“Dynamite on a Hairpin Curve”
There is only one “Killer” in Rock ‘n’ Roll. And he was not named for setting fire to his piano, or for his impossible-to-follow, raucous on stage antics, but for a time as a young boy when in school, he latched onto a coach/teacher’s tie, securing a choke hold, which was only broken by two passing by football players and thus, a legend was born.
The book is “Jerry Lee Lewis – His Own Story” by Rick Bragg (J.L.L. Ferriday, Inc. 2014). I didn’t think I would probably read another biography about Jerry Lee Lewis (born in 1935 – in Ferriday, Louisiana). I thought I had enough of the wild rocking piano player to last me, but then recently I began hearing references to this autobiography from Denver talk show host Peter Boyle.
So when I came across it at the local library I decided to give it a try. Glad I did. Jerry Lee definitely didn’t set out to “set the record straight” with his own account of a life in rock and roll. If anything, if there ever was any doubt, through Bragg’s well-written account, The Legend Lives – although with many bumps along the way.
In Pursuit of “The King”
Seems to me that Jerry’s journey on a life of rock and roll was focused on one thing: Catching “The King”. In Bragg’s account, who had complete cooperation and access to Lewis, every chapter is salted with Jerry’s obsession of first, pursuing the King – then catching the King, and finally surpassing the King. And further, Lewis seems to take solace in the late stages of his life, that he accomplished all three.
Time probably has not judged the accomplishments and legacy of Jerry Lee Lewis on the same plain as Elvis Presley. But there is no denying that Jerry Lee left his mark, was a rock and roll founder, and did it all his way.
The Long Road to the Top
His “meteoric” rise to fame was not meteoric at all, but a constant plodding process, struggling to find a way to break in to the world of fame and fortune. A prodigy by all accounts on the piano, it was the instrument itself that seemed to block his journey.
Jerry Lee was playing the piano far beyond proficiently be the age of five. Before he was ten he was sneaking into a local ‘juke joint’ in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, – an establishment of far reaching notoriety called “Haney’s Big House”, named for its proprietor Will Haney. Haney would routinely grab little Lewis by the nape of the neck when he was found hiding under a table watching the dancers and musicians and hustled out the door – only to sneak back in – again and again.
Haney’s Big House attracted all the notorious Blues and Delta singers through the years, but was a strictly black-patron-only establishment. In 1966 the Big House burned to the ground in a block fire which destroyed several adjacent businesses – suspected arson work of the active Klan at that time.
Jerry Lee’s next step was landing a gig as a very young teenager in nearby Natchez, Louisiana at another local joint, “The Wagon Wheel”. It was there, in the very early 1950’s, that Lewis would team up with black musician/ blues man Paul Whitehead. Whitehead was legendary in his own time among followers and musicians of the blues. He mentored Jerry Lee on his piano technique and was a huge influence on the future direction of Jerry Lee’s musical style. In the later hours of a typical night of performing, the three’s output would morph into what certainly would now be perceived to be very early unadulterated rock ‘n’ roll’.
Ironically, for all of Whitehead’s appearances and couplings with so many famed musicians, his presence was captured on only a single record, “Right Now” and “It’s All Right” on the obscure “Beagle” record label.
Jerry Lee was restless throughout his entire boyhood, ditching school, dropping out, taking off from his parent’s home, being detained by law enforcement, retrieved by his dad, only to repeat and continue the behavior, all the while seeking a way to knock down the door leading to fame. (Jerry Lee’s father Elmo – while a tough and hardened man – who had served time in a Louisiana prison – was tolerant of Jerry Lee – bought him a guitar – and although tested by the reckless teenager – supported him during the times that counted the most – as did his mother Mamie).
Journey to Nashville
What set Lewis apart from the crowd was to a degree, his swagger and his appearance (hair longer than nearly any musician at the time – He even says he launched the long hair style before it’s time), but more than anything else, his live stage act. There simply just wasn’t anything else out there quite like Jerry Lee. Two who Jerry Lee greatly admired (and competed with) were Little Richard and Chuck Berry. Both had stage acts that incited near riotous behavior. But Jerry Lee in person caused pandemonium – at first in all the raunchy, beer soaked joints and dives, and later in venues-of-fame holding thousands.
