Jerry Lee Lewis: The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings Jerry Lee Lewis

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Label: Warner Music Group

Genre: Country

Subgenre: Honky Tonk

Album including Album cover

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  • 1Bad, Bad Leroy Brown07:04
  • 2Ragged but Right03:56
  • 3Room Full of Roses03:49
  • 4Johnny B. Goode / Carol06:17
  • 5That Kind of Fool02:49
  • 6Harbor Lights02:57
  • 7Pass Me Not, O Gentle Savior03:46
  • 8Music! Music! Music! / Canadian Sunset04:28
  • 9Lovin' Cajun Style03:23
  • 10Beautiful Dreamer04:47
  • Total Runtime43:16

Info for Jerry Lee Lewis: The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings

Phillips Recording looks much as it did at its grand opening in 1960. That was the year Sam Phillips, then president of Sun Records, closed the old studio where he’d recorded Elvis, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, B.B. King and Howlin’ Wolf to open a new studio two blocks north. Even after Phillips sold Sun, he kept the new studio. His sons, Knox and Jerry, swear they’ll never relinquish it.

Ill health has curtailed Knox’s appearances at the studio of late, but there were years when he was there pretty much every day. When he felt those in his presence were deserving, he would play the Jerry Lee Lewis tapes he’d produced in the late 70s. Although no longer on Sun, Jerry Lee returned often to Phillips Recording. He was coming off a 10-year string of country hits at a time when progress in Nashville was gauged in slight adjustments to the formula. Nashville records were designed neither to excite nor to offend, bringing to mind a line from the Book of Revelations that Jerry Lee loved to paraphrase as you must be hot or cold, for if you are lukewarm the Lord will spew you out of His mouth. For a man conversant with popular music in all its manifestations, it all came down to one thing: God-given talent. Jerry Lee had it. At Phillips Recording, he once again gave some sense of all he knew and all he could do, just as he’d done at Sun in the 50s. And the piano, always de-emphasised at Mercury, was once again front and centre. Those who heard Knox’s tapes implored him to release them. That time has now come.

“Jerry Lee was always my favourite artist,” says Knox. “He can be ornery, but he has the sweetest heart in the world. After he left Sun we got reacquainted in the studio. His Mercury sessions only gave an inkling of what he could do. They found great songs, but they were just country. They had stockholders to answer to, so they wouldn’t make any giant excursions, but Sun was always about differentness, and so am I.

“One thing I took from my dad was that producing a record means creating a situation where a genius can play with reckless abandon. Like Dan Penn always says, I’ll go out on a limb, and if it breaks, that’s OK with me. Jerry Lee hadn’t captured that reckless abandon for a long time before this. I’d play these tapes for people I thought ought to hear them, but I wouldn’t release them out of respect for Jerry Lee, because I didn’t want to compete with whatever he had going on. Now the time feels right for both of us.”

Bless Knox Phillips for embracing all that Jerry Lee Lewis is, and for creating the atmosphere conducive for him to express it. Sounds simple enough, except that no one but his father did it before ... and no one has done it since.

'Get the Killer down on tape right and we'll make millions,' growls Jerry Lee Lewis at the beginning of The Knox Phillips Session. Jerry Lee proceeds to slide into an exceptionally sleazy version of Jim Croce's 'Big Bad Leroy Brown,' which he riddles with references to strippers and Watergate. He calls himself a motherhumper, he calls Nixon a motherhumper, but he doesn't hesitate to sing 'shit,' he sounds about five sheets to the wind and concludes the whole shambling thing by slurring 'I have struck again with a 14-million-selling underground record.' That's a pretty good tip-off to what The Knox Phillips Sessions are. Recorded by Knox Phillips, the son of Sun founder Sam, in either the mid- or late '70s -- roughly around the time Killer was concluding or had concluded his contract with Mercury -- it's hard to imagine there were ever commercial considerations for these sessions. They're too loose, Jerry Lee sounds too rough (which is just a kind way of saying he often sounds drunk), he spends a fair amount of time threatening to kick his band's ass, the repertoire draws heavily from songs he's sung many, many times before, including songs by Chuck Berry, Stephen Foster, hymns, and 'Room Full of Roses,' the old George Morgan tune he takes at a speed similar to his cousin Mickey Gilley's hit version. All of these things doomed these recordings to stay unreleased for years but they're also the reason to hear The Knox Phillips Sessions now that they've been released from the vaults. It's hard to say that this record captures Jerry Lee Lewis at either his purest or best -- it doesn't have the fury of either his live '60s sessions or his Sun sessions, while the finesse of the studio Mercury sides are missed; here, his playing is sloppy and his rhythm section has a tendency to plod -- but it is thoroughly him in its attitude and aesthetic. He bends all these songs to suit where he's at in the moment, the songs finding a different life according to when he sings them, and he just happened to be soused, vulgar, and nasty at this point in the '70s. Lewis isn't as demented on this 'underground' record as David Allan Coe is on his, but that's because the Killer wasn't trolling: he was just recording songs he wanted to sing when he was half blitzed in the studio late at night. This makes it a throwaway but one that's special: it's Jerry Lee Lewis performing for no one but himself and no matter how ragged it is, that's something to cherish.“ (Stephen Thomas Erlewine)

