SEPTEMBER 29, 1935
Jerry Lee Lewis was 21-years-old when he took the world by storm. Since then the piano-pounding Pentecostal from Ferriday, Louisiana has battled Elvis Presley for the title of King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, the British and American press for his very career, and himself for playing what he’s openly admitted is the devil’s music. He’s made rock ‘n’ roll that’s induced riots, gospel music convincing enough to save your soul and country that’ll break your heart. A man for whom exceptions have to be made, he’s the first living artist to occupy this space.
Jerry Lee Lewis has never claimed to be a songwriter. His talent, he’s often been quoted as saying, is of a far more rarified form than simply being able to pen a tune. Jerry Lee is a stylist. “There’s only ever been four stylists,” he’s stated matter-of-factly on many an occasion. “Jerry Lee Lewis, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and Jimmie Rodgers.” Giving his argument credence is the record that introduced him to the world, a re-working of Ray Price’s honky-tonk chestnut “Crazy Arms.” The song utilized exactly two instruments—drums and piano—and bore almost no resemblance whatsoever to the original. More importantly, it sounded like virtually nothing that had come before it.
The flip side of “Crazy Arms” was “End Of The Road,” often credited as his first attempt at songwriting and also the very first number he recorded at Memphis’s hallowed Sun Studio. Starting with an old Irving Berlin piece called “Waiting At The End Of The Road,” Lewis shortened the title until it sounded almost apocalyptic, especially for the beginning of a career. He threw Berlin’s once-innocent lyrics out the window completely, replacing them with a set rife with uncertainly. It wasn’t so much what he sang, but the way he sang it. Blaring out of jukeboxes across the South starting in December of 1956, it was a shockingly raw piano boogie anchored only by drumming that sounded barely in control and a raunchy guitar that only added to the anarchy. Then came the words; words that seemed to predict his fate and sum up his career-to-be in a single line:
The way is dark,
The night is long,
I don’t care if I never get home,
At the end of the road
A larger-than-life character whose time on earth has bounced from moments of ego-fuelled frenzy to dark, soul-searching self doubt, Lewis’s life has been riddled with a myriad of tragedies that would have broken a lesser man long ago, but if Jerry Lee Lewis is nothing else, he’s a survivor.
Separating the man from the myth has not been easy, though countless authors have tried. Nick Tosches—whose Hellfire is as much a piece of Southern gothic literature as it is a biography—has come closer than anyone else to unraveling the complicated personality of the man who refers to himself as “the Killer.” While even the likes of William Shakespeare would have trouble dreaming up a story as full of dramatic nuance as Jerry Lee’s (which makes it somehow fitting that Lewis played Iago in a rock ‘n’ roll stage version of Othello called Catch My Soul), perhaps the biggest tragedy of all is that Lewis has had to live under a magnifying glass for most of his life. Those who have done the scrutinizing, many of his friends will tell you, have often been less than fair.
There’s no denying that the inner demons that have raged within Lewis have charged his music and personality with an intensity that few others have ever achieved. His lifelong conflict between the Lord and the Devil has caused him to remark many times over that “You can’t serve two masters, you’ll hate one and love the other.” Yet, he’s continued to rock. Right or wrong, Jerry Lee Lewis is admirably unapologetic about his life’s work and the power that’s been invested in him.
Born on September 29, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana to Elmo Lewis, Sr. and his wife Mamie, Jerry Lee was only three-years-old when his brother Elmo Jr.—who had a remarkable talent for singing and composing songs—was killed by a drunk driver at the age of nine. Now an only child, Jerry Lee and his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart grew up inseparable, closer in many ways than true brothers. A shared fascination with music of all kinds soon led all three of them to the magical discovery of the piano.
“Like the brother he never knew,” wrote Nick Tosches of Lewis’s earliest interest in music, “Jerry Lee was a singing child. To Mamie his voice would never seem as glorious as that of her lost son but she felt that there was something wondrous, like a fire, in little Jerry Lee’s passion for song. She had come from a family that loved music, she was married to a man who loved music, but she had never witnessed a love for music as strong and deep as what she saw in Jerry Lee. The child sang in church and he sang with his daddy’s old records, and he sang along with the children of the black sharecroppers who lived nearby. And sometimes, when he was singing by himself, thinking that no one could hear him, he mixed it all together.” It was a method from which he would never waver.
