Colin Davies was in Memphis on September 28, 2002 to help Jerry Lee Lewis celebrate his 67th birthday
A year or so ago, I saw Chuck Berry perform in a club in Washington, D.C. He played magnificently for over an hour. That evening all the bad memories of unrehearsed backing bands, medleys, and ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ were eradicated. A similar thing happened in Memphis on September 28, 2002 with Jerry Lee Lewis performing at his 67th birthday party fan club celebration shindig. He played for over two and a half hours and those memories of his 17-minute performances as an opening act for Berry and Penniman were forgotten.
When I entered the ballroom of the Holiday Inn at noon that day, things were already starting to cook. I counted about 400 people in the hall, and from the accents I would say about a third were northern Europeans and the rest southerners. The day consisted of various imitators and performers, all supported by JLL’s Memphis Beats — Kenny Lovelace (guitar), B.B. Cunningham (bass), Bill Strom (organ) and Bob Hall (drums). Kenny’s recent election into the Alabama Hall of Fame has certainly not gone to his head and throughout the day he was unfailingly patient — willing to talk to everyone, happy to wait while fans put more fi lm in their cameras and supportive of all the acts that took the stage.
Meanwhile, at the back of the hall a very fitlooking Jimmy Van Eaton had set up a small
display highlighting his new line of customised drumsticks. I told him that on my radio show back in Fairfax, Virginia, if I didn’t know who played drums on a certain Sun track, I usually gave him credit. “Yes, I played on most of them, except ‘You Win Again”‘, he said. We talked a little about some of the many Sun artists he recorded with, before Jimmy excused himself to join the band on stage and join in on a jam session – the highlight of which was five pianists on one piano. (A piano tuner was summoned to do a quick tune-up afterwards!) The ‘best imitator’ competition, incidentally, was won by Lance Lipinski, whose act (actually more Dennis Quaid than Jerry Lee Lewis) is part of a tribute show out in Nevada. And I hate to be cruel, but for me his performance was slightly spoiled by the fact that afterwards I heard him tell Ervin Travis (the French guy who had done a great Gene Vincent performance), “I always get Gene Vincent mixed up with Del Shannon”. But he is only 17, so we should forgive him…
Then the evening show began, the first act being De De McCarver (sister of Jerry’s wife, Kerrie), a soul singer in the Etta James/Aretha Franklin mould. Various awards were presented and Knox Phillips (one of Sam’s sons) thanked the organisers (mostly members of the McCarver family) for the great job they had done in putting the whole thing together. Next up, “all the way from Scotland”, came a young singer introduced simply as Blondell — dressed in black and backed by a band called Rockabilly Country, featuring W.S. Holland on drums and Smoochy Smith on piano, augmented by a brass section. He stuck mainly to Elvis songs from all different periods, including ‘Blue Moon Of Kentucky’, ‘G.I. Blues’ and ‘She Thinks I Still Care’. Although Blondell had never performed with these musicians before, they put on a very stylish performance and won lots of applause.
A quick instrumental from The Memphis Beats, which by now had added guitarist Buck Hutchinson to the line-up, and on came another European representative, Stephen Ackles from Norway. As he performed ‘Flip, Flop And Fly’, all heads turned as Jerry Lee wandered onto the stage, smoking a cigar. My initial reaction was that he was looking better and walking better than when I saw him in Memphis two years ago, but in comparison with contemporaries like Jimmy Van Eaton and W.S. Holland, it does seem that life has taken its toll on him.
The original plan had been for me to interview Jerry Lee in his suite after his performance (something set up by Kerrie), but ultimately this was not to be — for reasons that will become apparent later. However, I did manage to get the next best thing: plenty of between-song remarks from the man himself, which I dutifully noted (I could understand about three-quarters of them!) So here we go, with a list of songs plus JLL’s comments.
Roll Over Beethoven — played all the way through.
“Nice crowd. I didn’t wear a suit and tie. I kinda feel guilty. I hope no one ‘s aggrieved. I’m nervous.”
You Win Again — including the jokey line, “I love you still — not too still. I might get accused of something.”
(Pointing to the piano) “Can you hear this? I can’t even see this.”
Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee
“I have a complex about the way I look tonight. Kerrie said I didn ‘t look right.”
Johnny B. Goode — halfway through it morphed into ‘Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee’.
“Sorry about that. When you get to 67 you find yourself drifting off.”
Over The Rainbow
“I’m a little bit hoarse tonight. ” (Actually, if anything, his voice sounded thin, rather than hoarse.)
I Am What I Am — which he stopped just as it was starting to rock.
(Joking with the band) “B.B. Cunningham is trying to steal the show. I need a new band.
When Bob started playing drums with me, he did great. Now he don’t play no more. Now don’t get serious on me. These people have no sense of humour.”
Another Place, Another Time — including the line, “I forgot the words one more time“.
CC Rider — with Kenny on fiddle.
“That was good, Kenny. Boy, that was really good. Now get off the stage.”
By this time the requests were coming thick and fast. Jerry seemed to be having difficulty
hearing them, but Kenny was at his side, repeating them to him, and reminding him what
key they were in. Then Jerry recognised fan Graham Knight, from Aberdeen, in the audience and his face really lit up. “You’re looking great. I met you in Scotland . You still got that little car? He drove me around everywhere. His father gave him that business. I wish he gave it to me. He’s a millionaire.”
