A quarter-century after his first hit, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," threatened to knock Elvis Presley from his throne, 24 years after his bigamous marriage to a 14-year-old cousin scandalized the world, six years after he was arrested for drunkenly trying to break into Graceland and blow King Elvis to kingdom come with a .38-caliber derringer, five years after he emptied two rounds from a .357 magnum into the chest of his bass player, 10 months after he was on the critical list at Memphis' Methodist South Hospital for the umpty-umpth time--his guts eaten away by pills and booze, 48 hours after kicking over his piano bench and driving a concert crowd into a frenzy with an encore of "Great Balls of Fire" . . .
. . . The man at the piano is wailing away in a Nashville recording studio: "GOODNESS GRACIOUS, BIG MAC AND FRIES!"
It's 1 in the morning, and two great American institutions are colliding as Jerry Lee Lewis rips through a 10th take on a 60-second McDonald's spot that is scheduled to inundate the nation's radio waves all summer long.
There's a slight problem here. Lewis--who has been known as The Killer ever since he was 14 years old, when he started pounding killer notes from an upright piano in public--wants to end the commercial by declaring, over what was referred to on early record labels as His Pumping Piano, "Tell 'em The Killer sent you."
"No good! No good!" the two people from the advertising agency are saying to the session producer. "He can't do that."
"A lot of people aren't going to know who The Killer is," says Jack Smith, the ad's creative director, from Chicago's Leo Burnett agency.
"But," someone interjects, "won't you be saying, 'Here's Jerry Lee Lewis for McDonald's . . .' "
"Are you kidding?" asks the jingle's author, Cathy Altman, born in 1958, the year after "Whole Lotta Shakin' " and "Great Balls of Fire" sold a combined 11 million copies and made The Killer the most explosive force to be reckoned with in the early days of rock 'n' roll. "The client doesn't want this too identified with him. I mean, drinking, drugs, child abuse . . . "
"So why use Jerry Lee?"
"If you think of rock 'n' roll," says Altman, "you think of one living person: Jerry Lee Lewis. We wanted this to sound right, to have the right feel."
"Let's do it," says producer Ron Chancey, a big, pudgy, good ol' boy who talks real slow and scored real big with the Oak Ridge Boys and is in the midst of recording Lewis' next album, which Lewis wants to call "The Killer Still Rocks." Lewis says this while adjusting the half-lensed reading glasses that are sliding off his nose, as he stares down a fat, gray-foam-covered Neumann microphone.
Drum beat. The backup singers wail, Summer Summer. (A beat) Summer Summer. The Killer swipes a glissando across the piano keyboard and explodes: Grab a towel and head out That's what summer's about . . . AND SOME COOL, THICK SHAKIN' GOIN' ON!!! HEY! You deserve a break today . . .
If this sounds a bit exploitive, too commercial, the death rattle of another great cultural hero, fear not: The Killer is alive and well at 46. His second coming may just be at hand.
Of course, it's been a long way to the Golden Arches, those parabolic goal posts of America. Along the road, Jerry Lee Lewis has triumphed, stumbled and fallen.
In 1956 he headed for Memphis, Tenn., from Ferriday, La. He was sick of his job as a vacuum cleaner salesman and sold 33 dozen eggs from his daddy's farm to underwrite the journey north. He arrived with a firm purpose in mind. He knew he could sing and play some mean piano, and he knew that Sam Phillips, whose Sun Records studio was at 706 Union Ave., had made a star out of Elvis.
In that same little storefront--once a radiator repair shop--where Presley had cut rebellious songs like "Mystery Train" and "Good Rockin' Tonight," Jerry Lee Lewis sang a rendition of "Crazy Arms" that went on to sell 300,000 copies. In less than a year he had two No. 1 hits (John Lennon later would call "Whole Lotta Shakin' " "the perfect rock 'n' roll record"), a starring role in the film "High School Confidential," and saw his nightly performance fee jump from $50 to $10,000. He also recorded some tapes with Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, never released in this country because of contractual disputes, which included rocked-up versions of "Just a Little Talk With Jesus" and "I Shall Not Be Moved," and a sublimely harmonized "Farther Along."
