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The Big Lookback: Jerry Lee Lewis, Proud Sinner
A lecture from NYU in 2016
Typically, since he was never the world’s most obliging guy, Jerry Lee Lewis’s October 28 death occurred just I was getting my teeth into RJ Smith’s Chuck Berry bio, reviewing which wore me out—I’d already written so much about the guy. So I never found the opportunity to even namecheck Jerry Lee. But with the Chuck job out of the way I thought I might as well take a look at what documentation was available in the vicinity of the ‘50s rock and roll course I taught at NYU in 2016. And there I was surprised to find that, where my general practice was to wing classes from substantive notes, I’d actually put together a whole lecture on Jerry Lee Lewis—a pretty good one, I thought. Find a substantially edited as well as updated version of that lecture below. After all, if I don’t publish it now I may never get the chance.
The myth of Jerry Lee Lewis is so simple it remained more or less in place even in the wake of the occasionally apologetic obits that followed his October 28 death at 87. Blond-ringletted Sun Records piano humper jet-propels to the top on the irresistible “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” visits Britain bigamously with his 13-year-old wife slash second cousin Myra Gale, and flames into ignominy. Millions know no more than that. Maybe if you were a country fan of a certain age you were aware that the rock and roller had a run of Nashville hits as ‘60s turned ‘70s. Maybe you dimly recalled that death dogged the artist nicknamed the Killer—a son and later a wife both drowned accidentally in the swimming pools no mere redneck could have afforded, and wasn’t there a murder hidden away in there too? But only the many fans who never forgot him comprehended how assiduously he toured and how tirelessly he recorded after that 1958 U.K. scandal.
Jerry Lee Lewis laid down something near 200 songs before leaving Sun in 1963 and some two dozen albums for Mercury after that. Later he put out studio albums with Elektra and Sire and Verve and a terrible one for Vanguard. And since he toured all the time and was the kind of artist who could knock your socks off on the shittiest night in the cruddiest club, who knows how many live albums legit and otherwise are out there—doesn’t there have to be one of those live-in-London-with-younger-musicians-you've-kind-of-heard-of things from the early ‘70s to balance off much later sets from North Hollywood’s Palomino Club? But the killer predates his 30th birthday—1964’s Live at the Star Club, the Star Club being the Hamburg dive where the Beatles had cut their teeth a few years earlier, by general acclamation one of the greatest live rock albums of all time, cut when Sun was already a bitter memory and his run on the country charts was half a decade away.
So at least until he was laid up in the early ‘80s having half his stomach cut out only to pick up and start running again later that decade, he was constantly on the road with a pretty darn good band that always included faithful multi-instrumentalist Kenny Lovelace. Sometimes he was scuffling, but often he was making big bucks. He drank a lot of bourbon, did a lot of pills, wrecked a lot of cars, and fucked a lot of women—one of whom, his fifth wife, died under suspicious circumstances at his north Mississippi mansion, a death it is said authoritatively but not therefore conclusively was due to drugs rather than the habitual violence of the Killer. Jerry Lee got into more bar fights than any other artist of the ‘50s—way more. But that’s at least in part because he played rougher places than Chuck Berry or Fats Domino or even Johnny Cash ever dared and also because his stage style was, well, confrontational. The cousin he married later accused him of “every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable,” Mikal Gilmore’s hefty Rolling Stone obit reports a gruesomely sadistic assault in which he forced his wife to punch herself with her own fists and made sure their seven-year-old daughter was watching, and there was presumably more spousal abuse than that—his excellent Rick Bragg-penned authorized biography Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story reports that he and his very first wife, the one who preceded Myra Gale, came to blows regularly.
The myth of Jerry Lee Lewis is more a pop myth than a musical myth. Only briefly was he a star in the ordinary sense—for that time, a superstar. But on the strength of his two defining singles, his superhuman endurance, and his myth itself, which after a decade or so out of the limelight meant that though he was no longer a star he had become a legend, he matured into a vital artist of remarkable longevity—and as he liked to put it in a term that calls out for elucidation, a stylist. True, the content his particular style generated had its limitations. And it’s dependent to an unusual degree for a ‘50s artist on his instrumental abilities. Nevertheless, he warn’t no joke, and his lifetime achievement proved remarkable—seek out the duet album he cut with his sister Linda Gail in 1969, or almost as special The Knox Phillips Sessions, cut in 1979 by Sam’s son at the Sam Phillips Recording Service, where Lewis imparts undeniable cred to classics that begin with Jim Croce’s “Bad Bad Leroy Brown” and end with Steven Collins Foster’s “Beautiful Dreamer.”
