In 1953, when Jerry Lee Lewis was barely 18, he had a son with his second wife. He’d stay out all night ravaging pianos in broken-down palaces to hordes of drunks who’d egg him on and slip him little Benzedrine pills so he’d never stop playing. It’d be 4:00 in the morning and the last drunk would stagger out and still Jerry Lee would want to play more.
In 1954, a Michigan congresswoman introduced a House bill to have rock ‘n’ roll declared legally obscene.
In 1955, a Connecticut Fats Domino concert was cancelled due to local hysteria that it would cause a riot.
In 1956, Jerry Lee had his first hit, a cover of a Ray Price honky-tonk standard “Crazy Arms” that he put a rolling boogie beat to and it sold.
In 1957, Jerry Lee took Big Maybelle’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” to #1 and followed it up with another #1, “Great Balls Of Fire.” They became the most attacked songs in America, preachers preaching against them both, lawmakers scurrying to ban the new music, Jerry Lee laughing all the way to the bank. When he sang “Shakin’” on comedian Steve Allen’s talk show, he became a superstar so he named his second son Steve Allen Lewis. The mother was his third wife (although he was still married to wife #2). That third wife was his 13-year-old cousin. That son lived to the ripe old age of three. Another son, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. lived to 19.
Jerry Lee admits to bigamy but not to murder when wives #4 and #5 die under mysterious circumstances. Accused by Rolling Stone of criminal neglect, sandbagged by Geraldo Rivera on national television, Jerry Lee just says, “I never hurt anyone.” Well, at least on purpose. He did shoot his bass player by accident.
There’s a 1958 scene in Rick Bragg’s so-good-I-didn’t-want-it-to-end Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story (Harper) where his friend Elvis Presley starts crying.
“You got it. Take it,” he said to Jerry Lee. “Take the whole damn thing.”
Elvis was talking about his top dog status. Jerry Lee was hot. Elvis was about to become a Private in the U.S. Army. There was an awkward silence.
“I didn’t know it meant that much to you,” replied Jerry Lee.
“You can have it,” Elvis said through tears now streaming down his face. It was as if he knew he’d be in for a lifetime of soft ballads and pop music when he got out of the Army. “I just wondered,” Elvis blubbered, “why you didn’t have to go. Why do I have to go and do 18 months and you don’t have to?”
As history would have it, Jerry Lee would be incinerated in the press for marrying wife #3, his career in tatters, and Elvis, who did worse by taking a 14-year-old girl out of Germany with the permission of her parents and setting her up in his Tennessee house Graceland and lying about it, would be given a free pass for some reason. That always rankled Jerry Lee’s hide. He denies wanting to kill Elvis when he was arrested for ramming his car into the Graceland gates drunk in the middle of the night with a loaded gun sitting right on the seat next to him.
There are so many great stories in this book that point to one conclusion: Jerry Lee embodies the danger implicit in real rock ‘n’ roll. And he defines the spirit of real rock ‘n’ roll during his lean years as he guzzles whiskey straight out of the bottle onstage night after night in one shit-hole after another while popping pills, pounding the piano, using the mic stand as a lethal weapon and raising the holy ghost on purpose to say a big fuck you to the prospect of actually going to hell which he did, indeed, believe down deep that he would.
All told, he’d lose two sons, marry seven times (his sister married eight times), and live to barnstorm the country never once giving up. Sure, country music saved him and his rise, again, would be meteoric. But he’d throw it all away again with dangerous obsessions like guns, fast cars, floozies, airplanes, drugs and alcohol. His cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, would get rich preaching against sin and using Jerry Lee’s debauchery as an example…until Swaggart was found soliciting prostitutes.
Throw in two near-death experiences, redemption, a third rise, the respect and love of his peers (John Lennon got down on his knees to kiss his feet when they met) and being the first artist ever elected into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame, and you’ve still only got a sliver of the magnitude and majesty of this man’s epic life. This book puts it all down, the good, the bad and the ugly. Whereas the brilliant 1982 Hellfire is more about its author, Nick Tosches, than it is about Jerry Lee, Rick Bragg has done the nearly impossible. He tells this amazing story with Jerry Lee adding asides, comments, ruminations and regrets…as if you’re sitting with The Killer himself.
He’ll be 80 this year. He has no stomach. But I’m going to see him perform in New Orleans this May.