Jerry Lee Lewis
October 9, 2010
If there’s any of the hellraiser left in Jerry Lee Lewis — after the six wives, the boozing and the fighting, the car crashes and the dementedly virtuosic piano-playing — his daughter and manager Phoebe is trying to goad it back into life. The door between the main sitting room and hallway of Lewis’s New York hotel suite has jammed. A thump and some insistent scratching comes from her father’s side of the divide. “Come on, kick it down da-aad,” Phoebe says raucously, her voice a soupy Southern twang. Another thump. “Nice try, but we’re still trapped, come awwwn,” she teases him.
Eventually Lewis makes it into the room, resplendent in tomato-red shirt and black trousers. One of the surviving kings of rock’n’roll, he turned 75 last month and seems frail: Phoebe has said that he is “half-dead”, though adds quickly that this is because of the effects of food poisoning interacting with medication for arthritis, which affects his lower back and shoulders. He has not been feeling well for months and has had pneumonia and shingles. He is in pain, but she says that all the tests so far “came back with good results”.
Lewis’s face is puffy, his voice raspy and demotic, like a Southern preacher after one too many illicit nights on the tiles. In less than an hour he will appear on stage at the B. B. King Blues Club and — to a whooping crowd who shout “We love you, Jerry Lee!” — will sing (or, more accurately, tunefully growl) favourites such as Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire alongside lesser-known standards, accompanied by his dextrous, pounding piano-playing. “I’m Jerry Lee Lewis and I’m damn well here to stay,” he emphatically half-sings as a rejigged last line to Rockin’ my Life Away to loud cheers. Lewis also has a new album of songs, spanning country to rock to gospel, made in collaboration with the likes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Ronnie Wood and Willie Nelson, his voice a buttery, slurring leer on songs including the title track, Mean Old Man.
Lewis sits beside me, Phoebe opposite. Half a dozen of the Lewis entourage remain, too. There is a distinct protectiveness of him: he is not only famous for his songs, but, more than half a century on, also for the scandal of his marriage to one of his cousins, Myra (Phoebe’s mother) when she was only 13 in 1957.
His reputation suffered for years afterwards. Lewis has had one biopic made about him (Great Balls of Fire, in 1989, with a bequiffed, manic Dennis Quaid) and now another, allegedly starring Brad Pitt, is planned. He says that he still likes performing. “You do?” Phoebe asks, surprised. “Yeah,” her father says. “OK,” she acquiesces, “ ’cos I always wonder. Because,” she says, looking at me, “he’s been doing it for so long. I wonder if he ever gets sick of it, like I do when I go to the grocery store I drive the same route every day. I have to make it different.” Her father growls: “I don’t like doing the same thing over and over either. I like to mix it up.”
He grew up poor in Ferriday, Louisiana: his parents, Elmo and Mamie, mortgaged their farm to buy him his first piano. The first thing that he played was Silent Night: he doesn’t know why; he remembers playing it note-perfect at 5, his mother shouting, “Jerry, you’re a born piano player!” He was influenced by country and western music, soul, gospel and rhythm and blues, and particularly the artists Gene Autry, Al Jolson, Jimmy Rogers and Hank Williams Sr. “They had real talent,” he says. “They were the real thing.” He played piano raucously at the church of the Southwest Bible Institute in Texas, where his mother had enrolled him, and was accused of playing the “Devil’s music”.
He knew that he would be a success “if I could get a record out”, so he went to Nash- ville in 1955; the Grand Ole Opry (the renowned country and western concert and radio show) and record companies turned him down. He looks stern. “They said, ‘Can you play guitar?’ I said, ‘Yeah, but I play the piano’. They said, ‘If you know how to play a guitar we might be able to do something for you, you’ve got a good voice’. I said, ‘I hitch-hiked into this town, I can hitch-hike out’.”
So he went to Sun Records in Memphis; the founder, Sam Phillips, was away. “I told Jack Clement [the producer and engineer] that I wasn’t leaving till somebody heard me. He set me up and I cut [the song] Crazy Arms. He played it for Sam.” When they met, Phillips asked: “Are you Jerry Lee Lewis?” Lewis replied that he was. “Well,” Phillips told him, “I believe you’re going to be a moneymaker.”
Where did his wild piano-playing style come from? “That’s a great question,” Phoebe says. “I believe he plays the piano with more passion than he has for anything in his life.”
Lewis says: “I taught myself to play, I taught myself every song in every key. I’m just a physical person. I never hit a woman though.”
Lewis’s brilliance is evident in Million Dollar Quartet, the Broadway hit that dramatises one of the most hallowed days in music — the afternoon of December 4, 1956, when Lewis was joined by Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins at Sun Records for what became a legendary impromptu jam session.
Lewis was given a rousing welcome when he appeared on stage with the cast last month. “I didn’t know what was going to happen that day,” Lewis recalls. “Elvis called up Sam [Phillips], Johnny Cash showed up, then Carl Perkins, and we all started singin’ and playin’ and cuttin’ up.”
Phillips knew that history was being made and left the tape machine running. It’s Lewis you can hear on the piano as the young stars laugh, joke and run through all the country and gospel songs they knew. “Over 50 years later,” Phoebe says, “he never expected to watch a re-creation of it on Broadway.”
