Six wives. Shootings. Arrests.|
No wonder they call him The Killer
March 20, 2005
There's only one man still playing rock'n'roll for real, still locked
between God and the Devil's music. Although Jerry Lee Lewis is notoriously
wary of journalists, Robert Gordon was allowed on tour and in the studio to
complete this extraordinary profile of the life, loves and songs of the last
man standing from the dawn of pop
Sunday March 20, 2005 - Observer Music Monthly
It's a December night and despite the chill, Jerry Lee Lewis dresses for a
trip to Hell. He wears flip flops, green and blue plaid pyjama bottoms, and
a loose nylon jacket with a casino's logo on the back. Rock and roll's
original wild child, now 69, enters the Sam Phillips Recording Service in
Memphis and his band, along with the LA producer and engineer, gather around
'You seen your mama lately?' Jerry Lee asks Kenny Lovelace, his guitar
player of 37 years. 'Was in Louisiana last week,' Kenny says. 'Tell your
mama hello.' Jerry's in a good mood. Every night is different, and it can
change from minute to minute, but this night, there's a sharpness to his
attitude that indicates all is right in his inscrutable world. Some of the
players are sipping beer, some soft drinks. The producer, Jimmy Rip, tells
Jerry that the song they cut at the previous session, a rare Jerry Lee
original called 'Old Glory,' now has harmony vocals on it from country star
Toby Keith. Jerry Lee's in a storytelling mood and the mention of one
country star brings on a story about another.
'You remember when old Waylon Jennings loaned me his fiddle?' Everyone nods
and says, Yeah, yeah. 'He knew my reputation on the piano and Waylon said,
"I want it back in the same shape you're getting it."' Jerry Lee giggles a
little, then says he told Waylon, 'Or what?' There's a beat and then
everyone laughs, picturing these two music outlaws in a standoff. But
nothing gets past Jerry Lee. He sees everything that happens and senses
everything that doesn't. It's a good story - told well - but it didn't get
the guffaws he expected, so he rolls on to another, one that conveys both
humour and the sense of menacing hostility that always percolates below
Jerry Lee's skin.
'You remember that record we cut in London?' Jerry asks Kenny, who played on
the 1973 London Sessions. 'Had all those people there and that drummer
showed up, what's his name?' The category's too huge and no one suggests a
name. 'Played with that English band.' It's slimmer now, but not by enough.
Jerry Lee stammers, how to define him: 'Ahh, ahh, played with the Beatles.'
'Ringo,' they all say, Oh that English band. 'Yeah, Ringo. We kept him
waiting there, and waiting. Not on purpose, but it just happened, until
finally he couldn't get in the room and announced, "Y'all can shove this
record up your butts," and he walked out of there.' Ringo probably didn't
say 'y'all,' but Jerry Lee sure did, cackling.
Half a century sin the sun rose on rock and roll, Elvis and Buddy Holly are
dead, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash are dead. Little Richard is a caricature
when he's not a minister, and Chuck Berry's going through the motions. Only
Jerry Lee is still rocking. The Killer is the unlikeliest survivor, but
dying would have been the easy way out. He created rock's first great
scandal - as an incestuous, cradle-robbing bigamist - which set him up for
rock's first failed comeback - the public so disgusted that he had to wait a
decade for acceptance, and then only as a country star.
It was 1957 when the public learnt that the 22-year old star's third wife
Myra was also his 13-year-old cousin. Jerry Lewis tried to assuage the
anger, explaining the marriage might not be valid as he had never divorced
his first wife. When Myra was just past sweet 16, their three-year-old son
drowned in their backyard pool. When Jerry Lee Jr., his first-born from a
previous marriage, was 19, he was killed in a car wreck. Lewis is in the
midst of divorcing his sixth wife. The one-time Miss Kerrie McCarver,
however unhappy, must find relief in being the former Mrs Jerry Lee and not
the late Mrs Lewis. After 19 years of marriage, she's alive to tell the
Wife number five, 25-year-old Shawn Michelle Stevens, was found dead of an
apparent drug overdose in the Nesbit, Mississippi bedroom she'd shared with
Jerry Lee for less than four months. Only a year earlier, the fourth Mrs
Lewis had also died - a swimming accident while they were separated and
awaiting a divorce decree. Lewis had recently recovered from an emergency
operation for a ruptured stomach, a situation so dire that journalists were
assigned his obituary.
There have been fist-fights, handguns, shotguns. On a tear in 1976, he
accidentally shot his bass player in the chest (not fatally), flipped his
car and waved a handgun outside Graceland when Elvis wouldn't come out and
say hello; the next day, Elvis went to visit Jerry Lee, who was out, and
wound up signing autographs on Jerry Lee's lawn. Jerry Lee drank more
whiskey, took more pills and had more car wrecks than most rock bands
combined. He's broken out of hospitals, fled the Betty Ford Centre, and seen
Hollywood make a cartoon of his life. Life, it seems, has clung to him, not
he to life.
That's unlike his peer, Elvis Presley. Elvis died like a wimp. Elvis was a
girl. Wouldn't fuck his beautiful wife? Got so fat he had to wear jumpsuits?
Sang suck-ass songs like 'The Impossible Dream'? And that wore him out at
42? 'What the shit did Elvis do,' Jerry once said, 'except take dope I
couldn't get ahold of?' Survivors are the real sufferers.
