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Jerry Lee Lewis: Still Killing

Close up with the rock & roll pioneer

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis sings during 'Million Dollar Quartet' finale performance at Nederlander Theatre on September 10th, 2010 in New York City.

Ben Hider/Getty

I don’t need no rocking chair!” sings Jerry Lee Lewis, refusing to get off the bed to take a seat. Lewis is on his bed in the cluttered back room of the Lewis ranch, 25 miles from Memphis, in Nesbit, Mississippi. Outside it’s 104 de­grees; the shades are drawn. The wallpa­per is sheet-music-themed; a sign atop a dresser reads EXPECT A MIRACLE. Lewis has recently fought off pneumonia; some stitches in his left shoulder from a recent procedure are still tender. It’s the first day in three months that he’s been up and around. He’s still broad and solid, but he pads cau­tiously. “I don’t know how my daddy’s still alive,” says his daughter, Phoebe Lewis. “He almost died in every hospital in Memphis!”

On September 2.9th, Jerry Lee Lewis will turn 75, just a few weeks after the re­lease of his best album in decades: Mean Old Man, the follow-up to 2006’s remark­able comeback record, Last Man Standing. Like Standing, the new album features a long list of collaborators, from Eric Clapton and Willie Nelson to John Mayer and Keith Richards. The record is being promoted as Lewis’ return to the country music he’s loved all his life. “That don’t seem right to me, but I don’t give a crap,” says the Killer. “They can call it whatever they want to call it. We got some stuff on this album that’s gonna knock em! We got in there, and we go, go, go, go! Yaah!

Today, Lewis’ ex-wife Myra Lewis Wil­liams is visiting. Williams is best known as Lewis’ 13-year-old bride — one half of the most notorious marriage in rock & roll history. When news of their union emerged in 1958, the scandal ended Lewis’ run of hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” The 22-year-old hellraiser had been poised to step into the shoes of Elvis Presley, who had just entered the military; instead, says Williams, “his career took a nose dive right into the con­crete.” The couple were divorced after 13 years, and Lewis would remarry three more times; Williams is now a real estate bro­ker in Atlanta. But watching them togeth­er today, the affection is evident. They tease and swat at each other; Lewis says, “I liked the shot where she was tickling my butt!” He sings an impromptu version of “Blue­berry Hill.” Sitting on a couch in the living room, next to the battered upright piano on which Lewis learned to play, she gig­gles and accuses him of sneaking in a grab. “You can’t fool me,” she says, and he coun­ters, “Well, I never could fool you.”

“HE’S ONE OF A GREAT BREED. HE’LL BE THE BEST TILL THEY THROW DIRT ON HIM.” —KRIS KRISTOFFERSON

Myra credits Phoebe — a 47-year-old for­mer singer — with rescuing Lewis. She took over as his manager 10 years ago; after years of pills and boozing, Lewis was tak­ing methadone for an addiction to painkill­ers. “When she started taking care of her daddy,” says Williams, “she accomplished more than any managers, wives, doctors. Without her, you would be visiting a grave right now.” Having Phoebe in control “was just like daylight and dark,” Lewis says. “She took over and done everything.”

Shortly after Phoebe took charge, Lewis met the other behind-the-scenes force of his comeback: Steve Bing, the movie pro­ducer, real estate developer and Democrat­ic Party donor. Bing financed and co-pro­duced Standing and Mean Old Man, which they began working on in 2008 in Los An­geles and Memphis. Lewis was as unpre­dictable as ever during the sessions: “I just tell the band to grab hold and just go,” says Lewis. “I kick a song off and get it going and see if they can keep up. Maybe they can and maybe they can’t, but if they can’t, they might get a concussion.”

“I was on my best behavior,” says Tim McGraw, who sings on “Middle Aged Crazy.” “I certainly didn’t want to piss him off- you still never know what Jerry Lee might do!”

“As long as I can be the leader, I’m all right,” says Lewis. “If I’ve got the wheel and put it in overdrive, I’m OK. As long as I don’t wreck the Studebaker.”

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