As is recounted in the authorized bio, Lewis was born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, a busy Mississippi River hub and sin town in Concordia Parish, which was more or less ruled by his uncle on his mother’s side Lee Calhoun. Especially after his older brother Elmo was killed by a drunk driver when he was just short of three, Jerry Lee was spoiled shamelessly by both his saintly albeit Cadillac-loving mother Mamie and his big snake-killing bruiser of a father Elmo, who worked as a day laborer, sharecropped cotton, and did two prison terms bootlegging for his brother-in-law before Jerry Lee was four. Both parents were musical, and the story is that when Jerry Lee was eight he got to play with the piano in Lee’s house and immediately started picking out a tune. Before too long at all Elmo had mortgaged the family home to buy his son his own piano, which he played so long and hard he wore all the ivory off the keys.
Despite scattered assurances that Lewis wasn’t a terribly unusual teenager, he and Bragg make very clear that piano wasn’t all there was to the eight-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis. He had already proved himself king of the kids in his part of Ferriday, including his two cousins, the future evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggart and the future country singer Mickey Gilley. He established his reign with feats of daredeviltry frightening even to read about. Once he walked a bridge beam across the Mississippi, tiptoeing and doing tricks until his pals begged piteously for him to come down. Another time he jumped off a railroad bridge onto a boxcar roof and then fell off the speeding train while trying to leap to another car—one with a round roof. When he was seven he hitchhiked to New Orleans and wandered the streets until the police picked him up and Elmo came and got him. There never seems to have been any fear in him, or any humility either.
By age 11 or so Jerry Lee was checking out an all-black Ferriday club called Haney’s Big House, where he’d sneak in and hide under a table or if he got booted sit outside in back listening. He’s hardly the only white 20th-century musician to do such a thing, but few have inspired so much wild talk about it. James Miller was a mild-mannered American academic on his way to becoming a New School dean when he wondered problematically in The Rolling History of Rock & Roll—in a turn of phrase I bet he’d like back—whether Jerry Lee was “a white man with a black soul.” And the palpably humane Simon Frith was an honored British academic on his way to inventing the Mercury Prize when he opined with uncharacteristic finality in 1995, which is late, that “no listener could have thought that either Lewis or Jagger was black; every listener realized that they wanted to be.” In comparison with all this, music-savvy philosophy professor Bernard Gendron’s theory that Lewis was a racial caricaturist strikes me as rather sane.
I always thought the W in wigger stood for wannabe, and Lou Reed once wrote a song called “I Wanna Be Black” that turned this theme into a provocation that was also a burlesque. But to me it seems like a given that the “wanna” in such cases had better be used accurately and cautiously. To me calling Jerry Lee Lewis “a white man with a black soul” is a patent absurdity—insofar as he had soul, a word regularly vulgarized and manhandled as a musical term, it had next to nothing to do with Otis Redding’s or for that matter Johnny Cash’s. As for wanting to be black, that may make sense in the ignorant albeit intensely black-curious case of the young Mick Jagger, although I very much doubt the need persisted. But Jerry Lee Lewis knew too much about racism as well as quite possibly being too much of a racist himself to want to be black. That was an even harder life than his daddy had been handed and he knew it. He just wanted the gifts he associated with blackness—we'll assume sexual, but most relevantly musical.
Remembering all the music he heard at Haney’s, particularly that of the young B.B. King, Jerry Lee told Rick Bragg: “They was playin’ rock and roll. They was." But whenever he was asked to name the musicians he most emulated and admired he always chose the same three white “stylists”: Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Al Jolson. And while all three black-influenced vocalists were known for singing that also somehow sobbed, that conveyed extreme emotion, in the case of the two country artists a crucial part of the thrill was how contained it was at the same time. And although Lewis and his superfans always claim that Lewis was always “real” or even, in the case of Joe Bonomo’s dumb book about the Star Club shows, “sincere,” he was real in very much his own way. To me Jerry Lee Lewis’s sound is the sound of arrogance—the sound of a fearless kid who’s having a ball scaring his lessers to death above the Mississippi River, and whose lessers are having a ball too, like they’re on the same tilt-a-whirl Jerry Lee used to ride endlessly after climbing out the window at the Bible college he attended for a few months, only once the attendant went off to have dinner without turning it off and Jerry Lee got sicker than he’d even been in his life as of that time. And to me this sound has both its fascination and its limitations.
