HOLLYWOOD — The cover of Jerry Lee Lewis’ new album, Last Man Standing: The Duets, features the Killer leaning over an acoustic piano, the body of the instrument exploding into a great ball of fire.
The image, of course, plays upon the legend of the feisty rock and country figure who’s kicked over thousands of piano benches, doused a keyboard or two in kerosene and landed in the news with fistfights, gun-wielding incidents, mysterious family deaths and tax problems.
Lewis was much more a pussycat than the legend — or the current album artwork — would imply when he played Wednesday night (Oct. 11) during a taping for a PBS special set to air in December. An invitation-only crowd of about 60 people (including comedian Fred Willard) gathered at Hollywood’s Henson Studio, located where iconic actor Charlie Chaplin built his original studios.
Lewis turned 71 last month, and the age has perhaps mellowed him a bit. There were no major theatrics. He now slurs when he speaks, and there’s a slight curvature to his back. It’s likely not a coincidence that the shape seems to reflect the manner in which he addresses the piano. Lewis sat rather quietly at his Baldwin acoustic piano, not even keeping a metronomic rhythm with his head or his feet.
But the experience is evident: The Killer’s hands still moved efficiently across the keys as he worked out barroom country arrangements and one bang-up version of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” ending most of the pieces with his trademark glissando.
Also evident is respect, clearly present in the faces of his guests. Kris Kristofferson teamed with Lewis on “Help Me Make It Through the Night” and the Killer’s former country hit, “Once More With Feeling.” Former Creedence Clearwater Revival frontman John Fogerty ran with Lewis through “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” “Good Golly Miss Molly” and “C.C. Rider.”
Lewis was amenable to just about any sort of musical alterations — different key changes, modulations and trading vocal lines however his guests wanted. But both artists –Kristofferson (the Country Music Hall of Famer) and Fogerty (Lewis’ fellow Rock and Roll Hall of Famer) — inevitably deferred to the night’s honoree.
Kristofferson remained wide-eyed, a sort of half-smile across his face as he focused almost exclusively on Lewis during his performances, reading as best he could Lewis’ intentions, seemingly expecting the unexpected, which has for decades been de rigueur with the Killer.
Fogerty broke into a wide grin at the start of “Will the Circle Be Unbroken,” but like Kristofferson, he kept his eyes trained intently on Lewis, searching for enough signs of feedback to gain some level of comfort. Fogerty began the song rather demurely but slowly built in volume and confidence. By the time he ripped through “Molly,” he was thrusting his right hand in the air and letting out a Little Richard whoop.
“Where’d you get that guy?” the Killer laughed in approval.
Lewis is getting plenty of approval of his own at the moment. Last Man Standing debuted at No. 4 on Billboard’s country albums chart, signaling an ongoing appreciation from the general public.
The album guest list demonstrates the high regard with which he’s still held by his fellow artists as he accumulated performances from such country figures as Toby Keith, Merle Haggard and George Jones, rockers such as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart and Led Zeppelin guitarist Jimmy Page and bluesmen B.B. King and Buddy Guy. In addition, footage from the West Coast taping will be combined with performances previously recorded in New York with Willie Nelson, Tom Jones, Norah Jones and Kid Rock that will be combined for the PBS special.
Musicians are clearly happy to work with Lewis, as well. At the Hollywood taping, the lineup included bassist Rick Rosas (noted for his work with Neil Young and Joe Walsh), keyboardist Ivan Neville, guitarist Jimmy Rip (Mariah Carey), drummer Jim Keltner (Eric Clapton, Dolly Parton) and guitarist Ken Lovelace, who’s been in the Killer’s band since the late ’60s.
In the early part of his career, Lewis won his popularity through a singular brand of boogie-woogie piano and onstage brashness that appropriately reflected his youth. He was among the first to discover the fickle nature of pop fans in the rock era, and he made an overt shift into country music, where he matched his mid-life with appropriate subject matter in “Middle Age Crazy” and “39 and Holding,” a song he dusted off for his Henson Studio performance.
Even now, the Killer is largely — although not entirely — tackling themes that fit his later years. Last Man Standing includes versions of the Cindy Walker novelty song, “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” and Shel Silverstein’s “Couple More Years,” which deals with an older man coming to grips with the future infidelity of his much-younger bride. In his live performance, “Help Me Make It Through the Night” — with its recognition that “yesterday is dead and gone” — took on a slightly different meaning, and his duet with Neville on “What’d I Say” rekindled memories of another major figure who left us in his 70s: the late Ray Charles.
Last Man Standing takes its title from that historic moment 50 years ago — in December 1956 — when Lewis cut some impromptu recordings in Memphis with Sun labelmates Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The Killer was the rowdiest of the bunch, and yet he’s the only member left from the fabled Million Dollar Quartet.
He’s not what he once was. Lewis is less a great ball of fire now than a slow-burning flame. But the guy who was once steeped in feistiness and rancor is now heaped with admiration and respect. And good golly, Miss Molly, the Killer can still play.