Mean Woman Blues — cut short.
(Obviously he was still thinking about Graham Knight) “The one time I dress casual, every
millionaire in the world shows up.”
Then his thoughts turned to Memphis’ most famous son: “Elvis would be turning in his grave if he saw what they’ve done to his place. Lisa Marie — I bet she’s a hot-blooded girl. I can’t believe what’s-his-name got her. I said, ‘Can’t you wait for me? It would make Elvis feel a whole lot better.'”
Boogie Woogie Country Man — cut short.
A pattern was emerging. From now on all of the fast songs would be cut short, usually at the end of the first piano solo, since Jerry seemed to get bored by them.
Mexicali Rose — a request.
How’s My Ex Treating You? — another request, which he sings as “How’s my ex treating thee” (to rhyme with ‘Lee’).
Me And Bobby McGhee — a further request.
Your Cheatin’ Heart
“Hank Williams could write a song and sing a song. One time I played all his records. He never hit a flat note or a sharp note. You can never beat him. You can try, you can try, but you’re wasting your time. ”
Loving Up A Storm — a request, cut very short.
Lewis Boogie — yet another request.
“I wrote that one. ”
There’s A Goldmine In The Sky
“One of Gene Autry’s greatest.”
By now we were about an hour into the show, and Jerry was playing song after song with no break. Someone in the crowd yelled out “Do one of Cecil’s numbers!” (presumably a reference to old friend Cecil Harrelson), to which The Killer responded with: “Kiss my ass — if we can find a stool high enough for you to stand on.”
When I Take My Vacation In Heaven
(In reference to Sam Phillips being hospitalised)
“If Sam Phillips is lying on his deathbed in hospital, that’s the kind of song that would kill anybody.”
Frankie And Johnny — a request.
The One Rose That’s Left In My Heart
Meat Man — a request, cut short.
“That’s a disgrace to the human race. I have paid my dues, but apparently God don’t see it that way. I am living in a world of women.”
She Even Woke Me Up (To Say Goodbye) — during which he introduced his daughter
Phoebe to the audience. His teenage son, Jerry Lee III, was also present.
Help Me Make It Through The Night — cut short.
Plainly he was thinking of his “world of women”.
“Kerrie. That’s the last one. The last one.”
Chantilly Lace — a request
“That’s a good one!” (At this stage he takes the lid off the piano.)
What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)
Before The Night Is Over
You Belong To Me — a request.
“Jo Stafford recorded that. We sold a million records on it. We never got paid.” Followed by: “Here’s the reason I can’t get with it like I want to — ain’t had no dope in a long time. When they quit making those blue and yellow pills, they sure threw a wrench in Elvis’ motorcycle, and Jerry Lee’s too.”
Sweet Little Sixteen— cut short
“There’s another verse, but it’s the same old thing.”
High School Confidential — a request.
“That’s a hard song, but I’m gonna give it a shot. ”
Crazy Arms — lots of requests.
He then brought Blondell on stage. “We have a guy here from Scotland who wants to sing a song. Let him see what the real world is like.”
Lawdy Miss Clawdy — duet
“Do another, Killer. You’re gonna be a hit. ”
Hound Dog — duet
“Don’t hurt yourself, son. Thank you, boy. A fine looking young man. He’s gotta whole lotta electricity.”
Don’t Put No Headstone On My Grave
Rockin’ My Life Away — a request, cut short.
“That’s a good one!”
On The Jericho Road — memories of the Million Dollar Quartet, with some wonderful piano.
Mona Lisa — requested by Stephen Ackles.
“Nobody can sing it like Nat ‘King’ Cole,” — followed by an imitation.
We were past the two-hour mark now. More words of wisdom from The Killer: “For twelve
years Jerry Lee has not committed anything like adultery. Before that my sex life was really out of hand. I couldn’t keep it down.”
If You’ve Got The Money, I’ve Got The Time — a request, with Kenny on fiddle.
My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It — another request.
“Where did you hear that, honey?”
Green, Green Grass Of Home — yet another request, cut short.
“Stop! We’re getting really depressed.”
Lucille — lots of requests for this. It opened with a really powerful, pounding left hand riff. During this number he stood up (for the first time) and walked off. As he stepped off the stage he collapsed and was helped into a chair. Daughter Pheobe rushed to help him. After about twenty minutes he walked, supported, out of the hall and was taken to hospital for tests. He was released the next day after it was diagnosed he had over-exerted himself and was dehydrated from the intense heat up on stage.
It was a sad end to a great performance. Over two and a half hours from a man of 67 who has outlived a lot of his contemporaries. His piano playing is still masterly (though, of course, without some of the flashier trademarks that we had been reminded of earlier in the day by some of his imitators), his voice seems a little thinner, but he certainly remembered most of the words — including those of songs like ‘My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It’ that he rarely (ever?) performs. He obviously no longer enjoys playing the fast songs (he didn’t even bother with ‘Great Ball Of Fire’ or ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’) but when he settled into mid-tempo numbers such as ‘Crazy Arms’ he really seemed to be comfortable — despite his occasionally odd comments about his band.
Had my after-show interview happened, I would certainly have asked if Kenny’s earlier comment to me that a European tour was being lined up for next year, was actually going to happen. If it does come off and The Killer gets to play the songs he loves (and he’s not part a package show!), then, to quote the himself: “If God made anything better, he kept it for himself.”