Jerry Lee Lewis: Sustained by brief blaze of glory
“Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” (Harper), by Rick Bragg
Jerry Lee Lewis was a Louisiana-born supernova who helped create rock ‘n’ roll and raced toward stardom in the 1950s until his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra helped turn a 1958 performance tour in England into a disaster.
But the brilliance of his early years and his dogged determination to succeed sustained him for decades after his rocketlike career was sidetracked.
Lewis has found the ideal biographer in Alabaman Rick Bragg, an author and former New York Times writer who understands the texture and cadence of Lewis’ life that started in Concordia Parish in eastern Louisiana near the Mississippi River. Bragg wrote that he “listened in the quiet gloom of his bedroom as he told me what was worth remembering. ... He remembered it as it pleased him. ... Day after day I was reminded of a line I once read; it was like any life, but with the dull parts taken out.”
Lewis’ account of his birth in 1935 sums up his outlook: “I came out jumpin’ and I been jumpin’ ever since.”
And he made a discovery that changed his life. “In 1940, when he was not yet five years old, Jerry Lee found his reason for being born,” Bragg writes, noting that he saw a piano at his Aunt Stella’s house.
Lewis sneaked into a local blues hall as often as he could while growing up, hearing some of the best performers that toured the black clubs in the region.
He blended his taste for blues with his favorite country performers and an energetic, almost frantic, style on the piano. His good looks and wavy blond hair, combined with his powerful music, drove the crowds — especially women — crazy.
The new music “was burning up the airwaves in Memphis and even down in Natchez, jumping from treetop to treetop in a pine barren. ... The black man had been doing it for years of course, but the harsh and irrefutable truth was it took a little touch of hillbilly to make it slide down easy for white audiences,” Bragg writes.
Lewis had to work hard to make a name for himself: playing auditoriums but also performing in lesser venues like an electronics store and a tomato festival.
He caught lightning in a bottle when he recorded “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which began “taking off like wildfire” on country, rhythm and blues, and pop stations, according to Billboard.
During Lewis’ performances, “women climbed on the stage, rushed it, tore at his clothes” and he became “public enemy number one” to those frightened by the power of rock ‘n’ roll. His recording of “Great Balls of Fire” rivaled the popularity of “Shakin’.”
Lewis was better playing the piano, singing and finding women to marry him than he was at staying married. As one of his many marriages faded, he began spending more time with Myra. He married her in 1957, even before he’d escaped from his second marriage.
While it created a stir in the United States, Lewis couldn’t have been ready for how it would be received in England, where he went to perform in 1958. As the British press learned Myra was a young teen and his third wife, the crowds at Lewis’ shows became combative. ”‘Baby snatcher! Go home.’ crowd shouts at singer” was a typical headline.
His relationship with crowds became more tense, even when he got back home. He smashed one drunk audience member in the head with a microphone stand after that person shouted insults.
As Bragg tells it, “When news of his marriage to his 13-year old cousin, Myra, caused promoters and some fans to turn away and his rocket ship to sputter, when scandal and changing times caused record sales to sag, he filled two Cadillacs with musicians and equipment and went on the road. ... He played, fueled by Vienna sausages, whisky and uppers ... and drove all day and into the night to play again.”
When Bragg wrapped up his interviews with the aging musician, he walked over to his bed and shook his hand, saying: “I will try to write a good book.”
And he’s done just that.
Will Lester is an editor on the desk of the Washington Associated Press.
Follow Will Lester on Twitter at @wjlester.