By MATTHEW HENNESSEY
November 7, 2014
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, by Rick Bragg (Harper, 512 pp., $27.99)
In February 1957, mere weeks after the Sun Studios meeting of Sam Phillips’s “million-dollar quartet”—Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Jerry Lee Lewis, and Carl Perkins—a package tour featuring Lewis, Cash, Perkins, and a revolving cast of lesser-known acts set out across Canada. “More than one music fan, more than one historian of rock and roll, has wished for a time machine, just so they could travel back to this one time, this one tour,” writes Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg in Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, his juicy new biography of the piano-hammering wild man of Ferriday, Louisiana. Bragg’s book is based on two summers’ worth of interviews with the 79-year-old Lewis, known to friend and foe alike as “the Killer,” and it will do pretty well for a time machine.
Only 22 and still months away from releasing his career-making hit “Great Balls of Fire,” Lewis used the tour as “a kind of laboratory” for his manic stage act. He routinely ignored his allotment of four songs, whipping the crowd into a nightly frenzy with his unique proto-rockabilly sound. He’d discovered that he could use his hair “almost like another instrument,” shaking his head from side to side, loosening the layered blond waves he had meticulously piled high and combed back. It sent the women in his audience into hysterics.
Lewis came into his own as a performer on that tour. He loved the attention, but he also loved that his growing popularity annoyed Cash, who would become a lifelong rival and whose “I Walk the Line” had topped the charts the previous spring. At the time, Jerry Lee had made only one record, a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms.” It went over well enough but was far from a hit. Competition between Cash and Lewis for stage time, top billing, and female attention was fierce. Fists flew nightly. So did the Killer’s piano stool.
One night, after obliging the riled-up crowd with two encores, Jerry Lee treated them to a song he considered his “hole card”—the not-yet-released barn burner “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” It was pure rock-and-roll pandemonium, an exhibit for those who viewed the new music as the devil’s own. A young fan fainted. The Canadian constables at the back of the auditorium feared that a riot might break out. At the rollicking number’s final chord, the crowd called: “More! More! More!” With a wave, Lewis headed triumphantly off stage, where Cash—“sweating and almost white”—waited to go on. “Nobody follows the Killer,” Jerry Lee said over his shoulder as he passed.
Of such stuff are legends made, and Bragg’s prose is pitched at burnishing that legend. His description of Lewis’s mid-fifties musical apprenticeship in the small clubs and beer joints of the Deep South is as rhythmic and musical as that lost world itself: “Instead of parroting a black bluesman, he almost yodeled on the higher, bleaker notes, in a rolling, keening exultation of pain and suffering and lust, something from the other side of town or way out in the lonesome pines, but a place as rough, hard, and mean. His people pulled the cotton sack, too, and walked a chain gang and sat in the hot dark of the federal prison in New Orleans.” There are hot rocks likes this on every page.
Jerry Lee Lewis’s scandalous exploits have been well documented. But the truth, Bragg suggests, is even more outrageous. Why, yes, he did once crash a brand new Lincoln Continental into the gates of Elvis’s Graceland mansion at 2:30 in the morning. And yes, a loaded .38 derringer sat on the dashboard that night. But, no, Jerry Lee never intended to kill Elvis. (“He was my friend. I was his.”) He just misjudged the length of the front end of that enormous car, “’Cause I’s drunk.”
Some of the Killer’s claims seem less reliable than others. Did he really roll an inferior-sounding piano out a Florida stage door, down a sidewalk, and into “the water” as a protest against a promoter for supplying him with a clunker? Did he really do it during the show, with half the audience trailing him and the piano down the street? Did a weeping Elvis, distraught at being drafted into the Army, tell Jerry Lee that he was handing over his crown as the king of rock and roll? Did Elvis really say, “You got it. Take it . . . take the whole damn thing . . . Why do I have to go and do eighteen months and you don’t have to?”
Maybe some version of these things really happened, but Elvis need not have wondered why Uncle Sam took him and not Lewis. For all Elvis’s hip-swiveling sex appeal, Jerry Lee made the kid from Tupelo look like the boy next door. Lewis was a physically unfit, Benzedrine-addicted, long-haired alcoholic with a rage problem and an inability to follow anyone’s orders but his own. The draft board didn’t hesitate to declare him 4-F—unfit for service. “He did not have to act dangerous; he was,” Bragg writes. “He did not need a song to make him inappropriate. Jerry Lee had always been inappropriate, and being a little bit famous did not change it; you can paint a barn white a thousand times, but that won’t make it a house.”
The most “inappropriate” episode of all was Lewis’s 1957 marriage to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin once removed. The strange union became a public issue—and a PR disaster—when Jerry Lee tried to take her along on a short tour of England in May 1958. The British press—perhaps tipped by an immigration official suspicious of the birthdate on Myra’s passport suggesting that she was 15—was merciless. They pursued the Killer and his entourage with “gleeful malice,” soon discovering that Jerry Lee had not been divorced from his second wife, Jane, at the time he married Myra, making him not just an apparent pedophile, but a bigamist, too. The ensuing outrage forced the tour’s cancellation. The scandal followed the Killer home, and the hits and gigs dried up.
As Elvis and Johnny Cash soared to worldwide fame, Lewis labored in obscurity during the 1960s. It was a tough comedown. A Nashville renaissance as a boogie-woogie outlaw was just enough to keep him flush with money for booze, pills, and alimony during the seventies and eighties. In the 2000s, Lewis even issued a pair of slickly produced albums of duets in the mold of Cash’s late-career, Rick Rubin-produced “American” recordings. Not surprisingly, they were not as good as Cash’s stark, emotionally raw efforts, and barely made a splash.
