Jerry Lee Lewis: Greatest Live Performances of the '50s, '60s & '70s
(TimeLife, 2007)

Jerry Lee Lewis and Time Life seem to put out a CD or DVD about once a year, trading on Jerry's long-ago fame and brief successes as a performer. He is a forgotten man, though he has won awards aplenty. He came along at the same time as Elvis, as Cash, and while Elvis always said "ma'am" and "sir" and Cash sang gospel, Lewis did neither, bowed to no god but rock 'n' roll, vowed to go to hell playing the piano all the way -- in short, he was too crude for the mainstream.

This recent DVD includes several show clips and interviews. The longest segment is a very audience-friendly concert Lewis did in England, running through his big hits like "You Win Again" and "Whole Lot of Shakin'". His listeners were dancing around and then swarming and seething around his piano, and symbolic of their consuming fanatical adoration, Lewis finally takes to the top of the piano for safety's sake. There he shimmies and croons as hundreds of sweating English teenagers mouth the lyrics. It's pretty exciting stuff, certainly better bang for buck than the lip-synch local-TV clips that are included in the production (of the same two songs, by the way). In all, the DVD provides only a handful of songs, but it does give a very clear picture of what Lewis was all about -- the frenetic almost demonic zeal of his performances and the sleazy charm that helped him earn his reputation as a badass with the nickname "Killer." Some said the nickname referenced the fact that no one wanted to have to follow his unbelievably raucous, up-beat act, but others think it referenced his dark side -- the cousin-marrying, bass-player-shooting, drug-popping wild man that no one could quite get a handle on.

In the interview towards the end of the DVD, Lewis touts himself shamelessly, comparing himself favorably to Elvis and other greats, all of whom he calls "stylists." There's something almost lurid about Lewis on Lewis. You keep hoping he'll redeem himself, say something modest or kind, but he stays true to his devil-loving image.

This is 71 minutes of Jerry Lee on stage, even when he's off stage. You have to admire the incredible piano licks, the potent singing voice, the enormous kick-the-piano-stool and kneel-on-the-floor energy, and the almost sexual interplay with the fans. But it's harder to admire the private man with an ego the size of Louisiana. The cocky mannerisms that seemed cool in a teenager from the boonies making it big on the Steve Allen Show in 1957 cloy considerably in an old man in a shiny suit trying to justify his life in a monologue many years later.

review by
Barbara Bamberger Scott

3 November 2007

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