THE VOICE: THE COLUMBIA YEARS 1943-1952
Columbia CXT 40343
JERRY LEE LEWIS: THE KILLER 1963-1968
Jerry Lee Lewis
Bear Family Records BFX 15210
BRUCE SPRINGSTEEN AND THE E STREET BAND:
Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band
Columbia C5X 40558
Boxed sets–those unwieldy but rewarding multivolume compendiums– probably represent the best way for a listener to free-fall through a given artist’s career. Almost every in-depth survey I’ve heard has given up its share of riches, and in many cases the mediocrities and excesses heard on a comprehensive retrospective illuminate a musician ‘s development as greatly as the performer’s indisputable masterpieces.
Three brand-new boxed overviews presently give us the opportunity to reassess crucial junctures in the careers of three unique American music makers. The Voice: The Columbia Years 1943-1952, a six record selection of Frank Sinatra’s first studio work as a solo interpreter, gives us a satisfying and revelatory portrait of the definitive American popular vocalist in embryo, as he moved toward mastery in the 50s. Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer 1963-1968, a ten-record package on the German Bear Family label, is the first of three sets collating the rockabilly genius’s work for Mercury as he made the transition from brazen rocker to aged-in-the-wood country singer. The fiverecord Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live/1975-85 delineates the in-concert progress of the Boss from a heralded cult ‘love object to the most popular rock ‘n’ roller in America.
Of the three sets, the Sinatra is possibly the most satisfying and enlightening. It covers the vocalist’s evolution from his earliest -days of stardom, when he broke away from the front man role in the bands of Harry James and Tommy Dorsey to become the idol of the bobby-soxers and the progenitor of the rock star.
The Columbia sides deliver up a crooner only beginning to discover the full depth of his already prodigious style. The hallmarks -of that style-respect for a song I ‘s melody, a sure instinct for the selection of repertoire, an unparalleled ability for phrasing, and emotional fidelity and truth — were in place early on. Only Sinatra’s involvement in the pop song conventions of the day and a certain void of experience kept his brilliance from expressing itself full-blown in these earliest sides.
One need only compare the version of Harold Arlen and Johnny Mercer’s saloon classic “One for My Baby” recorded in an Axel Stordahl arrang ement in 1947 to the Nels on Riddle version cut I I years later on Only the Lonely to learn how far Sinatra came in a decade. The Columbia version lacks the burning resignation of the Riddle take; in ’47, the arrangement was marzipan, and Sinatra, singing in a light baritone, might be as king Joe the bartender for another soda POP. The s sparer ’58 rendition, moved by a bluesy piano, holds a hurtful sting that the Sinatra of ’47 would not, and perhaps could not, have instilled in the material. Sinatra negotiates the song skillfully on the Columbia version; he plumbs it for its most profound ,meanings on the Capitol track.
The Voice contains a number of other staples of the Sinatra repertoire, and it is fascinating to hear his apprentice study on the great works by Porter, Gershwin, Berlin, Hammerstein,- and others that formed the core of his songbook. This is not to say that there aren’t any performances on the set that satisfy on their ‘own, however.
Of the six LPs, the “Sinatra Swings” collection, masterfully annotated by Gary Giddins, contains the greatest pleasures. It contains a hard-hitting 1951 “Birth of the Blues” that presages’ the full-blooded Capitol recordings, two superb reunions with Harry James, and a wonderful “Sweet Lorraine” on which Sinatra is accompanied by a stellar small group including Nat Cole (who had a hit with the song in 1940), Johnny Hodges, an Coleman Hawkins. The set also contains some lachrymose. tunes that I’ll admit I’ve been a sucker for since I heard them on the 60s retrospective A Man and His Music –“Nancy” (dig the way Frank sings “Gee” in the second line!) and “Put Your Dreams Away.”
The airiness of Sinatra’s youthful del ilvery in no way invalidates his then-apparent mastery of tone, inflection, and delivery. The Voice, carefully selected by James Isaacs and Joe McEwen from Sinatra’s vast Columbia catalog, is ultimately a thoughtful and richly satisfying collection.
If The Voice displays an American artist in a scendance, The Killer portrays one in crisis. The box picks up the Jerry Lee Lewis story as the Louisiana lightning bolt headed into a career downswing. His titanic Sun recordings and his greatest successes behind him, Jerry Lee signed with Mercury Records in 1963. There he floundered, as his producers initially groped with what to do with the stars manic gifts, which had precipitously fallen out of fashion in 1958 following his scandalous marriage to his 13-year-old cousin.