HOLY GHOST BOOGIE
When the Assembly Of God came to Ferriday in the late ’30s, Jimmy Lee Swaggart’s father—who’d never attended a church of any kind—was drawn by the music he heard there, and soon began attending services to play his fiddle. Likewise, Elmo Lewis, Sr.—who’d spent the past few years buying and playing along with every Jimmie Rodgers record he could get his hands on—brought his guitar down and joined in. Elmo could play a little piano, and he showed young Jerry Lee what he knew. The boys were encouraged to practice on the church’s piano with the promise that when they were good enough they would be able to play at Sunday services. In 1945, sufficiently impressed after witnessing his son transform “Silent Night” into a relentless boogie, Elmo went into debt to buy Jerry Lee an old Starck upright.
That same year, Jerry visited his cousin Carl Glasscock, whose father was a Pentecostal preacher, in Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Carl specialized in what’s been termed “Holy Ghost Boogie,” much to his father’s disapproval. (As Tosches so succinctly points out, “If you took the words away, there were more than a few Pentecostal hymns that would not sound foreign coming from the nickel machine in the wildest juke joint.”) “Jerry Lee couldn’t play too well then,” Glasscock told Tosches. “He stayed with us about a month and a half and he made me play the piano every day. When he left to go home he could do everything I could do. He didn’t have those big fingers yet—he couldn’t hit those octaves—but he knew the boogie. It was great.”
Jerry practiced and practiced, developing a heavy-hitting left-handed bass technique while he let his right hand explore the upper reaches of the keyboard in wild abandon. He absorbed whatever he heard on the radio, be it country, blues or pop, applying all of it to his quickly growing repertoire. When Shreveport’s KWKH began broadcasting the Louisiana Hayride in 1948, he became spellbound by the lonesome whine of Hank Williams.
Setting the table for his boogie uproar were two songs, “House Of Blue Lights” and “Down The Road Apiece,” that were virtually interchangeable in their praises of that most American of shrines to a rural good time, the roadhouse. The locale that each of these songs brought to mind for young Jerry Lee and Jimmy Lee was a black nightclub in Ferriday called Haney’s Big House. Every black act that toured the South rolled through Haney’s—from established stars like Sunnyland Slim to up-and-comers like Muddy Waters to relative unknowns like B.B. King and Ray Charles—and more often than not, Jerry and Jimmy were there to witness their performances.
“We’d go down there and sell newspapers and shine shoes and everything,” Lewis remembered in Hellfire, “and we’d keep on doin’ that until nobody was lookin’, and then we’d work our way through the door. And them cats is so drunk they couldn’t walk. But I sure heard a lot of good piano playin’ down there. Man, these old black cats come through in them old buses, feet stickin’ out the windows, eatin’ sardines. But I tell you they could really play some music—that’s a guaranteed fact.”
“HELL MAN, WE JUST DID IT—WE PLAYED IT ALL”
There were white equivalents to this phenomenon as well, and not all of them played guitars like Hank Williams. Three piano pounders from this era that most certainly bent Jerry Lee’s ears were Moon Mullican, Merrill E. Moore and Roy Hall. Musically speaking, all three of these men were as black as they were white and, in fact, the point has often been made that the only reason they weren’t considered blues players was because of their skin color. It’s a statement that would soon be applied to the Killer himself.
Lewis’s first public performance took place in 1950 when he banged out a sizzling version of Stick McGhee’s 1949 R&B smash “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” in the parking lot of a recently-opened Ford dealership in Ferriday. “That 14-year-old boy,” Tosches wrote of the performance, “sat there, rocking, howling a song that was about nothing but getting drunk and fucking up, and all the people there started howling along with him, loving it. (He) was making the sort of music that most folks had only heard in conjunction with the Holy Ghost, but the boy wasn’t singing about any Holy Ghost. He was singing something he had taken from the blacks, from the juke joint blacks, but he had changed what he had taken…changed it by pure, unholy audacity.” Jimmy Lee Swaggart had his own experience playing “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” not too dissimilar to Jerry’s, around the same time. He suddenly realized that his fingers were hitting licks that he’d never been able to play before, as if there was some invisible power guiding his hands to the piano keys. Swaggart had been by far the most religious of the three cousins, being the first to speak in tongues and also the first to get the calling to preach. Interpreting his musical epiphany as the Devil guiding his hands, Swaggart walked away from the secular piano bench that day and never looked back.
Jerry too, was struggling with his faith and even enrolled in Bible college, only to be thrown out after ravaging “My God Is Real” during chapel. In 1954 he joined a local country band led by Johnny Littlejohn, though the spontaneous combustion that the group produced when they hit the bandstand jumped genres as quickly as its audience downed shots of whiskey. “We played everything from ‘The Wild Side Of Life’ to ‘Big Legged Woman,’” Littlejohn told Tosches. “Hell, we did ‘Stardust.’ Whatever we did, we did it honky-tonk style, hard core barroom style. Paul Whitehead made that electric accordion sound like a damn brass section. A guy came into the club one New Year’s Eve when we were playin’ and he thought it was a nigger band. Hell, man, we just did it—we played it all.” Jerry Lee, Littlejohn concluded, often couldn’t remember the words to the songs, “But he was somethin’ to see, man. He was always a showman. Always.”
