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.
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“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 Wal-Mart — 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.
His last marriage, rocky from the start and a whole avalanche of bad by the end, finally sent Jerry to bed, where he watched television and generally dissipated for several years. Then philanthropist Steve Bing decided the world needed another Jerry Lee Lewis album, financed the whole independent production himself, turned loose his creative partner, Jimmy Rip, to produce and track down a boatload of duet partners with suitable talent and star magnitude. It took five years, but as Jerry’s creative spirit revived, so did the rest of him. After sixty years of banging his head on every sharp corner available to a musician, Jerry Lee Lewis is not only the last man standing, Last Man Standing is a damn miracle: rock & roll & craziness & . . . is that wisdom making those lyrics believable?
“Yeah, we worked hard on this album,” says Jerry, settling down in his den, which would have been a beautiful room if the black walnut paneling hadn’t been painted gold. “We traveled all over the country working with different people. I helped pick the songs, but the other people all had a say, too. Nobody hogged anything. They all just done a little bit on them. I’ve never worked with so many brilliant musicians. I don’t know how we got through that thing with George Jones. We was crackin’ jokes the whole time. Ha, ha, eeee-yah! The song we done, ‘Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,’ goes back a long time. I was researchin’ music right, even when I was a boy.”
At this point the five Chihuahuas — Topaz, Topaz Junior, Babette, Prince and Zelda — race into the room, bark madly, jump on Jerry and are chased off by Phoebe. “I’ve got my audience,” Jerry says, chuckling. “I’ve gone to the dogs.” It should be stated here that the average Yankee can understand Jerry’s accent with a little practice. His usual interview is about twelve minutes, so the careful reporter will minimize asking, “What?” In this case, he talks for an hour. The trick for the careful reporter is the same trick used by the best of Jerry’s producers in the recording studio: Let the man do what he wants. And with little prompting (or further attempts at phonetic spelling), what Jerry wants is to talk about his childhood, starting with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart. Whatever one’s opinion of Swaggart’s theology and his well-publicized problems with temptation of the flesh in 1987, he is the best preacher of his generation, every bit the equal of Jerry as a performer. The two were born just six months apart, and their paths are forever intertwined.
“I started bein’ a musician at Jimmy Swaggart’s home,” says Jerry. “I was five or six years old. They had a piano, and we didn’t, but I was interested. I thought, ‘That is what I want to do.’ My folks got me a piano when I was eight. By the time I was nine or ten, I was playin’ pretty good, pretty close to how I play now. If that’s good. Hee-ya!”
Son of sharecropper Elmo Kidd Lewis and his wife, Mary Ethel Herron Lewis, Jerry was born just after his father came home to Ferriday, Louisiana, from a prison sentence of several months for moonshining whiskey. Both parents loved music and were stalwarts of the First Assembly Full Gospel Church, which was part of the Assembly of God, a Pentecostal denomination known for its boisterous services, speaking in tongues and strict adherence to the Bible as the inerrant word of God. Soon sentenced to five years for another moonshine bust, Elmo missed Jerry’s early childhood and earned his wife’s undying wrath. Perhaps he got some forgiveness when he mortgaged the family home in 1945 to buy a Starck upright piano, on which Jerry transformed the tunes he heard on the family Victrola into boogie-woogie. Perhaps he lost that forgiveness when he couldn’t make the payments and the bank foreclosed on the house. In any case, it’s a safe bet that Jerry had a deeper bond with his doting mother.
“Nah, I didn’t take no lessons. I took one lesson. The guy got a little disturbed with me, Mr. Griffin did, kinda popped my jaw a little bit. He would play a song by reading the notes, and I would say, ‘That’s pretty good, but wouldn’t it sound better this way?’ And I changed it to my style. Boy, he got mad. Great guy, though.”
The Chihuahuas raced back into the room and jumped on Jerry. “Whewwwww!” he exhaled. “Those are stinky little dogs!” Jerry still has his original Starck piano, dilapidated and unplayable, the ivory pounded right off the keys, sitting in the parlor next to his gold grand piano.
