You can’t move for nostalgia in London’s West End. There are currently ten shows running in the area that are either jukebox musicals or multimedia review-style shows based on musical legends of the past, from Sinatra to The Kinks. It was refreshing, therefore, to see a bone fide pioneer in the flesh in he West End's most famous theatre, albeit for one night only.
Jerry Lee Lewis is on his farewell tour after eight colourful decades. He is, as host Mike Read reminded us, the "last man standing". Over those years, "The Killer" helped to invent rock n’ roll with songs like Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire. A wild performer at the piano, he was part of the ‘Million Dollar Quartet’ along with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. And he — famously — fell from grace after marrying his 13-year-old cousin.
Precisely 59 years and five days after his 19-year-old self travelled to Memphis to audition for Sam Philips at Sun Records, Lewis shuffled onto a sold out Palladium’s stage wearing a black suit and his trademark white shoes. It was immediately clear that the old dog has lost nothing of his irascibility. His first anecdote referenced his infamous 1958 London tour when he went home in ignominy due to his unconventional marriage status.
He opened with Stick McGhee's Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee. His voice may have been a touch frail but his hands were as agile as ever. That heavy left at the bottom of the keyboard and the dancing right at the top: they were, at times, lightning.
There was a tremendous amount of goodwill at this show, enough to forgive the odd rambling country ballad and a few wayward melodies.
And during Whole Lotta Shakin' he gave the song a literal interpretation as he tremblingly drank from a Coke can.
Lewis played for a respectable 50 minutes. At times the evening had a distinctly cabaret feel to it which distracted somewhat from the aura of the legend on stage. Did it add anything to the evening when Read told us that Great Balls of Fire, his final song, was Princess Diana's favourite, beyond the fact that the DJ was once close to her? Not really.
As a birthday cake was presented at the end, Robert Plant, Ringo Starr and a host of other musicians came on stage to applaud Lewis. It was a shame they didn't all play together. It would have been a fitting demonstration of just how influential Lewis was to both Led Zeppelin and The Beatles, and hundreds more bands since.