It’s a source of continuing amazement that Jerry Lee Lewis, of all people, has turned out to be the last man standing out of the original batch of early rock greats that emerged from Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label in Memphis, Tenn.
That remarkable class, of course, also included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison in its top ranks.
Lewis, now 79, not only has survived but appears to be thriving musically as evidenced in his latest album “Rock & Roll Time,” which is out today (Tuesday) on Vanguard Records.
It’s his third album in recent years to grow out of the unusual friendship of the man known both as “The Ferriday Fireball” and “The Killer” for his incendiary performance style, and billionaire Steve Bing, who again co-produces “Rock & Roll Time” with veteran studio drummer Jim Keltner.
Bing is a self-professed lifelong fan of Lewis’ music, and several years ago decided to put some of his fortune behind getting the Killer back into a recording studio to add to his considerable recorded legacy.
The new set features another batch of smartly chosen songs, some well known (Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land” and "Little Queenie," Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,”) some not-so-high-profile (Bob Dylan’s “Stepchild” and the Kris Kristofferson-James Joseph McGuinn-Bob Neuwirth title track).
In the booklet with the new CD, pop music critic and historian Peter Guralnick writes: "In his nearly six decades in the entertainment industry, there has never been anyone who has approached the music with greater exuberance, with more exhilaration or celebration of 'the spirit.' ... No one has brought more panache to the music [and] there is no one who has conveyed more depth of feeling in his approach to a greater variety of songs than Jerry Lee.
"There is nothing," Guralnick adds, "that Jerry Lee has not sung, and sung well."
Bing’s deep pockets may have helped facilitate the presence of luminary guests including Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood, Neil Young, the Band’s Robbie Robertson, guitarist Nils Lofgren and singer-songwriter Shelby Lynne to record with Lewis in Memphis. But it’s hard to imagine they wouldn’t have been at his side for free given how spunky and utterly authoritative the 79-year-old member of the first class of inductees in the the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame still sounds, vocally and at that famous pumping piano of his.
It's a busy time for Lewis, who also is the subject of a new biography, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” by Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Rick Bragg, also available today.
And there’s a new album of vintage recordings Lewis made but which were never released in the 1970s with Knox Phillips, Sam’s son. Those recordings — “The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings,” released in September, were done at a time when Lewis had enjoyed a career renaissance as a country performer for much of the 1960s and '70s, and Phillips let Lewis loose to be his idiosyncratic self in these spirited sessions.
Calendar will have more on Lewis, the new album, the biography and the Knox Phillips album in the coming days.
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