There’s always been a danger that younger rock’n’roll fans’ first impression of Jerry Lee Lewis might be one of an easily-dismissed novelty. The wild and sweaty red hair; the madness in the eyes; the boot heel crashing onto a piano keyboard; the morally questionable underage cousin bride – any or all of them scream “caricature”, rather than “genius”.
Dennis Quaid’s shamefully lazy portrayal of The Killer in the 1989 biopic Great Balls Of Fire! almost exclusively drew on what today would be called the tabloid image of the man, with the thrill and the thump of the songs seemingly only tagged on as afterthought. Yes, Lewis was a larger-than-life personality from the get-go, but he’s also a hugely influential musical pioneer. A living legend.
Yet, despite his guaranteed place at rock’n’roll’s top table, he’s been surprisingly poorly served by anthologists. The last weighty career-spanning compilation of any real note was Rhino’s 1993 two-disc All Killer, No Filler, which did a good enough job but still left some niggling gaps. This box set is infinitely better; an electrifying 106 tracks across four discs, charting Jerry Lee’s ride from his 50s beginnings at Memphis’ Sun imprint, and not letting up until well into the 80s.
Of all of rock’n’roll’s first wave of superstars, Jerry Lee is arguably the only one who was still making new music worthy of attention 20 years after he began, let alone 40 (sadly, this collection doesn’t feature anything from his vibrant 1995 album Youngblood). Two 21st Century collections of A-lister duets have kept him in the public eye, as have constant live shows of formidable energy for a man in his mid-70s.
But let’s rewind to the start: how extraordinary must it have been to hear High School Confidential, Breathless or Lovin’ Up A Storm blasting through transistor radio speakers in the late 50s, like a frenzied escapologist trying to kick his way out of a tiny metal box? Rock’n’roll has always been about the most visceral emotions expressed in the most economical fashion, and Jerry Lee understood that more than most.
He also understood his geographical heritage. The boy from Ferriday, Louisiana, absorbed the blues and country emanating from the shacks and saloons of the rural south and parlayed those sounds into a fiery, mouth-burning stew with limitless global appeal. The country connection is important, as this was the music that arguably saved his bacon after the scandals of his private life prompted a fall from grace.
The late 60s and early 70s cuts are, in many ways, the most telling, with Lewis not so much reinventing himself as a country crooner (he still packed a venomous vocal punch), but honing, fine-tuning and evolving his core talents to remain relevant in an industry undergoing rapid changes. It’s instructive to sit down and listen to this whole box in a single sitting, if you have the time, because it maps out a fascinating journey, dotted with a few perilous pit-stops but five times as many uplifting, refuelled triumphs. These songs are Jerry Lee’s biography, and say so much more about him than any crappy Dennis Quaid film ever could.