He was just one bigamous marriage to his 13-year-old cousin (and a trip to England) away from eclipsing Elvis, and Rick Bragg’s book, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story tells the tale from Jerry Lee’s perspective.
In the summer of 1957, Lewis was the biggest thing in rock and roll. Coming off an appearance on the Steve Allen Show in which he kicked the piano bench across the stage and Allen tossed it back, Lewis’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” went from being banned by radio stations in the South to being the hottest thing in music.
“Back at Sun Records, Cash and Orbison and Perkins sulked,” writes Bragg. Elvis was doing movies, not really pushing the limits anymore, moving toward pop. But he was still the King. Within a year, both Presley and Lewis were thinking even that was about to change. Elvis was about to enter the military and Jerry Lee was about to embark on that ill-fated British tour. According to Lewis, Elvis came to Sun to see Jerry Lee and said, “’You got it. Take it. Take the whole damn thing.’” Elvis sobbed that day.
At the midpoint of Bragg’s book, he tells the gut-wrenching story of the trip to London. Jud Phillips (Sam’s brother who had managed to get Lewis on the Steve Allen Show) understood the business side of music much better than Lewis. Phillips tried to convince him to keep his new bride Myra a secret until after the tour concluded, but Lewis wasn’t interested in playing it that way. He didn’t understand incest or bigamy, at least not in the way most would have, and certainly not in the way those concepts were understood in London. He couldn’t comprehend how the international press would react, and how that would flow back to the United States. The end began even before the flight took off, as Dick Clark canceled a Bandstand appearance set a few days before departure. Then the plane lost an engine over the Atlantic, forcing a landing in Ireland. On a second plane, they made it to Heathrow. As the entourage was greeted by the press, someone asked Myra who she was and things began to unravel. Lewis tried to fix it by lying about her age, claiming she was 15. Myra pitched in by explaining that in Tennessee, “’You can get married at ten, if you can find a husband.'”
The first time Lewis sat down at a piano, at four years old, he played it. His dad later mortgaged the farm to buy one of his own, bringing it home in the back of his old truck. Over his life, Lewis played the piano every way it could be played. He did the same thing to people, driving crowds wild and making those around him crazy. He was irascible, difficult, and genius. He was a Pentecostal hell raiser who’d dare you to mess with him and, if you did, he’d drop you with a microphone stand. He sometimes laid a gun on the piano before the show started, just to make a point. Even when the gun wasn’t on the piano, it was probably in his pocket. He popped pills like they were M&Ms, and drank a river of whiskey. At any given point, he’d challenge your religious beliefs and claim his own as the one true way. He never reconciled rock and roll with religion, and will likely die without getting that straightened out.
Lewis excelled as a live act. No one was close. Even when he fell from grace, he never quit playing. Or recording, for that matter. When he was left out of rock as its performers got prettier and more sanitized, he took over the country charts for a while. Regardless of whether his records were selling, he hit the road, playing at clubs, bars, concert halls, anywhere people would listen, and then found the top of the charts again. He lived for the stage, for the performance. His willingness to ride the roads reminds us of that line about Hank Williams from “The Conversation”: “He’d be the first one on the bus and ready to ride.” As Waylon Jennings says in that same song, “That’s wantin’ to go, hoss.” Exactly. He wanted to go. Lewis was even a Shakespearean actor for a while, winning them over in an L.A. production of a rock opera version of Othello. The show could have gone to Broadway, but he turned that down. He knew that his home was on a different stage, and on that tour bus.
It was hard, if not impossible, to close a show that included Jerry Lee Lewis. Many conceded this after trying just once. He’s “The Killer,” and he’d do anything to entertain at the top of the bill. Once, while in a dispute with Chuck Berry over who should play last, he set the piano on fire and kept playing while it burned. Years later, on a bill again with Berry, he closed his show by picking up the guitar and playing Johnny B. Goode just before Berry was to come on. Berry eventually tried the piano as a way to take the song back, but Lewis says Berry “did not play a very good piano.” After the show, the men got into an argument and Lewis’s dad pulled a knife. Berry took off and dad chased after. Alcohol was involved, of course. Lewis remembers that “the next morning, Chuck and Daddy was sitting together in the hotel café, eating breakfast.”
The story of Jerry Lee’s life starts in Louisiana, just across the river from Natchez, Mississippi, in a world of bootleggers, musicians, and Pentecostals. Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley came from the same family. What Jerry Lee couldn’t learn from his own clan, he learned in the jukes and clubs of the area, sometimes sneaking in and hiding under tables as a kid. The most recent chapter of Jerry Lee’s life is played out in Nesbitt, Mississippi, in a dark room where he sat in 2011 and 2012, old and weakened, with a mean chihuahua called Topaz Jr., telling his story to Bragg.
Three members of the “Million Dollar Quartet” are gone. And now “The Killer” awaits his turn. In fact, as Bragg writes in Garden & Gun, Lewis almost passed during the two years they spent doing interviews. Bragg became close to his subject during this process, and even picked up some criticism from Stephen King in his New York Times review for not adding the needed “grains of salt” as he put the book together. A full reading of the book, including the acknowledgements, makes it clear that this is the story of Lewis’s life, as told by Jerry Lee. Bragg adds context, straightens things out here and there, and raises questions where questions should be raised. In the end, though, this is Jerry Lee Lewis’s story. Bragg brings all his Pulitzer Prize-winning skills to this project and writes it well. The result is a page turner that’s hard to put down, as the reader is carried along on the waves of success and failure, triumph and tragedy.