But back to the piano. Upon Jerry Lee’s first sojourn into Nashville where he attempted an audition for the Grand Ol’ Opry, he was simply turned away. The Opry God Fathers had already sent Elvis packing, and Jerry Lee didn’t stand a chance of landing a spot in the fraternity or even a one-time appearance on the famed stage.
Next Jerry auditioned for another member of the Nashville establishment, country singer-yodeler Slim Whitman. Lewis laid down two tracks for the tryout. First he was asked if he played guitar (a question which was often posed to him by those in power) and second, he was simply told to go home to Ferriday by the yodeler.
Jerry and his father, Elmo would eventually take a day trip to the famous Sun Record studio in Memphis, Tennessee to take a shot at approaching owner and rock recording pioneer Sam Phillips. Sam was out of town on business the day Jerry auditioned choosing to with a Ray Price tune “Crazy Arms”. He did it in one take with Sam’s record producer Jack Clements at the controls. They left the tape and Jerry’s fate in the hands of fate and returned to Ferriday. Weeks passed and finally the phone rang. Phillips was beckoning.
Jerry entered the Sun studio officially for the first time in November of 1956 joining Sun artist Billy Riley along with drummer J.M. Eaton and guitar player Roland Janes, two very seasoned studio men. They cut the tracks “Crazy Arms” again, along with “End of the Road” and “You’re; the Only Star in My Blue Heaven” – a Gene Autry tune. Although “Crazy Arms” began getting local airplay, Lewis was still searching for “the song” the would lead the big break through. Both “Crazy Arms” and “End of the Road” were receiving some attention from Billboard Magazine reviews, all positive, but still no chart action.
A short time later, still without a hit record, one night in a town called Osceola, Arkansas while performing at the Rebel Room, a dive by any standards, Jerry decided to dust off a number he had played with back in his Natchez days at The Wagon Wheel. He was now being backed by cousin J.W. Brown on bass and drummer Russ Smith. The reaction by the patrons made Jerry think “This is the one!”
He returned to Sun and Phillips and ran it by Sam. His reaction was muted. Phillips seemed to think that Sun’s big moment had come in gone with the departure of Elvis to RCA Victor. Sam and Clement came up with another middle of the road number but Lewis insisted that his sure bet be placed on the “B” side even though he was sure it as a genuine “A” side. The moment came. Jerry, along with Roland Janes and Jimmy Van Eaton let it rip, tape rolling. Jerry pulled out the stops and then it was over. The studio had gone completely silent.
“Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On” was done in a single electrifying take. The world of rock ‘n’ roll changed for Jerry Lee Lewis and fans of the music forever.
The record gained rapid air-play in the South, but elsewhere jockeys were reluctant to spin the record. Sales were respectable but the song seemed to stall. Then a trip up north – Rejection by Ed Sullivan, and none to politely according to Lewis. Doors weren’t swinging open wide for “The Killer”, that is until an Ed Sullivan competitor decided to take a chance.
Jerry Lewis and his band got their big break on the Steve Allen show on July 28th, 1957 where they performed with no less fury than they would in any Louisiana road house – right down to Jerry Lee violently kicking his piano stool backward across the TV set (only to have it just as violently kicked back in his direction a few moments later by Allen who was up for the fun).
“Whole Lot of Shakin'” took off for real this time, selling thousands of copies weekly after the appearance. Tours followed – big tours – coupled with other stars – all who learned in short order that you did not want to follow Jerry Lee Lewis onto the stage. More television – motion pictures – more hit records.
Incident in the U.K. & Aftermath
The time span from “Shakin'” to Jerry’s last hurrah was very short. Cut short by the “incident” in Great Britain – a seemingly peculiar place for a rock ‘n’ roll legend to be brought to his knees. But while the British youth were loyal, devoted and rabid connoisseurs of rock, the British public was staunchly conservative.
When the British press initiated their query into Jerry’s marriage to a 13 year-old cousin (3rd cousin), Myra Brown – daughter of his cousin and bass player, J.W. Brown – their coverage launched a fire-storm that brought the Jerry Lee Lewis freight train tumbling down.
Jerry Lee had been invited to come live with Brown and his family in Memphis as a goodwill jester so Jerry Lee could be closer to his aspirations of landing in the big time. His infatuation and eventual marriage was the result. The pair remained married for a surprisingly long period of time, finally divorcing in 1970. Jerry Lee would marry six times.
