Jerry Lee Lewis is Going to Hell for Rock & Roll - Rolling Stone
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The Devil and Jerry Lee Lewis

Although he was raised on the Bible, ‘the Killer’ knows he’s going to hell for playing rock & roll

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

I‘m the toughest son of a bitch that ever shat out of a meat ass,” Jerry Lee Lewis said, deliberately. Having just done a show, he was sweating, stripped to the waist and balancing precariously on a rickety wooden chair in the wine cellar of a would-be honky-tonk on New York’s Upper East Side. Some well-meaning but inexperienced promoters had commandeered the place, a former German restaurant, and paid Lewis a considerable sum to open it. Unfortunately, the lights didn’t work, the sound was tinny, the piano was atrocious, and the surly mob that had descended on the place from heaven knows where to hear the Killer pound the eighty-eights was packed in so tightly he had to wade through it to get on and off the stage. The wine cellar, the best the club could do for a dressing room, adjoined the urinal; any fans, male or female, waiting for an audience with Lewis had to watch hapless customers pissing their beer away.

Despite the primitive working conditions and Lewis’ consumption of what was reported by the club’s staff to be an unbelievable amount of whiskey (“It wasn’t nothin’,” he later countered. “I used to have to drink a fifth of tequila to sober up and do my shows”), the first set was spectacular. The Killer (his nickname since high school) roared through “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and his other rock & roll hits, sang a “Big Legged Woman” that was slow, throbbing and utterly lascivious, and mixed country ballads and pop tunes with rhythm & blues and spirituals, giving all of them everything he had. He interrupted the show only twice, once to tell the audience, “This piano ain’t worth shit,” and again to muse that “I’ve seen so many friends and loved ones die away, I just thank God I’m still here.” His father, Elmo Lewis, a champion drinker and hell raiser who’d always given Jerry Lee’s musical career his unstinting support, had died three weeks earlier.

15 Rock & Roll Rebels

Once the show was over and Lewis was back downstairs, it was evident that the sleazy club and, especially, his father’s death were weighing heavily. He glared moodily at no one in particular, swigged from a bottle of Scotch and tossed an empty glass higher and higher in the air, catching it and muttering to himself, “I’m the meat man,” a litany that seemed to take on metaphysical implications. At one point the glass he was tossing ricocheted off his palm and sailed across the room, missing J.W Whitten, his wiry, capable road manager, by inches. Whitten, who’s used to far worse, didn’t even blink. Then the Killer began to amuse himself by throwing punches at various friends and well-wishers, stopping his fist about a millimeter from their faces. “Did you ever hit anybody doing that?” I asked him when he tried it on me and my wife. “I never hit anybody,” Lewis said. He smiled wickedly and added, “unless I want to.”

Lewis’ teenage daughter Phoebe appeared and blessed him with a wet kiss on the cheek, and his mood began to lighten. He stopped muttering and started singing snatches of songs – “Ramblin’ Rose,” one went, “ramblin” Rose/Where she rambles, Jerry Lee goes” – and talking about his music “I had to leave Mercury,” he said, referring to the company he recorded for from the mid-Sixties until 1978, when he signed with Elektra. “They were tryin’ to put me in a bag, strings and all that shit I play rock & roll! Don’t ever call me a hillbilly. I’m a rocker.” When Whitten told him it was time for the second show, he bounded up and into a clean shirt and went out the door singing: “Give my regards to Bro-o-oadway/And tell ’em they can kiss my ass . . . . “

A few months earlier, I had checked into a North Hollywood motel, where the Killer, his manager, Bob Porter, and Whitten were staying while they prepared for the Los Angeles Country Music Awards show. First Porter, a young, Alabama business-school graduate, checked me out. Then I sat down in the motel coffee shop with Whitten, and we discovered we were both from around Memphis, both the same age, and both Jerry Lee Lewis fans from the first. “Jerry has a heart as big as this building,” Whitten said. “He’s not the mean rounder people think. We played a benefit for the St. Jude Children’s Hospital in Memphis last month, canceled $30,000 worth of shows to do it for nothing. Now he is a hell raiser, that’s a fact But man, that’s rock & roll.”