The four became known as the Million Dollar Quartet, and all went their separate ways. Most people thought Lewis would quickly eclipse the others in the group. He had the most personal style and inflamed audiences well beyond standing ovations: the eternal crowd-pleaser even set his piano afire a decade before Jimi Hendrix would become infamous for doing the same to his guitar. Look magazine noted in 1957 that "Lewis makes parents mourn for the comparative quiet of Presley."
The following year, Cash and Perkins had limited country audiences. Elvis was off in the Army. And The Killer was wide-eyed with sudden success, now ready to clean up the market like a demon rebel with a cause.
And then, while on a concert tour in England, Jerry Lee Lewis introduced to the ladies and gentlemen of the press his bride, the 14-year-old daughter of his uncle and bass player JW Brown. The Killer had already been married twice. And one of those industrious reporters discovered that he had still been married to his second bride, Jane Mitcham Lewis, on Dec. 12, 1957, the day he exchanged vows with Myra Gale Brown.
From the 'Cradle' to Chaos When the news broke, it was chaos and bedlam. "Cradle snatcher," the press called him. "She is a woman," The Killer responded. But radio stations and record stores banned his discs, and he was ostracized even by some of his own fans.
"I had a guy tell me once, a songwriter," Lewis says, "that the only way he could write another good song was to go out and get him a new wife or a new girlfriend and make his life miserable." The Killer is wearing a rust-colored, terry-knit, short-sleeved shirt, tight blue jeans and black patent-leather cowboy boots, complaining that they're brand new but already scuffed plenty. "Now, I may not know too much about life, but I said to him, 'Boy, you are a crazy man!' You don't have to look for it! People don't have to bring it to you! You'll get your share."
There's a healthy dose of outrageousness in most things Jerry Lee Lewis says or does. It's not as if he's idly boasting, for a case certainly can be made to support what he says. Rather, it's as if he has to keep reminding himself that he is in fact still intact, a walking testament to the resiliency of the human spirit, a true survivor; that he did indeed contribute heavily to the creation of a revolutionary style of music; and, had it not been for all the commotion over his marriage, his life might have turned out much differently. There still would have been heartbreak: both his sons were killed in freak accidents; he married and divorced five times; and there have been the endless battles with drugs and alcohol that keep threatening to send him off for a reunion concert with Elvis. But perhaps he could have handled the heartbreak--if it hadn't been for the public scorn.
"I've done some crazy things in my time," he says, "but my life has always been an open book. Now I don't like to talk about the dead, but I never could respect Elvis too much, 'specially when he criticized me for marrying Myra. I mean, I did all these things in public. He was a hypocrite. He brings home a 14-year-old woman to live in his house, and then marries her when she's old enough. And you know, he was just a singer. I had my own style. Still do. Hell, there's only been a few people who changed music. Al Jolson. Jimmie Rogers. Hank Williams. And The Killer."
He pulls a black comb from his back pocket, and runs it through his hair. "You ever seen hair this fine?" he asks. He's proud of this hair. It's not blond, like it used to be in the '50s, but he still combs the same perfect wave that's so prominent in all those old pictures. Now a set of lines is etched into his face, not so much from the years as from the mileage.
Tough miles. After the scandal over Myra Gale, Jerry Lee Lewis never regained the prominence that had been so suddenly thrust upon him. He tried recording under a pseudonym, The Hawk, but when disc jockeys learned that the instrumentals were Lewis' work, airplay ceased and sales dwindled. He made a semi-triumphal comeback as a country artist in 1968, with the song, "Another Place, Another Time." The same year he played Iago in a rock version of "Othello" called "Catch My Soul." Critics were surprised to find that The Killer could act. "Genuinely diabolical as Iago," said the Toronto Daily Star. "It is astonishing what new implications of evil he can find in words as simple as, 'Go to, very well, go to.' " He played the part hard and straight, except on the few impish occasions when he greeted the corpse in Act V with, "Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo."