Lewis had insisted on bringing his young bride on the Great Britain tour against all pleadings from his management team at Sun Records.
Back in the U.S.A. retribution was equally as swift in lasting ways. Jockeys united in not spinning his records – Appearances were cancelled – song writers ceased sending their compositions his way – Sun Records (Philips) while not abandoning him, cautiously backed off.
Jerry Lee continued to record for Sun, actually recording well over 100 more tracks up into 1963 when he finally cut the cord. For a short time he continued to dent the charts – scoring one final hurrah in April of 1961 with a Ray Charles’ song “What’d I Say” peaking at number 30.
Back to the Road & Familiar Turf
The big crash would have brought most entertainers to a total and tragic end. Jerry Lee responded by doing what he knew best. He hit the road appearing in any and all venues – mostly small – some very small – anywhere he could locate an open door. In the beginning he was often met with hostility – fights would ensue – sometime melees but the constant performing was never-ending. His live act remained what it always had been.
From his autobiography: “I never shunned show. If I had to cut my price down to nearly nothin’ I’d take it. I played a show every night. Wasn’t no freeways then. We seldom hit a two-lane. Akron, Cincinnati, Louisville. We’d do little towns, big towns. We’d do one in Ohio, leave for New York then do one in Ohio again… Wore out more Cadillacs…But wasn’t no choice. Wasn’t no stopping me.”
He continues, “The band hung in there with me. I don’t know what I’d done if they’d given up. Pull up to them ol’ clubs and rock ’em right on down. Never stopped packing the clubs, the auditoriums.”
But there were times when the audiences were thin – one time when there were only two old ladies sitting in a room. But yet again, the performance went on. And so it went for eight or nine years as Jerry Lee recalls.
Jerry Lee Lewis survived it all. He now approaches his 80th year on the planet. A country music career was an easy transition for Jerry Lee. It was an inherent piece of his natural inherited triad: Gospel-Country-Rock ‘n’ Roll. And along every step of the way he would always slide effortlessly right back into Rock ‘n’ Roll when the time was right.
(Jerry Lee to this day struggles with his perceived conflict between religion and rock and roll, often asking himself and others if he would “go to hell” for a life in rock music.) Lewis recalls asking the same question of Elvis – who Jerry Lee formed a considerably close relationship considering their ‘competitive’ status’. Lee recounts that Elvis reacted angrily demanding that Lewis never “ask me that again!”
His first country “hit” on Smash Records was “Another Place Another Time” in March of 1968, hitting #4 on the C&W charts. From there he would score an additional 48 country hit records, with 21 going top ten along with four number 1 hits. Later on – Smash would purchase the Sun Records catalog which would provide access to a treasure trove of Lewis tracks for release either on Smash or Sun collector reissues.
Recognition & Beyond
Jerry was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. 1989 was honored in Hollywood via the Hollywood Walk of Fame in the recording industry category. In 1998 “Great Balls of Fire” went into the Grammy Hall of Fame followed by “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1999. He acquired 1- gold records. In 2007 the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame bestowed him with a “American Music Master’s Award”.
And yes, more controversies along the way (see this Rolling Stone article about the mysterious death of wife Shawn Stevens)
His epic contributions to the Rock and Roll story, “Whole Lot of Shakin’, “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless” – on their own could define a hall-of-fame resume for anyone else. For Jerry Lee Lewis the Hall was only a stop along the way.
But performing live as only ‘The Killer’ could perform, is how Jerry Lee Lewis will be remembered. Is that it? Oh there is more to the story much more. So go find a copy of “Jerry Lee Lewis – His Own Story”. Fasten your seat belt. Time to Rock ‘n’ Roll! Or as Rick Bragg tells it, life for Jerry Lee Lewis past, present and future was like “a runaway train hauling dynamite on fire on a hairpin curve.” Enough said.
Visit my Jerry Lee Lewis nearly complete discography here.
Cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley – both Ferriday, LA Residents
(Two Otis Blackwell Monsters)
Composer/musician Otis Blackwell enjoyed a prosperous career and had the distinction of being a more than significant contribute to another legend: Elvis Presley. His final contribution for Jerry Lee was “Let’s Talk About Us”, a 1959 composition which missed the charts completely. Later on Otis would compose hits for Dee Clark, Jimmy Jones and others. He penned a very early hit for Little Willie John, the much covered “Fever” under the name John Davenport.