The gropings of the Mercury A&R staff are appalling to behold. Muddled, overproduced remakes of early Sun hits and misguided attempts at covering piano-pounding selections from the. Ray Charles and Fats Domino books represent the nadir of inspiration. Happily, Jerry Lee was an inestimable live performer during this era, and the Bear Family set includes three unbelievable concerts from the mid60s. The best and most frenetic of these, cut at Hamburg’s Star Club (which saw the residency of a Liverpool bar band called the Beatles a few years earlier), finds the Killer sailing on what were ,apparently some high-quality amphetamlnes. Here, Lewis and the Nashville Teens rip through “Mean Woman Blues, “Money,” and “Long Tall Sally” with foamflecked lunacy. Volumes one and two of The Greatest Live Show on Earth are only slightly less demented.
One must slog through an incredible amounts of dismal studio material before one arrives at Jerry Lee’s shortlived epoch of salvation, which be an in 1968 with the recording of “Another Place Another Time.” Mercury came to the belated realization that Jerry Lee’s honky-tonking piano style (ins pired in large measure by the work of such country boogie players as Moon Mullican and Merrill Moore) lent itself with ease to the country market. In ’68, Lewis began to cut a round of country material–including such beer-guzzling sound tracks as “What Made Milwaukee Famous,” “We Live in Two Different Worlds,” and “She Still Comes Around”–that resuscitated his waning commercial fortunes. These tunes, and the many country covers Lewis cut sensitively during this period, are the great glories of The Killer 1963-1968.
The Bear Family box, which will be succeeded by two sequels following Lewis’s tenure on Mercury through his departure from the label in 1977, can be recommended for its frothing live sides and its mellow country selections. But this opulently produced set, which includes an informative booklet by Colin Escott, can really .be recommended only to the Lewis fanatic (and I am in that number). Without an abiding interest in Jerry Lee’s sound, the average listener will probably get fidgety; only the collector or the historian will find it engrossing on its Comprehensive terms.
Obviously, the opposite is true of Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band: Live/1975-85. The five-record box, already the first verified platinum-selling multirecord rock set, has been designed for mass appeal. It should find favor, with some reservations, with both the longtime Springsteen fan and the new believer alike.
The collection presents a virtuoso rock band and its leader winding their way through ten years and seven studio albums worth of material. While the title of the album is something of a cheat (only one song, a solo “Thunder Road,” dates from ’75), the package hardly shortchanges the listener. The selections, drawn mainly from shows at LA’s Roxy (’78) and Memorial Coliseum (’85) and New Jersey’s Meadowlands (’81 and ‘ 84), are high-impact renditions of Springsteen’s finest tunes.
The well-programmed set reaches its arguable apex shortly after midpoint when Springsteen and the band rampage through a caustic sequence that includes”Born in the U.S.A.,” the bitter, Guthrie-like new song “Seeds,” “The River,” and the hackle-raising cover of Edwin Starr’s “War.” Along the way, one hears Bruce at his most antic (“Cadillac Ranch,” “Rosalita”) and his most harrowing (the stupendous “Johnny 99,” “Darkness on the Edge of Town”). The album resolves itself beautifully in a lyrical reading of Tom Waits’s “Jersey Girl.”
The 40-song, three-and-a-half-hour set is remarkably easy listening — all ten sides can be readily appreciated at one sitting — and clinker-free. At this point, some critics are banging their heads against the wall over the relative absence of hitherto unrecorded material (only half a dozen non-studio numbers are here, the best of them a solo “This Land Is Your Land”) and over the omission of certain critical concert staples (like the blazing, guitar-lashing “Prove It All Night”). While I’ll admit that I would have traded, say, “Darlington County” and ” Working on the Highway” for, maybe, “Jungleland” or “I Wanna Marry You” (personal favorite) or “Bye Bye Johnny” or “The Promise,” in the end I ‘find Springsteen’s song selection respectable and responsible. The best live Springsteen set will always be in one’s head, and, if I find myself in the mood to quibble, I’ve got my bootlegs to keep me warm.
Finally, kvetch as we might, there’s no denying that Live/1975-85 largely fulfills its ambitions as a definitive delineation of the inconcert Springsteen legend. It presents the sweep of the artist’s career to date, from the capering Jersey shore street romances of the early 70s to the vital social vision, of the mid-80s. The forcefulness, attention to detail, and stop-on-a-hair precision of the E Street Band are here to behold with awe, as are Springsteen’s indefatigable energy, passion, intelligence, and sense of run. The carping will likely continue and the second-guessing will persist, but I’ll take a hard-line populist stance on Live/1975-85. I’m grateful for it.