The Killer at Peace: Jerry Lee Lewis' Golden Years

Jerry Lee has a new wife (number seven!), a new LP and a new outlook on life

Jerry Lee Lewis at home in Nesbit, Mississippi. Credit: David McClister

In July, for what he says was the first time in his 60-year career, Jerry Lee Lewis took a vacation. "I had to ride a train," says Lewis in his thick Louisiana drawl, reclining in his favorite leather chair in his living room. "I was really looking forward to that."

Lewis and his seventh wife, Judith, headed out from Mississippi to visit his 28-year-old son in Grand Rapids, Michigan, boarding an Amtrak double-decker with sleeping cabins. But the accommodations were tighter than they expected. "They had us in a cubicle that was like two coffins," adds Judith, 64, sitting beside him, puffing on an e-cigarette. "It was like being in an MRI. He had to push me up to the top bunk."

"It ain't like it is watching it on TV, is it?" he says. "I never wanna try that again. Worst experience I ever had on the road in my life on that thing. It kept stopping, and they never quit blowin' the horn!"

They got a refund on their return tickets and rented a car for the trip back. But Lewis, 79, says it was all worth it, because he got to spend 10 days playing with his one-year-old grandson, Jerry Lee Lewis IV, even going swimming. "A fine-looking kid," he says, slowing the words down with a preacher's command. "A great boy. God willin', we're goin' back Christmas."

Lewis probably wouldn't have thought of taking this trip a decade ago, when his bad back and heavy use of meds led some friends to think he had all but checked out. "I was told Jerry Lee liked to just lay in bed and watch TV," says drummer Jim Keltner, who has played on Lewis' past three albums. "I remember doing an NPR interview with him, and his eyes were just spinning. You weren't seeing the real Jerry Lee." That changed with the help of billionaire philanthropist Steve Bing, a superfan who made it his mission to get Lewis recording again. Bing set him up with new accountants to untangle his finances, along with new doctors and even new teeth. "He helped get Jerry Lee in a situation where he wasn't being given hard meds for various ailments," says Keltner. Soon, Lewis was recording live with a band for the first time in years.

Jerry Lee and Judith have been married for almost three years. She had been previously married to the brother of Lewis' third and most famous wife, Myra. Judith became his caretaker five years ago, and soon they became romantic. "It happened just by talking," she says. "I had to get used to him joking. Like, he'll say, ‘Is your food good?' And I'll say it's wonderful. He'll say, ‘Shut up and eat it.' "

"She says she couldn't take a joke," he deadpans. "But she took me!"

"He is wonderful," Judith adds. "I just want people to know what kind of a giving, loving, godly person he is. Everybody does something in their lifetime they regret or whatever, but . . ."

"I don't think I have!" he says. "Well, maybe a little bit, yeah."

Lewis has lived at this two-story brick house in Nesbit, Mississippi, 20 miles outside Memphis, for more than 40 years. Located on a secluded road, it's hard to miss, with an iron gate featuring a piano and the words The Lewis Ranch. The property overlooks a small, muddy lake, where Lewis once broke his right leg jet-skiing in the Eighties. When you drive in, his six dogs bark furiously behind a fence attached to the house. 

The wood-paneled living room is full of photos of Lewis with friends like Fats Domino and Ray Charles, gig posters, and gold records, many from Sun, where he helped popularize rock & roll with his fiery combination of boogie-woogie piano and tent-revival fervor. A large painting of a Chihuahua sits next to the fireplace. ("That's my baby. Lost him in about '97," he says quietly.) A black Yamaha piano sits across the room on a bobcat-skin rug, head included. ("One of his ex-wives," says J.W. Whitten, his road manager of 40 years.) 

