MEMPHIS -- Way up, 26 floors above this lush green rock-and-roll mecca on the Mississippi bluffs, the Killer, eyes dark but still dancing, gazes out the window of his hotel suite to survey the domain he lost to Elvis long ago, but has never conceded. "I always knew I was better," declares rock outlaw Jerry Lee Lewis. "I knew I could take his own song and beat him at his own game anytime I wanted. Proved it with 'Mean Woman Blues.' That settled that." Settled or not, Lewis, at 53, is running hard to reforge his own legend, casting his fate with a new movie, "Great Balls of Fire." Starring a bleached-blond Dennis Quaid as young Lewis, it focuses on the 18 months in the late '50s when Lewis exploded with such hits as "A Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," his first million-seller, "Great Balls of Fire," his next, "Breathless," and more. Briefly, he challenged Elvis Presley for the throne of Red Clay Royalty, then tumbled off the charts overnight after marrying his 13-year-old second cousin Myra Brown before taking the trouble to divorce wife No. 2. The scandal cost him $20,000 gigs and his ticket to the top. For years to come, he was back playing honky-tonks for $300 a night, watching what might have been. As Elvis soared and the Golden Age of Rock produced such stars as Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Roy Orbison, Otis Redding and the like, Lewis found his records blacklisted, or poorly promoted. But he never gave up -- a Holy Roller-raised rocker rocking on for the next three decades, pop charts be damned. He simply had to play, keeping up the trademark bravado, his piano as hot as the hellfire he feared. Yet beyond the charming sneer, the quick humor and bad-boy image Lewis courts, friends say that Elvis, bigger dead than Lewis alive, nags on, burning envy in his soul, just one ghost hovering about the bona fide wild man of rock-and-roll. Now, at last, he wonders, maybe he's got a chance to beat Elvis, with the movie and a soundtrack of his greatest hits and $25,000-plus-a-night concert dates as far as the calendar can count. He hit the piano at a lavish barbecue atop the Peabody Hotel here the other night for 300 people -- reporters and TV crews flown in by Orion Pictures for an orgy of promotion -- saying in mass interviews that he likes the $15 million film ("Dennis Quaid done the best he could. ... I don't want to hurt nobody's feelings"). As for Elvis, Lewis maintains they were friends; then, in a supermarket tabloid, he sneers at "King Kong," a drug-addled "monkey on a string" controlled by his handlers. "I remember Elvis coming to Sun Records to meet me," he says in a later hotel room interview. "I thought that was a great honor ... before I even had 'Great Balls of Fire.' Carl Perkins had a session going, and Johnny Cash {was} there." "Sounds strange, don't it?" says Lewis, remembering the famous jam later celebrated as the Million Dollar Quartet. "I was hanging around and Elvis comes in and sits down at the piano. Has this good-looking girl with him and she's looking directly at me. And he gets upset about that." Lewis is grinning. "He plays and sings for an hour and 45 minutes, then says, 'You know, Jerry Lee, I think every man should know how to play the piano.' I said, 'Yeah, I been trying to tell you that.' " Presley let him sit down at the keys. "And that was the end of that," laughs Lewis. "He loved my songs. He was a real inspiration to me. He opened a lot of doors, and shut a lot of doors when he died." Since blasting off here in the late '50s on the Sun label that launched Presley, Lewis has battled whiskey and an explosive temper. Nine years ago, he nearly died from a tear in his stomach lining, then kicked an addiction to the prescribed painkillers with methadone. He's buried two of six wives and two sons in the family plot back home in Ferriday, La.; careened between rock and country careers, shot his drummer (an accident); warred with the IRS over $1 million in unpaid taxes as agents hauled off his Rolls Royce; declared bankruptcy (twice); and spent a few hours in jail after waving a loaded pistol outside Graceland where he once announced in jest that he aimed to shoot the King. "His life is so rich, you can't deal with it all in one movie," says producer Adam Fields, whose film presents Lewis and Myra as a rock-and-roll love story. Jerry Lee is portrayed as an obsessed, if sanitized, rock star who took one