Jerry Lee Lewis is the greatest Country singer ever, bar none. He's been overlooked in that department. Though he gets effusive praise for rockin' the piano harder and longer than any other mortal, few remark on the range and power of his voice, his ability to deliver the heart of a song, his vocal audacity and complete freedom within the groove.
Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who could "catch lightning in a bottle," called Jerry Lee "the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white, one of the most talented human beings to walk God's earth."
Lewis will be featured this Saturday (May 11) on "Killer: The Rock and Roll Life of Jerry Lee Lewis", a three-hour KVMR radio special from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. (89.5 FM, 105.1 FM Truckee, kvmr.org streaming)
This February 28th, the 83-year-old artist suffered a minor stroke. He's recuperating in Memphis, expected to be back on the stage this summer. I sure hope so. Reporters have surrounded his hospital bed before, certain that it was curtains for The Killer. Journalists have had his obit ready for decades.
As for his nickname, The Killer, in Jerry Lee's boyhood the word was a slang superlative for someone or something that had all comers beat, somebody who demolished the competition. If Jerry Lee calls you "Killer," it is a compliment, and a way of bringing you into his confidence.
Jerry Lee has a deep love and understanding of American music. He proclaims himself one of only four great American song stylists – with Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, and Hank Williams – "all the others are just imitators."
HOW HE STARTED
Sez Jerry Lee in Rick Bragg's 2014 biography of him: "I am a stylist. I can take a song, a song I hear on the radio, and make it my song. (When) I was fifteen years old....I played the piano all day and then at night I'd lay in bed and think about what I'd play the next day. And I'd see records that was out there, see the way they were going, and I just thought that I could beat it.
"Back then, I was playing the skating rink in Natchez, on this old upright piano – I remember it wasn't in very good shape – and I played everything. I played Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, boogie-woogie, and I turned it all into something else. What did I turn it into? Why, I made it rock and roll.
"There was Rockabilly, there was Elvis. But there was no pure rock & roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door."
Backstage at the Roxy in Los Angeles in 1973, John Lennon knelt down to kiss the feet of Jerry Lee Lewis, saying "I just wanted you to know what you meant to me. You made it possible for me to be a rock and roll singer." Jerry Lee said he was surprised and didn't know what to say except "Thank you." "He was real sincere," says Jerry Lee, "He was real nice. He was serious. I didn't know what to think. I guess it's flatterin' when you have people kissin' your feet."
That's about as modest as Jerry Lee gets. He may have been taken off guard at that moment, but he never would have disagreed with John Lennon's assessment. JLL says of himself: "I was perfect at one time. Once I was pretty well perfect when I hit that stage."
Jerry Lee Lewis, despite his monster talent, never got the full backing of the entertainment industry. After breaking into stardom in 1958, his career came unglued when the news got out of his marriage to his third wife and third cousin, Myra Gale Brown, who was his bride at 13 years of age.
For a decade afterward, Jerry Lee's records didn't get pushed and big breaks like films and TV appearances didn't come his way. The press continually rumbled with rumors of violence and dark doin's surrounding him. $10,000 per show performance fees dwindled to $250 a night.
Jerry Lee, determined to play his way back to his rightful kingship of rock, brought his gift to the people one show at a time. He pushed himself to the limit to deliver the power and joy of it to his audiences, who expected Hell to break loose on stage and were disappointed if it didn't. After the giving, there wasn't much left of Jerry Lee for the folks back home.
He showed his love with gifts of cars, houses – whatever material dreams rock & roll money could fulfill – while he dealt with the grim realities of the musician's lifestyle, forcing his body to accomodate the demands of performance and long distance travel by ingesting uppers and downers and applying painkillers of various sorts: more whiskey, more music, more love.
The rock & roll life, what he called "the roarin' life" – a recipe concocted from paper bags full of cash, champagne, Cuban cigars, amphetamines, loaded guns, fast cars and women, all simmering together in a broth of reckless defiance – devoured his marriages and partnerships, wrecked his health, and spoiled 'way too many of his recording sessions.
In spite of his insistence on pushing the limits, his musical legacy stands, even though much of it is written only in the memories of his audiences.
"The show," says Jerry Lee, "that's what counts. It covers up everything. Any bad thought anyone ever had about you goes away. 'Is that the one that married that girl? Forget about it, let me hear that song'" Hank Williams taught him that, he says. "It takes their sorrow and it takes mine....It's not the Devil's music, it's rock & roll. My talent comes from God. I can lift the blues off people.
"I look out there, and I look at the faces, and I know. I know I've given them something, boy, something they did not know was out there in this world. And I know they won't forget me. The day I don't see that look on their faces, that's the day I quit, not before."
Rockin' Jerry Lee, may you live forever!
KNOW & HEAR
WHO: T. J. Meekins and Thomas Greener
WHAT: A 3-hour KVMR radio special, "Killer: The Rock and Roll Life of Jerry Lee Lewis"
WHEN: Saturday, May 11, 1 p.m. to 4 p.m.
WHERE: KVMR 89.5 FM, 105.1 FM Truckee, kvmr.org streaming worldwide
INFO; 530/265-9073 or www.kvmr.org