JERRY LEE - The history of country|
piano and its impact on genres
By Patrick Wall - email@example.com - Posted February 25, 2003
It is also interesting to note that country singer/pianists are
basically a genre all to themselves. To me, Carl Perkins, Charlie
Feathers or Warren Smith fall easily within rockabilly - a guitar
orientated genre that was basically formed due to the lack of
availability of other instruments. "Rockabilly" is, as said already,
not an altogether new area - its roots lie with guitar-based country
boogie records by people like the Delmore Brothers and Hank Williams.
Carl Perkins' very early style is very like Hank.
When recounting rockabilly history, one looks at Sun Records.
Perkins, Feathers, Smith, early Presley, all these fall into the
country guitar boogie area? Yes. Jerry Lee Lewis? No. Jerry Lee has a
totally different sound - it is uptempo driving and bluesy on one
hand and then on the other hand he croons sweet ballads. Jerry Lee,
while often referred to as rockabilly or rock 'n' roll, is clearly
not really these. To stretch it as far as it can go, he may
be "rock 'n' roll" on a few songs. He may have covered some rock 'n'
roll standards for competition reasons. But, what JLL does 99% of the
time is country music.
What made JLL so different to the rest? Why did JLL play the piano to
accompany his singing in the era of the guitar? Why had JLL a split
personality singing style (crooning and blues shouting). Well, the
answer comes from three quotes he gave:
1. "I was inspired by many artists ... and this would be one of my
favorite artists ... Moon Mullican" (1966).
2. "I started playing piano when I was 8 and learned to play it
myself. I was so far back in the country to have influences then, so
my style is 100% Jerry Lee Lewis piano" (1970s).
3. "When I started playing and singing, I had no influences. Later
on, I was influenced by the singing and playing of Moon Mullican"
Usually, people take either the first or second and conclude: "yeah,
JLL admitted his influences early on and later did not". True, he
denied hearing Merrill Moore in 1976 (the jury is out on this!) but
instead mentions Moon. The above 3 statements are all revealed as
true for the following reason.
JLL started playing and singing at age 8 or 9. You are talking about
1943-44. (JLL was born 1935). From 1943 to 1946, JLL was virtually on
his own - as Moon was NOT recording then. The war was on and Moon was
between work for singing/playing with Cliff Bruner and setting up his
own bands. However, the second and third statement are revealed later
on. Moon had hits in the late 1940s - just about when JLL had learned
to play piano and now he had a role model. He had his own style
developed in the 3 years alone and added some of Moon's to it then.
JLL recorded "I was sorta wondering", "I don't know why", "I'll sail
my ship alone" and others he learned from Moon later. He even
did "I'll keep on loving you", which shows JLL knew of the early
western swing years of Moon once he got into him.
Play a Moon album and then a JLL album and you'll see the link. Bpth
singers shared a split personality (blues shouting and crooning)
vocally. They sang blues, country, swing, R&B, jazz, cowboy songs,
etc. They also both tried the commercial styles of their times. Both
had a go at rock 'n' roll - and both were not ideally suited to it.
Both were not anyone's idea of the 'teenidol'. In fact, both artists
were poles apart from rock 'n' roll. As Owen Bradley (another country
pianist) stated "Moon was not rock 'n' roll at all..". Either was
Jerry Lee. But, both had to "react" to rock 'n' roll - they used the
term, passed old blues songs off as rock, experimented with different
instruments, etc. For some, JLL is the epytome of rock 'n' roll, but
NOT to those who understand him. To understand JLL, you must also
understand Moon Mullican. Try this one out:
Listen to JLL. Listen to Eddie Cochran. Listen to Buddy Holly. Listen
to Paul Anka. Listen to Bobby Vee. Then listen to Moon Mullican. Who
sounds least like JLL? Who sounds most like JLL? The answer will be
Moon for most and any of the rockers for least. Therefore, JLL (who
sings country, yodels, etc.) is not rock 'n' roll at all. But, he
lived in the era - and either had to recognize it or ignore it at his
peril. Since he saw Moon react to it, he must have taken heed. In
1956, JLL said he "didn't see what all the fuss was about rock 'n'
roll. Anyway, I'm not rock 'n' roll - I'm boogie woogie" [meaning
country piano boogie - Moon Mullican - not the instrumental boogie
woogie of Albert Ammons etc]. This statement is who the real JLL is.
JLL had a style formed long before rock 'n' roll. His best songs have
always had a decidedly oldtimey blues/western swing feel and his
least attractive offerings are his adaptations of Chuck Berry and
other 'borderline R&B/C&W on rock' songs. JLL never covered Holly,
Cochran, Vee, etc. "Chantilly lace" was done by the Big Bopper first
and is pure novelty song not rock - just like "Bimbo" or "White
lightening". It is all basically country from country artists
adapting to rock 'n' roll.
In black music, then, there was Little Richard and Fats Domino. They
are also evidence of a continuation of what went before. Piano Red,
Jack Dupree, Professor Longhair, Esquerita, Leroy Carr, Roosevelt
Sykes, etc. all influenced these artists. It is true that more black
singer pianists existed than white singer pianists in the pre 'rock'
era. Piano seemed to be more openly accepted in black music and all
white pianists of the time (eg. Moon, Jerry Lee, and from a different
perspective, Charlie Rich) all had an overtly black feel in their
music. Also, Charlie Rich is an enigma. Was he country or was he
jazz? Rich, like Lewis, Mullican and others, was more or less 'force
fed' rock 'n' roll starting off but was he also 'force fed' country?
I feel that soul and jazz were to Rich what country/western swing and
trad. blues were to Moon and JLL.
If someone said to JLL now that he "was not rock 'n' roll" what would
he say/how would he react? Privately, he would probably agree
that "yes, this is true - rock 'n' roll is only part of my style.
Most of my style is influenced by spiritual music". But, he probably
would add jokingly "if you say that publically, I'll kill you!".
Publically, JLL has a rock audience. He wants them and needs them and
does not want to offend them anymore. In the past, JLL has offended
both country and rock 'n' roll for basically singing and playing
wilder, bluesier music than either genre were willing to accept. Now,
he has to show some pragmatism and obey some (but not all! "Trouble
in mind", "Another place another time", "Blues like midnight" and
other decidedly non-rock songs still exist in his live shows) rules.
In 1961-62, JLL would more than likely be telling you he was a twist
artist. Even Bill Monroe released an instrumental "Bluegrass twist"
then. Was Bill going to fuse the two together? Survival meant at the
time to take note of these styles and not compromise. Hence
JLL's "I've been twistin' " is really old-style Delta blues - but it
has the word twist rather than 'boogie' in the earlier John Lee
Hooker and Junior Parker versions.
Moon, like JLL, had a style emerged before western swing took off as
a genre. Was Moon doing western swing before he was recorded? Yes.
Jimmie Rodgers was doing it as well but it was not called it then.
When Moon joins the Cliff Bruner band (a follow up to Milton Brown)
he is onboard western swing. JLL was the same with rock 'n' roll. JLL
was doing his music before he recorded. Rock 'n' roll made a place
for JLL - but JLL's music was his own and it was highly adaptive as
was Moon's. One important lesson JLL learned from Moon was survival
with minimal compromise.
If JLL was rock 'n' roll, and rock 'n' roll only came about in 1954,
was Lewis doing rock 'n' roll in 1949 when he was singing "Hadacol
boogie", "Drinking wine spodee odee" and "I'll sail my ship alone"?
Yes. Because the music was there, JLL had his fully fledged style and
was changing history even before he recorded!
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