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How country music allowed Jerry Lee Lewis to vary his wild-man persona

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Jerry Lee Lewis, who died recently at age 87, was the last of the first generation of rock 'n' roll stars in the 1950s, known for his wild man persona on and offstage. But in the wake of Lewis' passing, rock critic Ken Tucker has been listening to another aspect of Lewis' career, his time as a country music artist, beginning in the late 1960s. Ken believes Lewis' beautiful country ballads very well may be better music than any of his rock 'n' roll hits.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "NO ONE KNOWS ME")

JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) I've been the whole world over, a lot of places I have seen. I've met a million people. But still, nobody knows ol' Jerry Lee. I've done a lot of everything, folks, from good to bad to what you see. But I'm here to tell the world, nobody knows ol' Jerry Lee. Yeah, I've known...

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: In 1968, Jerry Lee Lewis was at a low point. His rock 'n' roll career had stalled after the scandal of his marriage to his underage cousin in the late 1950s. And by the late '60s, his sound was irrelevant to rock music anyway, one of the many ways the Beatles had changed the culture. He was about to lose his contract to Mercury Records when a Nashville producer named Eddie Kilroy made a pitch to his bosses in New York to cut an album of country songs with Lewis. Since they had all but written off Jerry Lee, Kilroy was allowed to do what he wanted. And what Kilroy and Lewis and producer Jerry Kennedy came up with was this.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ANOTHER PLACE, ANOTHER TIME")

J LEWIS: (Singing) One by one, they're turning out the lights. I've been feeding that ol' jukebox just to hold you tight. I guess it's for the best I just put in my last dime. I heard you whisper we'll meet again, another place, another time. Chairs are stacked...

TUCKER: "Another Place, Another Time" hit No. 4 on the Billboard country chart, the first time in a decade that a Lewis song was in any Billboard Top 10. The album of the same name went to No. 3, and Lewis' country career was launched. There had always been a lot of country in Jerry Lee. The native of Ferriday, La., had a twang in his voice, and he included a cover of Ray Price's honky tonk classic "Crazy Arms" on his first Sun Records rock album in 1958. The fact is country music suited his rolling, tumbling piano style, and its lyrics suited the roiling emotions he brought to every performance. As far as I'm concerned, you can have "Whole Lot Of Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls Of Fire." This is the Jerry Lee Lewis I like to listen to.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "YOU WIN AGAIN")

J LEWIS: (Singing) The news is out all over town that you've been seen out running round. I know that I should leave, but then I just can't go. You win again. This heart of mine could never see...

TUCKER: That's Lewis' cover of Hank Williams' classic country song "You Win Again," and I think it's as good as Hank's own recording. Indeed, in the history of country music, I think only Lefty Frizzell and George Jones are better vocalists than Lewis. Country music allowed Lewis to vary his persona to assume roles that rock 'n' roll rarely allowed. Listen to Jerry Lee singing as a husband, a wayward cheater but one still very much in love with his wife, expressing rare gratitude on "She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left Of Me)" from 1969.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SHE STILL COMES AROUND (TO LOVE WHAT'S LEFT OF ME)")

J LEWIS: (Singing) I know I'm not a model husband, although I'd like to be. But payday nights and painted women - they do strange things to me. But when the party's over and the good is all she sees, though I let her down, she still comes around to love what's left of me. Six days out of seven...

TUCKER: Lewis' gifts as an interpreter of lyrics and the casual elegance of his piano playing exert a powerful spell. For a man who wrestled with the idea that his earthly behavior would condemn him to hell, Lewis had an uncanny feeling for spiritual music. Here he takes the hymn called "The Great Speckled Bird," which would have been familiar to the country audience as a signature song from Roy Acuff, and turns it into a rousing way to end a church service.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GREAT SPECKLED BIRD")

J LEWIS: (Singing) What a beautiful thought I am thinking concerning the great speckled bird. Remember her name is recorded on the pages of God's holy word. All the other birds...

TUCKER: Jerry Lee Lewis was a man of immense talent and immense ego. By all accounts, the performer, who enjoyed the nickname The Killer, lived his life in a selfish way and did many ugly things. But he also sent a lot of beauty out into the world. It's more for that beauty, much of it embedded in his country music, that I hope a lot of people will remember him.

BIANCULLI: Ken Tucker is FRESH AIR's rock critic. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, Steven Spielberg. His new film "The Fabelmans" is semi-autobiographical, based on Spielberg's childhood and teenage years, when he fell in love with movies and began making them. It's also about his family and his parents' divorce. I hope you can join us. For Terry Gross, I'm David Bianculli.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THERE MUST BE MORE TO LOVE THAN THIS")

J LEWIS: (Singing) I wake up in the morning. I'm still crying. Yes, I am. And on my lips, I can taste your goodnight kiss. In my room, the fragrance from your perfume lingers. And I know there must be more to love than this. I look across my lonely room and see your picture. Your loving, smiling face I know I'd miss. Yes, I would, darling. And I remembered to another you're still married. And I know there must be more to love than this. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Ken Tucker reviews rock, country, hip-hop and pop music for Fresh Air. He is a cultural critic who has been the editor-at-large at Entertainment Weekly, and a film critic for New York Magazine. His work has won two National Magazine Awards and two ASCAP-Deems Taylor Awards. He has written book reviews for The New York Times Book Review and other publications.