The Killer Rocks On

http://www.hofmag.com/content/view/851/30/

The Life and Times of Jerry Lee Lewis

by Steven Robert Wollenberg
HOFMAG.com Exclusive

It’s possible that Jerry Lee Lewis – of the Ferriday, Louisiana Lewis clan – is pound for pound the greatest rocker ever to stomp a stage in any generation since that subversive music commenced. It is likely – and God bless Hank Williams – that The Killer is the best country singer ever to moan the blues, sing of done-wrong love, wives waving good bye, or forlorn saloons. Such a personage as Leonard Bernstein, a keyboard man of some repute, considered Jerry Lee one of the finest piano players this country ever produced. In fact, perch a parrot on his ’88’ and you’ve got the single greatest whore house professor the world has ever known. Not houses like Madame Claude’s, the pride of Paris, but the scarlet houses of Natchez, Baton Rouge, and Memphis attended by men in ruffled cuff shirts and women with color on their eyes and cheeks. These rough-edged lives would have been his concert halls had The Killer gone that route. Jerry Lee Lewis is indeed a son of the South, the deepest South where life moves at the speed of the Big River as it sings its love song to the Gulf of Mexico.

Jerry Lee’s first cousin is The Reverend Swaggert, a preacher known to pound both the Bible and the ladies of those sultry, mysterious southern evenings with equal fervor. Another cousin, Mickey Gilley, a fair country singer himself, described his outrageous relative this way: “Killer? You’re talking about a man who puts away a fifth of tequila in the morning just to straighten out.” William Faulkner, that creator and clarion of Yakapatawba County, Mississippi, conceived souls like the self-destructive Joe Christmas, doomed from the start in “A Light in the Forrest.” Then there was Tennessee Williams’ Val in “Orpheus Descending.” These are southern ephemeral spirits whose pronounced death-wish is eventually fulfilled. But The Killer faced down that toothless, scythe-wielding old bastard on several occasions and managed to elude the blade, sneering as he ducked. Hell, he surrendered a major portion of stomach a decade or so back, homage to that Mexican morning pick-me-up. Yet, through public ostracism regarding certain personal relationships, tax audits just short of delving into his small intestine (for a long stretch, when you booked Jerry Lee, you paid his nut in cash before he ever struck a note), physical maladies, many self-inflicted by a hard man’s life, through it all, Jerry Lee Lewis is indeed the last man standing. Helluva name for an album….speaking of which.

The new album, the first in years, appropriately monikered “Last Man Standing,” hit the Earth like a meteor but with one dinosaur still surviving and thriving. Inside the album notes is a photo of Sun Records’ four legends seated at a piano. Ironically it’s Elvis on the keys pretentiously miming a profound vocal chop. To the left of The King is the brooding Johnny Cash, dark, serious, more Dustbowl, share cropper country boy than the comparatively exotic and dangerous Elvis. At his right elbow is Carl Perkins, the cat who wrote “Blue Suede Shoes” (the suede shoes of inspiration were actually brown which didn’t work lyrically), looking like the guy at that Stuckey’s in the flatlands of Oklahoma who sold you that portrait of Presley on velvet. And behind that self-absorbed gang of three stands the young Killer. He’s the one eyes come to focus on, hands clasped behind his back, waves of thick blond hair, contributing his harmony, yet with the detachment of a man who hears and sees more. The other three, though they remain icons, are gone. Jerry Lee Lewis seeks still another horizon. If you can reach back that far, remember him in the beginning when Jerry Lee first demanded attention.

Sinatra broke through in the time of World War II on the stage of the Paramount Theater in the heart of Times Square. The bobby-soxers, after standing on the ticket line for hours, swooned, moaned, shrieked, and moved their cycles up two weeks over a thin yet suave and in-control crooner who confidently touched all the right spots. It was all very sweet.

A few years prior, The King Of Swing, Benny Goodman, along with Teddy Wilson on piano, Lionel Hampton, the Great Hamp, on vibes, and the notorious Gene Krupa on drums, took the stage at no other place than Carnegie Hall. They were brilliant, and the room reverberated with their sound. When the patrons could no longer hold still, somewhere between “Sing, Sing, Sing” and “Song Of India,” every hepcat and kitten in the joint leapt into the aisles and cut rug. Right there in Carnegie. There are those who still smile at that.

MORE: Part 2

MORE: Part 3

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