By Rick Bragg Harper. 498 pp. $27.99
Is Jerry Lee Lewis hellbound? That question haunts the legendary rocker, who fears he may experience profoundly undesirable climate change in the next world thanks to his success in this one. “Can a man play rock-and-roll music and go to Heaven?” he asks. “That’s the question.”
Great balls of fire, indeed.
Lewis bared his soul, and many details of his admittedly non-seminarian lifestyle, to Rick Bragg, a fellow Southerner (from Possum Trot, Ala.) who has a Pulizer under his belt and formidable literary chops. Bragg’s thick and entertaining book indicates that Jerry Lee, like many of us, has cause to hope the Good Lord grades on a generous curve.
His first day on earth was indicative of what was to follow. Lewis was born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La., as the attending doctor slept off a dose of pre-partum liquor served up by Lewis’s father, Elmo, who yanked his breached offspring into the world without apparent harm. “I come out jumpin,’ ” Lewis fondly recalls, “an’ I been jumpin’ ever since.”
He had jumped into fairly humble origins: Elmo did carpentry while mother Mamie picked cotton, but both recognized their son’s musical potential, certified when he picked out, at age 4, “Silent Night, Holy Night” on his Aunt Stella’s upright. He had a powerful will to succeed as a musician, which was not much encumbered by school, hitting a major speed bump when he failed the sixth grade. His resulting outrage led to his nearly strangling a teacher, which is where he got the enduring nickname “Killer.”
Bragg traces his early career though juke joints, dives and long stretches of late-night highway, plus a lengthy string of fistfights. But the path also led to Sun Records, where the now-legendary Sam Phillips recognized Lewis as “a born performer.” Suddenly he was rubbing shoulders with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and even Elvis Presley, whom he hoped to follow onto “The Ed Sullivan Show.”
Sadly for Lewis, Sullivan wasn’t interested. “I don’t want any more of this Elvis junk,” he said, or perhaps snarled, yet Steve Allen invited Lewis onto his program on July 28, 1957, where he sang “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” while tossing his long blond hair, kicking his piano stool and altogether presenting himself as the wild man of rock. “That broke it all loose, that night,” Lewis told Bragg. The money began rolling in, but so did increased scrutiny of his personal life, reinforcing the view, popular among clerics and many parents of teenaged girls, that rock was the devil’s music.
Lewis’s reputation as satanic spawn was greatly enhanced by his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra — a third cousin, by his count, and his third wife (by some counts he has married six times, by another count, seven; he first married at 14). This brought out the scolds at home and abroad, and drastically reduced his audience. “I played for two old ladies one time in Kansas,” he recalled. “I told em, ‘Y’all don’t owe me nothin’ for this show.’ ”
Serial matrimony wasn’t his only bad habit, as Bragg reports in detail, though not with shaking finger. Like many in his trade, Lewis drank, ingested and injected a wide variety of substances — some supplied by the same doctor who kept Elvis lubed — which finally blossomed into addiction. He saw a few wives and children die, lost fortunes, and got into deep trouble with the IRS.
Most of which is fairly standard in rock biographies. Thankfully, Lewis’s is spiced by his recounting of the fall of another cousin — evangelical superstar Jimmy Swaggart, who learned to pound the Bible as profitably as Lewis pounded the piano, eventually owning a jet and running a Baton Rouge church that held 7,500 people — or donors, depending on how you count things up. Jimmy was fond of denouncing Jerry’s devilish trade, though he lost significant credibility after the 1988 revelation that he had paid to watch a prostitute perform lewd acts, which inspired his “I Have Sinned!” confession, during which Swaggart emitted enough sweat and tears to drown a hippo. Yet as Bragg also writes, the next time cops caught him with a prostitute, Swaggart revealed a powerful talent for adaptability: “The Lord told me it’s flat none of your business,” he proclaimed.
Bragg tells the story well, though he may get a touch worshipful at times, as when designating Lewis’s “Live at the Star Club” as “one of the grittiest, most spectacularly genuine pieces of recorded music ever made.” But he’s in good company. John Lennon worshipped Lewis so much he once kissed his feet, which doesn’t seem to have impressed the great man, who later remarked, “I never did care for the Beatles all that much, to tell the truth.”
Bragg also praises the Internet, which he formerly considered a time-eating Cyclops, but which now blesses us with the opportunity to watch videos of Lewis pounding keyboards, kicking piano benches and sweating like a man with a terminal infection. All of which is tame compared with the beheadings, pyrotechnics, inflated pigs and other stage antics that were to follow in the world of rock and roll.
So while there’s a whole lot of quakin’ going on as Lewis contemplates eternity in the fiery lake (a concern, Bragg adds, that also had Elvis all shook up), here’s hoping the Chef has bigger fish to fry.
Shiflett posts his original music and journalism at www.Daveshiflett.com.