road while his first cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, took another. "If it does well," says Fields, "we've got a brilliant second script for a sequel that deals with the darker parts of his life, which came later." Indeed, the life of Jerry Lee Lewis ranks among the classic sagas of drugs, sex and rock-and-roll: a dirt-poor teenager who dropped out of Bible school to do unto a piano like no man; a profound weakness for pretty young women, whiskey and pills; the religion he absorbed while growing up with cousins Swaggart and Mickey Gilley; and the constant tug between rock-and-roll and the Lord. "I'm too weak for the Gospel," Jerry Lee once said. "I'm a rock-and-roll cat." "I've heard more sermons from Jerry in the car driving from one nightclub to the next than in church," says Jay Brown, Myra's father and Lewis's former bass player. "He once preached so hard pounding the back of the seat {that he} sprained his hand, couldn't play piano for days." Says J.W. Whitten, who was Lewis's road manager for 12 years: "He used to wonder sometimes, with all the tragedies, if he was living under a curse, if God was punishing him for his lifestyle. He'd get on a {guilt} kick, play a gospel song, look me in the eye and say, 'J.W., maybe I'm wrong to play rock-and-roll. What do you think?' And I'd say, no, Killer, you make a lot of people happy. Maybe it's God's way for you to minister. ..." Killer? "That's a nickname he got in grammar school," says Whitten, who worked for Lewis when his fourth wife accidentally drowned in a neighbor's pool and wife No. 5 overdosed while her husband lay beside her sleeping. Killer? "They call him 'Killer,' " Whitten goes on, "not because he kills people, but because he kills them on stage." Now married to wife No. 6, Lewis claims to be subduing the demons, pacing his wiry frame for yet another comeback that, friends say, he terms his "last chance." He's even given up chasing sweet young things, he says. "I've never been true to any woman," he reflects, puffing on an empty pipe, wearing gray chinos, a white polo shirt and sandals. "Never wanted to be, never thought I was going to be." He pauses. "Until I married the last time. And I didn't feel obligated to this lady until two years five months ago, when my son come along. "That stopped me. You think you can't be stopped, then all of a sudden it's obligation time. Big time. ..." Might it be an auspicious omen, a heavenly pardon to play full bore, rock without guilt? "I knew I was exceedingly blessed," he says, the drawl softening, dark eyes far off, "but I never thought I would be so blessed as to get another son." Asked about cousin Swaggart, who, over and over, has beseeched Lewis to throw in with the Lord, he says, "We grew up close as brothers. ... I told Jimmy that some guy I'd met said I was taking care of one half the world and he was taking care of the other. And Jimmy said, 'One thing about it, pal, they gonna know we walked through it.' " He cracks up at the memories, the raucous laugh of a man who has played out a life in smoky dives, his words syncopated like notes on a piano, lets a story come if he feels it, or sits silent, appearing not to hear what he prefers not to, or maybe just looking to see how you handle it. Suddenly, he eyeballs a photographer. "Don't you have enough pictures, son?" he says, his voice tight as a guitar tuned for malevolence. "Just a couple more," says the shooter. "Enough, okay." Voice tighter, about to pop. "You gonna make me look bad. Nobody said anything about pictures. I'm not dressed. ... I wanna look like a hero." No problem. "Thank you," says Lewis, charming again. The door opens; his wife and boy patter in. "Hey, Doodlebug," he says in macho meltdown. No doubt, he delights in confusing, spinning new riffs on old tales, or maybe just doesn't remember it the same way every time. Did Elvis, perhaps feeling threatened by Lewis, as Jerry Lee suggests, really appear at Sun Records en route to the Army and abdicate, telling Lewis to "take it all, just take it all"? It's in the movie. Did Lewis really set fire to his piano as a show-stopping gambit to make Chuck Berry sorry for demanding the slot as closing act with Lewis on the bill? Or kick his piano into the ocean at a Miami Beach lounge? Lewis says it's all so. How about riding Harleys with Elvis and Priscilla? "Not nekkid, anyway," he laughs. Or frightening a baby-faced singer named Paul