The Killer Reloaded

Jerry Lee Lewis, inventor of rock & roll excess, has spent the past decade watching "Gunsmoke" reruns. Now the last Sun Records original re-emerges with a new disc, where he teaches everyone from Keith Richards to Kid Rock how it's done.

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Below is an excerpt of an article that originally appeared in RS 1011 from October 19, 2006 . This issue and the rest of the Rolling Stone archives are available via Rolling Stone Plus, Rolling Stone's premium subscription plan. If you are already a subscriber, you can click here to see the full story . Not a member and want to learn more? Go to our Rolling Stone Plus benefits page .

As his five Chihuahuas yowl inside the house, Jerry Lee Lewis shuffles out the kitchen door and rummages around the line of doghouses he keeps in his carport for the five gentle mutts who lie around outside in the yard. He is wearing only his underpants — bikini briefs, not boxers — and it appears that the most rock & roll of all rock & rollers might be having a senior moment.

"Go back in the house, Daddy!" says Phoebe Lewis, alpha female of his inner circle.

Jerry mumbles something unintelligible. Even in Nesbit, Mississippi ("Home of Jerry Lee Lewis: The Killer"), nobody talks quite like him. He's the Mount Vesuvius of vowels, which erupt deep under the surface and spew pure and unalloyed by consonants into the upper atmosphere. It's like the guy decided in 1957 to enunciate song lyrics and otherwise use his tongue exclusively for swallowing food.

"Go back inside," Phoebe says, "and put on your clothes!"

"Izza mah hlay, innih? Ah ih wah rou ih mah orz ih ah wah oo," says Jerry, which means: "This is my place, isn't it? I can walk around in my shorts if I want to."

"The man here in the driveway is a writer!" says Phoebe.

"Aho eeha riyer! Ah ellina hroo!" ("I know he's a writer. I'm telling the truth.")

"This is the truth? Your underpants are the truth?"

Jerry makes a sound that defies both his daughter and phonetic spelling. "Well, go ahead, then!" says Phoebe. "Make a fool out of yourself! See if I care! Go ahead and put on a show for all those cars on the highway, too!"

Jerry glares at his sole living descendant and marches to the middle of the driveway, which goes up a short rise from Malone Road. Over the white fence that surrounds his forty acres and pond, the headlights of the passing cars seem to be gaping at the Killer, who is illuminated by the garage lights as if onstage. Hunched but unbowed, after six decades over the piano, he flaps his arms, he jumps up and down, he screams vowel sounds at the cars, daring them to gaze upon his nakedness in the humid night air.

"Lehm ri ah!" ("Let him write that"), Jerry snarls, stomping back into the house.

So it isn't a senior moment. It is a Jerry Lee Lewis moment, which could have happened pretty much any time since he was born on September 29th, 1935, the same year Elvis Presley arrived in this world of woe. The last of the original Sun Records pioneers of rock & roll, and by far the least likely to be walking around in the twenty-first century, the only guy in all of music who makes Keith Richards look about as dangerous as Jessica Simpson, the Killer continues to rage into the night ... well, no. Let's say he's resumed raging. The Nineties were a really bad decade for the Killer, and that would be after the public-relations nightmare of the Fifties, the smoking ruin of the Sixties, the unprecedented string of calamities in the Seventies, and then in 1981 his stomach exploded, and it's been all downhill from there. Who could blame a guy for taking a little time off to get depressed?

The Lewis Ranch, as it is called, or Disgraceland, as it is also called, is a racquetball court, two jet planes and a graveyard short of Elvis' former mansion, which is about twenty-five miles away, in Memphis. All the rooms are on one floor, all the rooms are piled high with swag from fifty years in the music business, and large portions of it have been painted gold. Jerry's sixth wife in his seventh marriage, Kerrie Lynn McCarver Lewis, blew through the place like King Midas. Painted the walls, painted the floors, painted the grand piano, painted the cupboards, painted her Cadillac Fleetwood — all of it gold, gold and more gold. Except the kitchen, which she covered with Coca-Cola wallpaper.

"She was a horrible bitch who was possessed by the devil and only shopped at Walmart — we've just now begun stripping the walls," says Phoebe at the kitchen counter in late afternoon. Born to Jerry and his third wife, Myra, in 1963, she grew up tall and blond and has the Lewis vibe in all ways. After singing blues and rock around Memphis for a number of years, she moved back in with her father to help him through an arduous divorce. "Kerrie told me she was leaving him, but I was going to run her ass off anyway," she says. "I was born to take care of my daddy. I never married, don't want to have kids. I'm not going to steal his money or give him drugs."

Jerry comes out of his bedroom a little before five o'clock, explaining that he had just awakened and is going to watch Gunsmoke, as he does every day on cable from five to seven, even though he's memorized all the episodes and has them on DVD. Phoebe hands him a plate with a steak on it and a grape soda, his drink of choice since quitting alcohol in recent years. He also gave his first concert ever without amphetamines a couple of years ago, so you could say the man's on a health kick. Breaking with his usual morning routine, Jerry did not "ride" his motorcycle, which is to say, fire up the Harley-Davidson in his living room and rev the engine to get a nice lungful of carbon monoxide. It was a little too close to the start of Gunsmoke, so he just returns to the bedroom with his dinner/breakfast.

Wearing boxer shorts and a wife-beater T-shirt, and unshaven for three or four days, he re-emerges at 7:01. Often described as sharklike, his steel-blue eyes retain the testosterone burn that has illuminated his face since his earliest photographs. The spectacular wavy blond hair that used to flop over his face like flames dripping sweat is now wavy and white. He'd been recording his new album, Last Man Standing, for several years, with various rock stars (everyone from Little Richard to Kid Rock), country greats (Merle Haggard, Toby Keith) and blues virtuosos (B.B. King, Buddy Guy). Some of it is fast ("Rock and Roll," with Jimmy Page), and some of it is slow ("A Couple More Years," with Willie Nelson), and all of it is utterly charming. One of the most original pianists and singers ever in American music, the man can still wrap his vocal cords around a wide range of emotion, which has been a question since his previous album, Young Blood, in 1995.

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From The Archives Issue 115: August 17, 1972
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