That afternoon a limo pulled up to take Lewis, Whitten and Porter to a CMA rehearsal. “I’ve told Jerry you’re all right,” Whitten advised me. “You just come in the car with us.” I got in and there was the Killer, steel blue eyes flashing behind a grin that looked a little silly and more than a little shy. “How’re you?” I asked. I couldn’t understand a single word he said in response. I’m Southern, but his accent was impenetrable. Before long I grew more accustomed to it, but I found that the only way to really track it was to down a few drinks. “Well, uh, how are things in Memphis?” I offered. “Memphis?” He fixed me with those intense eyes, “I live in Mississippi now, got a big spread, a lake. Memphis is a ridiculous place. They have lost their minds. Naked women dancin’ on every corner.” He chuckled softly to himself. “Really?” I said. “You sure? Which corners?” This time Lewis laughed out loud. “This is gonna be all right. Let’s stop and get us a fifth. Naw, better make that two fifths.”

We pulled up to the parking lot behind the theater around two p.m. and found our way to the Killer’s dressing room, which was in a trailer like everybody else’s. The first bottle of Scotch was already open and Lewis was feeling expansive. “Who’s next door?” he asked as we all crowded into the tiny room. “Priscilla Presley?” He leaned over in the direction of the ventilator and began crooning the Conway Twitty hit “Hello Darlin’.” “Uh, Jerry,” said Porter, “she can hear everything you say if you talk into that, man. It’s just like an intercom.” Lewis cackled. “Intercome,” he said. He eyed my tape recorder and added, “She’s a wonderful person, really. A lady.” That’s Lewis’ highest accolade for members of the opposite sex.

“Go on,” said Whitten, “ask him some questions. This is as close as you’re gonna get.” I had a notebook full of carefully considered lines of inquiry, but suddenly it didn’t seem very relevant. “Is it true about you setting that piano on fire?” I asked. The story goes that during the Fifties, the Killer, who never opens for anybody, was somehow made to go on before Chuck Berry. So he climaxed a scorching performance by setting the piano ablaze in the middle of “Great Balls of Fire” and pounding the keys while it flamed.

“Burned it to the ground,” Lewis said. “They forced me to do it, tellin’ me I had to go on before Chuck. I was supposed to be the star of the show.” “How did you do it?” I wondered. “Lighter fluid and a lighter?” “Naw, gasoline. Took a Coke bottle full of it onstage with me. I once pushed another piano in the ocean. They tried to give me a busted piano that wouldn’t play. I pushed it off the stage, across the dance floor, out the door, and then I played it on the sidewalk and pushed it into the ocean.”

There was a knock at the door. It was Mickey Gilley, a cousin of Lewis’ who grew up with him in Ferriday, Louisiana, and began making records in the late Fifties that sounded exactly like him. He has blossomed in recent years into a major country star, with a string of hits and his own celebrated Houston honky-tonk, Gilley’s, where John Travolta and company had been filming Urban Cowboy. “Mickey and me used to go around together in Ferriday,” Lewis said by way of introducing us. “Used to go down and hear the music, at Haney’s Big House, a colored place. They were rockin’.” He pronounced the word with spirit and reverence, the way some people say “heaven” or “Jesus.” “Best music in the world,” he added. “Wilder than my music.”

Gilley looked slick and well-fed in his tailored Western attire, especially next to Lewis, who is still lean and was wearing slacks and a knit T-shirt. “Siddown, boy,” the Killer commanded. Gilley eyed the rapidly disappearing Scotch. “Have a drink.” Lewis personally mixed a stiff one with Coca-Cola and passed it over. “Well now,” said Gilley after he’d had a taste, “don’t you agree with me that if God made anything better than a woman, he kept it for himself?” It was a decent enough opener, but Lewis wasn’t buying it. “You got that from me,” he said, “just like you got your music.” “You agree with it, don’t you?” asked Gilley, holding his ground. Lewis just smiled. “I know it. But I keep tryin’ to get away from these women. They just won’t let you.”