Part of its fascination is that the realest thing about Jerry Lee Lewis is his sense of rhythm. In fact, Nick Tosches, who titled his willfully Manichean 1982 Lewis biography/appreciation Hellfire, declared in a book called Country that Jerry Lee’s mastery of 20th-century rhythm was rivaled only by—forget Louis Armstrong, forget James Brown, no wigger our Nick—William Faulkner’s. Yet although it’s plainly Lewis’s piano that carries his music forward with an inexorability no other ‘50s rock and roll matches—Sam Phillips credited all his early Sun singles to “Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano”—it is surprisingly difficult to find an informed, objective assessment of that piano. It sounds only very generally like Pine Top Perkins or Moon Mullican to me, and while Bernard Gendron’s Cecil Gant analogy, which he stole unacknowledged from Tosches, makes a certain sense on two songs called “We’re Gonna Rock” and “Nashville Jumps,” usually it doesn’t. I've heard doctrinaire jazz devotees insult Lewis’s facility and groove as well as the harmonic sophistication or lack of same they’re always grousing about. But having listened to plenty of Jerry Lee in the wake of his death, I’m convinced yet again that he’s one of rock’s greatest players. When producers tried to make him ease up at the keyboard, as happened at Mercury in the mid ‘60s, his music suffered.
And then there was another key element in all of this: Jerry Lee Lewis’s belief in God and obsession with sin. As someone who grew up in a fundamentalist church dominated by Southern-born New Yorkers, I believe few of the scholarly skeptics who dismiss or even minimize the God factor know much about American Protestantism in its Southern and rural variants. “Great Balls of Fire” itself is vivid proof that for at least one disreputable subculture that helped create rock and roll, a lot more than coveting Cadillacs was involved. Yes, everyone wanted to make money—this was capitalism, and for the poor at that. But for onetime cotton-picker Sam Phillips it was also a spiritual mission—in his case mainly a racial mission, as it was for many of the Jewish profiteers with a sense of rhythm who dominated the northern indie labels. Several key artists—Little Richard, Johnny Cash, Sam Cooke—also understood that serious spiritual questions were at stake, but they were of two minds about them. For his whole life Little Richard was batted back and forth between his guilt and his narcissism. Johnny Cash mixed hymns into his repertoire as soon as he had the clout. Sam Cooke coolly crossed over from gospel to pop and made up for it by becoming rock and roll’s most energetic civil rights activist. And as the late great Robert Palmer claimed, Jerry Lee Lewis made his decision for sin. What Palmer doesn’t wonder about is how much that decision cost him in suffering.
In the end, three things make Jerry Lee Lewis a major artist. First, he rocks as have few others, and if you think rocking ineluctably is good enough for the Rolling Stones, then it's good enough for Jerry Lee Lewis too. Two, rocking or not, he’s the great stylist he set out to be. This means not that the very notion that he was authentic or sincere was an oxymoron, but that he could take any song and make it his own because he commanded a direct link to powers of self-expression so distinct and well-developed that they’re transformative. And three, the unprecedented arrogance of his presentation didn’t make him the kind of artist people can’t stay away from—not unless they either envy that arrogance themselves or are unfortunate enough to find it sexually attractive. It’s simply not likable enough. But as an aesthetic effect his king-of-the-kids sense of destiny has its compelling qualities. At his best he wasn’t only a sinner, he was a proud sinner, and not only was he a proud sinner, he was a bored sinner. He interpreted most of his breakup songs as if no degree of suffering will change his ways. You win again, he says, and you’ll win again after that. So what—I’m still the killer. Grrr.
Swear by Jolson and Rodgers though Jerry Lee Lewis always did, this made him very much a modern, set apart less by the elementary truth and transcendent power of his singing and playing than by his self-consciousness itself. At times his distance from his own show of fervor can seem positively eerie. Yet rather than diminishing that fervor, it added a touch of skepticism that made it more credible in the end, and thus helped guarantee that it would penetrate and endure.