In 1969 astronaut Charles Conrad carried a cassette of Jerry Lee Lewis music to the moon with him. That was about as high and as mighty as things got. Over the next decade The Killer performed when his health permitted it, recorded albums that sold moderately well, and otherwise intruded on the public consciousness only when reports surfaced that he was back in the hospital for drug and alcohol problems, had been arrested for driving like a maniac, was shooting bullets through the walls of his office (and the chest of his bass player, who recovered), and was having his possessions seized by the government to cover past-due tax bills.
"These guys never came and discussed things like gentlemen," he says of the IRS agents with a grin. "We coulda sat down and settled it right there, but they just started grabbing motorcycles and cars and stuff."
This past April, Columbia Records released an LP called "The Survivors": Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and The Killer, together live in Stuttgart. The three pull off a few memorable moments of music, including an eerie version of "There Will Be Peace in the Valley for Me," sung in memory of Elvis, with whom they had recorded it 25 years earlier in the Million Dollar Quartet session. Ever quick to capitalize on myth, Columbia is advertising them as the $750,000 Trio. Listen to the record and you realize a few things: The Killer is the only one who really can still sing; The Killer is the only one who still inflames the audience; The Killer is the only one who still understands the great tradition of rock 'n' roll, infusing even the spiritual "I'll Fly Away" with the requisite amount of hellacious piano and vocal outrage.
"You can't understand Jerry Lee Lewis unless you can understand the Southern tradition: get drunk, get in a fight, get busted or bust ass, and then go to church on Sunday," says Knox Phillips, the son of Sam Phillips.
"Now that was a great recording," says The Killer, referring to The Million Dollar Quartet. He is sitting at a Steinway grand piano in Woodland Sound Studios, where he is hard at work on the new album and where, in about six hours, he will take a break to record the McDonald's jingle. "We were all just messin' around, singing gospel music, and it worked. We didn't even know Sam was recording it. But this new record, it's not very good. I don't want to sound like I'm full of myself, but I'm the only one who can really perform any more. I don't know that I ever think of that--being a survivor--when I'm on stage. But, hell, I think about it sometimes. I think about who's gonna be the next one to go, and most of the time I think it'll be me."
He pauses for a moment and adds, "You know, sometimes I really miss my daddy. Now we used to raise some hell together . . .
Right now, in the midst of the work on the next album, the session musicians are heading out for a meal. The Killer is rail thin, more interested in noodling around on the piano than eating. There's a pint bottle of Seagram's V.O. in a brown paper bag resting on the Steinway, along with a 16-oz. bottle of Coca-Cola. He takes a hit of whiskey, chases it with Coke. And he plays like a creature, half-angel/half-demon, beginning with stride piano, moving into some Hank Williams, then blocking out gospel chords. He started out with gospel, had thought about being a preacher once, like his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who wound up becoming one of the country's more popular electronic evangelists. But The Killer kept mixing up the sacred and the profane, and got thrown out of the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Tex., for proffering a boogie-woogie rendition of "My God Is Real" at chapel services one night.
"Jimmy Lee has this way of keeping tabs on me," Lewis says. "I was in Dayton, Ohio, once and I just collapsed on stage. Too many drugs, too much booze. He was there. He took me home to his place and put me in bed for a week. I tell you, I found out what cold turkey was all about. It's nasty business."
The console in the studio's control booth is littered with demonstration tapes of country songs that have been pitched for The Killer's perusal: "You Tune Up The Front End of My Heart"; "The Jukebox Never Plays 'Home Sweet Home' "; "You're Just Another Beer Drinking Song"; "Any Old Piano's Grand"; "She Never Looked That Good When She Was Mine." But The Killer is in the mood to rock out. One song under consideration is a catchy biographical tune titled "Rock 'n' Roll 'n' Jerry Lee"; in a perhaps uncharacteristic veto, the namesake decides it's too incestuous and prefers instead to concentrate on something called "Honky Tonk Heaven."