But here he is still recording and rocking, looking not half-bad and telling
the warm-up stories of a rock and roll legend. Within 30 minutes of walking
through the front door, Jerry Lee is down to business, running through
tonight's song, simultaneously simplifying it and making it more complex -
Lewis-ising it. It's a song called 'Twilight' by Robbie Robertson, a
founding member of the Band, and the lyrics are about yearning for
companionship while seeking the freedom of solitude.
Jerry Lee really delivers on the refrain: 'Just don't put me in a frame upon
the mantel/ Where memories turn dusty old and grey.' Everyone's familiar
with the song. Now it's a matter of all knowing it the same way - Lewis's
way, because he is one of music's great interpreters - 'stylist' he calls
it. 'There's only ever been four stylists,' he has famously stated. 'Jerry
Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Al Jolson and Jimmie Rodgers.'
You can count the songs Lewis has written on one hand, but none of the
hundreds he's recorded can be imitated. 'Twilight' is about to metamorphose
wildly. Sat at the piano, fooling with the progression of the song, he says
to himself more than to anyone in particular: 'This song's got a lot of
chords in it.' He begins the process with a sincere respect for the
composer's intentions. It's just that Jerry's ideas are better. 'We got to
play 'em. I don't know 'em.' The bass player pipes up. 'I know 'em.' 'Show
'em to me.' 'Would you take offence?' 'C'mon.'
BB Cunningham strolls over to the piano. Cartoonist R Crumb couldn't have
drawn BB better. He has a long narrow face, its verticality emphasised by
the ponytail that hangs to the middle of his back. His eyebrows can knit
like granny's sewing needles, a worried look that appears when he smiles,
which is often. BB's father was a Sun recording artist, and in 1967, BB's
band the Hombres had a top 20 hit with 'Let It All Hang Out.' He first
played with Jerry Lee in 1961, has worked with George Clinton and Chuck
Berry, and rejoined Jerry Lee in 1997.
At the piano, BB runs down the chords. Jerry Lee watches, then does it
himself. BB makes a correction near the end of the run, Jerry Lee gets it
right, then states, flatly: 'I don't like it.' 'Look,' says BB, 'you can do
it like this.' He runs through the chords with a variation. 'I don't like
that either.' Then Jerry's talking just to BB. He says, his voice low: 'When
I was 13 years old, my piano teacher showed me a song. He was sitting right
next to me like you are. When he got through with it, I said, "Wouldn't it
sound better like this?" And reached in front of him and played my way. And
the guy slapped me in the face.' 'I bet that got your attention.' 'It did
more than that,' Jerry answered. 'Since then I haven't been able to learn
anything from anybody. That was my last lesson. Get up and play your bass,
Jerry turns to the studio's control room and says: 'Maybe you should put one
of those little things on there, ahh, ahh, what do you call them?' 'CDs,'
says JW Whitten, Jerry Lee's road manager, right-hand man and mind reader.
'Yeah, play the CD.' As BB returns to his position, he mutters: 'I never
thought I'd do that in my life, show Jerry Lee something on the piano.'
Actually, BB had done it once before, 43 years ago, in 1962, at Jerry's home
when he was a guitar player in the band. He'd told him that to make a major
chord into a minor chord on the piano, he had to change only one finger.
Jerry Lee didn't believe him, didn't like the notion at all, and he chased
BB out of the room and out the front door.
The song's rhythm evolves as Jerry begins playing. Jimmy Rip, a Texan who
evokes a beatnik cowboy, plays guitar. He says to the others: 'He's putting
a shuffle in it.' The band feels their way and the song begins to sway.
Jerry Lee's singing, 'never crossed my mind / To what is right and what is
not,' and a yip and yodel creep into his voice. Jimmy Rip and Kenny Lovelace
glance at each other and laugh. On music stands before them, there's a
string of chords written out, but now they're sailing through with
simplicity and grace, each slew of chords summarised and expressed in the
sweep of a single chord - not just that chord, but the space between that
one and ones on either side of it.
What's not played is creating not emptiness but feeling, room for feeling,
room for Jerry Lee Lewis to make 'Twilight' his own. 'We got to come to some
sort of collusion here about how we're going to end,' says Jerry Lee. 'It's
hard to end that song, it's so pretty.' Rip answers with understated praise:
'I love what you did to it.' Then he adds: 'It's a thrill to me giving you
these songs and hearing what you give back. It's always better.' 'If you
hear something wrong,' Jerry Lee answers, 'don't hesitate to tell me so I
can kill you.'
To many contemporary listeners, Jerry Lee Lewis is the cartoon character
portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the movie Great Balls of Fire. That's a shame.
Quaid got the simplicity but not the complexity. Cartoon violence doesn't
scar the soul, and Jerry Lee's spirit is vulnerable and real. His life's
been as much a nightmare as a dream.
He was born to Elmo and Mary Lewis on 29 September 1935 in Ferriday,
Louisiana, a town that smells worse than shit. Ferriday is on the
Mississippi, and there's a paper plant there. The stench from the plant is
not something you just smell - you taste it, wear it, turn your face from
but can't escape it. Tragedy first hit Jerry Lee's life when he was three.
His older brother Elmo Jr., already displaying a strong musical talent at
nine, was killed by a drunk driver.
Around that same time, the Assembly of God Church opened in Ferriday, and
Elmo Lewis Sr. was drawn there, not just for consolation but also for the
raucous music. He liked to play guitar, and had collected many Jimmie
Rodgers records. The Assembly of God is a fundamentalist church that
believes in visible manifestations of the Spirit, such as healing, visions
and everyday miracles. Their services capture the spirit of God through
rapturous music, often expressed by fits in the aisles, by speaking in
tongues, by shaking your nerves and rattling your brains.
