Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis
This paper discusses “rockabilly” by comparing the music and performance styles of two of its greatest figures, Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. We will briefly discuss each of the stars in terms of their respective musical abilities, and in terms of their ability in performance to present an ethos in the form of a vision or archetype, a vision or archetype of the young, American working class male of the ‘fifties. That vision or archetype, and that ethos, are, I believe, central to the meaning of “rockabilly” music.
There is an admittedly subjective element in this paper, an element based upon personal taste. As a fan of the genre I have developed a definite set of preferences. As I have already stated, it is my opinion that the two great giants of this form of music were Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis. Jerry Lee Lewis felt himself to be in competition with Elvis; he once said that, with respect to rock music, “I’m not the biggest, but I am the greatest.” This was an obvious reference to “The King”.
Underlying that statement was, I think, Lewis’ feeling that he was more of a pure musician than was Elvis. Not an impartial assessment by any means, but in my opinion, an accurate one. Both Presley and Lewis were great “acts”; they both put on amazing shows. But I would argue that Lewis’ music achieved an artistic excellence that was beyond Presley’s reach, that—particularly in those albums he made with Roland Janes as his lead guitarist—his music was nuanced, sophisticated, and technically brilliant to a degree that Elvis could not match.
My reasons for claiming that Lewis was superior to Presley as a musician can be best expressed by a comparison of two of their greatest songs, Lewis’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and Presley’s “Jailhouse Rock”.
We are fortunate in having a filmed version of the latter, Presley’s performance in the movie of that name in 1957. There is great musical talent on display here. This is one of the songs in which Presley is not crooning ballads, but belting out something raw and earthy. His voice is high and hard and each line seems to tail off with an angry defiant wail. Ward calls this movie performance some of the best singing and dancing that Presley ever did. It is a good hard rocking song, but it is also totally choreographed both musically and with respect to the dancing. If there is a bit of anger and defiance in it, it is all totally under control.