Billed as the "first-ever complete career retrospective," Time Life's triple-disc box set A Half Century of Hits is indeed the first Jerry Lee Lewis compilation to span his entire career, from his timeless Sun sessions in the '50s to his Andy Paley-produced 1995 comeback, Young Blood, for Sire. It even stretches back a little further than that, containing both sides of a newly discovered private recording from 1952, tacked on as a coda at the end of the 66-track set, along with three previously unreleased outtakes from 1981 -- a nice enticement for the hardcore fans who need a reason to buy another repackaging of familiar material. In fact, the entire third disc is tempting to hardcore fans, because the bulk of it contains selections from his late-'70s/early-'80s recordings for Elektra, many of which have yet to make it to CD. This is noteworthy, since this music is quite strong, on par with his acclaimed 1974 rock & roll comeback, Southern Roots, but also containing a healthy dose of the honky tonk that made his late-'60s/early-'70s Smash/Mercury recordings so good; hearing these 11 tracks makes it hard not to wish that all the Elektra recordings were out on disc, since the Killer manages to make the disco beat on "Folsom Prison Blues" sound like rock & roll. Then again, Jerry Lee's recordings were nothing if not consistent, as this triple-disc box proves. Some may shine brighter than others, but there were no bad moments: the big hits on Sun and Smash are pinnacles, but the rest of his sides for these labels are generally excellent. And that means that A Half Century of Hits is first-rate from beginning to end, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it is a definitive portrait of the Killer's career.
True, it is the first set to contain selections from all of his labels -- roughly breaking down to a disc of Sun, a disc of Smash/Mercury, a disc of Elektra and Sire -- and in doing so, it does present an accurate overall portrait of his career, but some of the song selection and sequencing is a bit amiss. To begin with, Jerry Lee's first Sun single, "Crazy Arms" (about as a perfect a debut single that there is), is inexplicably missing, and the second disc of Smash/Mercury sides emphasizes rock & roll over country, so such classics as "She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left of Me)," "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)" (which is present in a live version from 1981), "Don't Let Me Cross Over," "Invitation to Your Party," and "Please Don't Talk About Me When I'm Gone" are missing. And this points out that, contrary to the sticker on the front, this set does not contain every Top 20 pop and country hit from Jerry Lee Lewis. There are many country singles from the early '70s that are missing, and they would have been nice to have here. Another minor problem is the sequencing, with rare material tacked onto the end of each disc. Although this works well on disc three -- the excellent unreleased 1981 sessions follow the slick self-conscious Paley album nicely, and having the 1952 acetate end the set is a good grace note, since the sweet spin on Lefty Frizzell's "Don't Stay Away ('Til Love Grows Cold)" is the one time Jerry Lee ever sounded tentative, and it's balanced by "New Orleans Boogie," which points the way to the rock & roll to come -- having Jerry Lee and Sam Phillips' notorious religious discussion at the end of disc one strips it of context (hearing the Killer launch into "Great Balls of Fire" after this argument gives both the dialogue and the song more power), and while the two Star Club cuts from 1964 still sound incendiary at the end of the disc two, their placement after the '70s country sessions seems bewilderingly arbitrary.
For these reasons, A Half Century of Hits doesn't quite add up to the definitive Jerry Lee Lewis collection, yet it comes close enough to that billing to be useful for listeners who want a comprehensive collection without delving into the three Bear Family boxes. The now out of print 1993 Rhino double-disc set All Killer, No Filler may have a higher ratio of classics in a more digestible collection, but that's now hard to find -- and this also has a better selection of Elektra material than that, plus a handful of worthy rarities to rope in the hardcore. So, get this and then find a way to get the missing singles, and you'll wind up assembling the definitive Jerry Lee set that this almost is.