FLAMEJOBTHE FIERY CAREER AND DEVILISH GENIUS OF JERRY LEE LEWIS
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.
He worked a steady string of one-nighters through the '60s, playing his old hits, drawing energy from hecklers and taunting them in turn. He graduated from bubblegum and comic books to whiskey and cigars, but he didn't lose his swagger. Or his leer.
Sex, and a sickness with sex, has always been at the heart of his dualistic enterprise. Someone aptly titled two of Tosches' Village Voice articles on Jerry Lee "Pentecostals in Heat" and "The Short-Shorts of Satan"; and more than one listener has supposed the lyrics to "Whole Lotta Shakin'" were "Come all over baby." The sheet music says "Come on over baby," but for all intents and purposes, the casual listener probably gets it right the first time. There's a glorious tawdriness to almost everything Lewis touches.
By 1988, Jimmy Swaggart had become the Assembly of God's star evangelist; he had long damned his famous cousin's truck with the Devil, but when it was revealed that Swaggart had lain (and lain, and lain) with a prostitute, he was defrocked. Jerry Lee, on the other hand, positively pranced in the lake of fire, with nowhere to go but up.
What may have been his finest hour never officially made it to record bins. In 1968, he snagged a role in Los Angeles as Iago in Catch My Soul, a rock 'n' roll production of Othello. It was brilliant casting: Iago is the slitheriest of the slithery, a sly, sex-obsessed, mutably vicious orderly in the Venetian army. Jerry Lee was decked out for the part in a black goatee to match his darkened hair, and played a green piano that belched red smoke. He ladled his oily cracker bonhomie over the Elizabethan verse and made the show's trained actors sound like furniture.
Before the play could move to Broadway, Lewis had his first comeback hit on the country charts. His producers pushed him into the field, but they didn't have to nudge him much before Jerry Lee was home again.
"I knew that we had to make a move, it was right there under my nose the whole time," he told author Peter Guralnick. "I been singing this kind of music ever since I was a kid, I just got hung up on rock and it seemed like a big thing to do." Note that he doesn't say it seemed like a good thing to do, or even a fun or lucrative one--just "big," as though there are no subtle distinctions in his world.
"It's like a farmer sitting out on a 300-acre farm," he continued, "and all the time oil's flowing under him, and he ain't got enough sense to get at it. Well, one day he finally hit, and then he's a smart man."
With such songs as "Another Place, Another Time," Jerry Lee proved as fine a honky-tonk player as a rock 'n' roller.
MDNMHe's been known by the nickname "Killer" since the Sun days in the '50s, but it's a sobriquet he uses interchangeably with other people's names, so that all people become "Killer" to him; he's an indefatigable cynic, and that, as much as the amphetamines, Scotch or Demerol, seems to have kept him itching and running all these years. Others in his life have been less fortunate: His 2-year-old son Steve drowned in his backyard pool in 1962. Another son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., perished in a 1973 car crash. His fourth, estranged wife, Jaren Pate Lewis, also drowned in a pool in 1982, and his fifth wife died at home under suspicious circumstances.
Lewis claimed she died in her sleep, but a police officer who later arrived at the scene said she was bruised and had blood under her fingernails. Jerry Lee was never charged in her death, and his myth was fueled by dark suggestions that he had grown into his childhood nickname.
Now pushing 60, Lewis keeps rocking in his live shows when the mood hits, and he keeps bragging of his prowess. It's a rare case of justified egomania. His piano playing, both sparkling and raw, incorporates bits of boogie-woogie, but in the end seems wholly original. Less often mentioned is his voice, a supple, reedy tenor capable of expressing all there is to know in rock 'n' roll--keening exhortations to twist, strip and moan.
And, while it seems almost heretical to say so, his voice has actually improved with age. On the 1989 Great Balls of Fire soundtrack, he recut his earlier hits with all the fire he had 30 years before, but with a stiffened edge that makes a song like "Whole Lotta Shakin'" sound even more defiant than it did on the original Sun session.
All the more reason, then, that Young Blood disappoints. His topnotch pianistics and pickled voice get lost in subpar arrangements: On most of the cuts, producer Andy Paley has drowned Jerry Lee's tribal thump in echo, reeds and strings, like a bird dog with a tin can tied to his tail. Still, buried beneath the layers of jivey studio goo, there's a man who can summon the ages of rock with one hand tied behind his back. Young Blood mostly succeeds as a place-marker, until the next, real Jerry Lee album comes along, or he comes all over your town.
Alaskan journalist David Hulen saw Jerry Lee in Evansville, Indiana, in the early '80s on a country bill with another of his cousins, Mickey Gilley. Hulen counted it as one of the best concerts he'd ever seen.
Jerry Lee tore through a dozen songs in an hour, and the whole set, even "Somewhere Over the Rainbow," had an edge. The band swung tight and bluesy behind him, playing hard country--certainly not the kind of music the audience was used to hearing on the radio. People sat silently, some walked out, but the response just seemed to egg Jerry Lee on. "It was like he was trying to shock them, and the music got even rawer and louder and faster," Hulen said. "When he kicked the piano bench on 'Great Balls of Fire' like he always does, it didn't seem cheesy at all--he seemed truly pissed."
Sam Phillips once said that everything Jerry Lee does that works is spontaneous. Evidently, everything that doesn't work is spontaneous, too. Hulen saw Jerry Lee a second time, at an Indiana county fair a few months later. That show, he said, was one of the worst he'd seen:
"He seemed drunk or high or both. He hurled insult after insult at the crowd. He stopped songs midway through and berated the band for fucking up in ways that we couldn't hear. He said 'fuck' and 'motherfucker' a lot and told a filthy, nearly incomprehensible joke or two. He bitched about the sound and the way the piano was tuned, and talked with this arrogant sneer and seemed perfectly capable of shooting somebody. He was wearing black jeans, black cowboy boots and a black sleeveless tee shirt. He stormed off the stage after maybe 20 minutes, disappeared and never came back out."
It's odd, in a way, because as far as Jerry Lee ran from the back of that stage, there was only but so far he could get before he'd have to start over with a show the next night or the night after that. Where can he run to? Four tacky walls somewhere the tax man hasn't found yet? A sixth wife?
The stage is the only home Jerry Lee has, where he answers his own question, "Who will play this old piano?" He's still the best on a good night and still the first to say so; a 12-year-old in a beat-up old man's body, his own burnt offering; a bullying, pitiless, pitiful genius; possessed, quite likely mad, and as inevitable as that hand, scuttling like a singed crab over the rock of ages.
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