Piano prodigy recalls a lotta livin'
Mehr, Memphis Commercial Appeal
Friday, June 27, 2008
Photo by Nikki Boertman, The Commercial Appeal
WAY BACK WHEN, during the glory days of Sun Records in the late 1950s, Jerry Lee Smith — “Smoochy” to his friends — was just a kid. A 15-year-old pumping piano player, Smith — like Sun's other Jerry Lee — was a real wild child.
After playing sessions and serving as a staple of the Sun sound for several years, he went on to write and record a huge, early smash for the Stax label, the Mar-Key's signature “Last Night.” In the 40-plus years since, Smith has remained a vibrant presence on the local scene, continuing to play and perform at rockabilly festivals and tour with the Sun Rhythm Section.
This spring, Smith released his autobiography, The Real Me, which details the sometimes tragic, always interesting life of this Jackson, Tenn., native and his colorful career in the Memphis music world. Saturday, Smith will be signing copies of the book and talking about his experiences at the Center for Southern Folklore.
Q: How long did it take to write the book?
A: It took me about 2 1/2 years to complete. Every time I'd get started on something, I'd think of something else that happened before the something I was writing about (laughs). And I'd have to back up and start over. I was surprised how many of the stories started coming to me and all the things I had done. Of course, there were some things that come to me that I didn't mention in the book (laughs). There was enough bad stuff in there as it was, that I did mention. I was pretty wild when I was a teenager.
Q: Music ran in your family didn't it?
A: I started when I was 9 years old. My dad played the fiddle, harmonica and guitar. He could play some chords on the piano, and he taught me. He'd play his fiddle and I'd play piano, and then we got a radio show together on WDXI in Jackson. Then he got killed in a car wreck, of course. After that I got involved in playing with other groups.
Q: How did you end up coming to Memphis?
A: (Fellow Jackson native) Carl Perkins wanted me to play piano on "Blue Suede Shoes." And, of course, my dad being recently killed in that car wreck, my mother felt like I was too young to be on the highway, and she wouldn't let me go. So Carl went on and cut his record, and I started playing with another band, with Kenny Parchman. But Carl did so good with his record, my mama told me next time anybody wanted me to cut a record she'd let me go. So Kenneth decided to try his luck at Sun, and we cut a song called "Love Crazy" along with "Treat Her Right." But Sam Phillips had gotten so busy with Carl and Jerry Lee and Elvis, he just left Kenny's song laying on a shelf for a while. Kenny got upset with him and finally Sam just tore his contract up, and Kenny put his record out on some other label. But Sam told me, "Boy, the way you play the piano, if you move to Memphis, I'd have you doing these sessions with us." So I decided I was going to move to Memphis, and I did. Moved here in '57, recorded at Sun until they opened up the new Phillips studio in '59.
Q: Everybody was pretty young in those days, but you were just 15 at the time -- was that strange?
A: I was used to working with older people. That didn't bother me at the time. But it bothers me now more than anything. See, because I was so young I didn't get to cut a record on myself at Sun. I didn't really have any songs that I'd written then. I didn't get my million-seller until I was at Stax.
Q: How did that song, "Last Night," come about?
A: Chips Moman was the engineer at Stax at the time, and he played guitar for my band. We were playing at a club one night, and I had made up this rhythm pattern. I don't know what song we were doing, but I started playing that rhythm and Chips tuned around and said, "Where'd you get that?" I said, "Well I made it up." And he said, "Why don't you come over to the studio and we'll put it down." So I put the rhythm pattern down, and later on he got with that Mar-Keys group and added horns to it, and he had 'em blowing two notes to my rhythm, and it sounded pretty good. So anyway, we cut it with the horn section, bass, drums, guitar, and I played the piano and organ on it. But it wasn't until it was about six or eight months later that (Stax head) Jim Stewart had Jerry Wexler come down from Atlantic Records. Wexler said, "I don't hear anything that really knocks me out." And he was fixing to leave and Chips said, "Well, wait a minute, I got one more song here I want to play for you," and he played "Last Night" and Wexler said, "Man, that's what I'm looking for!" So it was distributed by Atlantic records and sold a million records.
Q: You've played with a lot of interesting characters during your career.
A: Well, back during the Sun days, I played with Ace Cannon, Billy Lee Riley, Warren Smith, all them folks. Years later, in 1980, I played with George Jones for a year. That's about all I could take. (laughs). He'd show up for about half his shows, the other half he was drunk when he showed up. It was pretty wild.
Q: Then in the late-'80s and early-'90s you toured the world with The Sun Rhythm Section, right?
A: That was really fun. We'd go all over Europe and those people, they'd bring old records of mine -- I didn't know where they'd got 'em. Like a record I had made 500 copies of. I didn't even know it had gotten over to England, and it was a little hit over there. These kids were bringing me this record to autograph, and I said, "Goodness sakes, how'd this happen?"
Then of course we were sent to the Mideast, and we played in Kuwait just before the Desert Storm war — they said we started that war with all that rock-and-roll music. (laughs). But we played Kuwait, Jordan, Tunisia, Bangladesh, (North) Africa. I still do show dates and festivals, and I play a lot for churches and senior citizen gatherings.
Q: Looking back on all the people you've played with, especially at Sun, were there some folks who you think are underrated?
A: Sonny Burgess — I don't think he got his due like he should have. I think Sonny should've been right up there with Jerry Lee, Elvis and all those guys. But Sonny went over bigger in England than over here. Billy Lee Riley, too — he had a good record with that “Flyer Saucers Rock and Roll,” and I think he could have been bigger than what he was.
Q: Both those guys are known as great live performers as well.
A: That was the thing then. You had to have showmanship and be able to entertain the people aside from just playing the music. Usually most of the Sun guys would give them a good show. Jerry Lee Lewis was probably the best showmen ever. Now, I can't say he was the greatest piano player — he was almost as good as me. (laughs). I kept trying to teach him how to play and he kept kicking the stool out from under himself, so I gave up on him.