Onstage, at least, Jerry Lee Lewis is still a ball of fire

by Thor Christensen

The Dallas Morning News (MCT)

30 March 2007

For the next 65 minutes, Jerry Lee Lewis is no longer a frail old man. He's the virile punk who helped invent rock 'n' roll 50 years ago.
Rock 'n' roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis, 71, "The Killer," talks to a reporter during an interview before his performance at the Choctaw Casino-Resort. He was promoting his cd "Last Man Standing." (Barbara Davidson/Dallas Morning News/MCT) 

DURANT, Okla.—Jerry Lee Lewis is 71 going on 103.

His pale skin looks like wax. His eyes are frozen in a blank stare. As he shuffles on to the stage at Choctaw Casino, he looks as if he might collapse at any moment.

But when he finally reaches the piano, his fingers explode into “Great Balls of Fire.” He pounds the keys like a crazed virtuoso, and a dozen notes fly off at once like a flock of startled geese.

For the next 65 minutes, Jerry Lee Lewis is no longer a frail old man. He’s the virile punk who helped invent rock `n’ roll 50 years ago.

“I’m having a good time,” he drawls in a garbled voice. “I’m livin’ and I’m breathin.’”

That’s news to a lot of people. Most of the world assumed the Killer had died years ago, and who could fault them?

He rarely tours, preferring to watch “Gunsmoke” marathons at his ranch near Memphis that some people call “Disgraceland.” He hadn’t put out an album in 11 years before “Last Man Standing,” the new all-star duets CD that may be his final hurrah.

Of all the legends who came out of Sun Records in the 1950s—Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison—no one would have bet the last one standing would be the pill-popping, whiskey-guzzling, gun-waving hellion from Ferriday, La.

Nobody—except the Killer.

“Oh, yeah. I figured I’d still be here,” he says backstage after the concert.

He’s sitting in a cowhide chair, his hands trembling, his eyes watery. Ask him to describe his life, and he mulls it over for 15 seconds.

“Stimulating,” he says as his poker face gives way to a grin.

He’s a man of few words—partly because he’s short on breath after singing for an hour. But mostly, he doesn’t trust the media.

He’s endured so much bad press over the years that he holds journalists in the same low esteem as IRS agents—another group he’s butted heads with on a regular basis.

He’s agreed to do a 10-minute interview to promote “Last Man Standing,” but it’s like interviewing a marble statue. Onstage, his fingers do the talking. Backstage, he clams up and stares down a reporter until his manager finally steps in and ends the interview like a referee ending a lopsided boxing match.

“Thank you very much—it’s been a pleasure,” the singer says as you leave. Even when he’s fibbing, the Killer can seem like a perfect gentleman.

He was born in 1935 to Mary Ethyl and Elmo Lewis, a moonshiner who spent much of Jerry Lee’s childhood in jail. The family couldn’t afford a piano, so little Jerry learned to perform at the house of his cousin, the future evangelist Jimmy Swaggart.

Married at 15 to the daughter of a Pentecostal minister, Lewis decided to be a preacher, too, and enrolled at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie. But the religion didn’t stick.

At night, he’d sneak out and go bar-hopping in Dallas. Three months later, his preaching days were done.

“I didn’t get kicked out of school,” he says, “I got asked to leave for playing `My God Is Real’ boogie-woogie style on the piano in the chapel. The preachers didn’t think it was too impressive, but I said, `One day, you’ll see.’”

That day came in 1957, when Sun Records released “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” – 2 minutes and 50 seconds of carnal energy. The single sold 1 million copies and convinced music biz execs that rock was more than just a passing fad.

“I have no idea who invented rock `n’ roll,” Lewis says, “but I was the one who put it on the map.”

Five months after “Shakin’,” he rearranged the map again with “Great Balls of Fire.”

The phrase came from preachers describing the fiery arrival of the Holy Spirit. But millions of teenagers knew he was really singing about doing the mattress mambo.

Barely 22, he was a superstar—the next Elvis Presley, but with a threat of danger. Kicking over his bench, climbing on top of his piano and setting the blasted thing on fire, he seemed crazier than a bag of squirrels.

“He was just so punk,” says Iggy Pop, a man who knows a thing or two about that word. “He walked onstage looking like Dracula, with this sneer of disgust. When he hissed in `Breathless,’ it was pure evil.”

But as quickly as his career took off, it all came crashing down.

In mid-‘58, while he was touring the U.K., British tabloids raised a stink about his latest marriage, his third, to his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown. Fans booed him. Promoters canceled his shows. And the outrage followed him back to the U.S., where radio stations blacklisted him.

A half-century later, the scandal still defines him. Jerry Lee Lewis may be a founding father of rock, but he’s best known as the cradle-robber who married his cousin.