Jerry Lee Lewis, piano

Recorded at Sam Phillips Recording Service, Memphis, TN
Engineered by Knox Phillips
Produced by Colin Escott, Knox Phillips

Digitally remastered

Jerry Lee Lewis
Is there an early rock & roller who has a crazier reputation than the Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis? His exploits as a piano-thumping, egocentric wild man with an unquenchable thirst for living have become the fodder for numerous biographies, film documentaries, and a full-length Hollywood movie. Certainly few other artists came to the party with more ego and talent than he and lived to tell the tale. And certainly even fewer could successfully channel that energy into their music and prosper doing it as well as Jerry Lee. When he broke on the national scene in 1957 with his classic 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On,' he was every parents' worst nightmare perfectly realized: a long, blonde-haired Southerner who played the piano and sang with uncontrolled fury and abandon, while simultaneously reveling in his own sexuality. He was rock & roll's first great wild man and also rock & roll's first great eclectic. Ignoring all manner of musical boundaries is something that has not only allowed his music to have wide variety, but to survive the fads and fashions as well. Whether singing a melancholy country ballad, a lowdown blues, or a blazing rocker, Lewis' wholesale commitment to the moment brings forth performances that are totally grounded in his personality and all singularly of one piece. Like the recordings of Hank Williams, Louis Armstrong, and few others, Jerry Lee's early recorded work is one of the most amazing collections of American music in existence.

He was born to Elmo and Mamie Lewis on September 29, 1935. Though the family was dirt poor, there was enough money to be had to purchase a third-hand upright piano for the family's country shack in Ferriday, LA. Sharing piano lessons with his two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, a ten-year old Jerry Lee Lewis showed remarkable aptitude toward the instrument. A visit from piano-playing older cousin Carl McVoy unlocked the secrets to the boogie-woogie styles he was hearing on the radio and across the tracks at Haney's Big House, owned by his uncle, Lee Calhoun, and catering to blacks exclusively. Lewis mixed that up with gospel and country and started coming up with his own style. He even mixed genres in the way he syncopated his rhythms on the piano; his left hand generally played a rock-solid boogie pattern while his right played the high keys with much flamboyant filigree and showiness, equal parts gospel fervor and Liberace showmanship. By the time he was 14, by all family accounts, he was as good as he was ever going to get. Lewis was already ready for prime time.

But his mother Mamie had other plans for the young family prodigy. Not wanting to squander Jerry Lee's gifts on the sordid world of show business, she enrolled him in a bible college in Waxahatchie, TX, secure in the knowledge that her son would now be exclusively singing his songs to the Lord. But legend has it that the Killer tore into a boogie-woogie rendition of 'My God Is Real' at a church assembly that sent him packing the same night. The split personality of Lewis, torn between the sacred and the profane (rock & roll music), is something that has eaten away at him most of his adult life, causing untold aberrant personality changes over the years with no clear-cut answers to the problem. What is certain is that by the time a 21-year-old Jerry Lee showed up in Memphis on the doorstep of the Sun studios, he had been thrown out of bible college; been a complete failure as a sewing-machine salesman; been turned down by most Nashville-based record companies and the Louisiana Hayride; been married twice; in jail once; and burned with the passion that he truly was the next big thing.

Sam Phillips was on vacation when he arrived, but his assistant Jack Clement put Roland Janes on guitar and J.M. Van Eaton on drums behind Lewis, whose fluid left hand made a bass player superfluous. This little unit would become the core of Lewis' recording band for almost the entire seven years he recorded at Sun. The first single, a hopped-up rendition of Ralph Mooney's 'Crazy Arms,' sold in respectable enough quantities that Phillips kept bringing Lewis back in for more sessions, astounded by his prodigious memory for old songs and his penchant for rocking them up. A few days after his first single was released, Jerry Lee was in the Sun studios earning some Christmas money, playing backup piano on a Carl Perkins session that yielded the classics 'Matchbox' and 'Your True Love.' At the tail-end of the recording, Elvis Presley showed up, Clement turned on the tape machine, and the impromptu Million Dollar Quartet jam session ensued, with Perkins, Presley, and Lewis all having the time of their lives.

