, performance after performance, the wild man is so diverse and versatile that he continuously fooled me about his identity as my boyfriend immersed himself in the gigantic catalog. Each time I’d walk through the door and hear the music playing I’d ask, “Who’s that?” and the answer for the duration of about 10 days straight while my boyfriend finished the obituary was, “It’s still Jerry Lee!”
It started to sink in how absolutely underrated Jerry Lee Lewis was/is, and of course I was instructed on his dramatic irascible persona and backstory which could have factored into the stealthy mythology.
Although Jerry Lee is a legend and sometime household name, his true genius seems to be unsung. His infused performances on every recording are serpentine, chameleonic and time-bending. He is a conjurer of honky-tonk country ragtime blues and gospel vocally, as well as a pianist with unmatched drama, dexterity, and unpredictability.
Jerry Lewis demonstrates all this and more on All Killer, No Filler — my all time favorite album. It begins with his very first single “Crazy Arms” that sounds more like Al Jolson than Hank Williams, and even though his showmanship is subdued and going for a smooth crooning vibe, he’s still an exciting and dangerous improviser who you can tell will not be singing the same song the same way twice, ever.
Among some of the classic Jerry Lee Lewis tracks like “Great Balls Of Fire,” there’s also a great country gospel duet with his sister, “Don’t Let Me Cross Over,” which I love. My favorite song on this album is “No Headstone On My Grave” which comes across so poignant and earnest, but it used to be “Over The Rainbow,” which should really be a better known version of this classic song. Jerry Lee Lewis breathes so much pathos and humanity into it that it becomes more Old Globe Shakespearean than MGM Hollywood.
The compilation ends with “Rockin My Life Away,” which is of course fitting, since he recently sat outside his Memphis home and claimed he and his wife would be fine during this pandemic: “We’re too mean for that virus.” I consider myself lucky to have seen Jerry Lee Lewis live with my mother a couple years ago in downtown Los Angeles. I can’t believe I turned my mom onto Jerry Lee Lewis and I hope that this worshipful testimony turns the reader onto him too.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention “Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano,” even though it is not on this collection. It should be. And one day when my ex-boyfriend’s advance obituary runs and they fill in the dates and cause of death, Jerry Lee will still not have an answer to this great song’s question. “Who’s gonna play this old piano after the Killer is gone?” No one will come close. All Killer, no filler. Once in a lifetime. And only once in all humanity.
Ruby Friedman’s “Ain’t Got Your Money” single is out now.