“The reason I don’t fix it up is, when I look at that piano, the shape it’s in, I know that’s the shape I’m in. Heeee-ya!”
One of the legendary aspects of his childhood was sneaking into Haney’s Big House, a black nightclub in Ferriday that attracted many of the best blues musicians of the day. “Yeah, I was eight or nine, and Jimmy would fetch me to go over there, but he chickened out,” Jerry says. “He wouldn’t go in. I went in the door so I could really listen to ’em pick. They was playin’a lowdown blues. I knew I liked that music. Ha!”
The South was extremely segregated at the time, of course, but racism was everywhere battered by a creative explosion of music and technology. Unlike concert venues, the radio dial could not be segregated and was laying the cultural foundation for rock & roll, not to mention the civil-rights movement. When Elmo wired the house for electricity shortly after buying the piano and acquired the family’s first radio, Jerry soaked up an undifferentiated gumbo of country, gospel, jazz, pop and blues.
“I just had the urge to listen to music, go where it was the best,” he says. “My mother would have had a heart attack if she’d known I was in that club, and my father would have beat me half to death. I knew the music was great. I knew it was different. I knew it would capture the world. I knew that, and I wanted it, so I reached in there and grabbed it. I went home and started playin’ me some blues. And I started going to these roadhouses, juke joints and honky-tonks where you weren’t supposed to be until you’re twenty-one. I had a job at the Blue Cat Club in Natchez, and the owner said, ‘If the policeman comes by here and asks how old you are, you tell him you’re twenty-one years old. I said, ‘Nooooooo problem.’ So the policeman comes by and says, ‘How old are you?’ I said, ‘I’m twenty-one,’ and my feet weren’t even touchin’ the floor off the piano stool. He just cracked up laughin’.”
Romantically as well as musically precocious, Jerry got married for the first time, at age fifteen, to the daughter of a Pentecostal preacher and enrolled at Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, on the theory that a family man should have a respectable career in the pulpit. Since his memory could photocopy Bible verse as quickly as song verse, he wasn’t a complete failure as a seminarian, but he spent most of his time sneaking out to nightclubs in Dallas and was expelled after three months for playing a boogie-woogie rendition of “My God Is Real” in front of the student body.
After a stint selling vacuum cleaners and almost going to jail for neglecting to pay the company its share of the proceeds, Jerry noticed some interesting new sounds on the radio. They all seemed to be emanating from what is now viewed as the birthplace of rock & roll: Sun Records in Memphis. When Jerry knocked on Sun’s door in September 1955, he was well placed to be “the next Elvis” when owner Sam Phillips made the worst deal in music history that November: selling the recording contract of the old Elvis to RCA for $35,000. Even then, Sun had an incredible roster of talent that included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Phillips heard Jerry’s audition tape, offered a contract and had the intuition to turn on the tape deck and let his next Elvis go where his emotions took him.
The destination turned out to be a sensational hit single, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Recorded with one microphone at Sun Studio, it captured just enough of his highly percussive-yet-more-melodic-than-Little Richard piano while Jerry expounded a joyous sexual invitation that had never been heard or even suspected by most middle-class Americans. Right there in the midst of the Cold War and all its dismal propaganda, Jerry Lee Lewis had somehow entered a rarefied realm of orgiastic enthusiasm heretofore inhabited only by Howlin’ Wolf and maybe a few guys at Haney’s Big House. When he performed the song on The Steve Allen Show on July 28th, 1957, he took it even further, preaching a salacious sermon of seduction that still looks daring fifty years later, his hair exploding as he shifted from pumping eighth notes to pounding sixteenth notes, two millennia of Christian sublimation reversed in two minutes. Not Elvis, not the Beatles, not anybody had a more exciting debut on television. Overnight, he became a star.
