The piano pounding madman… and Mississippi

by Jochen Markhorst

In June and July my “Mississippi” series was published here on Untold. That was my attempt to write an article about that song, which got out of hand, just as before with “Desolation Row” and “Where Are You Tonight?”

Likewise, “Mississippi” is now bundled into a booklet, available on Amazon:

“Mississippi – Bob Dylan’s Midlife Masterpiece”

Below you will find an unpublished chapter from that book. I do hope you enjoy reading it.



The piano pounding madman

In 1979 Jerry Lee Lewis records a dazzling, steamy cover of Dylan’s throwaway from the Desire sessions (1976), “Rita May”, the only noteworthy cover of that particular song anyone has managed.

Lewis, according to legend, demonstrates his unworldliness afterwards, when he has asked producer Bones Howe, who wrote that song. “Bob Dylan,” Howe answers with a broad grin, for he is sure Lewis will be mighty surprised. But Lewis shows no recognition at all. “That boy is good,” says Jerry Lee Lewis, “I’ll do anything by him.”

“Anything” might be a bit of an exaggeration, but indeed: thirty-five years later, in 2014, Dylan producer Daniel Lanois will collaborate on Rock & Roll Time of the then 79-year-old rock ‘n’ legend. Lanois points to the existence of another forgotten little ditty, of “Stepchild” from 1978. Jerry Lee takes the bait and repeats his ’79 feat: the cover is undeniably the most exciting version of “Stepchild”; unwieldy, swampy and irresistible. Whether he by now knows who Dylan is, the historiography does not tell.

Conversely, there is a self-evident admiration. Most explicitly expressed in Theme Time Radio Hour, where radio maker Dylan finds, no fewer than seven times, an excuse to play a record by The Killer. Usually introduced with extensive information about “the piano pounding madman”, his tumultuous youth, his dubious predilection for young girls and its consequences, and remarkable facts from his career – such as Lewis’ role as Iago in Catch My Soul, the 1968 rock musical adaptation of Othello, which allows Dylan to play “Lust of the Blood” in episode 81, Blood…

“Ya know if anyone ever asks me why I do this radio show I can just play ‘em that. Jerry Lee Lewis singing Shakespeare — that’s what this show is all about.”

Episode 31 has the theme Tennessee, so Jerry Lee is unavoidable, as the DJ says (“You can’t stop off in Tennessee without paying a visit to the Killer.”) Dylan chooses “Night Train to Memphis”, and thus passes The Killer’s other ode to Memphis, “Memphis Beat” from 1966. Not out of ignorance; we know for sure that Dylan has the LP of the same name in his record cabinet.

Memphis Beat, like many other records of the piano beast, is a compilation of Jerry Lee’s compositions, songs written especially for Lewis, and covers. Half of the songs were recorded at the Phillips Studio in Memphis in January ’66, other songs have been waiting eight months to be released and were recorded in New York, and the album contains even two songs from a recording session in 1963. In all, less than half an hour, but it is still a reasonably successful album. The opener “Memphis Beat”, is an attractive run-of-the-mill smasher, written for Jerry Lee by two members of the Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Allen Reynolds and Dickey Lee. The lyrics seem to come straight from the Memphis Tourist Office brochure:

Well they got people a-walkin'
And ridin' and swimmin'
Just tryin' to get a chance at them good lookin' women
Now we just march on down to the foot of Beale Street
Ah then dance all night to that Memphis Beat

Anyway, songwriter Dickey Lee is no small fry, of course. On this same album is Jerry’s cover of Dickey Lee’s biggest hit, the immortal, “She Thinks I Still Care”. Recorded by Elvis, Johnny Cash, The Flying Burrito Brothers, Gene Pitney, John Fogerty, James Taylor and others – after acquiring its monument status through Dylan’s idol George Jones (1962), the country god of whom Dylan says:

“Looking through my record collection the other day, I’ve got about 70 George Jones albums. If you look at ’em all, it gives you a great history of men’s haircuts.”

In between are some more and less successful renditions of songs like Jimmy Reed’s “Big Boss Man” and Stick McGhee’s smoothly swinging “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee”, with which he will score another small hit. Downright awkward is the tear-jerking doo-wop “Too Young” (“They’re trying to tell us we’re too young”). Awkward not only because of the corny lounge arrangement, but especially because of the lyrics, sung by the man who torpedoed his own career by marrying his thirteen-year-old niece Myra.

Most curious, however, is the only self-written song on the LP, “Lincoln Limousine”.

“Lincoln Limousine” is Jerry Lee’s bizarre ode to Kennedy. According to biographer Joe Bonomo in the great biography Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost And Found (2009) “one the most peculiar tracks he’s cut in his career” and…

“Jerry Lee’s odd tribute to John F. Kennedy is simply weird, so ambiguous and amateurishly written that it’s impossible to determine exactly what motivated him to write it.”

The biographer does have a point. What to think of verses like:

Well they shot him in the back seat of a Lincoln limousine
Was a great, great leader by the name of Kennedy
He fought for right and freedom, tried to keep this nation clean
But they shot him in the backseat of a Lincoln limousine
And he had ten million dollars, had the world right in his hand
But a twenty dollar rifle cut the life of this great man
He had a lovely wife and two children seldom seen
But they shot him in the backseat of a Lincoln limousine

So clumsy it almost seems deliberate, indeed. Miles away from The Byrds’ “He Was A Friend Of Mine”, Kris Kristofferson’s “They Killed Him” or Dion’s “Abraham, Martin And John”, in any case.

It could not have inspired Dylan to his “Kennedy song” “Murder Most Foul” (2020) either, but “Lincoln Limousine” does have some impact: the intro, the first ten notes, Dylan copies almost one-on-one for the final “Mississippi” version, the “Love And Theft” version – the only studio version with this intro, by the way. The same lick is used as a bridge and the bard is very content with it, apparently: in the live performances of 2001 he plays the intro twice, in later performances the lick will be integrated in even more places in the song (as with Mark Knopfler in Zurich, 2011). But just as often he skips it, unfortunately.


In any case: at least once one little melody by Jerry Lee Lewis, despite all his qualities not a great songwriter, penetrates Dylan’s oeuvre. “He sings this song, he pounds the piano. He says he wrote it and that’s good enough for me,” as the DJ says in one of his last Theme Time Radio Hours, “Clearance Sale”, April 2009.

The song “Memphis Beat” gets a second life in the twenty-first century. Television company TNT produces the comic police series Memphis Beat in 2010 and blues musician and five-time Grammy Award winner Keb’ Mo’ is asked for the soundtrack. He has Jerry Lee Lewis on a pedestal and records a very nice cover of the song for the opening theme. The show is not a big success (after two seasons the plug is pulled again), but songwriter Dickey Lee can’t complain. “She Still Thinks I Care” is of course his goose with golden eggs, but:

“There are still seven or eight songs that have paid off consistently. I can’t believe it, but it’s still mailbox money.”
(interview Nashville Music Guide, February 14, 2012)

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One comment

  1. Lewis:
    He had a wife and two children seldom seen
    But they shot him in the backseat of a Lincoln limouine

    I’m riding in a long, black Lincoln limousine
    Riding in the backseat next to my wife
    (Murder Most Foul)

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