Monday, August 28, 2006

Music: The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly: Three Cousins from Ferriday, Louisiana who Define American Music

This story begins with three sisters from a peckerwood Louisiana town deep in the Southern Bible Belt. Each sister gave birth to a son between the great depression and World War II. These three cousins would grow up to touch the hem of American Culture, transforming it, each in a fundamental way, before going on to outlive most of their respective peers. They would all do this from the performance stage and, more often than not, from behind a piano.

The three cousins were reared in the Christian evangelism of the Assembly of God Church, where, like many prominent musicians, they began their careers. Each was an accomplished pianist before the age of ten and each would manifest their Church-borne musical talent in dramatically different ways. However, it was this religious experience that gave all three boys a rock-steady left hand, grounding each so they would not spin completely out of control. It mostly worked.

The eldest of the trio is the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart (born March 15, 1935. At the height of his ministry in the Assembly of God Church, Reverend Swaggart commanded a congregation of tens of thousands and a church that grossed $150 million dollars yearly. Swaggart has produced music, biblical commentary, and preaching for the past 50 years. The middle cousin is Jerry Lee Lewis (September 29, 1935, “The Killer,” an early Rock and Roll Father who re-invented himself more times than Ray Charles. The freshman member of the trio is Mickey Gilley (March 9, 1936), a durable Country Music presence and famous Honky Tonk owner. With Elvis Presely, Johnny Cash, Ray Charles, and many more musical pioneers gone, this trio of cousins are the treasure left of the Golden Age of Popular Music. Here are three recordings that well represent these artists.

Jimmy Swaggart
Jimmy Swaggart and His Golden Gospel Piano
Jimmy Swaggart Ministries

The Reverend Jimmy Swaggart's notoriety vastly overshadows his pure talent as a musician. He is easily the best singer of this trio and arguable the best pianist. His recordings are all well produced and that is the problem. His material is over produced. I would like to hear the Reverend in a gospel trio setting with double bass and drums alone or as a solo piano act. It is apparent that he is catering to his base, a group of people more interested in the Word than the music and that is unfortunate. For Jimmy Swaggart is a beautiful Southern Cultural artifact like none other.

Jimmy Swaggart and His Golden Gospel Piano is one of the minister's recent recordings. The material is performed live and was gleened from Swaggart's many television appearances. The disc is a veritable seminar on Cracker White Trash Country Gospel Music and I mean that in the best sense possible. Not all American Culture is high art. But it is Art. Reverend Swaggart, as always, wears his faith on his sleeve as he delivers his unique brand of sincerity on "In the Shelter of His Arms" and his 10-minute opus "He Grew The Tree." His half-spoken-half-sung delivery is perfect. He is the consumate performerin both music and Evangelism. While his theological doctrine of The Cross is overstated, his piano playing is beyond compare. I should like to hear what he could produce on a battered upright under a tent outside of Broussard on an August night where it is 101 degrees at 10:00 PM.

Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg 1964
Jerry Lee Lewis

If there were ever a recording that encompassed a corrosive emotional universe, simply yelling, "Fuck You!" at the listeners, then and now, it is Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg. Here is how critic Milo Miles described the recording in Rolling Stone in 2002: "Live At The Star Club, Hamburg" is not an album, it's a crime scene: Jerry Lee Lewis slaughters his rivals in a thirteen-song set that feels like one long convulsion.

The firebombing of Dresden might be more like it.

As the Killer took that German stage on April 4, 1964, he proved absolutely no regard for anything other than his own unjustly unacknowledged greatness: the audience, the band, competing artists, and most of all we listeners 40 years on were of no concern to him. On the stage previously conquered by the Beatles, Lewis rolled his tongue, splayed a white-trash arpeggio, hummed the key, and detonated a 10,000 kilogram “Mean Woman Blues” at twice the tempo his shitty British back-up band expected. The crowd joined in sing-along immediately as Lewis proceeded to lament his difficult lover and pound his piano with ball peen hammers.

Lewis sneered, mocking, chanted his name with the crowd, sarcastically praised his performance confines and played the most elemental Rock and Roll, while at the same time delivering his Das wohltemperirte Clavier of Louisiana boogie-woogie piano. The killer was clearly tired of the European press and his own exile from American radio that occurred after his infamous marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, in 1957. Lewis took on every contemporary competitor in his 13-song set: Carl Perkins with “Matchbox,” Ray Charles with “What’d I Say,” Little Richard with “Good Golly Miss Molly,” and finally Elvis with his own “Hound Dog,” Lewis proved with fire that he is the King and no one else.Whether this concert was the culmination of all of Jerry Lee Lewis’s frustration or just the Killer on a typical night in the mid-‘60s (a frightening thought to be sure), Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club, Hamburg demands inclusion on any list of the most important live recordings.

Mickey Gilley
Room Full of Roses / Gilley’s Smokin’
Mickey Gilley

Mickey Gilley is the best behaved of the three cousins. He is a musician well beoynd his cover of "Stand by Me." Room Full of Roses / Gilley's Smokin' is his music before his great cross-over and couples his first and third recordings for Playboy Records in 1974 and 1976, respectively. The two releases contain music as disparate as Sam Cooke's "Bring It on Home To Me" and Bob Will's "San Antonio Rose." Gilley plays certified honky tonk piano, the same piano played by his cousin Jimmy Swaggart in Church and the same piano as his cousin Jerry Lee Lewis in his Hernando Hide-away home. But of all three, it is Gilley that exemplifies the closing time ambience of country music. Easier going than his famous cousins, Gilley may be the best the trio had and has to offer.

These three men are among a very few remaining musicians who were there for the birth of Rock. Along with Little Richard, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, and these three are treasures that we sould be foolish to think will be here forever.

© Copyright, C. Michael Bailey, 2006