“I never really thought in that direction, that the records were vulgar,” says Jerry. “I didn’t think about it until years later. I got to listening to them, and thinking about them, and I thought, ‘Now that is a risqué record, isn’t it?’ Now I’m not a dumbbell. But I only thought about music. I knew the music was good, I knew people liked it, and that was the direction I went in. I wasn’t going to get in a girl’s pants or anything, even though eventually I did. Nature will take its course.”
This statement isn’t precisely true. Jerry was actually tormented by the content of his second huge hit in 1957, “Great Balls of Fire,” which he at first refused to record on the grounds that it was the work of the devil. And maybe it was. Whatever forbidden desires “Whole Lotta Shakin’ ” explored, its successor was an even hotter song, impossibly raising the energy and hormone levels even further. He and Sam Phillips had a vehement argument, which was taped and has been included in a number of Sun collections.
“I wasn’t used to the girls coming on so strong,” Jerry continues. “I’ll never forget, I walked offstage one time, and my dad was with me. I had to leave before I did half the songs, they were screaming so loud. My daddy said, ‘Now how in the world do you keep turning that down?’ I said, ‘Turning what down, Daddy?’ He said, ‘Those real pretty girls.’ I said, ‘I never thought about that.’ Ha! You could see where he was comin’ from.”
Jerry wasn’t exactly virginal in his naiveté. He was in love with his thirteen-year-old second cousin Myra Gale Brown, who was the daughter of his cousin and bass player, J.W. Brown. Incapable of doing anything except what his emotions told him to do, Jerry had already been married twice, fathered one child and hadn’t paid a lot of attention to legal formalities like divorce. Marrying for the third time, to Myra, didn’t seem like such a big deal. To Jerry it appeared that love should conquer all, including horrified parents and outraged public opinion. He’d been through it before. This time he at least had the money to take care of a wife. He had huge hit records. He was headlining shows with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly. He didn’t think he’d done anything wrong, so why worry? Then the newspapers found out about Myra on a tour of England in May of 1958 and hounded him out of the country. Back in the United States, prominent supporters like Dick Clark abandoned him and DJs began boycotting his records. Overnight, he went from $10,000 per concert to $200.
“I coulda cared less,” says Lewis. “I never hid nothin’ from the world. Sam Phillips warned me to hide it. That was a buncha baloney. I’d be a hypocrite if I did that.”
Unable to sell records after his fall from grace, Jerry continued to make a living playing clubs, where he refined his delivery and unerring crowd radar, even as the British Invasion seemed to cast him further into the dustbin of pop history. He was too old at twenty-nine. He had the wrong haircut, accent and instrument.
“My fans never stopped lovin’ me,” he says. “They always came to my shows. They didn’t always get my records, ’cause Sam dropped all his distributors and wouldn’t release anything. When I moved on to Mercury Records [in 1963] and started recording some country, my style of country, and some rock & roll too, one of them songs [‘Another Place Another Time,’ in 1968] sold a million copies right off the press. That tells you something is wrong, that Sam didn’t do me right.”
The entire roster of Sun stars had moved on to other, bigger companies in hopes of getting artist support equal to their talent. Despite selling several million records, Jerry never collected a royalty from Sun and never sued Phillips.
“Nope. Never sued nobody,” he says. “Sam owed me millions. He told me he did. In front of several witnesses, yeah. I said, ‘About how much do you owe me now?’ This must have been twenty-five years ago. He said, ‘Well, a little over 8 million dollars.’ I said, ‘Why don’t you pay me, Sam? It’s my money, isn’t it?’ He said, ‘I can’t see it goin’ for a bunch of houses and women and cars. I just can’t let it go like that.’ I said, ‘In other words, you’re not going to give me my money, are you?’ He said, ‘Nope. Not gonna do it. I know you shoulda gone after it. If you wanna do that, go ahead and sue me. But I’m not gonna pay you.’ “
Jerry laughs hard, the hardest he has all day, as the Chihuahuas come yapping into the den again. “I knew the ballgame was over with that,” he says. “Gettin’ money out of Sam Phillips was like cramming a wet noodle up a wildcat’s nose. He was tight as bark on a oak tree. Twenty-five cents meant as much to him as 25 million dollars.”