Another early rock and roller was raised in a similar church. When Elvis
began performing on stage the way he'd seen Christians shake in church,
people responded with an uproar. But neither Elvis nor Jerry Lee was doing
anything they would have been ashamed to do - often did do - in front of
their mothers. Like Elvis, Jerry Lee was a surviving son. He was raised to
be adulated. His parents risked their house to buy Jerry Lee an upright pian
o when he was 10. His mother, revelling in his sight, would run to his side,
lift his arm and call everyone close: 'Look at the hairs!' she'd say to the
assembled, and then to the golden-haired golden boy: 'Jerry, every hair on
your arm is perfect.' To which he would respond: 'It certainly is.'
His style had already been formed. 'The first song I learnt was 'Silent
Night', and I played that rock and roll style,' he says. His influences
included Gene Autry, the singing cowboy whom he'd listened to from the alley
behind the local movie theatre; his family couldn't afford the dime to
enter. His parents played hillbilly records, his church rocked like a wild
party. Since hearing Hank Williams on The Louisiana Hayride in 1948, he'd
been a committed fan. Jerry Lee could recognise the blues in Hank, having
experienced the music at Haney's Big House in Ferriday, a juke joint for
black fieldhands that he snuck into, usually with his cousins Mickey Gilley,
later a country star, and Jimmy Swaggart, later a television preacher.
At 14, Jerry Lee made his first public appearance, in the parking lot of
Ferriday's Ford dealership. 'Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee' was a hit that
year, and the audience responded to it that day; a hat was passed and when
it returned holding 13 dollars, Elmo began driving his son, the piano in the
back of a truck, stopping at crossroads, country stores, or anywhere a crowd
might gather. Jerry Lee and another lady-lovin' pal were calling each other
'Killer' - still his greeting of choice - and his name stuck. Soon Jerry Lee
had his own car.
'All the kin people would be in the field working,' says his sister Frankie
Gean, younger by nine years. 'Mother would be pulling the sack, putting the
cotton in it. Daddy would be behind her, and I'd be helping with Linda [baby
sister, and future performer Linda Gail Lewis]. He had a car, and he'd ride
up and scream, "Work you peasants, work! For I don't have to work! For I'm
wearing the white shirt! I am the great I am!"'
By the time Jerry Lee left high school, he was twice married and a father.
He first wed when he was 15 and his bride was 17. He later claimed she was
too old for him and they separated, not bothering with the formalities of a
divorce - as was common in rural America. When he knocked up Jane Mitcham,
they got hitched, and Jerry Lee Lewis Jr was born. With his wife and child
cared for by his parents, Jerry Lee went to Waxahatchie, Texas for Bible
College. His plans to become a minister were foiled by his ever-present
conflict between the sacred and the profane. He would absorb the fear of god
by day, then sneak out to Dallas's bright lights to see movies and ride the
In assembly one day, his version of 'My God is Real' became a little too
real, and though the sounds of his church and his nightclub were often
indistinguishable, this version was clearly over the line. Jerry Lee was
expelled. He sold vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, he played drums and
piano with a local band, he auditioned in Shreveport for a country package
tour in 1955. He tried his luck in Nashville, but Nashville was having none
of the new sounds; Carl Perkins, another white singer mixing country and
blues, had already been told by one label rep there: 'I like what you're
doing, young man, but I don't know what you're doing.'
That unidentifiable mix was much more suited to Memphis than to Nashville,
which the Lewis family realised when they heard Cash and Perkins in the
summer of 1955, both on Sun Records. To finance the trip to meet Sam
Phillips, Elmo Lewis sold eggs - 33 dozen - along the 350 miles north.
Working with Sam's assistant Jack Clement, Jerry Lee cut 'Crazy Arms,' his
first Sun single. Its sales were a testament to Jerry Lee's individual
style, as the song had been a country hit for Ray Price and a pop hit for
the Andrews Sisters. But Jerry Lee's left hand played funky drums on the
piano's low keys, his right ran a lilting, wild-style melody.
He quickly got good bookings, including a tour with Cash and Perkins. In
March 1957, Sun released Jerry Lee's second record. With Clement, the band
had spent a lot of time working up a rollicking number called 'It'll Be Me'.
It was a Clement original - he'd come up with it while sitting on the
toilet, pondering reincarnation; the line, 'If you see a turd in your toilet
bowl baby/It'll be me and I'll be staring at you' was changed and became 'If
you see a lump in your sugar bowl.' The song's feel was well-suited to Jerry
Lee, but getting the romp just right was proving difficult. 'I said, "Why
don't we come back to this later, Jerry? Let's do something else for a
while," Clement recalls. 'And ole JW Brown spoke up, Jerry Lee's bass
player, and said, "Hey Jerry, do that song we've been doing on the road that
everybody likes so much." I said, "Well let me go in there and turn on the
machine." I hit play and record, sat down, and they did "Whole Lot of
Shakin' Going On". No dry-run, no nothin'. Blap! One take, there it was!
Sprang forth full-blown from its mother's womb. Then we went back to "It'll
A summer 1957 appearance on the Steve Allen TV show made Jerry Lee an
instant star. He didn't kowtow to Allen like Elvis had. Whipped up by his
own frenzy, Jerry Lee hurled his piano bench off screen, Allen threw it
back, and 'Whole Lot of Shakin' went from regional hit to No 1 country and
No 2 pop (unable to shake Debbie Reynolds's 'Tammy' from the top spot).
