JERRY LEE LEWIS - A Close Encounter

Of all those rocknroll icons from the 1950s, Elvis kept himself to himself, Buddy and Eddie died, Richard (Little and Cliff), Bo and Gene eluded me and, apart from a very brief encounter at his LA girlfriend’s house, so did Chuck. But I snagged Jerry Lee one night in London, hanging around in the studio with him for a couple of hours while he recorded an album called London Sessions, and as a tribute to The Killer here’s my report from Melody Maker dated January 20, 1973, slightly edited from the original published version. 


Gosfield Street, London W1: Advision Studios is where Yes create their music and put it on record.

        Last week the action at Advision was a million miles aware from Close To The Edge. Jerry Lee Lewis had taken over the studios for a whole week to cut tracks for a double album that will be issued about a month after the final note is played. That’s five weeks after the first note was played, which means there’s more than just a musical difference between Jerry Lee and Yes.

        Jerry Lee arrived at Heathrow last weekend and was pictured for the Sunday papers with his Southern Belle girlfriend. “I’m here to cut some rock and roll songs, some old, some new, that mah fans want me to do,” he told smiling reporters at Heathrow. In case there was any doubt, he also informed them he was the King of Rock and Roll.

        A host of British names have been recruited for these sessions in much the same way as BB King and Howlin’ Wolf collected British names to add a touch of glamour to their respective London Sessions albums. During the week no lesser personnel than Alvin Lee, Klaus Voorman, Rory Gallagher, Kenney Jones, Delaney Bramlett, Peter Frampton, Rik Grech, Tony Ashton and most of Head, Hands And Feet showed up at various times to accompany Jerry Lee. Of Yes there was no sign.

        Two uniformed security guards stand impassively by the doorway to the studio and every visitor is checked from a list of names at the reception before they can pass into Jerry Lee’s presence, and even then admittance isn’t guaranteed. It rather depends on whether or not Jerry Lee likes the look of your face.

        The band is playing ‘Proud Mary’ with Jerry’s son, Jerry Lee Lewis Junior, taking the vocals. Junior is 18 years old, and portly in the manner that many young men from the Southern states of America tend to be. Too many hamburgers and fries, ah guess. 

        Jerry is on piano, Albert Lee and Delaney Bramlett on guitars, Chas Hodges on bass, Kenney Jones on drums and various others making small contributions. There’s also three girl singers, all white, bawling out the lyrics. 

        “Son, take your hands out of your pockets and sing with some soul, boy,” drawls Jerry Lee in the direction of someone or other. “If you forget the words, just sing what you feel, boy.” The music commences and it goes like bomb. Lewis’ piano style is very personal: his left hand bounces up and down on the keys like an automatic lever, and his right flashes across them like lightning.

        Two rehearsals and two takes and that’s it. About 24 numbers have been recorded in this fashion all week. Vocals, guitars, piano, drums are all recorded simultaneously. Recording one instrument at a time just isn’t Jerry Lee. It might as well be a live album.

        The control room is more than crowded. Apart from the musicians there’s Jerry Lee’s ‘men’. He calls them gophers because they go for things for him, mostly sandwiches and beers. There’s also his manager Judd Phillips, brother of the legendary Sam Phillips, founder of Sun Records, who discovered Elvis. Also, Jerry’s Southern Belle is constantly at his side – it’s unwise to stare at her for too long – along with a few other ladies, two photographers, an engineer and a tape-op guy. 

When the playback stops there’s a stony silence. The respect that Jerry Lee commands is not just musical. He can cut you up with words too, so no one dares disagree with him. “Ah, ah like it,” he drawls. Everyone smiles. 

Discussion follows concerning the next song. ‘Satisfaction’ is mooted. “Ah’d like to do a song of Mick’s,” Jerry Lee tells everyone. “But Mick did that one so good it’d be like sticking a greasy noodle up some critter’s ass.” This is a cue to laugh. Often Jerry Lee’s comments, though difficult to catch through the Southern drawl, are incredibly funny. Then again, they might not be. 

Jerry Lee sits down in chair that belongs to a technician, and the thoughtless technician asks Jerry Lee to move. “You move me, boy.” Silence. “I’ll give you five hundred to a thousand you won’t move me, boy.” You can hear a pin drop in the room. No one is sure whether Jerry Lee really is as mean as he makes out or if it’s all one big joke. Then he laughs and breaks the tension. It was a joke but one that brings home the pride Jerry Lee takes in his stubborn Southern upbringing; whiskey, cotton, short hair, the Good Book, grits and country music. I wonder how he gets along with Chuck Berry at his most badass black and Little Richard at his creamy ass camp.

Jerry Lee holds court in the control room while others rehearse a number around the piano in the studio. “They’re rehearsing a song I don’t want to play,” he drawls.

In company with everyone else I laugh and shake my head. “What you shaking your head and laughing for, boy?” To my horror, this is directed at me. “You laughing at me, boy? Don’t you believe me, boy? I’ll whip you any day, boy.” Silence. My face turns red. What I don’t know is that everyone gets this treatment and it was my turn. I remain silent. I don’t know what to say.

But it passes, and Jerry Lee smiles at me and laughs and I tell him I was laughing at the musicians in the studio who were playing a number he didn’t want to play, and he agrees it’s funny and we laugh together. It seemed we were friends. Sort of. 



Jimmy Holcomb (Treblephone) said...

Thank you for this. RIP Killer.

Mark Millicent said...

Like a Clint Eastwood moment... 'I don't think it's funny you laughing... You remember those sort of moments!

Glenn Burris said...

That's a great tale, Chris, thanks. I was disappointed it wasn't longer.

Of all the obits written in the last few days, yours is the first recollection I have seen so far from someone who actually breathed the same air as The Killer.

How close was this session to Jerry Lee Junior's death? I've read he died in a car crash in '73, but I don't know when in that year.

Anyway, terrific story and glad you survived it.

Chris Charlesworth said...

Hello Glenn, Thanks. According to the book Hellfire by Nick Tosches (which I can't recommend highly enough) Jerry Lee Jnr died on November 13, 1973, in the crash.

Glenn Burris said...

Thanks, I've never read Hellfire, everybody says it's the best.

I shot a Jerry Lee show in 2011 in Nashville. I'll send you a couple of pics.