Presley and Lewis were particularly close: they would go motorcycle riding and Lewis would be summoned to Graceland to play the piano for hours “and he’d be just dancin’.” Lewis adds quietly: “I don’t know how to explain it. I am the only one left.”
Does he think about dying? “Yes, I think about that quite often,” he says, then looks right at me and smiles: “But not too often.” Phoebe says she didn’t realise that. “Sure I do,” he says, “don’t you?” “Yeah, I suppose I do,” she says sadly. “As much as I love life, I learnt from my daddy to look forward to being with God and reunited with the family that’s gone before us some day.”
“That’s exactly what I think,” her father says. There has been a lot of tragedy in his life: his fourth wife, Jaren, drowned; his fifth, Shawn, died of a drug overdose. He has also lost two children: three-year-old Stevie, who drowned in 1962, and in 1973 Jerry Lee Lewis Jr, 19, who died in a Jeep accident. “That’s not an easy thing,” he says of these losses. “They’re something that you accept… and go on.”
Why so many wives? “It was a challenge,” he says, then laughs. “I’m joking.” Phoebe looks at him intently, “Yeah, why did you get married all them times?”
“Well, they wanted to get married and I got married,” Lewis replies stoutly. Phoebe isn’t satisfied, “You never did anything else anyone wanted you to do, why that?”
“Getting married was a different ball game,” Lewis says. She laughs: “With benefits, I guess?” Lewis growls, “Well, there were benefits to some of it — for a small while.” Did you love them all, I ask. “Oh yes.” Phoebe roars: “You sure about that?” Lewis looks desperately to me: “You’ve got me in a bind here, son,” and later says, “I made some mistakes. I ain’t perfect. Far from it.” His sixth marriage ended in divorce in 2004 — would he marry again? “Nope. But then again, you never know. I do love a pretty girl.”
When I ask about the scandal around his marriage to Myra, Phoebe interjects: “The papers said he was playing to half-empty houses and nobody liked him, but…”
“That wasn’t true,” Lewis growls. “We played to packed houses.” Myra, Phoebe says, “was scared to death and over- whelmed” by the attention. “But my dad makes no apologies, didn’t care, never has, never will. It’s not unusual, in Louisiana, where he comes from, to marry a cousin.”
“Second cousin,” Lewis growls, darkly. “She went home, cooked dinner and was the little housewife,” Phoebe says. “She couldn’t cook,” Lewis says, rolling his eyes. “You married a 13-year-old girl, what did you expect?” Phoebe shoots back. Myra and Jerry Lee divorced in December 1970, after 13 years of marriage; now aged 66, she lives in Georgia.
After his career stalled in the 1960s Lewis went on to have successful country hits, while also having rock hits such as his cover of the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace (possibly a cheeky choice, the lyrics being “You know what I like / Chantilly lace and a pretty face / and a pony tail hangin’ down”) in 1972. He was inducted into the Rock’n’ Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and in 1998 toured with two other great survivors, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. His previous album, Last Man Standing (2006), sold 500,000 copies.
Lewis gave up alcohol seven years ago. “You could say it was because of my health,” he says gloomily. “I’d like to still drink but I can’t. If I have a bloody mary — and I love bloody marys — my face goes bright red. My body rejects alcohol. I feel better not drinking. It can foul you up, make you do crazy things.” Such as? “A lot of fightin’.”
Phoebe adds: “I never saw my daddy get into a fight, but I would see him later on with a broken nose. The other guy looked a lot worse. But,” she says firmly, “he was insane, crazy, wild, just beyond anything you can imagine.”
Lewis growls and smiles. “I’ll tell you how crazy I was. I turned a Rolls-Royce over in a ditch. The police wanted to get me out. I said, ‘I’m not getting out of this car until the song on the radio, which was The One Rose, quits playing’. I let it play out [and he sings faintly, ‘You’re the one rose / That’s left in my heart’] then I got out of the car and went to jail.” Phoebe says that she has never heard that story before.
Father and daughter are clearly extremely close. “My childhood is filled with memories of travelling with my daddy, meeting famous people and seeing some pretty wild stuff,” Phoebe says. Her father laughs, remembering Keith Richards waiting outside his dressing room once for an autograph, with Phoebe beside herself in the room at the thought of meet- ing one of her idols. She admits that it was “pretty overwhelming” when it was just her “answering phones, cooking and handling all the business”, but now her Aunt Judith helps to take care of her father at his mansion in Nesbit, Mississippi, where — among the mementoes of a 60-year career — is his first piano. Phoebe is determined “not to allow his name to be used for profit alone. I want it to live on and stand for what he is: a sensitive, brilliant man. I’m not in this for the money. That said, I expect him to be around for a long time yet”.
After the B. B. King gig, Lewis says that he doesn’t get tired of singing the old hits: “They were great songs then and they’re great songs now.” He has no remaining ambitions: “I’ve done what I set out to do. I’ll keep doing that. I just want to get back into the studio and keep playing my shows. I don’t think I’ll ever retire. I play piano and sing. That’s all I do.” How does he see his musical legacy? “Don’t put no headstone on my grave,” he says, laughing. “I want a monument.”