Jerry's next child, the one who drowned at three, was named Steve Allen
It's a month after the 'twilight' session, and Jerry Lee is performing at a
Christmastime benefit in Memphis. Hometown gigs are rare, especially in
smaller venues like this club. His touring has picked up since his divorce
proceedings began a couple of years back. He can command sizeable fees; he
and the band recently flew to Switzerland for a single performance. Tonight,
he's closing the show, and the audience stays late to see him.
When Jerry Lee is announced, he receives a standing ovation. Entering from
the side, he does a tail-shaking shimmy to great applause. He's wearing a
leather waistcoat that he doesn't remove before sitting at the piano. But
he's got nothing to hide - he's slender and looking fit. He kicks off with
'Roll Over Beethoven' and that bleeds into Hank Williams's 'You Win Again.'
The tempo changes, the feel, the emphasis - but it's still distinctly Jerry
Lee. His voice is full of power tonight. This is about conjuring the spirit
from within, from the place where good meets bad and right meets wrong and
the forces push and pull and the tension is exhilarating so that you find
yourself unable to stand still and unable to move - shake, baby, shake - and
part of you feels like it might explode - easy now - until there's a moment
of liberation and what's happening on stage is also happening in the
audience and no one can say who is leading because everyone together is
joining everyone else in some kind of new freedom.
Jerry Lee's set swings from 'Great Balls of Fire' and 'Whole Lot of Shakin"
to his take on other standards - 'Lucille' and 'What'd I Say' among them.
It's thrills and chills to follow these non-stop twists from the audience,
but something more of a work-out on stage. 'I always keep my eyes right on
his hands,' says Robert Hall, Jerry's drummer since 1996.
'There's 20 regular songs he draws on, and 60 or 80 back-up that could come
in at any time, and a solid 40 that I've never even heard. We still get a
new one every now and then.' 'Jerry can hear grass growing in the music,'
says BB, who is accustomed enough to surprises to have once tuned Chuck
Berry's guitar to the 'A' of a hotel telephone's dial tone. 'He pushes you
farther than you think you are willing to go. We try to recognise what key
he's in, then pick up what he's doing. One night in Vegas he started playing
something that even Kenny couldn't follow and he's been with him for 37
years. Nobody played anything, we just let him play. And all of a sudden he
stopped, leaned into the microphone: 'Are you boys going to jump in with me
or just take my money?' 'He has no set list, and I think the reason he does
that is it gives him the freedom to do what he feels like doing. And it's
part of the mystique you go through with him as a fan and as a player:
what's going to happen tonight?'
It was a hot August day in 1957, before air conditioning was common, when
Sam Phillips gathered Jerry Lee and his band in the breezeless Sun Studio to
record a follow up to 'Whole Lot Of Shakin". Sam had missed follow-up hits
with Perkins and Cash, and he'd sold Elvis, so he was ready to get 'Great
Balls of Fire' just right. The song was perfect for Jerry Lee, built around
the tension between sexual release and religious exaltation - two of Jerry
Lee's favourite pursuits (others include cars, motorcycles, tobacco pipes,
Phillips was a master of production psychology. Had he not gone into
records, he'd have made a helluva preacher, lawyer, or therapist. As a
warm-up for the song, he and Jerry Lee were discussing theology; Jack
Clement hit the record button. 'H-E-L-L!' the Killer exclaims, clapping his
hand on the piano. 'It says, "Make merry with the joy of God only." But when
it comes to worldly music, you have done brought yourself into the world,
you're in the world, and you're still a sinner...' 'All right,' responds
Sam, maintaining a cool in the heat of Jerry Lee's passion. 'Now look,
Jerry. Religious conviction does not mean anything resembling extremism ...
Jesus Christ came into this world and He tolerated man. He didn't preach
from one pulpit, He went around and did good. If you think you can't do good
if you're a rock 'n' roll exponent...'
'You can do good, Mr Phillips, don't get me wrong...' 'When I say do
good...' 'You can have a kind heart! You can help people...' As Jerry Lee
thought his hellfire and Sam's humanism were merging, Phillips stunned him:
'You can save souls!' 'No! No! No! No!' Now Jerry makes the crowning
distinction: 'How can the Devil save souls? What are you talkin' about? Man,
I got the Devil in me; if I didn't I'd be a Christian!'
A few moments later, riled and primed by the producer, this musician
achieved one of the artistic high points of his life. With apocalyptic
imagery, lascivious delivery and unbridled energy, Jerry Lee Lewis cut
'Great Balls of Fire' as if announcing The End of Days. The song was
featured in a Hollywood teen exploitation film called Jamboree; it was the
only song to feature an electric bass player - Jerry Lee's first cousin JW
Cousin Brown - his mum and Jerry Lee's dad were siblings - was an
electrician who opened his Memphis home to Jerry Lee, his second wife, and
his namesake. When the dads were on the road, Brown's pre-teen daughter Myra
saw that Jerry Lee Jr's mama was cavorting with other men. This fuelled her
own crush on her cousin, a flame Jerry Lee fanned. After Jerry Lee divorced,
the cousins eloped in December 1957. Myra had turned 13.
Singing to her, perhaps, his next hits were 'Breathless' and the
forward-looking 'High School Confidential'. While their love was blooming,
the relationship between the entertainer and the press was about to wither.
However much Jerry Lee appreciated the way writers had helped launch his
career, the character assaults that followed the revelation of his wife's
age, their blood relationship, and his past marriages mean that, to this
day, he has no interest in mixing with the press, no trust that they'll do
anything but create bloodthirsty headlines.
