A couple of posts ago I ventured into risky territory — I attempted to come up with a definition for oldies. When I say risky I don’t mean that someone is trying to dynamite the place, just that the posting seemed to generate some dissent. Some disagreed with my opinion that boomers were most responsible for the use of the term, while others didn’t like the idea of any kind of music being described as oldies. (At least nobody tried to say that only Richard Simmons can truly define oldies by sweatin’ to ’em.)
In round two, I thought I’d travel back in time and see if a flamboyant star from an earlier era might have generated the kind of music that could be called oldies by some of us today. This legendary icon is a member of the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame but could easily qualify for the Tortured Artist Hall Of Fame if such a thing existed. There’s plenty of biographical info available for him so I’m not going to go into deep detail, but you’ll probably know who it is when I tell you that his third wife was his 13 year old cousin.
Jerry Lee Lewis, fondly and famously known as “Killer”, hit the big time in the mid to late fifties. I remember him well from those days because he scared me to death. He seemed so wild and undisciplined, but at the same time had that “train wreck” type of fascination for me and many others. You simply couldn’t look away even as you sensed that he was headed for destruction.
Coming out of a musical childhood with cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, he could have gone a different way, and many think his wild, erratic life all happened because of his conflicted emotions over being kicked out of bible school and choosing to follow the “wicked” road instead. Whatever the case, he’s always been a fascinating character and one of the all time greats.
Keep in mind that in most of middle America at that time there weren’t many opportunities to see new performers. We didn’t have much in the way of live rock and roll shows in our area, and of course we didn’t have MTV. American Bandstand wasn’t yet being televised nationwide, and TV variety shows still hadn’t caught on to the trick of showing a pop star to boost their ratings. Most of our exposure to new performers was via radio, or of course records, but Jerry Lee Lewis was at his best when seen live and in all his glory, pounding the piano (or jumping on it) so wherever he performed a groundswell developed, but in many areas his popularity was slow to build.
Still, when Sun Records in Memphis began promoting him as one of their legends in the making (along with Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins) he became a huge star, and even after his early scandals shot him down he kept performing for many years, eventually forging a solid and long-lasting career.
I’m including a couple of sample songs here that show two sides of the Killer. First is a slower, almost bluesy song that is not one of his more well-known tunes. Other singers have performed this song through the years, but his version has his own signature style. It’s called “Matchbox“.
Following that is his first big hit, one you’ve probably heard lots of times but it will still get you moving, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On“. Both can be found on the album Jerry Lee Lewis – Great Balls Of Fire.