Monday, August 30, 2010

Jerry Lee Lewis at WNAT

Jerry Lee Lewis has had a long storied and accomplished career. I will not review it all here, and just recommend you begin with his original 28 sides on Sun records. But unknown to most, before Jerry walked into the Sun records Studio, he spent a little time in a radio studio.

In 1949, Jerry Lee made his first musical performance for the public. He was only 14 years old. At a Ford dealership in his home town of Ferriday Louisiana he played a set with a country band.  Some accounts note his father playing in the band. This seems likely at that age, They made $13. that was probably not enough to compel him towards his future life of a touring rock n' roll pianist. It was probably his time at WNAT-AM. Sometimes accounts give the call letters at WANT-AM. The book Blues and Chaos for example. The book is wrong on at least one count and quite probably two. The year is somewhat in question. 

The 1949 White's Radio log lists neither the WANT or WNAT callsigns. If the radio station didn't exist, Jerry couldn't have a program there, so it's important to establish context. In both 1949 and 1950 the call letters do not appear in Whites Log.  In fact it lists only one radio station in Nachez, Mississippi: 1240 WMIS-AM. It's a small market even today. The calls do not appear in White's Radio Log until the Spring 1951 edition. That year, the call letters WANT-AM appear on 990 in Richmond, Virginia and in that same book WNAT-AM appears on 1450 in Natchez.  It is somewhat incongruous then that WNAT appears in the 1950 Radio Annual and lists a launch year of 1949, as it was not listed at all previously. I can only assume it was launched at the very end of 1949 at the earliest and thus evaded inclusion. 1450 WNAT-AM is still on 1450 in Natchez Mississippi. It was founded by the Old South Broadcasting Company. Currently it's owned by the First Natchez Corporation.  

Jerry  had a 20-minute show there, in Natchez, Mississippi. he certainly made better money playing at the Hilltop Club, and the Blue Cat Night Club, both also in Natchez.  In 1951 he visited New Orleans and with his childhood friend and tour manager Cecil Harrelson he recorded his first song on a wax record.These included  an untitled instrumental and and a pop song titled "Don´t Stay Away Till Love Grows Cold" which was a Lefty Frizzell cover tune. He was moving away from radio and towards the stage.

In the Fall of 1954 he auditioned for the Louisiana Hayride by recording two acetate discs at KWKH but was ultimately rebuffed. (These discs survive.) Slim Whitman was in charge of the Louisiana Hayride in that day as he had been since 1950 and he didn't like Jerry's brand of honky-tonk. On November 14th of 1956 he had his frist recording session with Sam Phillips. As a result, he became a session man for Sun initially as a day job. But then WHBQ began playing his first single a cover of "Crazy Arms" by Ray Price. In 1957 "Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On" broke everywhere.