Gilley chuckled. “The reason these women won’t let you alone,” he asserted, “is that they’re sinful.”

Lewis set down his paper cup. He suddenly looked very serious. “It’s the man’s fault,” he said, “not the woman’s.”

“You don’t really believe that, do you?” asked Gilley.

“Why, naturally. The man is stronger.”

“Well, yeah, but . . . . ” Gilley was momentarily at a loss for words. “But who enticed him with the apple?”

“The demons,” Lewis said, his eyes clouding. “The Devil did.”

“Now wait a minute. In the Garden of Eden, Eve’s the one that got . . . “

Lewis snapped forward in his seat. “The snake done it,” he said decisively.

“Welll,” said Gilley, pondering the idea. “I ain’t gonna fuck no snake.” The dressing room exploded with laughter; Lewis was chortling so hard he was crying. Then, abruptly, he was serious again. “Now I’m gonna tell you something,” he said, addressing us all with the declamatory emphasis of a country preacher. “The snake was the most beautiful creature. He walked and talked and he was just like a man. He got Eve and she was weak. Enticed her into eating this apple.” He whirled in his seat, turning toward his cousin. “Can you tell me what the last scripture of the Revelations says?” Gilley was caught off guard. “I . . . I don’t read the Bible much,” he muttered glumly, like a kid caught playing hooky from Sunday school. “Used to . . . . “

“We both used to,” Lewis trumpeted scornfully. “I’ll tell you what it says: ‘Do not add or take away from these words, for if you do, you’re taking away your part out of the book of life.”‘

“I never read that,” said Gilley, now genuinely defensive. “I’ll take your word for it.”

“Well study it,” Lewis thundered. He looked his cousin up and down, brow furrowed, eyes flaring. “Boy, you’re weak. That’s where it’s at. Got that damn club down there in Texas . . . . “

“I get letters from churches,” Gilley said. “They say they heard Jimmy Swaggart talk about me on television, about how I used to go to the Assembly of God church in Louisiana and now I’ve got this club.” His voice rose to a ministerial stridency in imitation of their cousin, the Reverend Jimmy Swaggart, who along with Lewis and Gilley used to get shooed away from the back door of Haney’s Big House when they were all children and who is now a phenomenally successful television and radio evangelist. “And these letters say, ‘My . . . my daughter, she went out and got a divorce, and now she’s goin’ to Gilley’s!”‘

Lewis took a swig of Scotch. “What the hell are you takin’?” he asked. Again, the room was convulsed with laughter. “But it’s the truth,” he added. “That’s what makes us so bad: Jimmy’s fans.” He grinned wickedly.

“That’s right,” Gilley said. “They hear him preachin’ about how sinful we are and then they come to us wantin’ to get screwed.”

“That’s the truth,” Lewis bellowed, kicking at the door with his boot heel, “the damn truth.”

Eventually the hilarity wound down. It occurred to Gilley that he was going to have to make some announcements and open some envelopes a little later on, so he left after a cordial parting exchange. “I didn’t know Swaggart was your cousin,” I said. “He came down and pulled me off the fuckin’ stage,” said Lewis. “I had 5000 people at my show. This was in Baton Rouge, must’ve been three or four months ago. I was strung out on pills, and I don’t know how, but he knows everything I do. I was singin’ ‘I’m the meat man, ya oughta see me eat, man,’ gettin’ to where I was really rockin’, the place packed, and all of a sudden there stands Jimmy Lee, right on the stage. I said, ‘Heeey, Jimmy, how you doin’? Nice lookin’ shirt you got on.’ It looked like a damn pajama top. He said, ‘Boy, you’re comin’ with me.’ I said, ‘Well, let’s go.’ I was feelin’ good, I didn’t care.”

