The Killer at Peace: Jerry Lee Lewis’ Golden Years
In July, for what he says was the first time in his 60-year career, Jerry Lee Lewis took a vacation. “I had to ride a train,” says Lewis in his thick Louisiana drawl, reclining in his favorite leather chair in his living room. “I was really looking forward to that.”
Lewis and his seventh wife, Judith, headed out from Mississippi to visit his 28-year-old son in Grand Rapids, Michigan, boarding an Amtrak double-decker with sleeping cabins. But the accommodations were tighter than they expected. “They had us in a cubicle that was like two coffins,” adds Judith, 64, sitting beside him, puffing on an e-cigarette. “It was like being in an MRI. He had to push me up to the top bunk.”
“It ain’t like it is watching it on TV, is it?” he says. “I never wanna try that again. Worst experience I ever had on the road in my life on that thing. It kept stopping, and they never quit blowin’ the horn!”
They got a refund on their return tickets and rented a car for the trip back. But Lewis, 79, says it was all worth it, because he got to spend 10 days playing with his one-year-old grandson, Jerry Lee Lewis IV, even going swimming. “A fine-looking kid,” he says, slowing the words down with a preacher’s command. “A great boy. God willin’, we’re goin’ back Christmas.”
Lewis probably wouldn’t have thought of taking this trip a decade ago, when his bad back and heavy use of meds led some friends to think he had all but checked out. “I was told Jerry Lee liked to just lay in bed and watch TV,” says drummer Jim Keltner, who has played on Lewis’ past three albums. “I remember doing an NPR interview with him, and his eyes were just spinning. You weren’t seeing the real Jerry Lee.” That changed with the help of billionaire philanthropist Steve Bing, a superfan who made it his mission to get Lewis recording again. Bing set him up with new accountants to untangle his finances, along with new doctors and even new teeth. “He helped get Jerry Lee in a situation where he wasn’t being given hard meds for various ailments,” says Keltner. Soon, Lewis was recording live with a band for the first time in years.
Jerry Lee and Judith have been married for almost three years. She had been previously married to the brother of Lewis’ third and most famous wife, Myra. Judith became his caretaker five years ago, and soon they became romantic. “It happened just by talking,” she says. “I had to get used to him joking. Like, he’ll say, ‘Is your food good?’ And I’ll say it’s wonderful. He’ll say, ‘Shut up and eat it.’ ”
“She says she couldn’t take a joke,” he deadpans. “But she took me!”
“He is wonderful,” Judith adds. “I just want people to know what kind of a giving, loving, godly person he is. Everybody does something in their lifetime they regret or whatever, but . . .”
“I don’t think I have!” he says. “Well, maybe a little bit, yeah.”
Lewis has lived at this two-story brick house in Nesbit, Mississippi, 20 miles outside Memphis, for more than 40 years. Located on a secluded road, it’s hard to miss, with an iron gate featuring a piano and the words The Lewis Ranch. The property overlooks a small, muddy lake, where Lewis once broke his right leg jet-skiing in the Eighties. When you drive in, his six dogs bark furiously behind a fence attached to the house.
The wood-paneled living room is full of photos of Lewis with friends like Fats Domino and Ray Charles, gig posters, and gold records, many from Sun, where he helped popularize rock & roll with his fiery combination of boogie-woogie piano and tent-revival fervor. A large painting of a Chihuahua sits next to the fireplace. (“That’s my baby. Lost him in about ’97,” he says quietly.) A black Yamaha piano sits across the room on a bobcat-skin rug, head included. (“One of his ex-wives,” says J.W. Whitten, his road manager of 40 years.)
Lewis is wearing a loose, bright-blue button-up shirt and navy pajama pants, shifting in his seat restlessly and rapping his gold-top cane on the floor when he wants to make a point. After I compliment him on “Keep Me in Mind,” an old country tune on his new album, Rock & Roll Time, he bursts into the chorus. “Not bad, is it?” he says with a laugh. He’s still charged up from his show a few nights earlier at Nashville’s Ryman Auditorium. Lewis ended up playing four encores, and afterward audience members swarmed his car. “A fantastic crowd,” he says. “A lot of real young people, and some people my age, I guess. Probably not quite that old, though,” he adds with a laugh. He feels his age when he’s playing, but only a little. “You go out with your back hurting, like [someone] sticking a knife in your back. I’ve got that to contend with. But it’s nothing I can’t shake loose of when I go onstage.”