JERRY LEE - The history of country
piano and its impact on genres

By Patrick Wall - - 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" (circa. 1990).
           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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