If you had suggested three or four decades ago that Jerry Lee Lewis would be the last living artist among the stars of Sun Records — almost among all rock ‘n’ roll stars of the 1950s, for that matter — you would have been laughed out of the room. This, after all, is the man whose drinking, drugging, philandering and violent outbursts were the most epic in rock ‘n’ roll. Yet at the end of October 2014, the Killer was not only still alive, but he was seemingly everywhere: He had two new albums out, a superb authorized biography by Rick Bragg, profiles in countless other media, sitting in with Paul Shaffer’s band on Late Show with David Letterman. Yet the 79-year-old Lewis, on TV and in concert, is hardly the wiry stick of leering danger, braggadocio and pure energy most of us remember; his face and body are now puffed up, and his gleefully malevolent manner has turned friendly, agreeable. He can’t seem to stop smiling. Lewis, formerly Public Enemy No. 1, has become an all-American hero. Still, his greatness as a singer, piano pounder and American song interpreter is barely diminished.
Lewis has always been a fighter. My favorite parts of Bragg’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, on which the Killer even cooperated, are the early chapters about him growing up, mostly in Ferriday, Louisiana, an end-of-the-line town 13 miles from the Mississippi River, in a lawless culture where you could have anything you could take — but the rich folks took everything first. After getting his first piano around age 8, he quickly developed a barrel-housing style, combining what he heard on the radio, in the Pentecostal churches and at Haney’s Big House, the jook joint he snuck into nightly. Black, white, pop, R&B, country, gospel: It was all the same to Jerry Lee, and he shaped it all into his own music, his leathery voice underscored by his piano gymnastics, the left hand driving each song along in a rumble, the right providing manic counter-rhythms. By the time he arrived at Sun Records in Memphis in 1956, his style was fully developed. It hasn’t changed since, regardless of what kind of song he’s performing, and despite the fact that he’s never played the same song the same way twice. He’s always boasted of being the fourth great American stylist, after Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.
His second single for Sun was the outrageously carnal “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which, though it was initially a B-side, sold around 6 million copies and established Lewis as the heir to Elvis as the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll — Elvis himself passed the crown to him just before entering the Army. But the Killer had time for only three more Top 40 hits before the 1958 British tour when everything came tumbling down after the London press discovered that the 13-year-old girl in the tour party was Lewis’s wife and second cousin, Myra Gale (and that the marriage had taken place while the Killer was still legally married to his first wife). Run out of England by the media frenzy, Lewis returned home to find that Sun boss Sam Phillips felt there was no way he could restore his star’s career. Lewis recorded incessantly for Sun after that, but much went unreleased at the time and all went unpromoted.
The Killer appeared to be unfazed, except in his wallet. For the next decade, he played on the road virtually every night, tank town after tank town, often for something around $100 per rather than his accustomed $10,000, because he was a musician and that’s what musicians did — they played music to entertain people. He played his hits (usually) and whatever else struck his fancy, using his opening number to gauge what a particular audience wanted, and then dipping into his unlimited repertoire accordingly as his band adapted to each new twist and turn. He continued drinking and drugging and fighting and he never made apologies or placed blame on others; rather, as he did with the Myra marriage, he took pride in every drink or pill he swallowed and every fist he threw, and when his lifestyle got him in trouble, he took his medicine. As Bragg writes repeatedly, he had “no governor.”
In the midst of that dry spell, he left Sun for the Mercury subsidiary Smash, which had no idea what to do with him until 1968, when the spooky, honky-tonk ballad “Another Place, Another Time” hit the country Top 10. It was followed by such devastating laments as “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me)” and “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” The venues and paychecks quickly got bigger. In the early ’70s he began cutting rock ‘n’ roll again alongside his country. But after his mother, Mamie, died in April 1971, Lewis entered a prolonged tailspin. His consumption of booze and pills grew even more, and his temper increased along with it. Late in 1973, his 19-year-old son Jerry Lee Jr. died when he overturned his Jeep (his 3-year-old son Steve Allen had drowned in 1963). In the three years following the death of Jerry Lee Jr., the following happened: Jerry Lee playfully put 25 bullet holes in the wall of his office; while celebrating his 41st birthday, he drunkenly shot his bass player by accident; a Memphis barmaid claimed he attacked her with a fiddle bow; he overturned his Rolls Royce while well over the speed limit; invited by Elvis to visit him at Graceland, the Killer crashed his Lincoln into the gates trying to brake, and shattered his window throwing an empty champagne bottle through it; police arrived and seized his gun. And these were just the times he got caught.
These episodes resulted in civil suits, and Lewis was sued many more times for missing gigs. The dates he made were equal parts masterful and disastrous. The hits dried up as country went soft; on the 1977 “Middle Aged Crazy,” he didn’t even play piano. His voice was fraying. Though Lewis remains largely in control, that’s somewhat evident on the recently released The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings, cut in the late ’70s in Sam Phillips’s studios by Phillips’s son. The most telling album from this era is the two-CD The Complete Palomino Club Recordings, which were made from 1979-81 and in 1985; this is Lewis at his most unhinged (and as such is damn irresistible).
In 1981, he spent 90 days in a Memphis hospital following surgery on his ruptured stomach. In the aftermath, painkillers replaced amphetamines as his addiction of choice, and constant health crises followed. He went years without making records, but continued touring. Then, in 2006, he released Last Man Standing, a set of duets with the most elite superstars of rock, country and blues. The new Rock & Roll Time, on which he’s joined by rockers both celebrated and less-so, is similar in concept but even better.
But all these achievements are dwarfed by what is probably the Killer’s greatest achievement. Throughout his life, Satan and Christ have duked it out within Lewis’s very soul, his music in complete and utter conflict with his fundamentalist beliefs. He has always known in his heart that he’s going to Hell because of the music, while agonizing at the same time over how something so pleasing can also be so wrong. That conflict — that curse, as he sees it — accounts for so many of the contradictions in his tumultuous life. But as he makes clear in the Bragg bio, he now is able to see his music not as something diabolical, but as the extraordinary gift it always has been, and he is finally at peace.