Most people would consider suing under those circumstances.
“Just think what he’d owe me now,” he says. “But I never had a feeling about it. Money’s not the greatest thing in the world. It pays the bills, helps you take care of your family. Buys cars. Cigars. Things. That’s about it. I’ve made enough money on the road. I always had ways to make money. And I always spent it. Yeeeeeha-ha-ha-ha! Oh, Lord!”
Well, music is not ultimately about money.
“Music is something you’re giving people. They’re paying to hear it, but you’re not supposed to rob them. I was never much for saving money or carrying on with it. I just enjoyed taking care of my mother and father until they passed away, and the rest of my family. And I love entertaining my audience. If I was doing it for the money, I’d be the wealthiest man in the world. Well, me and the IRS. Yeee-ha! They come after me three times. Took everything I had. I don’t know. I probably did owe them the money. They check on you. They know. I just added some extra dates and paid them off in a month and a half. And then did it again with them! Yeee-ha! I ain’t no tax person. I leave that up to somebody else. And that’s the worst thing you can do!”
It’s hard to imagine Jerry Lee Lewis as an accountant.
“Not my style. A person’s gotta do what he’s gotta do, I guess. Are we through now? I don’t know anything else I could tell you. They’ll put me in jail.”
That was it for the interview. Jerry perhaps intuited that there was not much easy stuff left to talk about and it was time to move on to the difficult stuff, some of which being: When Jerry was three, his brother Elmo Jr., also a great musical talent, was killed at the age of eight by a drunken driver. On Easter Sunday in 1962, his two-year-old son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in Jerry’s backyard swimming pool. In 1971, his fourteen-year marriage to Myra, the love of his life, ended in divorce, and his mother, his only true anchor, died of natural causes at fifty-nine. In 1973, his nineteen-year-old son Jerry Lee Jr. (by his second wife) died in a car wreck, he divorced his fourth wife, and he got arrested for drunken driving. In 1976, he accidentally shot his bassist Butch Owens in the chest with a .357 Magnum (Jerry was aiming at a Coke bottle in his bedroom and the bullet ricocheted; Owens survived). He spent several months in 1981 near death himself after tearing a two-inch hole in his stomach, the result of ulcers from alcohol, amphetamine and barbiturate consumption. In 1982, his fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate Lewis, drowned in a friend’s swimming pool. In 1984, his fifth wife, Shawn Michelle Stephens Lewis, died of an accidental drug overdose, and was the subject of some investigative reporting by Richard Ben Cramer in these pages (RS 416) that implied Jerry was some kind of rock & roll Bluebeard, more perpetrator than grieving widower. The dark rumors and cruel jokes about Jerry have never stopped.
Only Jerry was in the house when his fifth wife died. After an argument, she apparently mistook Jerry’s methadone (which he was taking for an addiction to painkillers) for sleeping pills and died of fluid in the lungs while she slept. If there’s anything more to her death than this, which is what the coroner found, only Jerry would know. It can be said that Jerry was a difficult husband, and he has a fascination with guns and knives. But he’s no sociopath. Once an avid hunter, Jerry had a conversion experience sometime in the Seventies after shooting a squirrel. He has forbidden hunting on his property since then and posts a big sign near his front gate: God made the animals, love them, don’t kill them. When he finds bugs inside his house, he doesn’t squash them; he picks them up and carefully places them outside. Whatever his childhood nickname, and however much he has tried to intimidate people to protect himself over the years, the Killer is an unlikely killer.
Anyway, interspersed in all the above tragedy: a lot of reckless driving, including a totaled Rolls-Royce and a totaled Corvette; lawsuits from a wide array of wronged parties, only a fraction of whom got to see Jerry show up in court; and the aforementioned problems with the Internal Revenue Service, who took his furniture, pianos, cars, motorcycles, jet skis and mechanical bull twice and then put him on trial for tax evasion, which he somehow beat but still owed the money.