'He's a man of a great, contrite heart who's maybe messed himself up from
time to time,' Sam Phillips said 25 years ago. 'It's a shame he doesn't have
anyone to direct his talent-he is one of this century's great, great
talents. But he feels a lonesomeness in his talent, extreme lonesomeness,
for somebody to be strong around him.'
The lonesomeness has created a protective layer of thick, arrogant skin.
Even at his lowest point, he still had the demeanour of an angry god. When
touring in the 1960s, playing state fairs and dive bars before his Nashville
comeback, he got an engagement in a Miami nightclub following a two-week
stint by Conway Twitty, who'd known Jerry Lee since they were both at Sun.
Twitty warned the club owner of Jerry Lee's pounding style, so the owner
bought a beaten upright for the gig. 'Jerry showed up,' Twitty recalled,
'took one look at the piano and kicked it off the stage. He kicked it out of
the building, across the parking lot and into this lake. Then came back in,
blew cigar smoke in this mobster's face, and said, "Now get me a goddamn
piano."' He got his piano.
It's another recording session in Memphis. Jimmy Rip has flown in, but no
band has been called. Piano and vocals only, three songs, though guest
vocals and backing tracks will be dropped in later: 'What's Made Milwaukee
Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me)' will get a visit from Rod Stewart;
Jerry Lee's first ever recording of Hank Williams's 'Lost Highway' will be
bolstered by Delaney Bramlett's raspy vocal; and 'Miss the Mississippi and
You,' a yodeling classic by Jimmie Rodgers, will remain a solo presentation.
He's brought to the studio this time by his daughter Phoebe. She drove. Used
to be, he'd drive her to grade school - she'd climb out of a Rolls Royce -
until he flipped that car, walking away unscathed - shortly after dropping
her off. Now Phoebe's in her early forties and helps to manage his affairs.
Phoebe has long blond hair and her father's spirit. She speaks with a deep
Mississippi twang, smokes a corncob pipe, and she's excited about this
'I couldn't believe I was hearing Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll" cranked up full
volume blaring out of my dad's bedroom. He was learning the song. And of
course he cut it totally different.' Rip is pleased to have Phoebe at the
session. Jerry Lee is not allowed to go anywhere alone. He drinks hardly any
alcohol these days, and pills, reefer, and all drugs except those prescribed
by his physician are out of his life. (At a recent doctor's visit following
a teeth transplant, Jerry Lee was pronounced in perfect health.
The new teeth have not affected the peculiar wet slur that has always made
his speech an effort to understand.) It may be whatever he's taking to keep
him from taking anything else, it may be a life of being doted upon, or it's
that Jerry Lee feels like he owns every damn place he finds himself - but
Jerry Lee needs looking after. In a hotel not long ago, he wound up alone in
his room. 'Hey!' he shouted, because he needed something, but there was no
answer, so he shouted 'Hey!' louder, and then again and again, louder and
louder, until he left his room in his socks and underwear, wandering the
hallway, directionless, shouting, 'Hey!'
Jerry's out at the piano noodling around and he breaks into 'What's Made
Milwaukee Famous'. The engineer is Roland Janes who, besides being the house
engineer at the Sam Phillips Recording Service, was Jerry Lee's guitar
player from the glory days. Roland can read Jerry and he's missed nothing -
had the tape rolling in plenty of time. Jerry moves on to the Hank song.
He's reading the lyrics off the piano, but he's singing with fervour. (He
was reading the lyrics when he recorded 'Great Balls of Fire' at Sun.) 'I'm
a rolling stone, all alone and lost/ For a life of sin, I have paid the
'I tried to find songs that pertain to his life, things that will allow him
to be really emotional and expressive and tell the story of what he's gone
through,' says Rip. Jerry has switched from rehearsing to recording without
telling anyone, and even Roland James misses the turn. 'Hold it,' his old
friend says into the talkback microphone, 'wasn't rolling.' 'Aww now,' says
Jerry Lee. 'You ruffled my feathers. Let me go get my pistol.' A visitor in
the control booth gasps and says: 'Oh no, not the pistol.' After waiting a
couple beats, as if he could hear the fear, Jerry adds: 'Only a joke. I
ain't got a pistol.' 'Boys don't start that stupid rambling round,' he's
singing, back straight, face stern beneath eyeglasses, beady eyes focused on
the page. His profile is sharp, like a hawk's.
The piano hides his flip flops and pyjamas. Jerry Lee could be a preacher
alongside cousin Swaggart. 'Take my advice...' Jimmy Rip steps out to the
studio between takes, says: 'One more?' 'One? At least 10 more.' 'I think
one more will be enough.' 'Too bad you don't know me,' says Jerry Lee, 'as
well as you think you know me.' The revelation of such a truth is always
startling, though it's natural that the Great I Am would open up in a
recording studio, where he's always pored over and poured out his soul. With
each take, he's only begun to peel away the song, to simplify and
complicate, to reveal more of his terrifying, terrified soul.
'If you let me get this down right, you'll have a million-seller on your
hands. Twenty or 30 more takes.' Jerry's pushing, but the producer resists.
'Play it back then,' Jerry snaps. He's willing to listen to what they've
got, to be happy if Jimmy's happy, but he really doesn't feel like he's hit
his lick yet. 'Don't cover up my mistakes with the band,' he protests. 'Let
me get it right. He writes everything you do in the Book of Life, and He'll
hear it. Dim the lights.' Jimmy says, 'Lighting is everything.' Jerry misses
not a beat. 'Naw, it's a little part of it but it means a lot.'
