Think it was Robert Johnson who sold his soul to the devil at the crossroads? Think again. If longevity is any indication, if it’s all about being battered and beaten and still having an inextinguishable rock and roll flame, then Jerry Lee Lewis, may be the one who really bargained with old scratch.

At 79, ol’ Jerry Lee is still making new records like this good time jam session out on Vanguard, formerly a premiere folk music label, but then everything changes. Or in the case of Jerry Lee, not so much. Here he sits down at the piano and with a few famous friends, mostly guitar players like Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Nils Lofgren and Doyle Bramhall II, gets in the groove and clearly has a ball running through a extremely well–chosen set of classics from writers like Bob Dylan (“Stepchild”), Jimmy Reed (“Bright Lights, Big City”), and his onetime rival Chuck Berry (“Little Queenie”). His voice, always underrated, is clear and elastic throughout, so much so that when he starts “Bright Lights, Big City,” at a step higher than his normal range, it sounds like someone else singing. His wonderfully agile and roguish phrasing is best displayed in Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” where he bends a famous verse and even gets away with a word jam stumble, “When I was just a baby/mama told me son/you oughta be a good boy Jerry/don’t mess around with no guns/but I shot him boy in Memphis mama/I really did [unintelligible] just to watch him die.”

The third Lewis record in a row to be funded by Steve Bing (after Last Man Standing and Mean Old Man), who gets a co-producer credit, all this easy going rock and roll was recorded by Erik Lutkins, Jun Murakawa, Ben O’Neill, Mike Parragone, Martin Pradler, Mike Ross, Bobby Tis, Ken Sluiter, Ted Wheeler, James Saez, Tom Freitag, Martin Cook, and Dave Bryant. With a list of engineers that long it’s clear that many of the guest artists here recorded and emailed in their parts, a way of making records that is clearly becoming more sophisticated and listenable. Having the great Jim Keltner on board as producer and drummer is the glue for the entire project. Sonically, the results wisely focus on Jerry Lee's voice and then his piano, both of which sound present and natural.

One great touch here is the snatches of studio patter left in. At the close of the opener, a heartfelt version of Kris Kristofferson’s “Rock and Roll Time” where Lewis’ voice gets that fabulous near vibrato, high edge quiver that’s always been his most recognizable vocal trademark (think “Great Balls of Fire”), there’s a pause and then a devilish chuckle. Remember the crossroads! It’s an absolutely perfect coda. Another classic wrap–up, which seems to be recorded live in the studio though it may be a digital sleight of hand, is at the end of “Bright Lights, Big City” where Lewis, with guests Ivan Neville and Neil Young, finishes by stretching the last line, “I tried to tell you baby but you never would lissssten…(a piano glissando followed by)…I think she’s getting the message now,” to which Young intones, “Yeah, I think she heard that one!”

This is not nostalgia. Far from it. The man still has much to say. His gifts have grown richer. And the devil may be a waitin’

dalethorn's picture

My parents, other relatives, church members and staff, and even quite a few folks in 1950's media roundly condemned rock-n-roll as "The Devil's music", which I suppose it is/was from a conservative-religious perspective. In Akron Ohio where I grew up, just down the street from where Allan Freed played those R&B records on the air circa 1951, Freed doesn't enjoy any celebrity status among the radio hall-of-famers. If I were raising kids, I think I'd keep them away from pop music entirely and let their brains develop on classical music, or a little jazz, to give them a better chance of succeeding in life without the negative baggage of most popular music.

BTW, I saw Jerry Lee 3 times in the late 70's in Wheeling WVa - those were great performances.

Kal Rubinson's picture

It was a rainy night in Ft. Worth (sometime in the mid-1980s) when we went to Billy-Bob's at the Stockyards to see The Killer. Got a table up front, had a beer and waited. He came out, played two songs (I forget what) and slipped off the stage. The band played on to fill the time and when Jerry Lee came back, he had a bottle of Scotch from which he took a swig before he put it on top of the piano.

We ordered a round of bourbon and were treated to the most astounding and electrical experience you can imagine. Every song you associate with him along with some surprises were delivered and I mean DELIVERED. He sang, smiled, sneered, swaggered and pounded the keys. By the end, we were all drained, as was the whisky, and we walked out into the cool rain and mud with big smiles. I will never forget it.

John Atkinson's picture
Nice Paisley Telecaster in the background but Jerry Lee's eyes look like windows into the darkness.

John Atkinson
Editor, Stereophile

corrective_unconscious's picture

Looks like Palm Beach calibre eyelid tucks to me...which might be the same difference come to think of it....

dalethorn's picture

A sadder and wiser man.

deckeda's picture

"Rock and Roll Time"

I didnt see that mentioned above.