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.
Photo by Kait Jarbeau/via Flickr