Live Review

Jerry Lee Lewis at The Theater at Ace Hotel, Los Angeles, CA

Jerry Lee Lewis on November 27, 2017

Jerry Lee Lewis performs at The Theater at Ace Hotel, November 24, 2017. Photo by Steve Rose, (c) Steve Rose/Goldenvoice.

Jerry Lee Lewis knows he is going straight to hell. So he plays. And he stays alive.

Jerry Lee Lewis is a self-proclaimed stylist. According to the Killer himself, there are only four original American voices: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams – and Jerry Lee Lewis.

He may be right.

The Theater at Ace Hotel in downtown Los Angeles was filled with the faithful: baby boomers, millennial hipsters, rockabilly dolls and cats, old-timers, first-timers – congregating the day after Thanksgiving to bear witness to the unlikeliest of survivors unleashing the brute force of American music in a way that has no remaining peer in this earthly world. They came, they witnessed, they gave thanks, and they were rewarded in spades. 

In a mere ten songs, the Killer managed to take the enthusiastic audience through the varied lands of American music.

His band comes out first, guitarist (and fiddler) extraordinaire Kenny Lovelace – who has been by the Killer’s side for near on half a century – no small feat – warms up the crowd with the New Orleans groove of "Slippin' and Slidin,'" while bass player Ray Gann takes the vocal on Merle Haggard’s “Swingin’ Doors.” 

The lights dim as a film is projected onto a giant screen – a compilation of interviews from the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, interspersed with archival footage reminding the audience that they are in the presence of the Killer. The montage is compiled of footage decades old, the voices virtually inaudible in the theater. But its message is clear. All the while, a frail but confident silhouette makes its way, cane in hand, from the wings to the piano. Jerry Lee Lewis sits at the bench – in the dark – watching the giant screen. The audience watches Jerry Lee Lewis watching. . . Jerry Lee Lewis!

The film ends, the lights come up, Jerry Lee Lewis pounds out a boogie as the band falls in –

You can’t be my lovin’ baby
If you ain’t got the style
I’m-a gonna get some real gone love
That’ll drive a cool cat wild

And it’s off. 

The opening foreboding rockabilly of “Down the Line” is followed immediately by the goodtime rhythm & blues boogie of “Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee.”

Jerry Lee Lewis is a wind tunnel – a relentless, unapologetic vehicle of American music. He harnesses it, strips it of extraneous novelties or pleasantries, and fires it off through his fingertips – all without electricity – ferociously depressing 88 slender slices of ivory or plastic, felted mallets plucking against steel strings encased in a wooden cabinet. He pounds eighth note boogie chords and he tickles descending single-note runs, flirting with time and dissonance, suggesting it could all fall apart at any moment. It could, but it doesn’t. His voice remains strong – he croons, he needn't scream.

American music is born of conflict and dichotomy. From its seed – the blues – through its many beautiful and inevitable mutations and cross-pollinations. There is a reason Jerry Lee Lewis’ rock ‘n’ roll carries with it such a primal, frightening, and magnetic compultion. Jerry Lee’s music at its boogiest is an epic struggle for one’s own soul. He truly believes it is the sound of sex and, therefore, sin – the physical manifestation of the evil life force urge – yet he plays it anyway. He must.  

His arrogance is equaled only by his talent. A talent heightened by something to prove from years of suffering indifference and outright dismissal. Jerry Lee Lewis is somehow both alpha and underdog.

Having mastered the boogie-woogie, having helped to invent rock ‘n’ roll, it is said Jerry Lee Lewis “reinvented” himself as a country singer in the late-1960s. But he was always a country singer. He was always an American stylist. His very first recording, in 1952, was a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Don’t Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold).” His debut single, on Sun Records, was a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms.” His country records from the 1970s remain among the finest of the genre – and they were hits. His vocal on his 1969 version of Mickey Newbury’s “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye” – which he played this night – is possibly the single greatest country music vocal ever recorded. (The Country Music Hall of Fame’s continued omission of Jerry Lee Lewis makes it difficult for any educated student of country music to take the institution seriously.)  

