Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the pioneers of rock and roll. In 1956 he signed with Sam Phillips of Sun Records and his outrageous, high energy piano style made him an overnight sensation. He recorded some hits that are still getting airplay today, 50 year later, including the rock standards Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On. In tribute to this great musician, Time-Life has released a DVD filled with The Killer's TV appearances that he's made over the years. The aptly titled Jerry Lee Lewis: Greatest Live Performances of the 50's, 60's and 70's is a great collection of rarely seen material that shows Lewis at the height of his popularity as a rock singer, and later when he reinvented himself as a country and western musician.
Jerry Lee Lewis had a huge impact on rock and roll. He made the piano an exciting and vibrant instrument, and with his dynamic style he naturally became a star. While singing, he'd often kick the stool away and play his instrument standing up, dancing in time with the music. He gave an energetic performance, and we're lucky that this early TV footage still exists.
The disc starts out with Jerry Lee's first TV appearance on the Steve Allen show in 1957. He plays his newly released single, Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On, with his usual style and energy. While he slams his hands against the keys his hair is flying in and out of his face and his legs are moving around like they have a life of his own. It's one of the most impressive performances on the disc.
Next is a very rare clip from a local Memphis TN TV show, Dewey Phillips Pop Shop, which was taped at the end of '57. Lewis lip synchs on this clip, but even so it's nice to see him so young and energetic. Following that is a 1958 appearance on the Dick Clark Show where he sings Breathless. Viewers of the show who sent in four gum wrappers and 50 cents would get a signed copy of the single in the mail! Even though half a dollar went a lot further back then, it still sounds like a great deal. I wonder how many of the thousands that they gave out still exist?
In 1958 Lewis' career came to a screeching halt when it was discovered that he had married his cousin. A cousin who was only 14 at the time. This wasn't an uncommon practice where Jerry Lee was from, and he was surprised by the public's reaction. They were outraged and they showed their displeasure by boycotting Lewis records.
A few years later when things had cooled down a bit, Lewis went to Britain and recorded a special for Granada TV; Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On. Here he plays his big hits and the man, looking a bit older now, still has a lot of energy. The special is worth watching just for the ecstatic look on the two male fans to the right of Jerry's piano as he announces each song. They acted as if it was the greatest night of their lives, and it probably was.
Jerry Lee Lewis relaunched his career in the late 60's by releasing some C&W albums. Promotional appearances from this part of his life are also included. One of the non-musical highlights is the short interview that Jerry gives on Pop Goes the Country. He talks about how Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart are both his cousins. When the host, Ralph Emory, turns to the camera and asks the audience if they 'got all that' Jerry jumps in and says "Remember, I'm the guy who married his 13 year old cousin." Poor Ralph isn't sure what to say to that, so he laughs.
For his performance on that show he plays two songs, one of which is a fast, upbeat version of Me and Bobby McGee that didn't really work well. When he sings "I'd trade all my tomorrows - for a single yesterday, holding that woman's body close to mine" it doesn't ring true at all and sounds like he's just running through the song. The fact that he's playing the song is a polyester suit and tie just makes him seem even more disconnected from what he's singing about. Besides that, you can still see the Killer lurking inside a middle-aged man's body. He occasionally has that glint in his eye and still plays the piano with flair. While the two appearances from Pop Goes the Country that are included on this disc aren't as interesting to a rock fan like me, I enjoyed seeing them.
The quality of the stereo audio varies widely, but it is generally very good, especially when the age and rarity of these clips is taken into account. The early clips are lacking fidelity and have a narrow dynamic range, but viewers can still feel the energy and excitement of Lewis' playing. In some clips there are dropouts and a couple of times the levels drop for a second or two, but this is undoubtedly on the master tapes that was used to make the DVD. The segments from Pop Goes the Country has some distortion, which is most evident in the interview segments. While this disc will never win any awards for sound quality, it's clear that Time-Life did the best with what they had.
The full screen image isn't perfect but looks great for something that was basically considered disposable entertainment. These TV appearances weren't preserved well, but they haven't been ravaged by the flow of time either. None of the clips are bad, though they all have some problems. The Granada TV segment was the worst segment on this disc. It has a fair amount of grain and a good amount of blooming, especially at the beginning. This has the least amount of detail too, with Jerry's face being washed out whenever the spotlight is aimed right at him. The Pop Goes the Country sets are pretty soft too, with wonky colors and they don't exhibit the detail that they should. Even with these defects the songs look pretty good. They are all fairly clear and none of them look like the 5th generation VHS recordings that you generally find on discs of this type of material that you can buy on e-bay. They all look like they are from very early generation dubs or masters that are just a little old.
This disc also features an interview with Lewis in the old Sun Studios that was recorded in 1993. He talks about his origins as a musician, hearing Elvis for the first time, the Million Dollar Quartet session (where he, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash jammed in the Sun studios one afternoon) and his first tour. It's an interesting interview. Also on the disc is the trailer for High School Confidential, a film Lewis appeared in.
This disc is a very good collection of rare and fun performances.
Jerry Lee Lewis' stay at the top was relatively short, but his influence
was felt long after he fell from the charts. While the audio and
video quality aren't spectacular, when you think about how old and rare
these clips are, it's a wonder the disc looks and sounds as good as it
does. Fans of old rock and roll owe it to themselves to check this