There are some classic artist-label combinations that are part of music business lore. Elvis Presley’s run with RCA comes to mind, as does The Beatles and Capitol. In that same breath, one could also place Jerry Lee Lewis and Sun Records.
Though his days with the label only accounted for seven years of his recording career, there’s something about the music that the Louisiana native recorded for Sam Phillips between 1956 and 1963 that will always stand the test of time. Over the years, that catalog has been released in sets that vary in depth, but now fans can pick up every single track that Lewis recorded for the label during his time there.
German-based Bear Family Records has released Jerry Lee Lewis At Sun Records: The Collected Works, a box set that includes a staggering 18 CDs, as well as two 300-page books that detail the legend that was — and is — “The Killer.”
Andrew McRae, who co-produced the release, tells Billboard that he feels this is the definitive Lewis Sun package. “It’s the first genuine attempt to chronicle absolutely everything that could be found of Jerry Lee Lewis at work, on his own account, in the Sun studios. For too long record companies held back — maybe, and perhaps understandably, questioning whether such a project could ever be viable — but a quarter of a century on from the ‘Classic JLL’ set, Bear Family recognized that there was a demand to see the extra material found in the dustiest corners of the Sun vaults finally brought to light, and that posterity deserved to have a reasonably coherent library of everything Lewis recorded at Sun.”
That original Bear Family set stopped at only 246 tracks — only half of the number that was generally regarded of the singer’s output with the label. After thorough investigation and searching throughout the Sun archives (including alternate takes), it was found that Lewis cut 623 tracks for the label. McRae reasons that it was time to make those years complete for fans and collectors. “There was an obvious need to pull it all together in one package,” he said, adding that the box also includes more than just the classics such as “Great Balls of Fire” and “You Win Again.”
“The new set also includes two comprehensive hard-back books which are of a different and complementary character to other publications on Jerry Lee, one of which represents the most impressive collection yet seen of photographs of Lewis during his time at Sun Records, many of which have never before been published,” explains McRae.
In listening to the music, McRae says that he comes away with even a deeper appreciation of “The Killer” and his music. “It’s certainly served to remind me of just how contemporary and timeless his Sun recordings sound, in some cases nearly 60 years after the event. The new material has also served to confirm just how hard Lewis worked at perfecting his craft. No one could have imagined that there were quite so many takes of ‘High School Confidential,’ now numbered at a couple of dozen, nor certainly quite so many different approaches to the song he tried out,” McRae explains. “A new batch of undiscovered, early takes of the song, which proved to be his fourth million-seller, has revealed so much more of the labor involved. Had Jerry Lee just stuck to the instrumentation at this stage and not sung the lyrics, we’d have been heralding not just ‘new alternate takes’ of ‘High School Confidential’ but a whole new title.”
When it came to naming a favorite track on the set, McRae admits that’s an impossible mission but a complete, eight-take sequence of “Invitation To Your Party” from Lewis’ final Sun session in August 1963 is a highlight. “You can witness Lewis painstakingly working to fashion something worthwhile out of Bill Taylor’s song whilst others involved appear to struggle with the arrangement. It’s a wonderful exposition of the hazards of cutting all the instrumentation concurrently, live in the studio.”
Collaborating with Bear Family Records, known for their respect for detail, was a key to the success of the box set.
“Working with [founder] Richard Weize was a rare privilege; on a wider front this man has done more for American roots music than it is possible to imagine,” says McRae. “As executive producer of a project, Richard brooks no nonsense but at the same time gives you a lot of scope for accommodating your own ideas; he works for and with the fans, for the fans, and acknowledges that those who’ve spent their lives immersed in the work of a particular artist probably know their stuff, so he lets them get on with it, within a pretty flexible outline.”
Hearing the complete Sun years does make one think about the possibilities that might have happened had Lewis not wound up becoming a tabloid subject after word leaked about his marriage to cousin Myra in the spring of 1958. It effectively ended his reign as a rock superstar on the charts (though he did reinvent himself as a country performer in the late 1960s).
“From the point of view of a present-day fan being able to enjoy the music he created at Sun — and whilst Jerry Lee might himself balk at this notion — the fact that he was denied commercial success could well be a huge positive,” offers McRae. “Here’s an intriguing might-have-been — imagine it had not happened that way, and that he’d played all thirty-three dates as originally scheduled on that May 1958 tour, watching ‘High School Confidential’ climb to the top of the charts. Maybe on his triumphant return to the States a major label would have signed him up and recorded him in the conventional, union-controlled fashion of the day, churning out pop-flavored hits and dispensing with all the outtakes. Would we have ever heard ‘Old Black Joe,’ ‘Night Train to Memphis,’ ‘The Great Speckled Bird,’ and dozens of other songs — not to mention all the outtakes that we can now enjoy on this box set? I have an idea that Jerry Lee’s ‘fall from grace’ is in itself largely responsible for this incredibly rich heritage.”
British musician Chas Hodges, who worked with Lewis during the later Sun years, feels that the singer was a much stronger artist at the end of his Sun contract than in his commercial heyday. “Jerry Lee went back home and pulled himself back up by sheer hard work. I am sure his mother told him that he had a unique talent and that only by working on that talent would he get back on top,” says Hodges. “He did. In 1963, when I toured with him, I believe he was at his best. His piano playing was better than it had ever been.”
Hodges says that even today — over five decades later — working with an artist of that magnitude remains a crowning achievement. “Some musicians I have met who have worked with him have said how they didn’t enjoy it because you didn’t know what he was going to do next. But that was exactly what I did enjoy. The surprise kept you on your toes and was pure excitement. That’s another leaf I take out of Jerry Lee’s book to this day.”