During the summer of 1952, a 16-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis and his buddy Cecil Harrelson were on the road looking out places for Jerry to get some steady gigs.(1)
Lewis had recently finished a short stay at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, where he had been asked to leave for cutting loose on My God Is Real during assembly time; this popular gospel song has been recorded by such artists as Mahalia Jackson, Johnny Cash and Don Gibson. The dean was not impressed and sent Jerry Lee packing back to Louisiana.
After steady dates in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, at the Dixie Club and the Hilltop Club in Natchez, Mississippi, Jerry Lee took off with Cecil to New Orleans to find work in the clubs of the Big Easy.
While in New Orleans, Jerry Lee heard about Cosimo Matassa's J&M Recording Studios from local musicians and so he and Cecil headed over to 838 North Rampart St. and Dumaine. After making inquiries with Cosimo, Jerry Lee learned he could record a demonstration disc for the sum of $2.50. After forcing the money out of Cecil, Jerry Lee proceeded to the piano stool to record what has now been identified as his first studio recordings. At J&M he was following in the hallowed footsteps of hot New Orleans R&B artists such as Fats Domino, Roy Brown, Smiley Lewis, Professor Longhair and Lloyd Price.
Little wonder then, some four years later Jerry Lee walked into another studio in Memphis, Tennessee, where Jack Clement and Sam Phillips struck gold. The Ferriday wonder kid would, of course, find fame and notoriety the world over. But full credit to Cosimo Matassa who can rightfully lay claim to recording Jerry Lee Lewis first, at J&M Studios in New Orleans.
Fast forward to January 2006: The acetate Jerry Lee laid down at J&M 54 years earlier was given a new lease of life when it was taken to the Country Music Hall of Fame in Nashville. There, studio engineer Alan Stoker, son of Jordanaire Gordon Stoker, transferred the acetate to digital format in the presence of Cecil Harrelson.
Jerry Lee's first demo recordings finally saw release on a 3-CD Time-Life box set, A Half Century Of Hits in late 2006, thus allowing us the chance of hearing what Cosimo had recorded way back in 1952.
1. Jerry Lee had been performing in clubs since his early teens in various Louisiana towns and some in Texas. Despite his young age and regardless of local laws, he managed to find work with very little problem once club owners had heard him play.
2. The instrumental's title has always been known to the Lewis fraternity as 'Jerry's Boogie', but 'New Orleans Boogie' was chosen for a Time-Life release in acknowledgment of its recording location and is now the legal title.
- Thanks are due to Cecil Harrelson, Frankie Jean Lewis Terrell, Stuart Price and, of course, Jay Halsey (who also thanks John Broven).