“Every story tries to paint him as some pedophile, but that’s not the true story,” says Jimmy Rip, who produced “Last Man Standing.”

“What he did wasn’t that unusual in the South in the late `50s—and he did it because he loved Myra. When everyone wanted him to get his marriage annulled, he wouldn’t.”

Banned by pop stations, he reinvented himself as a country singer and scored dozens of hits such as “Another Place Another Time” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me).”

But while his career rebounded, his life was a mess. First, it was the booze. Then the painkillers. Then the booze and the pills mixed together.

He divorced Myra in 1971; accidentally shot his bassist in `75 (he lived); almost died of bleeding ulcers in `81 and `85; buried his fourth wife, Jaren, in `82 (she drowned in a swimming pool); and in 1984, buried his fifth wife, Shawn, who according to a coroner’s report, overdosed by accident on Lewis’ methadone pills. But an investigative story in Rolling Stone cast doubt on the ruling and implied there was another reason he’s called the Killer.

Months after the death, Lewis married wife No. 6, 22-year-old Kerrie McCarver (they divorced in 2005).

The late `80s and early `90s were a blur of hospital trips, canceled gigs and run-ins with the IRS. As always, the singer refused to apologize for any of it. “It Was The Whiskey Talking (Not Me)” wasn’t just the title of his 1990 song—it was his big wet raspberry to the world.

Not everyone was amused. In 1992, after he pulled out of a show at Billy Bob’s in Fort Worth at the last minute, a spokeswoman said “Billy’s so steamed that if he can help it, Jerry Lee will never play in Texas again.”

Finally, in the mid-‘90s, the singer gave up drinking for good.

“It was pretty hard to do,” he says. “But it can be done. I just quit.”

But kicking the painkillers proved more difficult. After releasing “Young Blood” in `95, his first album in 12 years, he drifted back into a drug-fogged state of semi-retirement.

Enter producer Rip and his friend, Steve Bing, the multimillionaire movie producer and Jerry Lee Lewis fanatic. In 2001, they flew to Mississippi with a brown paper bag full of cash to woo Lewis into making “Last Man Standing.”

“Jerry Lee’s like DeNiro in `Meet the Parents.’ He’s literally a human lie detector,” Rip says. “We wanted him to feel there was no chance we’d screw him around, and the only way to do that was to pay him. After he got paid, he was completely comfortable.”

Comfortable, but numb. Lewis didn’t overcome his pill addiction until two years ago, which made the early recording sessions ” interesting,” Rip says.

“Painkillers mess with your voice, and there were days when he was gravelly. But there were plenty of days when his voice was pure and wonderful, and he transformed himself into the 25-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis.”

Rip and Bing pieced together the CD over five years—eventually nailing down 21 guest performances by the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Eric Clapton. But the most inspired pairing is Lewis and an equally wobbly-voiced Keith Richards crooning “That Kind of Fool.”

“When the world ends, the only things still alive are gonna be cockroaches and Keith Richards and Jerry Lee Lewis,” Rip says.

“People have been saying Jerry Lee was going to die since the `50s. But he’s still got this life force, this will, this spirit. He’s 71 and frail, but put him in front of a piano, and he’ll make that piano levitate.”

Onstage at Choctaw Casino, the spirit is starting to wane. Lewis sounds winded, and his words are slurred. Five minutes after finishing “Sweet Little Sixteen” he forgets he already sang it and sings it again.

“No applause on that one—it’s a repeat,” he says, his pale face turning pink with embarrassment. “I thought we’d done that, but I didn’t want to stop in the middle and admit defeat.”

But the most telling moment arrives during “Don’t Put No Headstone on My Grave.” While making “Last Man Standing,” he refused to sing any songs about death. But tonight, he’s ready to stare mortality in the face. “Mama, Mama, don’t you cry, I’m gonna meet you in the by and by/Tell Papa I’m comin’ home, God it can’t be very long.”

Backstage, the interview is almost over. He’s tired, and a private plane is waiting to take him home to Mississippi, where he lives with his daughter Phoebe and their five Chihuahuas. But he has time for one last question: What’s the biggest misconception about Jerry Lee Lewis?

He mentions “Great Balls of Fire,” the cartoonish 1989 film starring Dennis Quaid as a hambone version of the singer.

“I never acted like that in my life,” he says. “That movie was bad news.”

But he says the biggest fallacy has to do with what his cousin Jimmy Swaggart calls “the devil’s music.”

Half the stories written about Lewis claim he’s ashamed of “Great Balls of Fire” because deep down, he knows it’s immoral. The others claim he brags about dancing with the devil.

The singer says both stories are pure hogwash.

“That `devil’s music’ stuff ... Somebody made up that story,” he sneers. “My talent comes from God—and I’ve never done anything I’m ashamed of.”

Then he flashes a mischievous grin: “Well, maybe a few things.”

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