After he graduated from high school, Lewis was sent to a fundamentalist Bible college in Waxahachie, Texas. "At night," he recalled, "I'd tie sheets together, slip out of the window, head for Dallas and rock – go to the picture show, ride the rides at the carnival, get the guy that ran the Tilt-a-Whirl to just turn the thing wide open. Then one night I was play in' 'My God Is Real' for a school assembly in the chapel, and I played it boogie-woogie style. I had 'em rockin'. I mean, I thought that was the way you should do it. First tune I learned to play, 'Silent Night,' I played it rock & roll style. Me and Jimmy Lee Swaggart learned to play on the same piano, and we just always liked to rock it. But in Waxahachie, they said, 'We can't have this around here. You don't boogie-woogie when you say your prayers at night. You're expelled for two weeks.' I said, 'I'll take the whole year."'
Lewis has often insisted that he always played rock & roll, and since his style springs from no single apparent source and has changed very little if at all since he made his earliest recordings, there are no serious grounds for doubting him. You can hear intimations of the Lewis piano style in the Forties recordings of such black jump-blues pianists as Amos Milburn and Cecil Gant, who were in turn influenced by a history of black piano boogie that began long before Lewis was born. By the time the Killer was rocking in public, several popular white pianists were singing in a quasi-hillbilly style while playing with a driving boogie beat, among them Merrill Moore and Moon Mullican. Lewis never passes up an opportunity to talk about his favorite singers, among whom are Autry, Rodgers, Hank Williams and Al Jolson, but he stonewalls questions about piano influences. He told me he'd never heard of Cecil Gant, and he once silenced another interviewer who was persistent about Mullican by asserting that "he couldn't influence a toilet bowl."
My guess is that the Lewis Boogie, as he called it on an early Sun single, was a mixture of local black influences, the hillbilly boogie and rhythm & blues that were popular on Southern jukeboxes when he was growing up, and – the most crucial ingredient – the Killer's staunchly individual musical genius. There has never been another American pop musician with Lewis' particular mixture of egotistical self-confidence, innate taste and sensitivity, eclecticism (he will play Chuck Berry, Hoagy Carmichael, Jim Reeves, Artie Shaw, spirituals, blues, low-down honky-tonk or all-out rock & roll, as the mood strikes him), formidable and entirely idiosyncratic technique (both instrumental and vocal) and sheer bravura.
"Listen to the amazing piano solo he did on 'Number One Lovin' Man,"' says Bones Howe, who produced Lewis' first and soon-to-be-released second Elektra albums. "He did that in one take. When we finished we played it back, and one of the backup singers said, 'That oughta be a union test for a rock & roll piano player. Okay, you think you're hot? Play this.' 'Cause there's nobody that plays like that." Sam Phillips, who supervised the recording of Lewis' early classics for Sun, is still just as enthusiastic. "You talk about a talent," he says. "Good God amighty! I'm not talking about voice, piano, any one thing. He is one of the great talents of all time, in any category."
Phillips is the man who brought that talent to the public. When he began recording whites who sang in a heavily black-influenced idiom, beginning with Elvis Presley in 1954 and continuing with Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and others in 1955 and 1956, country boys who'd grown up on black music and were rocking everything they played came flocking out of the backwoods to the Sun studio in Memphis. One of them was Jerry Lee Lewis, whose father sold thirty-three dozen eggs to finance the trip and drove up with him.
"Where the hell did this man come from?" Phillips remembers asking when he returned from a short vacation and heard the tape his assistant, Jack Clement, had made – Lewis' loping, utterly original version of the country weeper "Crazy Arms." "He played that piano with abandon. A lot of people do that, but I could hear, between the stuff that he played and didn't play, that spiritual thing. Jerry is very spiritual, very close to God, and yet he's very vain. He is trying his best, and has all along, to get into trouble."
Fame and trouble came together, and quickly. Lewis moved to Memphis, staying at the home of his second cousin, J.W. Brown, while he worked at coming up with a hit for Sun. "J.W. Brown was an electrician," explains Kay Martin, an early president of the Jerry Lee Lewis fan club and a longtime friend of his. "He was one of the first people to play an electric bass. J.W. and his wife, Lois, made a home for Jerry, Jane and Jerry Lee Jr. there in Memphis. A little later on, when Jerry started going out on the road, the Browns' daughter, Myra, Jerry's third cousin, would baby-sit for Junior."