This is a deliciously written, entertaining book about an important American cultural figure, but even Bragg’s considerable talents cannot rewrite rock and roll history to give Jerry Lee Lewis a higher chart position than he deserves. His recording and performing career might have been more consequential had the unfortunate business with cousin Myra not done so much to color his legacy. But it did, and Lewis will always be at best a second-tier deity in rock’s overcrowded pantheon. Elvis, Johnny Cash, and the British media are not to blame for that. The Killer did it to himself.
Rick Bragg peels back the cover on Jerry Lee Lewis' life in new book
One of the dozens of people who Rick Bragg spoke to about Jerry Lee Lewis was struck by actual lightning the first time he listened to "Great Balls of Fire." As for Bragg, his initiation into The Killer's world came more slowly, though it was still electric.
"I grew up with both his rock and roll and his country. ... Country poured out of every truck and souped-up Camaro in Northeast Alabama," Bragg said. "Jerry Lee's piano was just raking in the air in that part of the world."
But Bragg had not delved too deeply into Lewis' discography or followed his rise and fall and rise again beyond the bits and pieces that leaked or slammed their way into headlines.
That all changed a few summers ago when his phone rang. It was Bragg's agent, presenting him with the challenge to write Lewis' story.
"What I should have done, in hindsight, was gone and hid under the bed," he laughed. "But instead what I'm thinking is, how could this be dull?"
And it certainly wasn't. Bragg spent the next few summers planted in a rocking chair, hearing and piecing together the stories that comprise the life of Jerry Lee Lewis, the Ferriday native who practically handcrafted the original bad boy persona in rock and roll with all the addictions, women and mug shots to prove it. The end result is Bragg's newest book, "Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story."
Bragg heads to the Louisiana Book Festival in Baton Rouge on Nov. 2, where he'll host a book talk and signing, then he's off to New Orleans for appearances at Garden District Books on Nov. 20 and at Octavia Books on Nov. 21.
In all, the project took Bragg about three years to finish thanks to the number of ailments -- pneumonia, shingles, kicking his lifelong addiction to painkillers -- that Lewis batted away in that time.
("His stomach, I think, is probably pieced together out of aluminum foil and bubble gum," Bragg noted. "I interviewed him day after day after day lying in bed ... and he'd eat Oreos and drink grape soda.")
There was also, of course, the difficulty of examining nearly eight decades of a lifetime. It'd be a hard task for anyone, but in Lewis' case, that lifetime was hardly ever easy to live, let alone to explain.
"Some days, he is so defiant he will tell you he has no regrets. And then some days he will think about the human cost, about loving a woman and leaving her, about living a lifestyle that hurt, that wounded people around him, and then he will speak of regret," Bragg said.
Lewis grew up playing piano in church, but eventually his hands found the notes for a kind of music the Assembly of God couldn't stand behind. Much of the rest of the country, however, very well could, and Lewis snagged hit song after hit song after signing to Sun Records in 1956. He befriended Elvis, became known for his raucous live performances, and he personally invented and reinvented his music more times than most current performers can imagine.
Lewis' personal life was fraught with a string of women, marriages that ended in death and/or heartbreak, the drowning of his 3-year-old son and an addiction to pain killers that lasted longer than nearly anything else.
But it was the disparate relationship between the music Lewis loved and what his heart found to be true that has haunted his life and served to inform much of Bragg's approach to the story.
"In the Assembly of God, most people preach so hard, you can't live it. You either walk in righteousness or you burn. Those are the choices. To say he believed it once would be dead wrong. He believes it now, but believing it and sinning anyway? Most people, they put their faith on a shelf, go about sinning and come back when it's convenient," Bragg said. "Jerry Lee never forgot the cost. It was always in his mind he would pay for this."
These days, Lewis spends most of his time in bed. He prays before eating, won't tolerate any cursing and can't handle blasphemy.
"One of the things that terrifies him is, in Jerry Lee's faith, if you go to Hell, it will be as if you never were known, as he quotes it," Bragg said. "What that means is, his kinfolk, the people he loved will not know him. It will be as if he never was, and for Jerry Lee, that is a special kind of Hell."
Bragg is perhaps best known for the stories he's told about his own kinfolk and growing up in the South, and he admits the years spent examining the stories and characters of his own life offered a lens through which he viewed Lewis.
"They're kind of the same people," Bragg said. "There's the faith, then there's the great poverty they grew up in. Then there's the mindset of these people, this kind of martyrdom the women have. They hold up these sorry men, they take care of the family while the men go off to prison. ... My daddy (went to prison, and) Jerry Lee's daddy went to prison twice for making whiskey.
"In a way, every book I've ever written prepared me for doing this. The difference, of course, is that Jerry Lee's blood is not my blood."
Because of -- or perhaps in spite of that -- Bragg did have a moment or two of worry about what could happen to him during his interviews. This is a man, after all, who at 79 years of age still keeps a .357 magnum under his pillow.
"People who knew more about Jerry Lee than me told me he shot his bass player ... and I'm sure if happened by accident, but after awhile I got to thinking getting shot by accident ain't much better," Bragg laughed.
During one long day, while Bragg bobbed in the rocking chair and Lewis was propped up in his bed, Judith Brown, who became Lewis' seventh wife in 2012, popped her head in to let the men know she was off to run an errand.
"It occurred to me, there were no other people in the house. It was just me and Jerry Lee. I heard the door slam, and I thought, Oh God. I am responsible for Jerry Lee Lewis, and it scared me to death," Bragg said. "I wasn't afraid anything would happen to him. I was afraid he would get up out of bed and crawl into his Rolls Royce and go thundering down the highway, and I had to go with him. It could have been the last anyone ever heard of me.
"It was just never dull. Day after day ... it was like any dull life with the dull parts taken out. That's Jerry Lee."