He begins one more take - it opens completely differently from all the
others. 'One more,' he says again, but no longer means it, having heard
what's there and realising he's done a good job. 'I stayed here three days
and nights once,' Jerry says. 'Laid my pistol on the piano, dared anyone to
leave. We was cutting a religious song and I felt myself rising up off the
piano bench.' To keep the session moving, someone mentions the rambling
aspect of 'Lost Highway"s lyrics.
Jerry says, 'I was barely 14 years old when I started playing in Natchez. My
feet weren't touching the floor. They told me if cops came by to tell 'em
I'm 21. I could be doing this song here, and after the bridge I'd be making
tracks. I was 21 when I came to Memphis. Nearly 22. And I was struttin'.
Only God in His mercy in heaven saw me through all the fast driving.
Remember that '56 Ford, Roland?' 'Remember that Buick when that steering
cable broke?' he answers, then explains to us, 'It was a Buick Limited,
Jerry called it a Lamented.' 'It had air bag suspension, I drove it into a
field and it popped. The car sat right down on the ground.' The talk of the
old days primes him to cut 'Miss the Mississippi and You,' a Jimmie Rodgers
song. It washes out of him like silt onto a delta. 'That would bring a tear
to a steel ball,' he says.
Afterwards, there's small talk in the control room. Jerry's bought his
17-year old-son Lee a Hummer and he laughs when he complains about the cost
of the insurance. Phoebe laughs, then says her dad recently set his Harley
Davidson inside the living room of his ranch, where he can admire it. After
several days of looking, he could resist no longer. He opened the sliding
glass door so the exhaust wouldn't kill him, mounted the beast, kicked - and
unleashed mayhem. The machine roared throughout the house, the dog went
crazy barking, and the fumes set off the smoke alarm.
Jerry Lee's Nesbit home is a sprawling ranch built on 30 acres with its own
lake. It's got six bedrooms and six bathrooms, and plenty of living space.
He's lived there since 1973 and it suits him just fine. Phoebe occupies one
of the suites, and their longtime helper Carolyn is often around. She cooks
like Jerry's mama - Phoebe's given her the family recipes. He eats only one
real meal a day, dinner around eight, but he'll snack. A night owl, he's got
a suite in the back where he sleeps, bathes, and watches TV - a big screen,
like Imax for the home.
His collections are on display there - model cars, tobacco pipes (his many
boots are kept in his closet) - and so are his prizes and awards, his Grammy
(for Best Spoken Word, 1986, an album entitled Interviews From the Class of
'55) and some of the gifts he's been given - 'Little bitty things mean the
most to him,' says Whitten, the road manager. 'A friend will get him
something and he'll cherish it.'
Studio talk turns to Gunsmoke, an indication that the evening is going
great. Gunsmoke is Jerry Lee's favourite subject in the world. He loves
television, and westerns are his favourite. Of all the westerns, he loves
Gunsmoke. Of the two kinds of Gunsmoke, he prefers Chester, the Dennis
Weaver character, over Festus, his replacement. When asked why he likes
Gunsmoke so much, he answers: 'Because it's unique, perfect, and great. I
got tapes going back to 1954 - Kitty was beautiful.' He states, 'Matt Dillon
is my hero,' and freely admits that he cried when Harry Dean Stanton died in
Jerry Lee is legendary as a rock and roller, so it's often forgotten that
when he came to Sun, he was playing George Jones and Ray Price songs, a
Carter Family number, Jimmie Rodgers. And it was to country he turned in
1967, a decade after his meteor burned up. He signed a deal in Nashville,
made classic honky tonk comfortable in the modern era with 'Another Place,
Another Time' and began a string of country hits that ran all the way to the
By then, the label was shipping syrupy, finished tapes to Memphis onto which
Jerry Lee simply added his part, often only a vocal. He'd come to the
studio - the same one where's cutting this new album - so rankled that Sam's
son Knox would load blank tape onto which Jerry Lee would pour out his wrath
and anger before finally he was weary enough to give Nashville the
saccharine they wanted.
Those tapes remain sealed in a dark vault. In 1985, he was 51 and soon to be
a daddy with his wife Kerrie McCarver. 'I want my unborn son to have a
drug-free daddy,' he said at the Betty Ford Clinic, but after two days, he
checked out. 'Patients are supposed to clean bathrooms, take out garbage,
sweep floors and pick up after people. Hey that may be fine for Suzie
Homemaker but it ain't my style.'
He fled. The new family moved to Ireland during a protracted battle with the
taxman. But over time, the partnerships - the marriage and the business -
soured, until Jerry Lee basically quit performing. Kerrie was evicted from
the house by a judge's decree, but the divorce, with all its attendant court
appearances, lawyers, and gag orders has been ongoing since summer 2003.
Upon arriving at Phillips studio, it's immediately evident that this last
session for the album - tentatively-titled The Pilgrim, but also possibly
Old Glory - is going to be different. There's a tour bus parked out front,
and movie lights are glowing. The lobby, usually so quiet the echo of the
1950s can be heard, is a film crew's staging area with a full spread of
snacks and coolers of cold drinks.