In early 1957, Lewis and two musicians from Billy Lee Riley's band, the Little Green Men – guitarist Roland Janes and drummer Jimmy Van Eaton – recorded "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Judd Phillips, Sam's brother and Sun's promotion man, gambled the company's future on the record. After it had sold around 60,000 copies in the South, Judd Phillips took Lewis to New York, successfully auditioned him for the Steve Allen Show, and sank most of Sun's capital into pressing enough copies to supply stores all over the country. The Steve Allen appearance did for Lewis what Ed Sullivan had done for Presley, and for a while the two were running neck and neck in terms of popularity; Lewis and Sun records enjoyed a series of million sellers virtually unprecedented for such a small label: "Whole Lotta Shakin"' "Great Balls of Fire," "Breathless" and "High School Confidential." Lewis' live shows more than lived up to the fire in the grooves. Meanwhile, in December 1957, having left Jane, he married thirteen-year-old Myra Brown. "They kept it a secret," says Kay Martin, "mostly because everybody told them to. She was with him quite a bit on the road, but by that time J.W. was playing electric bass with him, so whenever anyone said, 'Who's that?,' somebody would say, 'That's J.W.'s daughter."'
Lewis arrived in England for his first overseas tour in May 1958, but the tour was cut short when the English press discovered Lewis and Myra were married. To this day, Lewis blames Sun records for panicking at the adverse publicity and issuing "The Return of Jerry Lee," a comedy single that made light of the scandal and is hilarious today but wasn't so funny then. According to Kay Martin, "Jerry was being managed by Oscar Davis, and when he came back from England, Davis booked him into a New York nightclub, some place on Broadway. Jerry's fans weren't old enough to get in, and he was totally out of his element with all these girls, like Las Vegas, and the bubbles . . . . It was a pure disaster. That and general mismanagement had a lot to do with the fact that it was hard for him to recoup after England." Whatever the reasons, there's no denying that Lewis played an important part in his own downfall. When he found out what the English press was doing to him he was cocksure and defiant to the point of parading Myra onstage. But then what would you expect from a country boy who sincerely believed he was playing the Devil's music?
Paradoxically, it was during the next nine years that the Jerry Lee Lewis legend really took hold. Crisscrossing the country, playing in gymnasiums, nightclubs and road-houses, at county fairs and on grueling package shows, Lewis got serious about his drinking and his pills. "I'd be out on the road with the band," he remembered one night in Los Angeles, "and we'd take Biphetamine and be wa-a-ay up. Then we'd decide we'd try Placidyls and go wa-a-ay down." Whitten laughed. "First time they got busted," he said, "it was in some motel in Texas. The cops claimed they found 700 pills. Two hundred of 'em were for the boys, the rest were Jerry's." At the same time, Lewis worked harder than he'd ever worked. He still wouldn't allow anyone to follow him onstage, still insisted on rocking out at peak intensity in every joint and whistle stop, still bragged that he put on "the greatest live show on earth." And in 1968 he confounded everyone who'd written him off by scoring the first of a string of Top Ten country hits, "Another Place, Another Time." He prospered as a top country star, making records that ranged from elemental honky-tonk to tepid country-pop, though none lacked the stamp of his personality.
On the surface, then, Lewis is an American success story. But just under the surface, demons lurked. In 1962, Steve Allen Lewis, his son by Myra, drowned in the family pool. In 1970, Myra left him. "It was my fault," he says. "She caught me cheating."
In 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., who had reportedly been involved with drugs before finding salvation at a tent revival in Mississippi, died in an automobile accident. In September 1976, Lewis shot bassist Butch Owens in the chest with a .357 Magnum. "Is it true that you shot your bass player?" I asked him late one night, when liquor had boosted my courage. "I shot him," Lewis said flatly. "Was it an accident?" "Of course it was an accident." Later in '76, Lewis overturned his Rolls-Royce near Collierville, Tennessee, where he was living with his fourth wife, Jaren (they've since been divorced). In May 1977 he checked into a Memphis hospital, where his gallbladder was removed and he was treated for a collapsed right lung, pleurisy and a back injury from the accident in the Rolls.
There was also the celebrated incident in November 1976 at Graceland, Elvis' Memphis mansion. Lewis showed up at the front gate in the middle of the night, and when the guard wouldn't let him drive in, he reportedly began waving a pistol. "Elvis had called and asked me to come over," he insists. "Of course I was drunk as a skunk. I was so loaded that when I tried to roll the window down in that Lincoln I rolled the seat all the way back. So I threw a champagne bottle out the window, and boy, there were six squad cars, surroundin' me. The next' day Elvis drove out to my house and waited around for me for three hours. I was off somewhere, still drunk." Lewis' intense feeling of rivalry with Presley is no secret, but when he talks about that night, the missed meeting the next day and the calls he swears he continued to receive from Elvis, he seems genuinely pained. They never saw each other again.
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