It must be great, as a 73-year-old founding father of rock ’n’ roll and the celebrated “last man standing” of the stable of towering talents discovered and signed by Sun Records visionary producer Sam Phillips, to be able to snap your fingers and get new material written especially for you by the likes of Kris Kristofferson.
But that’s just what Jerry Lee Lewis has in “Mean Old Man,” the first single and title track from his forthcoming album, billed by his label, Shangri-La Music, as “his first country record since the ’70s."
That’s a tad misleading—his 2006 album for Shangri-La, "Last Man Standing," had plenty of country spirit in it, because rock as originally mapped out by Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison, Johnny Cash and other Sun artists was equal parts country and rhythm and blues, primal influences those artists never fully abandoned even in their hardest-rocking recordings.
Kristofferson provides him with a song that celebrates the yin and yang of what it is to be the Killer, proclaiming himself to look like a mean old man, a good old friend, a voodoo doll and, finally, hilariously, “your uncle Bob.”
The single, which just went up on iTunes, Amazon.com, Rhapsody and most of the usual places, opens with the down-home twang of a tremolo-laden electric guitar over a midtempo martial drum beat. Conspicuous in its absence is any hint of the signature pumping piano work by the famous Fireball.
In recent years he’s appeared increasingly frail, but vocally he sounds very much himself and very much in possession of the telltale quaver in his voice and a take-no-prisoners, make-no-excuses authority over the material at hand.
“If I look like a voodoo doll/Who’d take his lickin’ standing tall/Who’d rather bite you back than crawl/That’s what I am,” he snarls. The ferocity he often tapped in his prime may be a thing of the past, judging from a certain thinness in his vocals, but the deliciously cocky attitude still evident here probably will be with him till the day he dies, and even then, it may not follow him down without a fight.
-- Randy Lewis
Photo of Lewis performing in Spain last month by J.J. Guillen / EPA