Last man standing?
Anyone following the career of Jerry Lee Lewis, the great wild man of early rock `n’ roll, the guy who out-partied, out-fought and out-gunned (literally) such contemporaries as Elvis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison, wouldn’t have put money on it.
But the rock `n’ roll gods, apparently, love a great twist.
Somehow, improbably, “The Killer” has outlasted all his Sun label buddies - maybe through sheer cussedness. It certainly wasn’t through careful living, 9 p.m. bedtimes and temperance.
The great Ferriday, La.-born rock showboat made his bones in two ways. First, as the man who taught the piano to rock like a guitar in such hell-raising `50s classics as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” and “Great Balls of Fire” and later in such country-and-western crossover hits as “What Made Milwaukee Famous” and “Middle Age Crazy.”
Second, as a man who took living on the edge to the edge.
This is the man who, among other things, scandalously married his 13-year-old cousin, drove his car into the gates of Graceland, accidentally shot and injured his bass player, and has generally been known to fight, booze, drug-abuse and repent (Jimmy Swaggart is a cousin) with the best of them. He also had his share of tragedy: One of his wives committed suicide and another drowned mysteriously in a swimming pool; two of his children died in accidents.
So when Jerry Lee Lewis says, at 72, that he’s the last man standing, that may well be his greatest achievement in a lifetime of achievements.
The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer (1986) recently took a moment to catch up.
Of your fellow Sun stars - Elvis, Orbison and so on - who were you closest to, and what’s your best memory of him?
I’ve been asked that before. All us guys were close friends. Me and Johnny (Cash) were always good friends from the start and to the end. Carl (Perkins) was a good friend too, and Roy (Orbison). Me and Elvis got along fine and we considered each other to be pretty good friends, but I was on the road more with some of the other guys so we naturally got to be closer. Man, we had some wild times out there on the road. Had some great times.
As both a Louisiana native and Mississippi resident, how did Katrina affect you? What do you think of the recovery efforts?
Listen, that was a bad scene down there. My house in Mississippi was not hit, we got a heavy rainstorm after Katrina moved inland but I live up north in Mississippi by Memphis. I had just gotten back home the night Katrina hit. I had played a show in Biloxi, Miss. I turned on the news the next day and the casino I had been at was blown into the middle of the highway!
But I’m not too happy about the way that was handled down there afterwards. The government let the people down big time. I went down to the Lower Ninth Ward (in New Orleans) several months ago to help out Brad Pitt, who’s rebuilding that area. It was a mess, even after all this time. Houses gone, nothing but cement foundations. We played a benefit show for the folks. New Orleans is a city I love. Louisiana is my home state and I’ll do anything for her. (Lewis suggests anyone interested in helping New Orleans visit makeitrightnola.org.)
You’ve had fame, money, women - everything that most people want out of life. At this stage in your career, what gives you the most satisfaction? What in a typical day gives you the most pleasure?
Yes, yes and yes! (laughs) I guess everybody does want that, especially the ones that don’t have it, but it ain’t all there is in this life. You gotta learn to live with the fame, put up with the women and try to hold on to the money. None of those things are easy to do.
What I like now is playing my shows. Concentrating on that. I try to give everything to my fans. On a regular day, I just, I don’t know - spend time with my dogs and watch TCM (Turner Classic Movies) and the Western channel. I have got a house on some land with a lake and horses and dogs. It’s quiet out here. I travel a lot for my shows and so it’s a good place to come home to. I have a swimming pool if my daughter will take the cover off of it! And we have jet skis for the lake.
You were known, back in the day, for being a bit of a brawler. Did people ever pick fights with you, just for being Jerry Lee Lewis? What happened?
Yep. ... I picked a few fights. Had my nose broke a few times, broke a few, too. Those days are over. I don’t do that anymore. Of course, if somebody makes me mad I’ll probably stand up for myself. Wouldn’t you?