DAVE DAVIES, HOST:
In 1958, Jerry Lee Lewis suffered one of the biggest declines in popularity of any rock and roll star ever when it turned out that his new wife, Myra, was not only 13 years old but his cousin. It was also unclear whether he was actually divorced from his previous wife at the time. Though he continued to record and tour, nobody would touch his records and Sun Records didn't promote them. Then in 1963 he signed a new deal with Smash, a subsidiary of Mercury Records and it looked like things were turning around. Rock historian Ed Ward says a number of live recordings show it was a little more complicated than that.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HIGH SCHOOL CONFIDENTIAL")
JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) You better open up a honey, it's your lover boy, me, that's a knockin'. You better listen to me, sugar, all the cats are over at the high school a rockin'. Honey, get your bobby shoes or the juke box will blow the fuse. Got everybody hoppin', everybody boppin', boppin' at the high school hop. Bopping at the high school hop. Shaking at the high school hop. I've been rolling at the high school hop. I've been moving at the high school hop. Well, everybody's hopping and a bopping at the high school hop. Come on, little baby, I want to rock a little bit tonight. Whoa, I got to...
ED WARD, BYLINE: It was April 4, 1964 and Jerry Lee Lewis had officially bottomed out. He hadn't charted a record in years, and now, on tour in England and Germany, he was getting paid so little that he couldn't afford to bring his own musicians.
Instead, he was forced to use pickup bands in England, and then when he arrived in Hamburg, a British band called the Nashville Teens was waiting for him. The venue was the Star Club, where The Beatles, who had just leaped into stardom in America, had played not long before. A producer for Philips Records Germany, Siggi Loch, decided that this would be a good chance to record Jerry Lee's show.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DOWN THE LINE")
LEWIS: (Singing) You ain't got the style. I've got to get some real love gone. That'll drive a cool cat wild. Oh, move. Move on down the line. Yeah, I'm going to do right, I'll do right all the time. Well, I'm going to move on down the line, get me a gal, I'm going to make some time.
She can't be square, can't be slow. And when she starts a strutting you know I've gotta go. I'm got to move. Move on down the line. Whoa, I'm going to do right. Do right all the time. Yeah. Yeah. Yeah.
WARD: He opened up with "Down the Line," and the engineer wasn't ready, so the first few lines Lewis sang were lost. The audience, though, erupted as their hero hit the stage. He then proceeded to cut loose with a set that was mostly oldies - including, of course, some of his own.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT BALLS OF FIRE")
LEWIS: All right. All right, all right, already. Here's one I hope you enjoy. Ladies and gentlemen. (Singing) You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain. Too much love drives a man insane. You broke my will. But what a thrill. Goodness gracious, great balls of fire. I laughed at love 'cause I thought it was funny. But you came along and you moved me, honey. I changed my mind 'cause love is blind. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.
(Singing) Kiss me, baby. Whoo, it feels good. Hold me, baby. Yeah, I want to love you like a lover should. You're fine. So kind. Got to tell this world that you're mine, mine, mine. I chew my lip, I twiddle my thumb. I'm real nervous but it sure is fun. Come on, baby. You're driving me crazy. Goodness gracious great balls of fire.
WARD: The resulting album, "Live at the Hamburg Star-Club," is 37 minutes long, and because it features a man playing as if his life depended on it in front of a rioting crowd, is widely considered one of the greatest live rock and roll albums ever.
Smash decided not to release it. Instead, until it got an official U.S. release in 1980, imported copies were eagerly sought out. What Smash did instead was to record another show, this time with Jerry Lee's regular band, in July in Birmingham, Alabama. The set list is almost identical, but with a bit more country.
(SOUNDBITE OF RECORDING, "TOGETHER AGAIN")
LEWIS: Right now here is a beautiful song. I hope you enjoy it. One entitled... (Singing) Together again. My tears have stopped falling. The long lonely nights have all passed away. The key to my heart you now hold in your hand. And nothing else matters. We're together again.
WARD: The record did well enough that after a string of country singles flopped, Smash recorded him live again in August 1966. The album, "By Request: More of the Greatest Live Show on Earth," was done in Fort Worth's Panther Hall, a legendary venue with terrible sound, which came through on the record.
After this, his career started moving as he and producer Jerry Kennedy found some hard-country material that eventually put Lewis on the country charts. In May 1970, Mercury put him into the International Hotel in Las Vegas and recorded a nearly all-country set from him, although the outtakes demonstrate that he was still performing his hits.
But he wasn't a happy man. The marriage to Myra was broken and showed no signs of reviving. His mother, Mamie, had been diagnosed with lung cancer. He went on a three-week tour of Australia in October and returned to find Myra's divorce papers.
In a last-ditch attempt to bring her back, he went to her church, Brother E.J. Davis' Church on Highway 61 South in Memphis, and played an hour's worth of gospel, having announced that he was giving up on worldly music.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG)
LEWIS: (Singing) As tomorrow may mean good-bye, we never, we never know when or why, God calls us away when life seems so gay, our bodies in dust to lie. Tomorrow our souls may sigh, may sigh, for beauty we left still cry, oh, listen to me today. Fall down on your knees and pray. 'Cause tomorrow, hallelujah, may mean good-bye. I said tomorrow...
WARD: People who were there remember that the congregation was shocked, and not in a good way. The whole performance is subdued and introspective, two words almost never said in the same sentence with the name Jerry Lee Lewis. In the end, his mother died in April 1971, the divorce came through a month later, and Jerry Lee Lewis was back in the studio cutting country not long afterwards.
DAVIES: Ed Ward covers rock history for FRESH AIR. Most of the music we heard in his review is from the Hippo select album "The Killer Live: 1964-1970."
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LEWIS BOOGIE")
LEWIS: (singing) My name is Jerry Lee Lewis. I come from Louisiana. I'm going to do you a little boogie on this here piano. Doing mighty fine, I'm going to make you shake it. I'll make you do it and make you do it until you gotta break it. It's called the Lewis boogie and the Lewis sway.