So on one side of the balance scale, you’ve got a load of post-traumatic stress disorder that nobody’s matched since Job. And on the other side, there was the music: “I remember the first time we played ‘Whole Lotta Shakin,” says Roland Janes, who played guitar on all of Jerry’s records from 1957 to 1963. He now manages the Sam Phillips Studio (successor to Sun) in Memphis. “It was in Blytheville, Arkansas. The club was full of rednecks, just hard-working’ folks wantin’ to have fun. We knew we had a hit, ’cause they made us play it fourteen times. Some people said we played the devil’s music, but I knew he wasn’t in our band. Yeah, the sexuality was there, if you wanna think about it, and it turned some people off, but it turned a lot more on.
“Nothing mattered then except the music,” Janes continues. “Jerry would take a check he knew was bad and play the show anyway, ’cause the fans were there. He did that a lot. It ain’t all a big party, though. It’s a business, and you got to grow up and come to terms with money eventually. But I’ll say this for Jerry: When we’d do those big package shows with seventeen or eighteen other acts on the bill, the other musicians would all come out and watch him play. He was an entertainer’s entertainer, and a musician’s musician. I’ve never seen nobody top him. Never.”
Thus has Jerry Lee Lewis been one of the greatest live acts for more than fifty years. Walking onstage, sitting on the piano bench with his ramrod posture, gazing upon the assembled throng with his unblinking shark eyes, he didn’t have to play a note and the competition knew it was doomed. With no impulse control and his foot on the keyboard, he was always brilliant when he didn’t suck, and if he did suck, you never knew when Jimmy Swaggart might walk out of the wings and haul his cousin off to a rehab, and who wouldn’t pay to see that?
“We’d be out on the road for a month straight, and we’d get back to Memphis, and the first thing Jerry would want to do was go out to a club,” says Kenny Lovelace, Jerry’s band leader/guitarist/fiddler/mandolinist for the past thirty-nine years. “If there was a piano onstage, he wouldn’t sit there in the audience for five minutes. He’d be up there with that piano. I’ve never been bored playing a show with Jerry. He never plays a song the same way twice, and he never plays them in the same order. He’s one of the few guys who never uses a set list, so we never know what he’s going to do until he sits down and plays it. He just takes off and we take off behind him. You can’t let your eyes off him for a second.”
Jerry’s recording career has been another story. Whatever failings Sam Philips had as a paymaster, he understood the importance of “feel” for his musicians and had the sense to put Jerry in the studio with one or two egoless backup musicians (mostly Janes and drummer J.M. Van Eaton) and then let Jerry do what he pleased. The sheer scope of Jerry’s initial flowering was not really understood until the Seventies and Eighties when the original Sun tapes were rediscovered, and even then it was overshadowed by the mess of Jerry’s life outside of music. Like an actor who makes the gossip columns too often, Jerry forced his audience to carry a lot of his personal baggage when it considered his art.
In 1963, he jumped from Sun to Smash, a division of Mercury, which tried to make him more commercial by surrounding him with elaborately arranged horns and strings. In other words, Jerry couldn’t do whatever the hell he felt like in the studio anymore, and the result was occasional flashes of brilliance amid tepid violins (Country Songs for City Folks), which didn’t sell, either. In 1968, he stumbled on “Another Place Another Time,” one of those crystalline short stories of lost love that makes country music deep. Suddenly Jerry had a lyric worthy of his emotional depth, and just as suddenly he had a vast country audience who forgave his personal life in exchange for not-tepid hits like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me)” and “She Still Comes Around (to Love What’s Left of Me).”
In this era, the baby boom was discovering that rock & roll didn’t begin with the Beatles. Sha Na Na, the Fifties parody band, made an anomalous-though-fun appearance at Woodstock, and soon hippies were greasing their hair, throwing sock hops and reconsidering music that had been unhip since the bleak era after Elvis got drafted. Little Richard returned to religion, Chuck Berry went to jail, Eddie Cochran died in a car wreck, Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens died in a plane crash, and Jerry exchanged his career for forbidden love. Jerry went after this second audience with some smoking rock in the early Seventies (Southern Roots is terrific) and did a lot of rock revival shows.
