[On Lewis’s “comeback” album, 2006’s Last Man Standing. Originally published at Stylus on 12/12/06.]
Yes, I know: another duets-cum-tribute album? But you’d be wrong in making that assumption, so wrong like Patrick Simmons. There’s a few significant differences between Last Man Standing and, say, Tony Bennett’s new Duets (which is good-not-great) (or, for that matter, Sinatra’s 1993 Duets, reissued a year ago).
1. Jerry Lee outshines his guests. Every damned one of ‘em. Take the opening track, Led Zep’s “Rock and Roll.” The guest here (each track features one, playing and/or singing) is Jimmy Page, but this sounds nothing like Zep—Lewis grabs the song by the proverbial balls and makes it a Jerry Lee song, taking it back to 1955. Poor Page is left to simply add a lick here and there, watching Lewis hijack his own work. (Lewis does so superbly enough that I somehow doubt Page is too worried.) Similarly, on his cover of Bruce Springsteen’s “Pink Cadillac,” the Killer reduces the Boss to hypeman-cum-backing vocalist, but Bruce sounds happy just to be allowed in the legend’s presence. (The song’s a perfect fit for Lewis, too; it always sounded as if Bruce was aping Lewis on his original.)
2. His guests are perfectly-picked. John Legend does not appear on this album. Neither do the Pussycat Dolls. These are artists who have some sort of affinity with the Killer: Mick ‘n’ Ronnie (theirs is the only track featuring two guests, a gorgeously broke-down “Evening Gown”), Keef (singing!), Clapton, and Rod from across the pond; BB, Buddy, John Fogerty, Don Henley, Delaney Bramlett, and Kid Rock from the lower 48; Neil and Robbie from north of the border; and Willie, Merle, Kris (Kristofferson), George (Jones), and Toby representing Nashville. Even the few guests who might seem like odd choices—Ringo Starr and Little Richard—acquit themselves nicely, Ringo assisting perfectly on the rave-up of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (it’s the kind of thing—the only kind of thing—that Ringo does well) and Richard sounding oddly subdued on “I Saw Her Standing There.”
3. Don’t forget the songs. Last Man Standing is a sterling grab-bag of songs, a mix of rock classics (the aforementioned titles, plus “Travelin’ Band” and “Honky Tonk Woman”), Jerry Lee’s own songs (“What’s Made Milwaukee Famous,” “Ol’ Glory”), and some other extremely well-chosen titles (Van Morrison’s “What Makes the Irish Heart Beat,” Cindy Walker’s “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” previously recorded by Red Foley, Ernest Tubb, and Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys). Paired up with the right duet singers—Kid Rock on “Honky Tonk Woman,” for example, and George Jones on “Age”—Jerry Lee makes magic out of ‘em.
4. Did I mention he plays the piano pretty well? Artists young enough to be Lewis’s grandchildren would do well to sound half as energetic as the Killer does here. He brings to mind a Tina Turner concert I attended in 1993, in which she out-costume changed and out-danced her backup dancers, who were easily at least 30 years her junior. Jerry Lee’s piano playing is as fine here as it’s ever been (improving with age like the best whiskey, perhaps?)—the man murders the black and white keys, and they just come back for more.
The title of the album refers to the fact that Lewis is the last of the Sun Records greats (Orbison, Cash, Presley) still walking the earth, let alone making music. That’s the real beauty of Last Man Standing: not only is Jerry Lee Lewis still standing, he’s still making music that means something. He’s proving that he can be as vital over 70 as he was 20, or even 40, years ago. Don’t bet against the man they call the Killer. [A]