Lewis made two trips during the time he was with Littlejohn. The first was to Shreveport, where Slim Whitman helped him cut an acetate of two songs, mostly to get rid of him; the second was to Nashville where he knocked on various doors with said acetate to no avail. “Go get yourself a guitar,” was a rebuff he heard more than once. Broke, he lucked into the one man in Nashville who understood a hillbilly piano player’s plight: Roy Hall. Hall gave him a job at his club, the Musician’s Hideaway, an after-hours joint where busts were routine. “I hired him,” Hall told Tosches, “for fifteen dollars a night. He worked from one til five in the morning, poundin’ that piano ’til daylight.” Unbeknownst to Jerry Lee, Hall would give him more than a short-lived job, he’d give him his first number one hit.
By 1956, rock ‘n’ roll was bursting out of America’s back waters and making its mark on the general musical landscape. After discussing the rise of Elvis Presley with Mickey Gilley, Gilley suggested that Lewis make the trip to Sun Records in Memphis, the studio where Presley had first supercharged hillbilly with rhythm and blues. Sun was run by the eccentric Sam Phillips, a walking divining rod who saw it as his earthly duty to bring emotions out of artists that they themselves often didn’t know dwelt inside of them. He didn’t have to try very hard with Jerry Lee. Jerry’s first single, “Crazy Arms,” was only a hit below the Mason-Dixon Line, but his second, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was a different story altogether, especially after he stormed through it on national television, violently kicking the piano stool across the stage of The Steve Allen Show in mid-song. (Allen responded by gleefully throwing some furniture around the stage himself). By the fall of ’57, the song had zoomed to number one on the country, R&B and pop charts, eventually selling in excess of a million copies.
Lewis had first performed “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” with Johnny Littlejohn, after being blown away by Roy Hall’s 1955 original. Hall later recalled to Tosches that the song had originated during a drunken fishing trip in Florida when he and a friend began hollering lyrics across the lake to one another. “Me an’ a black guy named Dave Williams put it together,” detailed Hall. “We was drunk, writin’ songs, out there fishin’ and milkin’ snakes, drinkin’ wine.” Somehow, it seemed a fitting birth for the song that would propel Lewis to stardom.
Songwriter Otis Blackwell whipped up Jerry’s next hit, “Great Balls Of Fire,” in the same spirit as “Whole Lotta Shakin.’” Getting it on tape, however, was another story. Gathered in the studio on a hot August day in 1957 were bassist Billy Lee Riley, drummer James Van Eaton, engineer Jack Clement, Sam Phillips and Lewis himself. The booze was flowing freely, as it often did in Phillips’ studio, and after a sufficient amount of imbibing, Riley, Van Eaton and Clement were clearly ready to get down to business. Lewis was not. Nevertheless, the tape was rolling.
“H-E-L-L!” the Killer exclaimed, slamming the back of his hand into his other palm for emphasis and effectively bringing the session to a stand still. “It says make merry with the joy of God only. But when it comes to worldly music, rock ‘n’ roll, anything like that, you have done brought yourself into the world, and you’re in the world, and you’re still a sinner. You’re a sinner and unless you be saved and born again and be made as a little child and walk before God and be holy—and brother, I mean you got to be so pure. No sin shall enter there—no sin! For it says no sin—it don’t say just a little bit, it says no sin shall enter there. Brother, not one little bit. You got to walk and talk with God to go to heaven. You got to be so good.”
Phillips too seemed less concerned with cutting a hit than having a theological discussion. “All right,” he began, with a calm tone of equalization in his voice. “Now look, Jerry. Religious conviction does not mean anything resembling extremism. Do you mean to tell me that you’re gonna take the Bible, that you’re gonna take God’s word, and that you’re gonna revolutionize the whole universe?
“Jesus Christ came into this world,” Phillips continued emphatically, “and He tolerated man. He didn’t preach from one pulpit, He went around and did good. If you think you can’t do good if you’re a rock ‘n’ roll exponent…”
“You can do good, Mr. Phillips, don’t get me wrong…”
“When I say do good…”
“You can have a kind heart! You can help people…”
Then Phillips dropped the bomb. “You can save souls!”
