Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano-pounding father of rock ’n’ roll, struggled with two great rivals throughout his life, says Mick Brown. One was Elvis. The other was the Devil.
10:00AM BST 21 Oct 2014
It is a misconception, Jerry Lee Lewis tells the author of this authorised biography, that he earned the sobriquet “The Killer” because of his dynamite stage act – although he might well have done: fingers flying across the piano keyboard, his sissy golden hair plastered with sweat to his forehead, his piano-stool sent skidding and tumbling across the stage with a single kick as he essayed Great Balls of Fire, a song that in its original recording still sounds less like music than some primal force of nature. In his pomp, Lewis was probably the most enthralling performer in rock ’n’ roll.
In fact, he was nicknamed “The Killer” by a school friend after having to be dragged off a teacher he was attempting to throttle with his own necktie. Lewis was 12 at the time, and he quit school shortly afterwards. “Just saw no future in it,” as Rick Bragg writes.
As Lewis himself notes: “They call me 'The Killer’. The only thing I ever killed in my life was possibly myself.” Well, almost. His Own Story is effectively the last testament of a man who, by normal standards, should have died years ago. Along with Elvis, Little Richard and Chuck Berry, he is one of the foundation stones of rock ’n’ roll. His life is a catalogue of hits, misses, drugs, guns, women, car crashes and emergency hospital admissions.
Lewis was a boy who early on, we are told, decided that if a person was special enough they could “live by a set of rules separate from those set down for dull, regular people”. He grew up, dirt poor, in Louisiana. His father, Elmo, was a carpenter, bootlegger and drinker who taught Jerry Lee to swim when he was three by throwing him off a boat into a backwater. At the age of eight he was playing dare by walking across the girders of a bridge 150ft above the Mississippi. At 13, he was playing the piano in honky-tonks where the truck drivers would tip him with Benzedrine and he learnt to duck when the bottles started flying. He arrived at Sun records in Memphis in 1956 and the following year recorded his first hit, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.
By then he had already been married twice – the first time at the age of 16 – quite usual, we are told, “at least by the standards of his people”. It took him 30 minutes to realise that he had made a mistake. His second marriage was a hastily arranged affair after the bride-to-be’s family had showed up at his home “with horsewhips, pistols and a duck gun”. His third was a cause of international outrage. His cousin Myra might have been just 13, but as Lewis reasons, “she looked like a grown woman, blossomed out and ready for plucking”. When, in 1958, he arrived with his new bride in tow for his first British tour, the press were scandalised. The fact that Lewis had married her bigamously hardly helped. After questions were raised in Parliament, and fans at a show in Tooting shouted “cradle robber”, the tour was cancelled.
There are two great themes running through this book. One is Jerry Lee’s love-hate relationship with Elvis; the other is his struggle with the Devil.
Lewis arrived at Sun determined to topple Elvis from his throne as the king of rock ’n’ roll – and for a brief while he did. Shortly before departing for army service in Germany, Lewis claims, a tearful Presley bequeathed him his crown, saying, “You got it. Take it. Take the whole damn thing.”
While Elvis meekly allowed himself to be tamed and neutered by the egregious Colonel Tom Parker, Lewis – whom nobody ever described as “meek” – remained the authentic article. In 1977, the day after Elvis died, Lewis was asked by a reporter what he felt on hearing the news. He replied: “Glad. Just another one out of the way. I mean, Elvis this, Elvis that. All we hear is Elvis. What the s--- did Elvis ever do except take dope I couldn’t get a hold of?” He now explains that he was drunk, “and hurting and angry”. The truth is “I loved Elvis”. But not so much as to hand him back the crown. Pondering how they rank in the pantheon of music, Lewis remains unbowed: “After me was Elvis.”
Lewis’s upbringing was Pentecostal Christian – of the vengeful Jehovah rather than the gentle Jesus school. The fear of divine retribution did not, as Bragg delicately puts it, mean that he would grow up to adhere to the teachings, “just that he knew in his heart when he did wrong”. Which was frequently.
The question that seems to have most tormented him, however, was whether you could play rock ’n’ roll and still go to heaven. When a troubled Lewis asked Elvis, who had come from an identical background, the question, Elvis's face, he claims, “turned blood red” and he snapped back: “Don’t you never ask me that again.”
It behoves any writer contemplating the state of Lewis’s soul to write in cadences pitched somewhere between southern-fried folk wisdom and the Book of Revelation – and Bragg rises manfully to the challenge. “The demons even outran the music, and he found he could not run fast enough to beat them and still hold the road,” he writes.
Even allowing for the fact that an authorised biography will err towards generosity, this book is hardly a character reference. Lewis emerges as cantankerous, boastful, threatening, possibly sociopathic. But Bragg remains ever-understanding.
One can well recognise, as Bragg puts it, that “as a southern man”, Lewis required guns “in the same way other men require a pocket watch and suspenders”; and shooting his bass player might well have been an accident. But still, one can’t help thinking there was something decidedly careless in his handling of firearms. Having passed the time one night by shooting at random into a wall of his office, he awoke, hung-over, the next day to discover that the bullets had destroyed a display case of antique dentures in the dental practice next door. “He was relieved to find they were not actually in someone’s mouth.”
His greatest violence, however, was reserved for himself. Much of this book has all the appalling, rubbernecking fascination of a car crash – something with which Lewis, a man who “had never seen anything wrong with going out and driving off a good drunk”, was all too familiar. His drug consumption reads like a pharmaceutical manual: biphetamines, Placidyls, Desbutal.
The litany of tragedy is similarly stupefying. One son died in a swimming pool. So did his fourth wife. Another son died in a road accident. By way of consolation, the women (countless) “were always sympathetic with me”. At the age of 47, he married a 25-year-old, Shawn Stephens, who two months later was found dead in her bed. An autopsy revealed the painkiller methadone in her system at 10 times the normal dose. A grand jury reviewed the case but could find no grounds for indictment. In 1984, doctors cut away a third of Lewis’s stomach after he was diagnosed with perforated ulcers. In 1986, he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, looking “like a man who had walked through a fire and been put out just in time”.
Miraculously, in 2008, he returned to the Top 30 with an album featuring guest artists including Keith Richards, B B King and Bruce Springsteen. At the age of 79, having finally kicked his addiction to pills and whatever else, “The Killer” now passes much of his time in repose, lying in bed at his ranch, with his guns on the dressing table and an ill-tempered chihuahua named Topaz Junior on the quilt between his feet.