Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records: The Collected Works
Bear Family (18-CD Box Set)
By Mike Greenblatt
Subtitled “What the Hell Else Do You Need,” “Jerry Lee Lewis at Sun Records: The Collected Works” is a massive boxed set: 23-plus hours of music spread out over 623 tracks on 18 CDs. And that doesn’t even count the two hardcover books you could totally lose yourself in, as I did for more hours than I care to admit.
Germany’s Bear Family Records is the No. 1 purveyor of boxed sets in the world. Their attention to detail, obvious care and meticulous research in ferreting out every note and recording log, every take, complete with false starts and premature endings, different tempi, between-song grumblings or jokes and that all-out obsession of one Sam Phillips to get just the right sound, has resulted in a document for the ages.
You don’t listen through this thing like you don’t read through an encyclopedia or dictionary. You use it going by the book, so to speak, to cherry-pick nuggets of pure genius. Do it this way and there’s enough material so you can have that sweet shock of first-time recognition for years to come. Hey, you can only hear something for the very first time once. Think of how Phillips must have felt upon dealing with the brash young man! He knew The Killer was more talented than any of his other artists. Hell, he’d tell ‘em to their faces. And he did. He nurtured Jerry Lee and coaxed performances out of him that will still rock 100 years from now. And this is it. This is the unburnished, unadulterated road to hell Jerry Lee knew he was on yet plummeted forward toward anyway after spurning Bible School.
Go ahead. Don’t listen to me. Try tackling all 18 CDs in a row. There is a hypnotic element to it all. The kid from Ferriday, Louisiana, is a natural. Some songs have more than 20 takes. Jerry Lee Lewis is never off-pitch. Never sharp. Never flat. Always perfect. It baffles science. He may flub a word, forget a lyric or drive himself crazy with his own karate chops to the piano keys, spurring himself on to greater heights of lunacy, but he’s always right there. Right on time. Every time.
It becomes a game. You’ll find yourself guessing what he does wrong to merit yet another take. You’ll find yourself rooting for the same song to be sung again. Or not. Mesmerizing. Genius flowering under a benevolent dictator who knows just what he’s after. Besides his own songs, Lewis sings Lead Belly, Hank, Elvis, Little Richard, pre-WWII country songs, gospel, folk music … hell, even “The Marines’ Hymn.” Doesn’t matter. The wiggle in his voice. The advent of Sam’s echo. The reaching, searching and realizing of untold truths. They’re all here. And there couldn’t possibly be a more important rock’n’roll artist to document in such a profound way as Jerry Lee Lewis. Ask him. He’ll tell you the same thing.