Anka, then 15, so badly with a mock death threat after getting him drunk that Anka missed a show, as cousin Myra writes in her 1982 book, "Great Balls of Fire"? Her book, with Atlanta author Murray Silver Jr., is a scorching look at their 14 years together and the basis for the movie. To capitalize on the hype, St. Martins Press has reissued 200,000 paperbacks and dispatched Myra, now an Atlanta real estate agent, cross-country to exhume old memories. Provided a script before shooting, Jerry Lee wrote across it, "Lies, Lies, Lies," insisting a scene where Swaggart speaks in tongues be cut. But he denies ever stalking producer Fields with a gun, a rumor from the set. He also denied preaching during an early recording session at Sun Records until the film's producers found an old tape of the holy tirade. Somewhere between heaven and hell lies the truth about Jerry Lee, but does it really matter? As far as the Killer goes, there is The Man, The Myth and The Movie. No one disputes his magic: It's The Music. Born Sept. 29, 1935, on a small farm outside Ferriday, La., Lewis has played music ever since he can remember. His father, Elmo, gave up moonshining and traveling in bands to raise two boys; an older brother was killed in a car accident when Jerry Lee was 3. By 8, he was playing hymns on his aunt's piano, and Elmo mortgaged the farm so his son could have his own. Soon, he was daring gospel boogie in church, until his piano was exiled, inspired by the stomping, sweaty soul music he glimpsed peeking in the window at Haney's Big House, a 1940s black honky-tonk, hugging the shadows with cousin Swaggart. "Jimmy loved it," laughs Lewis. "He said, 'BOYYYY! Listen to that. That is MU-SIC!' I said, 'You better believe it.' They were playing old boogies, blues, getting down big time. "Jimmy's daddy would have killed him if he'd found out. My parents weren't as strict." At 14, he pocketed $13 for playing "Drinkin' Wine, Spo-Dee-O-Dee" at a local Ford dealer. It was 1948. After dropping out of high school, he tried Bible college, thinking he might be a preacher, but lasted only eight weeks, until his boogie hymns stirred the wrong spirit. By 15, he was married to "an older woman." She was 17. Over the next few years, he played in clubs and brothels across the river in Natchez, knocked on Nashville doors, divorced, got remarried, dreamed Grand Ole Opry dreams. In 1956, he hitched to Memphis to lay down a test track of "Crazy Arms" for Sam Phillips, the man who had launched Presley from his Sun Records studios. He got a contract, and moved in with cousin J.W. Brown, whose daughter, Myra Gale, seemed a lot older than her chronological age. Soon he was tearing up the charts, throwing his body on the piano, a driving, growling sexual pulse to his music that cut against the sweet innocence of the '50s. Teen groupies were his for the picking, but he wanted Myra. "I knew it was bad, I knew it was wrong," he says, but that didn't stop him. Says Myra now: "I didn't realize how young 13 was until I got older." Jerry Lee drove his cousin, a seventh-grader, to school in his Cadillac convertible. He was making it big: a break on the Steve Allen show, then Dick Clark's "American Bandstand," kicked "Whole Lotta Shakin' " and "Great Balls of Fire" into giant hits. Kids lined up for blocks to see him play Alan Freed's rock-and-roll show at the Paramount in New York, where he was reported to have set his piano on fire. They rioted in Boston when police tried to stop the music. They flocked to hear him in the movie "High School Confidential." But Myra was on his mind. He kept calling her from the road. "My father got suspicious," says Myra. The mystery woman of rock-and-roll, a "psychic expansion" tape in the tape deck of her Mercedes 300 sedan, whips into the garage of a $300,000 country French house. She slips into a bedroom, emerges in green turtleneck, lipstick retouched, nails red, frosted blond hair brushed into upswept perfection, an upbeat, New South belle finding herself at 44. Married for the third time, to an Atlanta real estate broker, she has come to terms with her past. Memories of laughter and tears sit in her lap: a box of old photos, love letters from Jerry Lee and, what's this, Lewis's reddish-blond curls, in an envelope? "He's gonna die when he reads this," she says, giggling at one headline: "She's Only 13, But She's All Woman." She remembers Jerry Lee smashing Elvis records at