“No! No! No! No!” cried Lewis incredulously. “How can the Devil save souls? What are you talkin’ about? Man, I got the Devil in me; if I didn’t I’d be a Christian!”
“Jerry, the point I’m tryin’ to make is, if you believe in what you’re sayin’, you’ve got no alternative whatsoever.”
“Mr. Phillips! I don’t care!” Jerry concluded with beautiful simplicity. “It ain’t what you believe, it’s what’s written in the Bible.”
It was one of the most riveting performances of Lewis’s career and not a note of music had been played. But although the idea of two of the 20th-century’s most brilliant musical minds locking horns over religious philosophy is certainly a romantic one, Billy Lee Riley has a slightly more down to earth view of it all.
“The wine did it. Jerry only felt that way when he was drunk. When he would get to drinkin’ a little bit of Jimmy Swaggart come out of him. He’d start preachin’, and of course Sam thought he was a preacher too at the time—and most of the time thought he was actually God. When Jerry was drunk and Sam was drunk and I was drunk and everybody else was drunk we always preached. That wasn’t the only sermon that was ever preached—it was the only one that got on tape. Once the wine cleared away and everybody’s brain was fluid again, religion never came into it at all. So I don’t think it was an actual belief he had, I think it was just the wine talking.”
THE WAY IS DARK, THE NIGHT IS LONG
“Great Balls Of Fire,” another number one hit, was followed by “Breathless” and “High School Confidential” as Lewis was pitted against Elvis Presley for the crown of King of Rock ‘n’ Roll. In 1958, Jerry Lee journeyed to England for a five-week tour. As he stepped off the plane, he introduced his brand new wife Myra Gale to questioning reporters who soon discovered that she was not only 13-years-old, but also his second cousin. After only three shows, the tour was cancelled and the Lewis entourage were flown back to the States in disgrace, where they awaited similar persecution by the U.S. media.
Lewis’s stature as a star—even a menacing rocker—couldn’t withstand such stacked odds and he was reduced to playing one-nighters for chump change in back road honky-tonks for the next decade. To his full credit, his music survived without a scratch. Recording for Sun until 1963, he injected the same masterful stylization and shimmering glissandi into recently-penned rockers like “Milkshake Mademoiselle” and “Pink Pedal Pushers” as he did into century-old plantation melodies like “Old Black Joe” and “That Lucky Old Sun.” His recorded repertoire touched on virtually every genre of American music, and he made every song indelibly his own. Though much of this material went unreleased at the time, it ranks as some of the finest work of a career brimming with brilliance.
“We’d get in on those sessions,” remembers Billy Lee Riley, “and work all night, we’d just ad-lib a lot of that stuff. Jerry Lee’d just start singing and he’d bring up songs we hadn’t heard in a hundred years and put his own rendition to ’em. He knew about a million songs, I think he knew every song that had ever been written.”
Lewis returned to Britain in 1962, finally gaining the recognition that he’d been robbed of four years earlier; two years later he made his most frenzied recording to date in Europe, a live LP cut at Hamburg’s Star Club with the Nashville Teens wailing away behind him. Signed to Mercury that year, Lewis finally invaded the Top Ten again in 1968 with a string of brilliant country heart-breakers that included “Another Place, Another Time,” “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out Of Me)” and “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left Of Me).” One of them, “To Make Love Sweeter For You” was his first number one hit since “Great Balls Of Fire.”
But with Mercury as with Sun, there was always more to Lewis than the hits. When he erupted into a fervor somewhere between demonic and evangelical on storming re-inventions of Charlie Rich’s “Don’t Put No Headstone On My Grave” and the traditional standard “Please Don’t Talk About Me When I’m Gone,” the songs seemed as much autobiographical statements of proud survival as proof that the rock ‘n’ roll fire within him would never be put out.
Roland Janes, whose guitar work is as much a part of Lewis’s Sun records as that inimitable piano, doesn’t like to talk to the press about Jerry Lee because, in his words, “Nobody’s interested in the truth anyway.” Of the outrageous stories that have obscured much of Lewis’s legacy, Janes doesn’t mince words. “I think a lot of it’s made-up horseshit. Folks do have a tendency to play with the facts sometimes; if they don’t know the facts, they make up facts. To me, he’s always been really on the up and up and one hell of a really nice guy. Sometimes misunderstood, but a very generous person. And he’s one hell of a musician. He’s so much more talented than what you’ve heard and what you know about him. ’Cause he’s never done all that he’s capable of doing.”
All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology
Rockin’ the Blues: 25 Great Sun Recordings
The Sun Hillbilly Sessions
Another Place Another Time / She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye
by Nick Tosches
Grove Press (May 1998)