Today’s birthday boy is Jerry Lee Lewis, 79 years old, and touted as “the last man standing” since all the other members of his Sun studios cohort—Elvis, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins—are no longer extant.
Lewis is one of the original bad boys of rock’n’roll, rockabilly, and, eventually Country. He’s a much-imitated original as a performer, with his stand-up piano playing, using his feet at times, playing behind his back and other tricks. The piano becomes an extension of his own body and he seems to have double-handedly created some of the more prominent piano “riffs” in rock—particularly the glissando slide for emphasis and banging the bass keys, barrelhouse style, as an underpinning for his right hand theatrics.
As a singer, Lewis is generally engaging, having fun with a lyric even when he’s doing a straight-faced talking passage as in “The Green Green Grass of Home”—a song I almost chose to post about since I remember it from way back when it was a hit for Tom Jones and was covered by others. Lewis’s version antedates Jones’ and is closer to Country than the schmaltzier version Jones scored with. But, to my mind, if we’re going to do a song for “the Killer” it’s got to be one with some high-stepping piano.
The version of “It’ll Be Me” I favor, I think, is the one I have on a Jerry Lee Lewis compilation—picked up because my friend Rob is an enthusiast and convinced me—and it’s the version that closes Lewis’ debut album Jerry Lee Lewis (1958). However, the original recording of the song backs Lewis’ trademark big hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” but that version, which features a quicker tempo and a goosier vocal, doesn’t work for me quite so well.
The first version of the song I heard is on a Richard Thompson compilation, Guitar/Vocal, where it’s given a rousing live extended version. It’s a great mindless rocker, with lyrics simply cataloging all the places “you” might find “me.” Some of the places are pretty imaginative. On that score my favorite is—in save the best for last fashion—the concluding “If you see a new face on your totem pole / If you find a lump in your sugar bowl / It’ll be me, uh huh, I’ll be looking for you.”
Beating the haystacks, searching every tree—and the “deep blue sea”—and on a rocket to Mars and “hanging from a lamppost bright” and “a-peeping from a crawdad hole.” The images are a bit kaleidoscopic, coming at the listener like a hallucinated round of endless stalking. Or maybe just looking for a "you" that does not exist. It also reminds me, litany fashion, of all the ways they'll "stone ya" in Dylan's "Rainy Day Women #12 & 35."
Jerry Lee has fun with the song and on the album version I generally like the recording better, particularly the drums. There’s some guitar-picking to match Jerry Lee’s tinkling as well, and the whole thing clocks in a little longer, with the vocal more chortling and yodeling. A convincing little rocker back there when it was all just beginning, dating from before I had joined this merry-go-round.
If you hear a voice a-calling out in the night.