By Nicki Escudero
By Amy Silverman
By Brian Palmer
By Chris Parker
By Troy Farah
By Lauren Wise
By Lauren Wise
It was January 1958, and newly married Myra Lewis, 13, was home alone in Memphis, watching a horror movie on TV. Her husband, a piano player, was out late, as he had been almost every night of their short life together. The movie was The Hand, the tale of a pianist whose severed appendage runs amok, single-handedly strangling its detractors. Myra ran from the house screaming.
At that moment, her husband, Jerry Lee, was downtown at the Sun recording studio cutting "Breathless," as fine a slab of rock 'n' roll as anyone ever made--a rollicking, stop-time stomp with pounding left-hand bass and starboard glissandos. In the last year, Jerry Lee Lewis had come out of nowhere, or the next best place--Ferriday, Louisiana--and written the book on boogie-woogie rockabilly with hits like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire." Other piano players had more finesse, other singers had more range; hell, other musicians wrote their songs--but no one could touch Jerry Lee in his prime.
Now, 37 years later, he has an album out--his first new collection in a little more than a decade. The 14 tracks on Young Blood alone never would have made his name. But as a measure of a rock 'n' roller nearing his 60th birthday, they constitute a remarkable statement: Like that severed hand, Jerry Lee goes on and on, long after his rivals have hung it up or died. When his rock success dissipated in a cloud of scandal, Lewis was resurrected in country music. With his country hits more than a decade behind him, he's treading water now. But only a fool would bet he'll drown. He's still the most talented thug stomping through the Valley of Death.
True to form, Jerry Lee claims he had no influences, but don't take his word on that. He grew up in a backwater town attending Pentecostal services at a little Assembly of God church. He sang and played hymns there, and at night he and his cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, sneaked off to watch the entertainers at a juke joint on the black side of town. Both boys had precocious talent: Jimmy Lee shone as a boy preacher; Jerry Lee flirted with the idea of preaching--going so far as to spend a semester at a Texas Bible college before he was expelled for, among other things, putting too much boogie in his hymns--but spent hours every day at the Starck upright piano his daddy bought for him, playing until he'd worn holes in the keys.
Jimmy and Jerry Lee would both rise to fame in oddly related vocations. And both, by their own copious profession, would be caught between things of the flesh and the Lord.
Jerry Lee learned all he ever knew about piano playing in his teens, and after that he seldom played a song the same way twice. And yet, there was a time in '58 when he labored for days in the studio over "Great Balls of Fire" because he couldn't get the feel of it. On the second day, the tape was running as he and producer Sam Phillips started arguing a blunt theological point. The song was sinful, Jerry Lee said.
"Jerry, Jerry," Phillips retorted. "If you think you can't, can't do good because you're a rock 'n' roll exponent. . . . You can save souls!"
"No, no, no, no!" Jerry Lee shouted.
"Yes!" Phillips said, cutting him off.
"How can the Devil save souls? What're you talkin' about?"
"Listen, listen," Phillips implored, trying to appease the artist and get his record made.
"Man, I got the Devil in me!" Jerry Lee declared.
A few months later, as "Great Balls of Fire" was flying up the pop charts, Lewis was on a bill at the Brooklyn Paramount with Chuck Berry, who was fresh from his own chart successes. The two men fought about who was going to open the show. Berry said he should go on last since he had more hits. Promoter Alan Freed sided with him, and Jerry Lee went out first. Soon into his abbreviated set, the crowd screamed and rushed the stage.
"He stood, kicked the piano stool away with violence, and broke into 'Great Balls of Fire,'" Nick Tosches writes in his superb biography, Hellfire. "As the screaming chaos grew suddenly and sublimely greater, he drew from his jacket a Coke bottle full of gasoline, and he doused the piano with one hand as the other hand banged out the song; and he struck a wooden match and he set the piano aflame, and his hands, like the hands of a madman, did not quit the blazing keys, but kept pounding, until all became unknown tongues and holiness and fire, and the kids went utterly, magically berserk with the frenzy of it all; and Jerry Lee stalked backstage, stinking of gasoline and wrath, and he said to Chuck Berry, real calm, as the sounds of the kids going crazy and stamping and yelling shook the walls; he said, 'Follow that, nigger.'"
Scandal erupted later that year, when Jerry Lee set out to tour England with Myra in tow. The British tabloids discovered the wild rocker's wife was his scarcely pubescent second cousin and had a field day. Jerry Lee retreated back across the Atlantic, but it was too late. Phillips and Sun refused to throw good money after bad, but kept Jerry Lee locked in a five-year contract.