Lewis poured himself another drink. “The promoter came runnin’ up and Jimmy said, ‘Just talk to my lawyers.’ He took me home, poured all my whiskey down the sink and all my pills down the commode. I sat down in a chair and we talked for a while About four o’clock in the mornin’ I was ready to fight. No good, though. Jimmy just come and put his arm around me and said, ‘You’ll be all right, pal. Have some more malted milk and shrimp.’ That’s all I got for a week! I guess it saved my life. Nobody else had sense enough to say anything to me about it. They’d say, ‘Boy, you’re doin’ great.’ And I was strung out like a wild Comanche.”

“I read awhile back that you believe you’re a sinner and going to hell for playing rock & roll,” I said. “Is that true?” Lewis looked me right in the eye. “Yep,” he said. “I know the right way. I was raised a good Christian. But I couldn’t make it . . . . Too weak, I guess.” But, I argued, why would playing rock & roll damn you to hell? Lewis looked at me as if I’d just asked an impossibly stupid question. “I can’t picture Jesus Christ,” he said evenly, “doin’ a whole lotta shakin’.”

When you get down to it, that’s the source of Jerry Lee Lewis’ formidable authority, the tension that powers his personal transformation of rockin’ from a black euphemism for sex into a numinous, supercharged mojo word that defines not just his music but his entire life. Jerry Lee Lewis knew from the very first that he was going to hell for playing rock & roll, and he went ahead and rocked anyway.

Lewis was born September 29th, 1935, on a farm outside Ferriday, Louisiana, a little town a few miles from Natchez, Mississippi. When he was three a truck hit his brother, Elmo Lewis Jr., in front of the house, killing the child instantly. Until the arrival of the first of his younger sisters several years later, Jerry Lee was raised as an only child, and his mother and father doted on him. Except for the fact that his ears stuck out, he was a strikingly handsome boy, a real charmer who usually got his way.

His mother, whose death in the early Seventies sent Lewis into a tailspin of depression, practically worshiped the early country star Jimmy Rodgers, but there were all kinds of popular music in the house, including swing and Bing Crosby. When Jerry Lee was in his early teens he would spend Saturday afternoons sitting transfixed in the alley behind the Ferriday movie house. “I would listen to Gene Autry sing,” he told me one night. “It only cost a dime to get in, but you could hear the sound back there. Gene Autry was my idol.” But Lewis also heard music more powerful than Autry’s: rocking music, both in local black joints like Haney’s and in the Assembly of God church, where rhythmic hymns were sung and people getting the spirit and speaking in tongues weren’t uncommon occurrences.

When he was eight years old or thereabouts, Lewis spotted a piano in the home of an aunt. He’d never played one before, but he sat down and knocked off a recognizable version of “Silent Night.” “All black keys,” he remembered with a grin, “but my mother said, ‘He’s a natural-born piano player.’ They mortgaged the house to buy me my first piano, and I’ve still got it. There’s no more ivory on the keys; I wore ’em down to the wood.” In 1949, around the time of his fourteenth birthday, Lewis made an initial public appearance in the parking lot of the Ferriday Ford dealership to celebrate their new line of cars. He sat in with a local country & western band, but the showstopper of his set was “Drinkin’ Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” a black rhythm & blues hit of that year. He must have rocked the place, because the crowd came up with thirteen dollars for him. Elmo Lewis, who barely supported his family with carpentry work and produce from the farm, began driving his son and the piano around in the back of a truck; they’d stop, play, take up a collection and move on.

Soon, Jerry Lee Lewis started working in a Natchez nightclub, playing drums and occasional piano. He landed his own twenty-minute radio show on WNAT, which often featured his cousins Mickey and Jimmy Lee. When he was fifteen he married seventeen-year-old Dorothy Barton; before long the marriage fell apart and he was running around with Jane Mitcham. Jane got pregnant, her brothers came after Lewis, and soon he was married again. He named their son Jerry Lee Lewis Jr.

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.