In the late Seventies and during the Eighties, Jerry had some fine moments with Elektra (“Rockin’ My Life Away,” “Over the Rainbow”) but was most inspired on the soundtrack for Great Balls of Fire, a 1989 biopic starring Dennis Quaid that covered Jerry’s early rise and fall with Myra. Quaid played Jerry as a talented goofball. which didn’t quite hit the mark, probably because the screenplay needed less sitcom and more Flannery O’Connor. The soundtrack did hit the mark, with the piano recorded and mixed as well as it ever had been for Jerry.
In the 2005 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line, Waylon Payne may have come closer to the real Jerry Lee Lewis in his supporting role to Joaquin Phoenix as Johnny Cash. Payne caught Jerry’s bizarre caroms between Pentecostal Puritanism and rock & roll hedonism, banging off the wall of arrogance that Jerry erected to protect himself from a world that had inflicted so many wounds. Taking advice from Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins on his first tour that he had to get crazy or die (in front of the audience), Jerry was a fast learner who quickly out-crazied his teachers, learning that a well-kicked piano bench could send any crowd into a frenzy. On his next tour, he and Gene Vincent competed to see who could sing the filthiest lyrics, while at the same time he tried to keep faith with God by singing the gospel. The daring juxtaposition of stage moves previously confined to the pulpit and a leering, open sexuality — it was more contradiction than anyone could handle without chemicals.
“In those days, everyone took a couple of diet pills and five double cognacs before they went on,” says Ronnie Hawkins, a first-generation rockabilly from Arkansas. “You had to take the edge off and get the energy up, and that was the comfortablest way of doing it. All of us who wanted to be a frontman, we were all acting crazy. It was part of the show. But Jerry had the most nerve. Jerry was just one of them cats who might be rural, but he could be quick-witted and mouth off to people. He set a blistering pace, and he did shit that ain’t nobody else gonna do.”
So Jerry drank and did pills to tweak his brain, like every other musician in the world. A true Christian and a true artist, he refused to compound his sins with lies and hypocrisy, but that still left a lot of guilt to dissolve. Jesus counseled that you should not hide your light under a basket, and Jerry was not going to hide, even if his light illuminated America’s pagan lower chakras. Fans are full of stories about Jerry coming into a bar, throwing down more shots than they had ever seen and talking all night about how much he wanted to fuck Chuck Berry’s daughter. Journalists, even when they could understand his accent, have never been quite sure if they were interviewing a man or a reptile. Jerry would feed the uncertainty by pulling a gun, placing it on the table next to a whiskey bottle and saying, “Now what did you want to ask?”
“Sure, it was an act. They all had an act,” says Robbie Robertson, who was playing guitar for Ronnie Hawkins at the age of sixteen and contributed his song “Twilight” to Jerry’s latest album. “But with Jerry, there was a genuine feeling of danger about him, and that was part of the excitement. I’m not saying he was on all the time, just that he carried some shit around with him that you went, ‘Wooooooo.’ You never knew if something was going to make him laugh or cry or get angry. But the important thing was the music. I used to watch him in those little honky-tonks, and there was music coming out of his every pore. Everything he did was musical. Everything he did was in time.”
Or maybe Jerry was just hiding himself. “There’s a lot of strange stories about me, too,” says George Jones, another huge talent who had his own struggle with the bottle. “But they build stuff up like that so much. I bet sixty or seventy percent of those tales about Jerry got stretched into much bigger stories than they really were. When you’re in this business, it’s easy to go down that path. Jerry was mostly sober when I was around him. He was a bashful type of person. Most artists who are raised up in the country, they’re bashful. And you start out playing clubs where the crowd expects you to come out for a drink during intermission, and you got to deal with the halitosis, and they’re spitting in your face. They don’t mean to be, but they are, ’cause they’re drunk. Things like that get you to drinking when you otherwise might not be. I know Jerry’s a much happier person now that he’s quit. I am. I had a bunch of wasted years, like he did, in which I thought I was having fun. They tell me I did, but I can’t remember. It’s a damn shame it takes so long for some of us to grow up, but Jerry and I are among the very few who lived long enough to get the extra chance to enjoy life for the first time.”