With the release of his first single, the road beckoned and it was here that Lewis' lasting stage persona was developed. Discouraged because he couldn't dance around the stage strumming a guitar like Carl Perkins, he stood up in mid-song, kicked back the piano stool and, as Perkins has so saliently pointed out, 'a new Jerry Lee Lewis was born.' This newfound stage confidence was not lost on Sam Phillips. While he loved the music of Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, he saw neither artist as a true contender to Elvis' throne; with Lewis he thought he had a real shot. For the first time in his very parsimonious life, Sam Phillips threw every dime of promotional capital he had into Lewis' next single, and the gamble paid off a million times over. 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On' went to number one on the country and the R&B charts, and was only held out of the top spot on the pop charts by Debbie Reynolds' 'Tammy.' Suddenly, Lewis was the hottest, newest, most exciting rock & roller out there. His television appearances and stage shows were legendary for their manic energy, and his competitive nature to outdo anyone else on the bill led to the story about how he once set his piano on fire at set's end to make it impossible for Chuck Berry to follow his act. Nobody messed with the Killer.

Jerry Lee's follow-up to 'Shakin'' was another defining moment for his career, as well as for rock & roll. 'Great Balls of Fire' featured only piano and drums, but sounded huge with Phillips' production behind it. It got him into a rock & roll movie (Jamboree) and his fame was spreading to such a degree that Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins left Sun to go to Columbia Records. His next single, 'Breathless,' had a promotional tie-in with Dick Clark's Saturday night Bandstand show, making it three hits in a row for the newcomer.

But Lewis was sowing the seeds of his own destruction in record time. He sneaked off and married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, the daughter of his bass-playing uncle, J.W. Brown. With the Killer insisting that she accompany him on a debut tour of England, the British press got wind of the marriage and proceeded to crucify him in the press. The tour was canceled and Lewis arrived back in the U.S. to find his career in absolute disarray. His records were banned nationwide by radio stations and his booking price went from $10,000 a night to $250 in any honky tonk that would still have him. Undeterred, he kept right on doing what he had been doing, head unbowed and determined to make it back to the bigs, Jerry Lee Lewis style. It took him almost a dozen years to pull it off, but finally, with a sympathetic producer and a new record company willing to exact a truce with country disc jockeys, the Killer found a new groove, cutting one hit after another for Smash Records throughout the late '60s and into the '70s. Still playing rock & roll on-stage whenever the mood struck him (which was often), while keeping all his releases pure country, Lewis struck a creative bargain that suited him well into the mid-'70s.

But while his career was soaring again, his personal life was falling apart. The next decade-and-a-half saw several marriages fall apart (starting with his 13-year-long union with Myra), the deaths of his parents and oldest son, battles with the I.R.S., and bouts with alcohol and pills that frequently left him hospitalized. Suddenly, the Ferriday Fireball was nearing middle age and the raging fire seemed to be burned out.

But the mid-'80s saw another jump start to his career. A movie entitled Great Balls of Fire was about to be made of his life and Lewis was called in to sing the songs for the soundtrack. Showing everyone who the real Killer was, Lewis sounded energetic enough to make you believe it was 1957 all over again with the pilot light of inspiration still burning bright. He also got a boost back to major-label land with a one-song appearance on the soundtrack for Dick Tracy. In 2006, Lewis released Last Man Standing, which featured duets with Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, Rod Stewart, Jimmy Page, and others. He followed it up in 2010 with another album of duets, Mean Old Man, which saw him teaming with Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, John Fogerty, and Kid Rock, among others. Four years later came Rock & Roll Time, another record co-produced by Steve Bing and Jim Keltner; it also had superstar cameos but generally they were musical, not vocal. Released alongside the album was Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, an as-told-to autobiography written by Rick Bragg.

With box sets and compilations, documentaries, a bio flick, a memoir, and his induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame all celebrating his legacy, Lewis continued to record and tour, delivering work that vacillated from tepid to absolutely inspired. While his influence will continue to loom large until there's no one left to play rock & roll piano anymore, the plain truth is that there's only one Jerry Lee Lewis, and American music will never see another like him.

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