Jerry Lee pounds out the opening chords to “Me and Bobby McGee” as its writer – Kris Kristofferson – emerges from the wings, unannounced, to duet with the Killer.

“Good enough for me and Jerry Lee,” Kristofferson sings, to riotous applause.

The Killer says little this night, but he takes a moment to remind the audience that Kristofferson is one of the world’s greatest songwriters. “If I could write ‘em like Kris,” he confesses, “I would.”

Jerry Lee follows Kristofferson’s poetic country-folk storytelling with the Great American Songbook balladry of Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia On My Mind,” before moaning the sultry come-on R&B of Joe Simon’s “Before the Night is Over,” and then playing the blues with “C.C. Rider.”

Part of Jerry Lee’s genius is the reverence he holds for great songwriters – whether icons of the past like Hoagy Carmichael, the brightest lights among his contemporaries like Chuck Berry, or younger refined poets like Mickey Newbury and Kris Kristofferson, Jerry Lee Lewis has always played great American songs. And no matter how diverse the bag of voices from which he chooses his material, everything comes out sounding like Jerry Lee Lewis. Once the Killer puts his stamp on a song – from “Chantilly Lace” to “Sweet Georgia Brown” – there is seldom found a more definitive version. 

The Killer has the audience dancing in the aisles with the spitfire poetry of Chuck Berry’s own musical fusion, “Roll Over Beethoven,” before forcing their examination of the utter depths of confessional country heartbreak with “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”   

Jerry Lee Lewis is both guide and gatekeeper; advocate and custodian. A stylist.

And he is, remarkably, the last man standing. Not just of his first generation rock ‘n’ roll contemporaries, but of an original American voice. Jerry Lee Lewis sounds like Jerry Lee Lewis because he invented his music from the limited sources he had growing up in Ferriday, Louisiana in the first half of the 20th century. Such originality is no longer possible. The world is too connected. Everything is available everywhere. Regional nuances, the passing of human-to-human oral traditions, and simple moments of isolation can no longer survive the information stimulation onslaught of the modern world. That is neither here nor there, other than to say that Jerry Lee Lewis, who has always represented this American originality and authenticity, has somehow managed to survive long enough to be its last ambassador. This affords us proximity to a vanishing thing and it affords, perhaps, an unexpected redemption for a man haunted by his experiences.        

The finish came with the godhead one-two knockout punch of the Killer’s own iconic rock ‘n’ roll hits: “Great Balls of Fire” and the culmination of it all, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” 

There was a time when Jerry Lee Lewis would punch through his piano, literally, and punch through to some other dimension when unleashing “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin' On.” With a tent revival preacher’s power of controlled chaos, Jerry Lee would wiggle his finger as if handling snakes, bringing us down, toying with us – cautioning us – before blowing it all into a frenzy with the sheer force of his most sinful rhythm.

Jerry Lee Lewis no longer punches through walls of space and time with such earth-shattering fright, but only because of the physical limitations of his age. The Killer still rages against the darkness. He came right up to it, pushing out more power and might than anyone could possibly expect from his 82 hard-lived years.

At one point during Lovelace’s guitar solo, Jerry Lee looked out at the crowd. Seeing them on their feet, dancing in the theater aisles – the way they have over a million shows, in auditoriums, concert halls, countless honky-tonks and barrooms, at state fairs or in the beds of pickup trucks in parking lots – the Killer smiled. Then he took it down, low, eaaaaaasy baby. Wiggling his finger around in one little spot, before bringing the house home.  

Jerry Lee Lewis wears the mantle of elder statesman simply by doing what he does. He will not go gentle into that good night.

To punctuate this point, he stood, kicking out the piano bench, before grabbing his cane and surrendering to his handlers, stopping at the side of the stage, outside of the spotlight’s reach, for a significant moment. With his pimp cane in hand, his shiny suit of gold and silver wavy locks, the Killer soaked in the uproarious applause and adulation. With his stare he seemed to pose the rhetorical question asked in the title track to his 1972 album, Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano?

