I have just finished one of the more interesting, intriguing, disturbing, and enchanting books I've read this year. It is the biography of the rock and roll pioneer and early superstar, Jerry Lee Lewis. Written by Rick Bragg as Jerry Lee's story and his assistance it gets the deep into the grit and dirt of Louisiana, the raw power of the blues, the infectious sound of rockabilly and the amazing intertwining of early rock with country, Gospel, and religion. He may be, as one of his albums called him, the Last Man Standing of the class of the mid-50s that produced what arguably may still be some of the most energetic and power-infused music in American history.
I didn't know a great deal of Jerry Lee's story, although I knew some of the significant details. He grew up with two other famous cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmie Lee Swaggart. The interactions of music in Jerry Lee's life with the Pentecostal church faith that infused the land and the air of his family and community produced something far beyond even Elvis' revolution. And like Elvis his own demons sent him on a roller coaster of success and tragedy, hope and loss.
Bragg does a magnificent job of telling the story with honesty and respect for the humanity of Jerry Lee. He always allows Jerry Lee to have the say and express his thoughts. But he does not sugar coat the excesses and out of the mainstream events. He gives Jerry Lee the right to minimize his addictions, to blame it on others and to say he really didn't drink all that much. But Bragg makes sure we know that Jerry Lee has a way of telling his own story in his favor. (Don't we all!) He doesn't excuse the incredibly active sexuality or his numerous marriages or his marrying his 13-year old third cousin. It is almost as if Bragg is saying "That's the way Jerry Lee is. That's what made him the star and huge fireball he became. If it weren't for these we wouldn't be talking about Jerry Lee at all."
Bragg captures it all so very well that all I could hear in the words was that deep southern accent rolling off the pages along with the dust and dirt. He can describe the culture in such clear imagery that you know what it might have felt like in that church or roadhouse. The intensity of Jerry Lee's music came from every pore of his being and every preacher he ever heard calling him to renounce the demons he knew so intimately.
This is a remarkable book that gives an insight into the early days of rock and roll with the rockabilly sound, the country connections, Sun Records and Sam Phillips in Memphis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It is an amazing read.
Having said all that, it has also made me go digging around You Tube for songs and sides of Jerry Lee that I never knew as I moved on in rock and roll in the 60s and 70s and kind of ignored everything but Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On and Great Balls of Fire. No matter what Jerry did- and he did everything from roots music and blues and country to show tunes- was infused with the same raw sexuality, deep passion, and intense spirit- although one could easily argue which spirit was in control.
It was Steve Allen who actually gave Jerry Lee his biggest break when no one wanted anything to do with his amazingly sexualized music and performances. Steve was willing to give it a try because he had nothing to lose- he was on opposite Ed Sullivan! So Jerry Lee got booked on the show. He was always a difficult person to control so, as he got bored, he left the studo and returned but a few moments before he was to perform.
While Steve was trying to cover and get ready, the musicians were setting up drums and getting ready. Here, is a video of that show as the intensity overflows as only a 21-year old like Jerry Lee could do. This is an extended version that includes the sounds offstage and the commercial break preceding the performance. They actually had very little time left when Jerry came on.
One part of Jerry's act was to stand up and kick the chair away. Allen had been told by Milton Berle offstage that it would happen and that Steve should just throw it back on camera. He did just that. Watch for the piano chair to come back (about 4:14) after he kicks it away. Steve Allen got into the act and pushed it back.
Here's two of his next hits on two of his early appearances on Dick Clark's American Bandstand. No one did their performances live on Bandstand. Jerry Lee insisted on it. They hung a lavalier around his neck and off he went. To say he was serious about his music is an understatement as these videos show.
Raw. Power. Sexuality.
Confession: Rockabilly still moves me. I can't keep still.
It added an edge to gospel, touching depths that are dangerous and dark even amidst the light of Gospel itself. Here are two of Jerry Lee's gospel performances from the 1980s. Lewis is now in his late 40s!
I am amazed that he can make "In the Garden" into a song of intense passion and even sexuality. The piano break around 1:40 sends chills through me. It is as real as it can get.
He was never fake. He was always Jerry Lee Lewis, which is why he got into so much trouble.
He was always fighting the demons within and without. Watch his face on this next video. It is clear that Jerry Lee never surrenders! He never doubted that he was the King- the real King of Rock and Roll. Watching these videos may very well prove it. Elvis became a self-parody of himself as he crawled into his own persona and died. Jerry Lee's persona was always real- even when it nearly killed him.
One more video, this one from October on the Letterman show. He's almost 80 now but he still won't give up the spotlight to Dave, Paul, or anyone else.
None of this excuses any behaviors, excesses, illegal actions, etc. He was as trapped in his own story as anyone could be. He was never able to break out. But he gave the world amazing music.