'When I started doing this record, it was so low-key,' says Jimmy Rip. 'For
this to be the end, it's wild. A studio full of people - I don't know who
anyone is.' A couple of weeks earlier, Jerry Lee had been in Los Angeles to
tape a Willie Nelson Memorial Day Weekend TV special, along with Merle
Haggard, Keith Richards, and Toby Keith - all (Nelson included) play on
Jerry's new album. (Other guests include Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton, Jimmy
Page, Buddy Guy, and Bruce Springsteen.) Jerry Lee was slated to close the
show, in a duet with Kid Rock. If the pairing was unexpected, it was
spiritually right, and the music would follow.
Two days before the May taping, Jerry Lee had never heard of Kid Rock.
Phoebe looked him up on the internet and the first picture they saw was the
Kid standing atop a piano. 'I like him already,' Jerry Lee said. They were
slated to play 'Whole Lot of Shakin',' and there was the idea of working up
a take on the Stones' 'Honky Tonk Woman'. Jerry had practised the song, but
under the eye of five cameras, 70 crew people, and Keith Richards, Jerry
couldn't get it. The idea was scrapped. But Kid Rock and the Ferriday Kid
behaved like reunited father and son. Rock never left the Killer's side, and
Jerry was digging him right back.
At 2.30 am, after the gig, Jimmy Rip's hotel phone rang, a summons. Jerry
Lee played 'Honky Tonk Woman' with vehemence. According to Rip: 'I tried to
tell him they cut the song because the show was running too long. He said,
"That's a cover-up if I ever heard one."' And thus this last session: that's
Kid Rock's bus out front, itineraries having aligned to record 'Honky Tonk
The film crew is from DreamWorks Nashville, the label releasing the new
record. The label head is James Stroud, who played drums in Jerry Lee's band
in the early 1970s. He's playing on tonight's session. Before the evening's
out, he'll have had so much fun that he declares he's making this record the
company's number one priority. The engineer is playing the Stones original
of the song, and the backup singers - who sang on Elvis's 'Suspicious
Minds' - are working up their 'gimme gimme' vocal track, not realising that
Jerry Lee might change the song a bit, a lot - entirely.
Kid Rock is wearing black: jeans, T-shirt, hat. His cigar is brown, which
matches his snakeskin boots. His gold cross is bigger than his large plastic
cup of whiskey and cola. Waiting for Jerry Lee, he's inviting people onto
his bus, where a Detroit Pistons game is playing on a TV the size of the
side of a bus. His people are easy to spot; they're burly as bears and
they've got electric coils coming out of their ears and going down their
backs. They're either looking for assassins or listening to the Pistons
As his car approaches, Jerry Lee's jaw drops. He steps out, says: 'I gotta
go comb my hair. Looks like we got an audience already.' Whitten, who's
driven him, suggests he use the bus. Kid Rock bows to show his hospitality.
'They got one inside,' Jerry Lee says. 'I been paying for it for 29 years.'
He's not wearing pyjamas tonight - crisp black jeans and a black shirt with
gold trim that will flash in his video - but he's still got on the flip
flops. His skin looks pastier than usual, and he's sucking on a tobacco
'I like that crease in your pants,' Kid Rock says with admiration. 'That's
old school. I ain't coming near you, you'll cut me.' As Jerry Lee glides
through the track, his 'Honky Tonk Woman' sounds appropriate for a honky
tonk. 'I'm bad about changing up songs,' Jerry Lee says. 'But this I want to
keep about right. The guy who wrote it is a personal friend of mine and he
gets mad if you change it.'
'Let's change it then,' Kid Rock says. He suggests starting it as a slow
gospel thing. He is full of ideas - he inserts a break for the drummer, then
for the whole band. He modifies Jerry Lee's verse again, telling the
multiracial background trio, 'Hit on the upbeat,' slapping time on his knee.
They run the song down. Jerry Lee says: 'Well, you might have an idea
The producer agrees - these pros are ready to recognise positive input.
'It's good,' Rip says. Kid Rock answers: 'It's rock and roll.' And Jerry
Lee, out of the side of his mouth and a bit under his breath, says into his
mike, his voice rising like a question: 'That's rock and roll?' It's wry and
contentious, just this side of snide, and there's a weighty pause, everyone
in the room reflecting on what's just happened. It's not a put down, it's
just something that the granddaddy of rock and roll is allowed to say, and
it's laden with meaning and humour.
After the session, the Killer tells the Kid: 'Don't let nobody change your
style,' and the Kid replies: 'I won't.' There's lots of jubilant
photo-taking, and the Kid's standing next to Jerry when he says: 'Show me
something on the piano.' The two share the bench and Jerry Lee pulls out
Fats Domino's 'Walking to New Orleans'. But the Kid's really too excited to
pay attention, and they wind up doing a duet of Hank Williams's 'Lovesick
Blues.' The talk leads to Hank, then Louisiana. 'Did you ever live near a
paper plant?' the Killer asks. 'Auto plants,' says Kid, 'Detroit.' 'Man, you
should live near a paper plant. It stinks.' It's been nearly half a century
since Jerry Lee lived downwind of Natchez, but there's a lot he ain't
At 8pm on a summer night the band congregates in a Memphis hotel parking
lot. A luxury bus will cart us all to Nashville, where Jerry Lee is closing
a star-studded night hosted by Marty Stuart at the historic Ryman Theatre -
the mother church of country music. Jerry's due to play at one in the
morning. The last one to arrive, he boards and heads directly to his suite
in the back, son Lee in tow.
He turns on the big screen TV, settles onto the comfortable sofa, and sits
slack-jawed, rapt with a three-quarter smile for the next three or so hours.
It doesn't matter that Ronald Reagan's funeral is the only show on;
television - sit-coms, a haemorrhoids commercial, Moses coming down from the
mountain - makes him oblivious to the world, and happy. This performance is
part of country music's Fan Fair, an annual event when fans from all over
the world can meet their favourite stars.
