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Disc reviews: Jerry Lee Lewis, “Rock & Roll Time”

Rock

Jerry Lee Lewis

Rock & Roll Time

[Vanguard]

4 stars

There are two things that may drop your jaw about this disc. 1) The sheer robustness of Jerry Lee Lewis’ singing. He was 79 just four weeks ago and while no one would claim he’s the equal here of what he was in his lunatic and uniquely disorderly 20s, his singing on “Rock & Roll Time” is stronger and more assured than most singers in their 30s and 40s. 2) The greatness of the guitar playing all through this disc. It’s little short of spectacular.

The co-producers Steve Bing and the legendary drummer Jim Keltner made a gutsy choice that paid off big time. Instead of featuring Lewis on piano all the time, they brought in a platoon of killer guitarists to kill right along with “the killer.”

That’s Keith Richards, Ronnie Wood and Keltner’s old buddy Waddy Wachtel to play on Lewis’ version of Chuck Berry’s “Little Queenie.” Neil Young accompanies Lewis on Jimmy Reed’s “Bright Lights, Big City,” and the Band’s Robbie Robertson and Nils Lofren (on pedal steel) play on Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues” with just Robertson alone on Jimmy Rodgers’ “Blues Like Midnight.”

Not to be left out, try Derek Trucks on “Mississippi Kid” and Doyle Bramhall, Jon Brion and Kenny Lovelace all through the disc.

When there’s a whole lot of Jerry Lee going on, it’s not hard to find guest singers either. Vonda Shepard (anyone remember her on “Ally McBeal”?) came over to sing on a couple of tunes and Shelby Lynne strolled right out front to sing across from Lewis on Kris Kristofferson’s truck-stop ode “Here Comes That Rainbow Again.”

Since it’s always rock ’n’ roll time to Lewis, he calls it a day by singing his old co-conspirator Chuck Berry’s “Promised Land.”

The disc’s great annotater Peter Guralnick gives us Lewis’ old reaction to first hearing Muddy Waters, Ray Charles and B.B. King as a teenager in Ferriday, La.: “It was like strolling through heaven. It was like giving birth to a new music that people really needed to hear. Rock ’n’ roll – that’s what it was. That what I was listening to. Even in church.”

That’s the original Sun Records Studio in Memphis Lewis is pictured outside on the disc’s black and white cover. Sun’s great magician, Sam Phillips, according to Guralnick, described Lewis as “the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white. One of the most talented human beings to walk on God’s earth.”

Still walking. Still singing. Still giving his musicians a smutty chuckle or two when the tune is over.

And still sounding great.

– Jeff Simon

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