Lewis is wearing a loose, bright-blue button-up shirt and navy pajama pants, shifting in his seat restlessly and rapping his gold-top cane on the floor when he wants to make a point. After I compliment him on "Keep Me in Mind," an old country tune on his new album, Rock & Roll Time, he bursts into the chorus. "Not bad, is it?" he says with a laugh. He's still charged up from his show a few nights earlier at Nashville's Ryman Auditorium. Lewis ended up playing four encores, and afterward audience members swarmed his car. "A fantastic crowd," he says. "A lot of real young people, and some people my age, I guess. Probably not quite that old, though," he adds with a laugh. He feels his age when he's playing, but only a little. "You go out with your back hurting, like [someone] sticking a knife in your back. I've got that to contend with. But it's nothing I can't shake loose of when I go onstage."

The gig celebrated the upcoming LP, his third album since 2006, which features Neil Young, Keith Richards and Ronnie Wood. ("I really enjoyed playing with those boys," says Lewis. "A lot of talent.") Also, on October 28th, an authorized Lewis biography by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg hits bookshelves.

In the bedroom hallway of the house, past a door near the kitchen with a sign reading warning: no guests allowed beyond this point, there's a P.A. Starck piano, the keys blackened, with a box of Lewis' old pipes resting on top. His father – a farmer who had done prison time for bootlegging – mortgaged the family farm in Ferriday, Louisiana, to buy it for him when he was eight years old. "I wore that piano out," he says. "I was playing pretty well – better than I do now, when I was 12 years old." In 1956, Lewis' father drove him to Memphis, and Jerry Lee marched into Sun Records unscheduled, asking for a session with Sam Phillips. The following year, Lewis exploded with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On": The song reached the Top Five on the pop, R&B and country charts – despite being banned in several cities for suggestive lyrics. To Jerry Lee, it was nothing new, just the kind of music he'd been playing for years at clubs like the Wagon Wheel, where, beginning in 1952, he crafted his stage persona, playing amped-up, trucker-speed-fueled covers of Hank Williams and Big Mama Thornton. "I had created rock & roll before they ever thought about having rock & roll," he says. "When Elvis come out, he was rockabilly. When I come out with 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On,' that was rock & roll. That's when the name 'rock & roll' was put in front. 

"My first tour sticks in my mind pretty good," Lewis says, when asked if he has a favorite memory of his early years. "All across Canada, before they had blacktop roads – rocks flying everywhere. Carl Perkins and John Cash was telling me, 'Man, everybody loves you, but you ought to do something a little different up there.' I said, 'Like what?' 'Just run around the piano or do something. You'd be surprised the reaction you'd get.' I said, 'Well, I'd have to think about it.' Then I just kicked my stool back, knocked it over. . . . I know I started off opening the show. And before [the tour] was over, I was closing the show. I never did figure that one out."

"No one wanted to follow you," says Judith.

"Yeah, that's what it was. They just couldn't follow."

After that, Lewis always had to close. On an Alan Freed package tour with Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry in 1958, he lost an argument with Berry backstage over who would end the show. During his final number, Lewis famously took a Coke bottle filled with gasoline, drenched his piano and threw a match on it, telling Berry to "follow that."

It all fell apart on a trip to London in 1958, when Lewis was accompanied by his new bride, Myra. Reporters discovered it was his third marriage, that he wasn't divorced from his second wife when they married, that Myra was his third cousin – and that she was 13. Lewis makes no apologies in his new biography: "Being 13 didn't stop her from being a full-fledged woman."

After the scandal, Lewis went from making thousands a night to $250, trading American Bandstand and the Apollo for zigzagging the country with his band in a Ford, playing honky-tonks and meeting hecklers nightly. "I used to kind of look forward to a good fight," he says with a smile. Lewis takes pride in the fact that he kept playing in the late Fifties, when rock & roll lost some of its steam. (Berry spent 20 months in prison for crossing state lines with a minor, Little Richard swore off rock & roll for the ministry, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash, and Elvis joined the Army.) "I stuck with rock & roll when the rest of them didn't," he says. "I kept the ball rollin' with that."

