Make Mine a Double #22: Jerry Lee Lewis, “The Session.. Recorded in London (1973)

In 2006, original rock ‘n’ roll wild man Jerry Lee Lewis released an album called Last Man Standing. Typically brash, the title has taken on a more poignant and literal meaning in the last fifteen years as many of the genre pioneers still around at the time (Little Richard, Bo Diddley, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino) have passed on. But Jerry Lee kept pushing on, performing regularly until a minor stroke in 2019 slowed him down. Even though, there were still plans for the 85-year-old to record a new gospel album with T-Bone Burnett, but the start date was in March 2020 just as Covid-19 flipped the world on its head.

Well-known for his riotous performances and for marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958, Lewis was one of rock music’s first controversy-courters and his career had many ups and downs. An up period came for him in 1973 when he added his name to the list of iconic blues and rock ‘n’ roll figures who had recorded albums in London that featured many of the top names of the British pop scene (Berry, Howlin’ Wolf and B.B. King had preceded him there). Jerry Lee came away from it with a big double album and a hit single in “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee.” After several years of performing for the country-and-western circuit, he re-established himself as one of the top figureheads in the game, a status he was not to surrender after the release of The Session… Recorded in London.

The album kicks off impressively with “Drinking Wine” and sets the template for much of what is to follow. It’s some great ol’ roadhouse boogie with Jerry leading the charge, singing enthusiastically of hedonistic pursuits and pounding away at his piano in that familiar staccato style. Alvin Lee of Ten Years After, the first of many hotshot guitarists to heed the star’s command to “Pick it, son,” gives some 70s firepower to a 50s-style solo. The promised “Great Guest Artists” roster continues with Irish blues-rock master Rory Gallagher (see photo below) on bottleneck guitar for the barroom jaunt “Music to the Man.” Others include the main rhythm section of then-Faces drummer Kenney Jones and Beatles bestie Klaus Voorman on bass, while organists include Gary Wright, Tony Ashton and Procol Harum’s Matthew Fisher—and there were a few extra players on most songs, some were Jerry Lee’s boys that were brought over. But it’s the six-string slingers (or as JLL calls them, “son”) that get the attention and include both Alvin and (unrelated) Albert Lee, Chas Hodges, Peter Frampton and future-Foreigner Mick Jones. Never mind that many of these “sons” were only 5-10 years younger. As Jon Landau put it in is contemporary review in Rolling Stone: “I have a feeling (Lewis) doesn’t care which son or how long he plays, just as long as the spotlight returns to where it belongs when the son is finished.”

UNSPECIFIED – CIRCA 1970: Photo of Jerry Lee Lewis Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Although only in his late thirties, Jerry Lee was on the cusp of his elder statesman years and reportedly felt somewhat ill-at-ease during the sessions. He had rarely recorded outside of Memphis or Nashville and was surrounded by long-haired whipper snappers. He was even said to have told his son Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. (who appears on percussion here) that he thought he had maybe made a mistake. That may explain some of the “son” stuff and calling himself The Killer. The Brits were (of course) reverential in any regard and Lewis would look back more fondly on this event in an interview years later.

When these disparate elements come together the record can be great fun, with the accompanists’ amped-up backing giving Lewis a solid platform to hit his attitudinal sweet spot halfway between blasé and berserk. It’s a rush to hear Rory Gallagher and Peter Frampton trading solos as the man bulls his way thru “Johnny B. Goode” and to have pro’s pro Albert Lee move the crew full-steam-ahead on “Sea Cruise” as Captain Killer runs thru his paces of piano razzle-dazzle, esp. in those sweeping glissandos that flash by like Zorro’s sword. Brian Parrish (then with Yes spin-off group Badger) juices up a couple of blues numbers with some wily harmonica and the session dudes go country-rock on JLL’s decent readings of Credence Clearwater’s “Bad Moon Rising” and Gordon Lightfoot’s “Early Morning Rain.”

Jerry Lee pulls off a little old-school gamesmanship on second pianist Tony Ashton, inviting the younger man to play a solo then brashly besting him with an over-the-top display on the ivories. Albert Lee does the guitar solo in between.

In other places, The Session does appear “overstuffed” (per the RS review) with, say, the wayward take on Berry’s “Memphis” or on an underwhelming version of “What’d I Say” that does not come within a country mile of the Ray Charles original. A certain boredom with some of these already Golden Oldies may have played a part, as could Jerry Lee’s drinking and pill-intake at the time, even though (by his own account) his admiring British sessioneers did not so much as a light a joint in studio.

It does come all together for the concluding “Rock & Roll Medley” as the Killer whiplashes thru four Little Richard classics before climaxing with his immortal “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Jerry Lee whoops it up like it’s 1957 and attacks his piano keys with karate-chop comping while Alvin Lee flies off into Woodstock guitar-hero land. It’s a satisfying ending to an imperfect album that is still a “great party record” (again, Landau’s words) and will be a fun vinyl time no matter which of the four sides you drop the needle on. In 1973 it was lifted into gold record status on the wings of the era’s revival interest in early rock ‘n’ roll. While The Session hit #37 on the pop charts, it pushed all the way to #4 on the country countdown, and Lewis would soon return to the C&W genre: “Drinking Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee” would be his last rock hit single. But the album did a lot to help cement his status in the pantheon of original rock ‘n’ roll greats, a status that will remain long after he is no longer the Last Man Standing.

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