her house after he moved in and they became kissing cousins. One day, he produced a marriage license. Her name was on it, courtesy of a stand-in. "I thought, 'My God, I'm married!' I said, 'But I thought you had to be there. Are you crazy? I'm too young.' And he said, 'Myra, my mother married at 14, my sister at 12. I know a girl back home married when she was 9.' " He gave her minutes to make up her mind, minutes haunted by memories of a neighbor who had raped her at 12. "I was thinking, 'Maybe this is my only way out. Who else would ever want me?' At 13, logic does not exist," she says sighing. "If I'd told Jerry Lee, he would have blamed me." So off they drove for a quick ceremony, then back to her house, working up to tell her parents, wed at 16. Then her father found the license and, furious, began hunting Jerry Lee with his pistol. "I'm glad Sam Phillips put him on a plane out of town," says J.W. Brown. "I'm afraid what I might have done." Myra packed her clothes in a doll house and moved into a real house, a brick ranch Jerry Lee bought for $14,000 cash. She got a red Cadillac she was too young to drive, and it was off to London for what was to be a smash tour. It was 1958. At the airport, a reporter asked Myra who she was. "His wife," she blurted. And it was all over. Lewis, 22, said she was 15, but the papers found out that she was 13, a cousin, and that he was not yet divorced. "Bigamist! Babysnatcher!" howled tabloids. "Jerry Lee had a double ring ceremony," went one joke, "wedding ring and teething ring." A frenzy of moral outrage was whipped up. The tour was canceled; back home he was shunned as well. Money dried up with the hits. "I said, 'Oh, God, Jerry, look what I've done,' " she remembers. "And he'd say, 'Myra, it's not you. I'd marry you a million times.' " Curiously, Myra says, they were happiest struggling. "It was as if we were just supposed to be together." They had a son, Steve Allen, named after the star who had given Lewis his first break on national TV; at 3, he drowned in their backyard pool. "You never get over it," she says, crying softly in a restaurant booth near her office. "I dealt with it by locking myself in a dark room, Jerry by playing the piano." Their daughter, Phoebe, now 25, is trying to put together a singing group of her own. Eclipsed by Elvis, then the Beatles -- and finally a new generation of rockers he thinks little of -- Lewis kept plugging. He played Othello in a rock opera, switched to country in 1967 with "Another Place, Another Time," his first hit in years. From the road, he'd phone Myra "three or four times a night and wake me up, accusing me of sin. He'd say God had punished me by taking our son because I was wicked. He dealt with his demons by tormenting me." There were other women. She used pills, suffered physical abuse, paranoia. She hired a private eye and, despondent, put a gun to her head one night after yet another wake-up call with Lewis on the line. "He said, 'Hold it close, so I can hear it when you pull the trigger.' That woke me up." She smashed the phone and filed for divorce in 1971, calling the marriage a "nightmare," and citing "physical abuse and mental cruelty." They'd lasted 14 years, "a long sad trip," she calls it now. That's not in the movie. "Wasn't that bad, really," laughs Jerry Lee, denying the accuracy of the book he has never read with an expletive. "Ain't none of it true. ... I picked her up, put some nice clothes on her, made something of her." He laughs again, softens. "She was the mother of two of my children. Just being in the business I'm in, you're gone all the time. ... I think we got into a situation nobody could handle. Wasn't anybody's fault." He married Jeren, wife No. 4, and had another daughter, Lori. Then in 1973, Jerry Lee Jr., his first-born son, died in a car wreck at the age of 19; the son, from his second marriage, was a drummer in the band. Jerry Lee's mother died -- they were close, like Elvis and his mama. He was on a downhill run, friends say, when he slapped a woman in a supper club after she spurned his advances and wound up paying $1,000 in damages. Police found 25 bullet holes in his office wall after tenants complained. By 1976, he was playing and drinking hard when Elvis asked him to drop by Graceland. "Begged me to come over, kept putting this trip on me," says Lewis, " 'Ya gotta come over and talk to me, I'm really depressed.' I thought he was putting me