CD Review of A Half Century of Hits by Jerry Lee Lewis

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A Half Century of Hits
starstarstarstarhalf star Label: Time-Life
Released: 2006
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Jerry Lee Lewis is one of those all-time legends of rock and roll who everyone knows instantly for his signature songs, like “Great Balls of Fire” or “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” but, generally, they don’t know much else he’s done (except possibly that he married his teenage cousin). As a result, those people will probably look at a 3-CD set of Lewis’s work and say, “Um, isn’t that about two and a half discs too many?”

Hell, no, it is not.

Jerry Lee Lewis is “The Killer,” baby! With all due respect to Fats Domino, who could boogie-woogie his way around a piano like nobody’s business, it’s Lewis who took 88 keys and turned them into a full-fledged rock ‘n’ roll instruments. Even before Dennis Quaid portrayed him on the big screen, just about everyone had seen Lewis performing on some TV show or other, sending his stool flying as he pounded on the piano like a madman. He is, as noted above, a full-fledged rock legend; if anyone deserves a multi-disc anthology, it’s Jerry Lee.

Time-Life wisely avoids using words like “definitive” or “complete” in the title of this compilation, but in the press release for the set, it does refer to it as “the first complete career retrospective” on Lewis, but, thankfully, that’s not hyperbole; this really is the first time that any one collection has stretched from Lewis’s earliest days – there’s a recently-discovered 1952 recording – to his stint on the country and western charts, all the way up through his 1995 “comeback” album, Young Blood.

Beyond the hits you’d expect, some of the more interesting discoveries are Lewis’s various cover songs, from “Green, Green Grass of Home” to “Chantilly Lace,” with a brief stop to croon “Over the Rainbow”; the version of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” however, has something approximating a disco beat (it was recorded in 1981), which, though it works better than you’d think, still doesn’t work all that well. The latter cover was recorded during Lewis’s stint with Elektra Records in the early ‘80s, and, that possible misstep aside, the material from this era – otherwise unavailable on CD – sounds great; finding studio credits for these songs is rough (the info might be in the final version of this set, but I’m working off an advance copy with no booklet), but they sound for all the world like they have the Beach Boys singing back-up vocals on them. The country material from the late ‘60s and early ‘70s only serves to emphasize how little Lewis had to change his style to adapt to a new genre; the material from his 1974 album, Southern Roots, features the song “Meat Man,” which, though it never quite reaches legitimate lewdness, might as well be called a single entendre. The 1995 material is particularly good as well; you can probably still find it in a sale bin somewhere for less than five bucks, but in the meantime, the two best songs – “Crown Victoria Custom ‘51” and “It Was the Whisky Talkin’ (Not Me)” – can be found right here.

For all its success, however, A Half Century of Hits isn’t totally comprehensive; there’s more of a focus on rock over country, so songs which rose pretty high on the C&W Top 100 don’t make the cut. There’s also been a questionable decision to tack bonus tracks on the end of each disc, which screws up the chronological order; not that it’s not nice to hear the previously-unreleased stuff, but putting it in the proper historical context would’ve been the preferable way to listen to it.

Nitpicking aside, however, what you’ve got here is three discs worth of rock and roll history, too much of which has been forgotten over the years; a single-disc collection might prove more concise, but if you want something approximating the big picture, there’s no better way to get reacquainted with “The Killer.”

~Will Harris