Who’s gonna keep this music going?
Who’s gonna carry on?

Jerry Lee Lewis took a long, hard look at the audience, knowing he had left his answer all over the previous 30 minutes.

Who’s gonna play this old piano after the Killer’s gone?


Great article. Thanks. Having just read Peter Guralnick’s excellent biography of Sam Phillips, which includes a detailed account of the rise and fall and ultimate revival of Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s good to hear that he still has it and won’t be « going gently into that good night. »

Nice review Matt! You have a way with words for sure. I enjoy your articles. The one on Stringbean was really interesting and made me explore him further. Jerry is a national treasure for a certainty and as a country artist, I agree that he is a bit undercelebrated. I had never heard the song you mentioned "She even woke me..." so I gave it a listen. It is a great tune and great vocals. But c'mon you don't really think its the greatest country vocal ever do you? What about George Jones "He stopped Loving her Today" or Marty Robbins "El Paso" or  Ray Price doing "Crazy Arms"or For The Good Times", don't forget Crystal Gayles Don't it make my Brown Eyes Blue, Willies "Always on My Mind", Charlie Rich's Behind Closed Doors. And then of course Patsy...Cline...Crazy...

Anyhow, I love your enthusiasm and passion man...its inspiring. You have great musical taste. Keep up the great work.

Thank you, sir. Of course my statement about that song is done with a light bit of hyperbolic fun (and, hey, I did say "possibly"). In actuality I think it is impossible to point to one performance as objectively "the very best." That being said, I do literally consider his version of "She Even Woke Me Up..." to be among the greatest country music vocals, and in the same company as every example you mentioned. One could add George Jones' "The Grand Tour," Conway Twitty's "Fifteen Years Ago," Lefty Frizzell's "Saginaw Michigan," Johnny Horton's "Battle of New Orleans," or Jack Greene's "Statue of a Fool,". . .     

I was just wondering if Roy Moore is a fan of Jerry Lee Lewis?

hehehehehehehehe...Mr. Mutt, thanks for going there...

Never Moore. Never Moore.

and quoting EAPoe...thank you so much...

Yet another standout piece, Matt, we are lucky that you continue to contribute to ND.

I wonder what James Brown and a few others would say to Jerry’s notion that Jerry, Rodgers, Williams and Jolson are the only four original American voices. 

Or Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins?

Of the Million Dollar Quartet Jerry Lee Lewis was (perhaps) the third most important voice, certainly behind Elvis and Johhny Cash.

But then again, nobody ever said he lacked an ego (or an attraction to underage woman).

Could you imagine the outrage if a popular singer married a 13 year old girl in 2017?  I guess a politician in Alabama could still get away with it.


Jerry Lee didn't even understand why the Brits got so upset about his child bride...very common in Farraday, Lousiana...

Jerry Lee may have been 3rd in importance, but he was easily the best musician of the Million Dollar Quartet...he's likely the quintessential rock and roll piano player and the gospel flourishes in his playing were highly influential to musicians who Ian McLagan, Chuck Leavell, Leon Russell without Jerry Lee...sorry but true...

In addition to being a killer musician, one of his wives died mysteriously...Jerry Lee may in fact have been a real killer...article was in Rollling Stone many years ago, Jerry Lee pretty much owned the county he lived in in Mississippi (I think Mississippi...could be Alabama, Louisiana, etc.)  will look it up and post the link when I get a chance.

As usual, Matt has written another stellar piece...

Thank you, Jack. Or Louis Armstrong! Jerry Lee is obviously, objectively, factually, incorrect in that claim. But he has repeated those same four names consistently in interviews over several decades, and his over-the-top hyperbole is part of his greatness (as it is with Little Richard). He damn sure plays and sings like a man who believes he is among the few original voices. 

Or like he’s hearing voices...