Jason D. Williams & Jerry Lee Lewis
by Ken Cox (August 2000)
Whoever coined the adage that there is no accountability for taste must have seen my recording collection of albums, cassettes, and compact discs. My taste in music does not match most people's; I have this tendency to like certain brands of music that others thumb their noses at - rockabilly is a prime example. As I was growing up, I became highly interested in fast-paced music punctuated by a rocking piano beat. Two performers in this field of country and rock or rock and hillbilly are Jerry Lee Lewis and Jason D. Williams. Both are similar in style, attitude, and orientation; yet, they are worlds apart in notoriety, intensity, and output.
The piano is the instrument of choice for both Jerry Lee and Jason D. Both performers pound on the piano in such a way that I'm sure piano tuners have headaches when called in after their concerts. Lewis beats on the keys with triple chords, runs his fingers across the keyboard as if he were trying to catch something that has slipped his grasp, and stands on the piano like Gene Autry would sit atop his horse in the old Westerns. Williams treats the piano the same way: he attacks it with every part of his being: he plays the keys with his feet, he lays on top of the piano and plays it with his fingers, and he even has tried to play it upside down.
The piano styles of these dynamos are hard to differentiate. Along with their stylistics exists a similarity in attitude: both Lewis and Williams are cocky, arrogant, and quick to let the audience know that they are in control of the music they perform. Lewis will intentionally berate musicians who don't keep up with him; by accident, Williams almost hits a saxophonist with a piano stool he tosses away in a concert. They get away with such antics because their personas are rough and tough on stage. Geographically, the Killer and Rockin' Jason D. are on the same side of the United States - Jerry Lee comes from Louisiana and Jason hails from Arkansas. Both singers will somewhere in the course of a concert or recording let the listener know where they are from. When performers are as great as they are, they must tell others their origin.
Even though Lewis and Williams are similar in style, attitude, and orientation, their closeness fades away when one considers that Jerry Lee Lewis is far more widely known than Jason D.: after all, Jerry Lee disgraced England by performing while admitting that he had married his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra without becoming legally divorced from his first wife. The Killer has had six wives - some of them still are living; some of them are dead. Jerry Lee has drunk enough whiskey and taken enough drugs to start his own liquor store and pharmacy; he is known for his excesses. However, when one considers the trailblazing power of his hits "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On" (a song that broke the sweet, innocent hint at the possibility that there was such a thing as the opposite sex in music) and "Great Balls of Fire," who could imagine a world where this song did not exist? Lewis’ quintessential argument with Sam Phillips over the sexual blatancy of the lyrics coming from the mouth and hands of a one-time Louisiana Bible college student. Here is a man who took the piano and used it as THE instrument for rock music before Sir Elton John knew what a piano stool was -- he played it wildly, with hands on keys as if the keyboard had been doused with gasoline and his fingers were lighters. Jerry Lee’s life was full tilt -- his lifestyle naturally was the fuel for his unforgettable sound of rock and even his country tunes which he recorded at the same time his rock numbers came out on Sun Records.
Jason D., on the other hand, has not gained such public display; one hardly knows what he does when not performing except for an interest in birds (according to his website: www.rockinjasond.com). Compared to the Killer, Jason D. is mild. Also, there is an intensity - a profound seriousness on his face and in his heart - that Jerry Lee carries with him in performance. Coming from a deeply religious background, Jerry Lee struggled with the notion of playing what he calls the Devil's music. He plays and sings - fast songs, slow songs, ballads, and rockers - with a solemnity that Dennis Quaid's portrayal of Jerry Lee in the atrocious movie Great Balls of Fire fails to show. Lewis rocks on stage (even in his older years) with the eschatological imperative that one day he will rock no more; therefore, he rocks that much harder.
However, Jason D. seems to be lighthearted even in the middle of some ferocious piano-playing; he seems to be seeing all this performing as having humor in it. He has recorded "Dueling Pianos" - a takeoff of "Dueling Banjos" from the movie Deliverance; he has recorded "Tubular Bells " from the movie The Exorcist and humorously concludes after what must be an exhausting piano workout by saying, "...and I'm climbing a stairway to heaven." He even plays what is called "Silent Movie Theme" - background music that used to exist when silent movies ran on screen and a paid pianist was there to play the score to match the scenes. Jerry Lee would never in a million years take the movie theme approach in instrumentals; the motif is too light for him. Williams knows he is criticized for being a Lewis imitator; perhaps this way of lighthearted movie tunes shows his own unique method. Williams visibly has fun doing his songs; Jerry Lee's fun is more self-contained. In terms of output, Jerry Lee has recorded hundreds of songs on a multitude of albums whereas Jason D. only has three albums to his credit: Tore Up (on RCA), Wild (on Sun Records), and Rockin' (on Foxfire Records). Jason seems to be happy just playing his venues while Jerry Lee performs infrequently now (his age and his preoccupation with Lee, his son by his last wife keep him more settled). "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire" put Jerry Lee on the charts of rock and roll; Jason D., though, has only his recordings and the use of his hands in the movie Great Balls of Fire (his hands are seen in closeup as Winona Ryder who plays Myra, Jerry Lee's first-cousin-soon-to-be-Mrs.-Lewis addition in the family). Lewis and Williams just don't match up in the albums sold department.
Nonetheless, I still love to watch old tapes of Jerry Lee Lewis banging his piano and shouting his rock and roll and country music to the world. His artistry appeals to me in some way. On the other hand, it's nice to see that Jerry Lee's music will not go away. Jerry Lee Lewis and Jason D. Williams might not be carbon copies of each other; however, they share in the type of rock and roll music of the 1950s that I have come to love. As long as Jason D. keeps pounding the keys, sliding his white boot across the keyboard, grinning from ear to ear as he hollers out lyrics (as best as he can remember them), and sings that rock and roll with that pumping piano sound, I will be a happy person to hear such feel-good music. May the Killer and Jason D. rock on.
Ken Cox is an instructor of English at Florence-Darlington Technical College in Florence, SC
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