I was in Nashville last weekend and had the opportunity to see Jerry Lee Lewis perform during Record Store Day. When the 75-year-old rockabilly legend hobbled up on stage and slowly eased himself onto the piano bench, I wondered if he had enough strength to still play the piano. Lewis told us that his eyes watered too much and that his doctors wouldn’t let him drink Coca-Cola anymore because of his kidneys. He moves slowly and shakily these days that I assumed his “Great Balls of Fire” would have long ago burned out.
Well, I was wrong. Lewis didn’t kick over his piano chair and play standing up the way he used to, but he banged on that piano as fast and as powerfully as a man half his age.
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Jerry Lee Lewis was part of Sam Phillips’ Sun Records crew and in the 1950s he worked for several years as a session musician for Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. (You can hear his signature percussive piano playing on Perkins’ “Matchbox.”) In 1957 he had two solo hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and probably would have had many more had his career not ended a year later when the people discovered that he was married to his 13-year-old cousin.
On April 17, Lewis performed a handful of songs outside Nashville’s Third Man Records; the show (along with one recorded indoors a day earlier) will most likely be released as an EP later this summer. Until then, you’ll have to make do with his original recordings, such as the two YouTube videos below. When you watch the first one, pay attention to the way he hammers at the piano. It’s still impressive.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”
“Great Balls of Fire”
Carl Perkins, “Matchbox”
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