Jerry Lee's never been totally comfortable with fans. At a show not long
ago, someone passed a request to him on a napkin; without a glance, he blew
his nose on it. When his bus pulls into the alley behind the Ryman - the
alley that Hank Williams used to cross during the Grand Ole Opry to get a
drink at Tootsie's Orchid Lounge - fans swarm the vehicle. No one
disembarks, but one elderly gentleman is let on. It's Jerry Lee's barber,
and they talk about old times while Jerry gets a trim.
Outside, fans wait patiently and expectantly. Nashville is weird - there are
no staggering drunks or rowdy banter, just an orderly combination of
grandmas, granddads, and granddaughters. A pony-tailed man in his sixties is
holding a stack of albums (not CDs) that he's dreaming of getting
autographed. Many people have markers and pens at the ready, pick guards
pulled off their guitars, autograph books open to a blank page.
'Should we just get a picture of the bus?' asks one woman, tired of waiting.
'Whose bus is that?' asks another. When she's told, she repeats his name and
stares, sounding surprised that he's still living. At 1:45 he disembarks and
heads to the stage. Passing through the fans, he's anything but fair,
greeting the peasants cursorily, making no real contact; he seems repulsed
by the idea of touching something of theirs. He's there to perform on stage,
not anywhere but the stage.
Strolling directly to the piano - there is great applause - he begins to
play 'Roll Over Beethoven'. He sits three-quarters cocked to the audience.
More than half cocked, fully loaded, bangin' em out. Jerry Lee's hands pound
out a fury. Sometimes they seem barely to rise off the piano, and other
times he's all asses and elbows, his arms flailing like a roller coaster
ride. The piano is an extension of his own being, and he commands it. He
pounds and strikes the keys with the seeming randomness of a child, and he
makes beautiful music.
He's been known to stomp on keys with the heels of his boots, to pound it
with his fists, to place his butt squarely on the ivories - and always the
piano sounds perfect. He's declared that he can stare at the piano and make
it play. Within seconds of the 30-minute set's last notes, Jerry Lee is back
on the bus, settled on the rear suite's sofa, mouth agape, eyes looking at
A couple of hours later, five in the morning, rolling down the highway, I
walk back to the bathroom on the bus. It's the last door on the left, just
before his suite. He's reclining on the sofa, framed by the doorway, his
hair newly trimmed, the TV uncomfortably loud. He's slouched, his feet
planted firmly on the floor, ready to kick anyone who dares cross the
threshold, who mistakes his door for the bathroom door and tries to piss on
him. He looks up as I near and glares - his eyes burning through an
unhealthy pallor, but burning. His skin shines like wax, but the meaning in
his look is real.
He glares like the devil. Jerry Lee's glare is as intimate and arbitrary as
Elvis Presley's gifts of Cadillacs. It's a way to retain control of the
moment. When Elvis slurred that he's buying you - a stranger, a friend - a
Cadillac, he was purchasing not just the moment, but his control of you. You
say no, you piss him off and the relationship is over; you say yes, you've
lost your power of independence. So it is with Jerry Lee's glare. Respond to
the glower with a challenge - 'Yeah, what do you want to do about it?' - and
get thrown off the bus; tuck tail and meekly go about your business, you
prove yourself a candy ass.
In a business of manipulation, these are masterful moves. The TV in the back
of the bus is so loud - even over the noise of a tour bus barreling 70mph on
the expressway - and the day has stretched so long, that someone finally
slides the suite door shut. Jerry Lee, rapt at the altar of TV, doesn't
Band members climb into bunks, an hour of shuteye before they can go home
and sleep. The sky is pale purple, becoming the white of day, and the bus is
on city streets when there's an angry banging and someone shouts, 'Open this
door.' For a minute, I am seeing the Twilight Zone image of the gremlin
outside the airplane window who has hung on through the whole flight. The
banging continues, it's from the back of the bus - someone's locked in the
bathroom? - and as we get oriented from half sleep, we realise it's Jerry
'I want this door open right now!' He's saying it with such force, the door
itself must cower before him. Blam! Blam! Blam! BB hustles down the aisle,
sees it's a sliding door, feels everywhere trying to find a handle for it,
takes a hit as the assault on the door happens right by his head. 'Somebody
open this door!' There's panic in Jerry Lee's voice, like he's drowning near
shore, each pounding blow as strong as a victim's flailing.
BB's bent at the waist, trying to get his fingernails wedged between the
metal frame and the side of the door to rip it open. Blam! Blam! Blam!
'Somebody open this door right now.' There's a syncopation to the banging
and shouting: it's not something you'd dance to, but it sure gets your
attention. The bus driver hears the commotion and yells to the back,
'It's pneumatic.' Bang! Bang! 'It runs on air,' he yells, 'push the button.'
There's a crowd at the door when the message reaches the back: 'Push the big
black button to the right of the door.' As in Batman, Austin Powers, Indiana
Jones, the door disappears inside the wall and reveals Jerry Lee, an
everyday miracle, stunned but with an aura of fire burning like a voodoo
candle, a voodoo campfire. He is silent, he speaks, he steps out of the
room, back in. What he does and says is nothing to how he appears: a ball of
fire, of pent-up rage. He's a warm front of vulnerability, a cold front of
anger and mistrust, the thundering fury that is Jerry Lee Lewis. Life is
hell, and Jerry Lee is still paying.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005
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