Many people believe that of the two, Lewis is the greater talent. Lewis, for one, is firmly convinced that if it hadn’t been for the scandal involving Myra, he would have become “the biggest thing going.” But there’s more to it than that. “Jerry’s appeal was never as broad as Elvis’,” says Kay Martin, “because he really only appealed to men. I ran his fan club for eight years, and if I had twenty girls in it at one time, that was a lot. He turned them off; I think he frightened them. Because if you were gonna go with Jerry Lee Lewis, he didn’t want to cuddle you like a teddy bear, he wanted to show you his great balls of fire. Plus, he chained himself to the piano with his style. It was very difficult to separate him from that and put him in another context, whereas Elvis, you could put him in those movies.”

At the Los Angeles Country Music Awards broadcast, Lewis offered a short speech. Before he started his number, “Rockin’ My Life Away,” from the first Elektra album, he looked squarely into the camera and said, “I’d like to say that me and Elvis Presley never won an award, but we know who the Kings of rock & roll are.” After the show, as we poured ourselves into the limo and took off for a Hollywood party, he was unusually quiet.

“I get crazy sometimes,” he said, “upside down. But I’ve been accused of more things. If everything they say I’ve done is true, I’d have been put in the penitentiary long ago.” He turned to me. “Did you believe I was telling the truth when I said I pushed that piano in the ocean?” I nodded. “If I did, I swear I don’t remember it. A lot of times people make up things, and I just go along with ’em.” For the next ten minutes he talked about how much he loves pianos, how careful he is not to hurt them when he’s playing with the heel of his foot or clambering inside one.

The party was a whirl of country stars, movie stars and unidentifiable slicks. Lewis made a grand entrance and was soon the center of an admiring knot of people. The execs from MCA records, who were throwing the party, looked a little nonplussed, but Conway Twitty, one of the label’s brightest country stars and an ex-rockabilly singer, came over to pay his respects. “Say,” he asked Jerry, “you remember the Peppermint Lounge in Miami?” Twitty turned to me. “I’d been playin’ there two weeks – this was back in the rock & roll days – and I’d told this club owner some stuff about what Jerry had done to pianos. The guy went out and got an old beat-up piano with boards across it. Jerry showed up at the club the afternoon before he was gonna open, took one look at the piano and kicked it off the stage onto the floor. He kicked it all the way out of the building, across the parking lot and into the water. Then he came back in, blew cigar smoke in the club owner’s face, and said, ‘Now get me a goddamn piano.”‘

Later, back in the limo, Lewis puffed coolly on a cigar. “The next motherfucker that gives me a bad write-up,” he mused, taking the cigar out of his mouth and looking it over with a Jack Palance sort of glaze over his eyes, “I’m gonna hunt him down and blow his fuckin’ head off.”He slowly shifted his gaze in my direction, and then he cracked up. “Nawww, I ain’t gonna do that. Just tell ’em I’m a drunken oaf. They ain’t heard too much about Jerry Lee Lewis except that he’s always sayin’ he’s the greatest” “Well,” I said, “aren’t you?” “I never considered myself the greatest,” he replied. “But I’m the best.”

The Past Few months have been difficult for Jerry Lee Lewis. An Australian tour had to be cut short when a fan picked a fight with him onstage and the two of them, scuffling, fell against a monitor speaker. Lewis emerged from the fracas with several fractured ribs. He returned home to find that the Internal Revenue Service, which had confiscated all his vehicles once before for alleged nonpayment of taxes, had paid another visit and confiscated them again. To add insult to injury, they had him busted for marijuana and cocaine they said they found on the premises. The last time I saw him, he was looking puffy and out of it. Several people told me they were afraid he was drinking himself to death. But just before this article went to press I called up a friend in Memphis who had done some recording with Lewis. “I just saw Jerry,” he said, “and he’s been in the hospital, getting straight. He looks great. I don’t understand how a man can do what he does to himself and bounce back like that.” I could almost hear J.W. Whitten saying, “But man, that’s rock & roll.”

This story is from the December 13th, 1979 issue of Rolling Stone.

In This Article: Jerry Lee Lewis


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