The musicians are straggling back, and Lewis is trying to set the mood, pumping his piano and singing a Bob Seeger classic: Just take them old records off the shelf I'll sit and listen to them by myself Today's music ain't got the same soul I like that old time rock 'n' roll Call me a relic, call me what you will Say I'm old fashioned, say I'm over the hill . . .
He stops short, sticks a White Owl in his mouth and takes a belt of V.O. "Okay," he says to the musicians, "now, let's try this doozy in D." And he breaks into Jimmie Rodgers yodels, only to be cut off by the opening beat of the drums, quickly joined by some hot guitar. The band is ripping along, like a chain saw tearing through an oak tree, and The Killer has a smile on his face and pounding in his hands, which are blasting staccato notes and glissandos from the keys. He pauses only long enough to remove the cigar, and begins to attack the lyics of "Honky Tonk Heaven."
He's vamping on the piano during a break, and starts to ad-lib over the music: "I'm better now than when I was 15. This is the only song I ever heard that has Elvis, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee in it. I'd like to have heard Elvis and Jerry Lee sing this about 25 years ago."
He pauses, and smiles.
"Elvis, are you listening?"
The music grinds to a halt and the musicians walk into the control room, where the tape is rewinding. Lewis takes his position in a swivel chair, and the song starts to play back.
"Loud enough?" asks the producer.
"Don't ever show me where the volume control is," responds The Killer, and nods his head in time with the beat, obviously pleased with the result. "I felt the devil runnin' up behind me on that one," he says. "If it's not a hit I quit.
"Thick Shakin' Time It is getting late in the day now, and the matter at hand is the McDonald's jingle, which Lewis' road manager, J.W. Whitten, says will bring in about $40,000. It's becoming more and more obvious that The Killer is in his own way using the empire of Ronald McDonald to announce to the world that he can still pump a piano and sing like a rebel and . . .
. . . Besides, The Killer points out, he eats Big Macs all the time.
There's some quibbling going on in the session over certain parts of the lyrics, whether they can be understood, particularly the word towel in the opening line:
Grab a towel and head out.
"I don't believe I have ever used the word towel in one of my songs," The Killer says. "Knowing my pronunciation, I imagine people will understand the word. If you don't know what I'm saying, folks, BUY a HAMBURGER! We're not selling towels anyway."
He opens with his own improvisation:
Grab a thrill and head out . . .
Which is nixed by producer Chancey.
"Let's leave it the way it was, with towel," Chancey says.
"Okay," says The Killer, and announces, "I keep wanting to say, 'Grab a girl and head out,' but that's always what's gotten me into trouble. How about, 'Have a pill and head out?' " He laughs, and launches into the jingle again. This time, in the middle of the song, he's singing like Chuck Berry on "Little Queenie": Mmmm, summer's here, hey don't you waste it Quarter Pounder, can't you taste it Frenchy fries, apple pies And some cool thick shakin' goin on . . .
He slips in a little suggestive embellishment at the end: Come on, come on, baby, let's shake it . . .
He finishes the take, and says, "That is a sexy song!"
"Maybe a little too sexy," Chancey wonders aloud, and summons him to the control room.
"Well," says Lewis, "we have finally ended up and got the McDonald's song banned."
They laugh, and Chancey plays the recording back. "Waddaya think of that, Killer?" he asks. "How do ya like the mix?"
Jerry Lee Lewis swivels in his chair in the control room, props his patent leather boots up on the mixing board, and stares off at the blur of red and blue and yellow lights reflected on the two sheets of glass that separate the control room from the recording studio. He pulls the black comb from the right rear pocket of his jeans, runs it through his hair, smiles, and turns to Chancey.
"Ron," says The Killer, "judge not, least ye shall be judged."