Outside Lewis' brick house, Whitten is working on getting Lewis' old beige Cadillac up and running again. Gravelly voiced, with a gray ponytail and earrings, he has been with Lewis since the late Sixties. Over the years, he's gotten some surprising calls, like the time in 1977 when Lewis was arrested after crashing his Lincoln into the gates at Graceland at 3 a.m. with a pistol in his car. (Whitten explains, "Elvis invited him up there, but he just was drinkin' and got his times mixed up.") Or in 1981, when Whitten rushed to the hospital after Lewis' stomach exploded from a bad reaction to a painkiller. He signed a form authorizing surgery in lieu of a family member and stayed by Lewis' side in intensive care for 92 days. (Cash and Kris Kristofferson also came to his bedside. "Jerry Lee told them, ‘I'm gonna make it,' " says Whitten. "Kris broke down in tears and said, ‘That strong son of a bitch.' ") For years, Whitten would pick Lewis up at home around midnight and head to Memphis clubs where Lewis would play free shows, sometimes for four hours. "They would be jam-packed," says Lewis. "It was just good times." 

Most nights, Lewis is in bed by 11 p.m. On a good day, Judith makes his favorite meal (hamburger steak and homemade gravy over rice), and they'll watch anything from Justified to Little House on the Prairie to horror movies. "I usually just stay home, play with my dogs, watchin' television, textin' my grandbaby," he says. Whitten recently caught Lewis watching Twilight. "He said, ‘A guy takes his clothes off to become a werewolf?' " says Whitten. "We was laughing about that."

In the living room, directly above Lewis' chair, is a framed photo from the day in December 1956 when Lewis, Cash, Carl Perkins and Presley – a.k.a. "the Million-Dollar Quartet" – hung out and recorded at Sun. Elvis is at the piano, looking upward, eyes fixed on Lewis. Above the bar is a photo from the sessions for the Class of '55 LP, a 1985 reunion of Lewis, Perkins, Cash and Roy Orbison. "All of them, really good friends," he says quietly. "All gone." Lewis took his survival as a point of pride by naming his 2006 comeback LP Last Man Standing. "A lot of people didn't like it when I said that. But they had to accept it."

Asked if he wonders why he's the only one left, the bravado dissipates. "I don't know. I just thank God that I'm breathing, and I'm living, and I don't have any back problems as of . . . I'm all right. I guess I do sometimes wonder about it. I want to make sure I'm on the right track whenever I do check out.

"I put God first now, always," he says. "I pray all the time, really. I do a lot of what's required. I pay my tithe offerings at the Church of God, in Cleveland, Tennessee. That's how I was raised."

Lewis marvels at how much making a record has changed in his lifetime. "It's amazing, isn't it? They just went so far with technology and music," he says. "They can just do anything they want to do with it. They got people who are recording stars. Make 'em sound like anything they wanna sound like. . . . It used to be that talent separated the men from the boys. Now it's different. And then people don't really accept it." He's silent for a moment. "Real God-given talent, it's not to be found, hardly. Not anymore."

Sometimes, he'll call up Berry or Little Richard, his frequent touring partners since 1959. They joke a lot: A few years ago in New Jersey, Lewis forgot Little Richard was on the bill and played "Lucille." "He said, 'I'm sorry, Richard,' " says Whitten. "Richard said, 'Man, don't worry about it. Maybe she'll come back this time!' "

The last time they were together was two years ago, when they all joined Fats Domino in New Orleans to tape an interview for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. "Fats has got Alzheimer's," says Whitten. "He remembered Jerry and all of them, thank God. He kept saying, 'Open the door, Richard!' " – a reference to Little Richard's "Keep A-Knockin'."

With Little Richard and Berry, Lewis found himself in the unlikely role of mediator. "The only problem was Little Richard and Chuck would always get in a fight about who was going to close the show," Lewis says with a smile. "I kind of cooled it down a little. I said, 'I would be glad to open the show, and y'all can do the closing. I could go on, do my hour show, get on and go on back to the hotel and watch Gunsmoke."

I point out that this seems out of character for the guy who once almost came to blows with Berry over the same issue. "It worked out fine on Richard's show," he says. "People come to see you, whether you're opening or not. It's not a big deal who's going to close the show."