In 2002, Steve Bing, the movie producer and one of the largest donors to the Democratic party, wanted Jerry to record a couple of songs for a sound-track. The movie never got made, but Bing’s collaborator Jimmy Rip dropped his normal role as guitarist-bandleader-producer and did some detective work to track down the Killer, who had no Web page, no manager, no nothing. After a couple of months of searching and a few weeks of phone negotiations, Rip and Bing went to Mississippi. Jerry was barely functioning physically after many years on methadone, which he took to get off Talwin, a painkiller he got addicted to after tearing his stomach in 1981.
“The meeting went well, but he’s been burned so many times that he’s a little suspicious of people,” says Rip. “Plus, his last marriage had fallen apart, and it just wasn’t nice at all. He had pretty much gone to bed, and we had to pry him out. Finally, we came to an agreement about money, cash upfront. He’s an incredibly smart man and totally aware. If there are ten conversations going on in a room, he can keep up on all of them. He was just very sad at the time, which happens a lot to older musicians. Just a reaction to getting treated like shit. Either you’re not getting your due, or you’re getting ripped off. It’s just frustrating when you’re talented and you know it. But as soon as we started recording, we started laughing. And we’ve been laughing for five years now.”
So Jerry, Jimmy and Steve hit it off, and the soundtrack quickly morphed into an album. It was all financed by Bing and released independently, so they could do whatever they wanted for however long they wanted.
“People were very suspicious of it being just another celebrity rat-fuck record, where it’s just a basic track with a glopped-on big name,” says Rip. “That’s what they thought until they heard it, and everyone loved it and wanted to be a part of it. Bruce Springsteen sent me such a sweet letter after we recorded ‘Pink Cadillac.’ It said, ‘Thank you for fulfilling a rock & roller’s dream: Jerry Lee Lewis recording one of my songs. This is my favorite version of one of my songs that anyone has ever done.’ “
The most astonishing cut is probably “That Kind of Fool,” with Keith Richards singing up high, like he did on “You Got the Silver.” Most charming is a tie between “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age,” with George Jones, and “Just A-Bummin’ Around,” with Merle Haggard.
“The greatest joy was seeing what happens to a song once it gets in Jerry’s head and comes back out again his way,” says Rip. “He’s always humble about it, says, ‘If a man writes a song, he should hear it the way he wrote it. I don’t want to mess it up too much.’ And then he turns around and just destroys the thing and reconstructs it eight times better, and you go, ‘Damn, we didn’t need those extra chords at all.’ Before we’d go into the studio, I’d write out song charts for the other musicians, and we’d just throw the paper up in the air. I’d always tell him, ‘Jerry, all these guys grew up wanting to be you. Mick. Keith. Bruce. So however you do it, it’s going to be right, because they were thinking of you in the first place.’ “
Sometimes talent seemed to be the only thing holding him up. “I’ve watched him from the wings of the stage when he’s been sick, just out of his hospital bed, and you think, ‘This guy isn’t going to live to reach the piano bench,’ but the second he drops his hands on the keys, something metaphysical happens,” Rip says. “Everyone jumps. It’s like electricity. I don’t know what he does. He’s not working with a guitar string that you can bend to affect how people hear the note. It’s just a piano. You tap the key, the hammer hits the string, and you can’t do it any different. But with Jerry, you instantly know it’s him, like you know it’s Jeff Beck after just a few notes on the Stratocaster.
“He took all my song suggestions except one,” adds Rip. “The only song I brought to him that he didn’t want to do was ‘Angel of Death,’ by Hank Williams. He loves Hank Williams, always says that there were only four true American originals: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s recorded ten of Hank’s songs. But not that one. He’s had so many bad things happen. Everything else, from the Beatles to the Stooges, he ate them up. But that he would not sing. The one topic he won’t touch is death.”