on." Then one night, drunk and armed with a .38 derringer, a gift just slipped him by a drinking buddy, Lewis drove into Elvis's gate. "Barely bumped it," he says. But a guard called police when he saw a loony tune in tennis shoes, no shirt and blue jeans, waving a gun and a bottle of champagne. "I was really rockin' that night," he laughs. He thought the window was down when he poked the champagne bottle through it, then wisecracked about shooting Elvis. Who would have believed he was invited? He was escorted to jail, out shortly on $200 bond, another notch in the legend. He retreated to his ranch on 80 acres outside Memphis in Nesbit, Miss., where he lives today behind a tall white fence, "The Killer" stenciled on his wrought-iron gates. It was here the IRS seized the Rolls-Royce, tractors, motorcycles, anything to satisfy back taxes in a battle that lasted for years. By 1979, he had filed for another divorce, from Jeren -- someone, friends say, he rarely lived with. She countersued for "abandonment, adultery, habitual drunkenness and use of narcotic drugs." She also wanted a court order to keep him at bay, claiming Lewis had raged, "Don't worry about support, you're not going to be around very long anyway, and if you don't get off my back and leave me alone, you will end up at the bottom of the lake with chains on you." "He always said crazy stuff like that," says J.W. Whitten. "There was nothing to it." The divorce case was pending in June 1982 when she was found drowned in a friend's pool. It was ruled an accident. Back on the road, he fell for a stunning Michigan waitress, Shawn Michelle, and married her in June 1983. She was 25. Less than three months later, Shawn was dead of an overdose, a bizarre case of apparent suicide that sparked charges of a shoddy investigation by local officials. A grand jury found no evidence of any crime. "I won't rest until I find out what really happened," says Janice Kleinhaus, Shawn's mother, by phone. "That's ridiculous," says Lewis. "I couldn't believe someone would put me through a trip like that in my own house. It was a bad sin." He sighs, weary, puffs on his pipe. "Beautiful girl, too." According to ex-manager Whitten, Shawn announced she'd gobbled Lewis' sleeping pills in a fit of pique. He offered to take her to the hospital, then found his prescription pills were untouched. Thinking she was bluffing, he went to bed, awaking next to a corpse. Whitten says Lewis later found a bottle of old methadone pills she'd apparently taken -- pills prescribed for his addiction to the painkiller ordered after his stomach surgery. Why so many pills, whiskey, women? "The passing of coffins got to him after a while," says Whitten. "Only the piano could take away the pain." In April 1984, eight months after burying Shawn in the family plot back home, he married wife No. 6, Kerrie McCarver, a 21-year-old singer he met here at Hernando's Hideaway. Just before the ceremony a Lewis aide secured a signed prenuptial agreement, says Whitten. Lewis filed for divorce after she began to try to "re-constitute my personality as well as my image," court records show. Why did he have to marry them all? Says Whitten: "He'd say, 'Paul says it's better to marry than burn.' " He and Kerrie patched up; Lewis briefly entered Betty Ford Clinic in 1986 ("Nothing I couldn't handle," he says, adding he did it for a $30,000 tabloid fee). And soon Kerrie was pregnant. At first he denied paternity, then rejoiced at the birth of a male heir -- blond-haired, blue-eyed Jerry Lee III. No doubt, that was his boy, he told reporters. "He goes to church with Kerrie," gushes Sherry Nelson, one of her best friends, who works at a convenience store where Lewis often drops in for barbecue. "When they got married, a lot of our friends said, 'God, isn't she afraid she's gonna get killed?' I give her a lot of credit for straightening him out. ..." It's almost time. An Orion PR man, who has glowered and shouted at reporters who dared ask touchy questions, plops in a chair. Lewis says he doubts he'll be marrying "any more 13-year-old cousins," one lesson he's learned. Asked how he wants to be remembered, he leans way back, dictates a curious epitaph: "He stirred up a lot of interest. ... Just think what he could have done on a major label, what he still might do. ..." He falls silent, laughs that rich laugh that seems to leer at the world, and says, "But hey, Killer, I'm not dead yet."