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Jerry Lee Pounds Big Maybelle's Sounds

By Rob Grayson


Memphis, TN – Jerry Lee Lewis must have been a quick learner. He only had two piano lessons. Perhaps the greatest thing he learned from them was that he didn't need piano lessons. All he needed was the freedom to pound the keys to the music he loved, and he would teach himself the rest. Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, across the Mississippi River from Natchez, his parents saw Jerry Lee's potential as a musician and put their farm on the line to borrow money for a piano.

Any Ferriday family reunion must have been a fairly raucous affair. Battling for the piano would be Jerry Lee along with cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggert. An older cousin, Carl McVoy, helped prime Jerry Lee's interest in playing with the boogie-woogie-flavored abandon that would make him famous. McVoy would go on to record for Sun Records, Hi Records, and would be a part of the Bill Black Combo.

Not the first "mama-called" preacher, Lewis was shipped off to the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, to learn to play piano for a life in church music. But when he made his joyful noise known with My God Is Real in boogie-woogie style at chapel, he was headed back to Ferriday on the next bus. Dues were paid at the hard-scrabble clubs back home, and there were still a couple of bumps in the road before he found a friendly ear. He was too incendiary for the Louisiana Hayride in Shreveport. The Grand Ole Opry gave him the cold shoulder, as they had Elvis before him. And the same Nashville establishment that told Elvis he should go back to driving a truck implied Jerry Lee Lewis should take up guitar.

Undaunted, in late 1956 Jerry Lee and his father, Elmo Lewis, made the 300-mile trip from Ferriday to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips. Sam was out, but producer Jack Clements gave Lewis a listen. Clements was already working with Johnny Cash, and heard the diamond in Jerry Lee's rough. As a session player, Jerry Lee helped power the sound of Cash along with Carl Perkins and Billy Lee Riley. His first solo single, a cover of Ray Price's Crazy Arms showed promise. Jerry Lee was at the piano for the legendary Million Dollar Quartet jam. And in 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis and his pumping piano, backed by J. W. Brown on bass and drummer J. M. Van Eaton, seared their way onto the charts with a top-five smash single.

Written by Dave "Curlee" Williams and Sonny David, the original version of Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On was released in 1955 by Big Maybelle. Born in Jackson, Tennessee, Mabel Louise Smith grew up singing gospel and switched to rhythm and blues along the way. She got her start professionally with Dave Clark's Memphis Band in 1936. She recorded for King Records in the 40's, and put out a few sides for Okeh Records starting with Gabbin' Blues, which hit number three on the R&B charts. Quincy Jones produced her version of Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On, which had a whole different feel than the later Jerry Lee Lewis - Sun Records cover.

Despite Sun Records owner Sam Phillips' fears that it might be perceived as too risque, Jerry Lee's Whole Lotta Shakin' was released as his second single. Making its chart debut in late June, 1957, the record caught the ear of TV's Steve Allen. On Allen's program, Lewis demonstrated his raw energy to national audiences on July 28. That appearance gave sales a boost, sending it to number three in the nation, while topping both the country and R&B charts.

Big Maybelle continued shaking things up into the 60's and 70's. Her final hit single, in 1967, was a unique treatment of Question Mark and the Mysterians' 96 Tears.