Jerry leans over the plaintiff’s table and whispers in his daughter’s ear, “Why won’t they let me testify?” “Because you pop off at the mouth sometimes and say crazy crap, that’s why,” Phoebe whispers back. “This is not the day to be saying crazy crap.”
On the witness stand of the Chancery Court Room in the DeSoto County Court House, which towers over the center of Hernando, Mississippi, Jerry’s wife, Kerrie Lynn Lewis, is reading aloud a letter she had written to speed up the passport application of one Lynn Noel, who was to accompany Jerry on a tour of Europe in 1997.
“And so you were requesting an expedited passport so that your lover could go on a tour with you and Mr. Lewis, weren’t you?” says Beth Cocke, Jerry’s divorce lawyer.
“No, ma’am,” says Kerrie.
“How else do you explain that letter?”
“Well, I think we’ve read it and it’s self-explanatory. He worked for Mr. Lewis. This doesn’t state I’m taking my lover.”
“You were having sex with Lynn Noel at this time?”
“Ninety-seven? Yes, ma’am.”
“And you were the person who arranged for road managers and security people, weren’t you?”
“To do what?”
“To accompany you on tours with Mr. Lewis.”
“So, you’re hiring your lover to go on a tour with you and Mr. Lewis. Is that right?”
“No, ma’am. I left that tour early and Mr. Noel stayed and took care of Mr. Lewis.”
“I bet Mr. Lewis didn’t know that you were having sex with him, did he?”
“You would have to ask him that.”
“You didn’t tell him, did you?”
“Not that I recall.”
Sharply dressed in a black pinstripe suit and black patent-leather cowboy boots, Jerry hadn’t shaved and his face had broken out in something that appeared stress-related. As his wife, an aspiring gospel singer, is forced to admit numerous infidelities, he sinks further and further into his chair until a merciful lunch break. Married in April 1984, one month after his fifth wife had died and five months before he went on trial for tax evasion, Jerry and Kerrie had threatened each other with divorce every year or two starting in 1985, never quite finishing the job. Jerry nonetheless turned his career management over to his wife, who was twenty-one when he married her. She developed a reputation among promoters for making last-minute demands for more money and five-star hotels. As Jerry’s finances and showmanship dissipated, it even became a question whether he would arrive at the gig.
“Jerry literally does not know how to write a check,” says Johnnie Wilson, a former assistant at the Lewis Ranch who was waiting to testify. “It’s very embarrassing for him. He wants to act like he knows what’s going on, but he really doesn’t comprehend finance. He has to trust somebody else to find out. He doesn’t have but a seventh-grade education. Even before Kerrie, people other than Jerry were paying his bills and taking advantage of the situation.”
The lunch break stretches until late afternoon as the lawyers negotiate a settlement in the judge’s chambers. Jerry fidgets in the waiting room.
“Any time a man slaps a lady, he’s lost the ballgame,” Jerry opines to no one in particular as he signs autographs for court officers and their children. “It’s not right, and you can’t get away with it, anyway. That’s one huge advantage they have on us men.”
Declaring his butt dead from sitting all day, Jerry continues to reminisce about his Corvette that he got up to 175 mph and then tore up the speeding ticket, which he threw at the a policeman. “Wish I’d kept that car,” he says wistfully.
Beth Cocke and Phoebe return from the judge’s chambers with a tentative deal of $30,000 a year to Kerrie for five years, $20,000 a year for the college education of Jerry Lee III (son of Kerrie but not of Jerry, who nonetheless raised him as his own), and Kerrie would be out of all Jerry’s business affairs.
“Take it!” says Jerry.
“It’s a good deal, but are you just saying that because you’re frustrated?” Cocke asks.
“Aw, bull! It’s only money, just green paper!”
“Do you really understand this? Are you authorizing me to accept?”
“I just wanna go to sleep.”
“What’s the trouble, Jerry? You’re almost a free man.”
“It’s too late,” he says. “I’m gonna miss Gunsmoke.”