The car was supposed to be a fine American driving machine, but he never could find a Corvette that would hold the road in those days. “Wrecked a dozen of ‘em,” he says. “I was coming home one time—might have been drinking—and I run up under the porch of a house. A little girl come out, her eyes real big, and I don’t know why…I just said, ‘Top of the morning to you,’ and she run back inside. And this woman stuck her head out the door and said, ‘Oh, Lord, it’s Jerry Lee Lewis’.”
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To this day “Oh, Lord, it’s Jerry Lee Lewis,” or some variation of that, is probably a fairly common response to any encounter with Jerry Lee; his reputation has always preceded him. It was pretty much my reaction when I heard there was yet another Jerry Lee Lewis book on the horizon. He’s already inspired some great music writing. I’d lapped up Nick Tosches’ Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story—one of my Ten Best (and, in this case, Funniest) Books Written on American Music*—which at one point depicted Jerry Lee and his father, Elmo, so drunk as to have been “speaking Hittite,” and told a story about a gas station rack of bootleg cassettes that you just have to read for yourself to fully appreciate. (Hint: There are matches involved.) I’d also been through Robert Palmer’s Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks, a quickie paperback, though compellingly written, in which we are informed Jerry Lee was so perpetually tumid that it kept him out of the draft. (Elvis must have been thinking, “If only...”)
Now along comes Rick Bragg’s book, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. The book, although credited to Rick Bragg, is, as the subtitle suggests, very much a collaboration between author and subject. Apparently Bragg has done what Tosches did 30-odd years ago; hung around with Jerry Lee and his family and crew of hangers-on, asking questions and writing down the stories, brags, tirades, jokes, aphorisms and self-justifications and filling in around them with additional interviews and a whole lot of research to produce an entertainingly-written story. There are so many great stories at Jerry Lee’s disposal that Bragg repeats exactly none of the ones Tosches or Palmer included in their books—or least none with the same set of facts anyway.
Bragg, best known as the author of All Over But the Shoutin,’ Ava’s Man and The Most They Ever Had, non-fiction and mostly about family and the American South, writes beautifully, and humorously, on these subjects in Jerry Lee’s book as well. And although this is a book about a life led at a maniac’s clip, it is also a deeply Southern book, written at a Southern pace, like a lazy tale told on a porch after sundown before the mosquitoes come out, with a sip of moonshine and a creaking rocker for company. The book opens with this:
“The water would rise up every few years, wash across the low, flat land, and take everything a poor man had, ruin his cotton and corn and drown his hogs, pour filth and dead fish into his home, even push the coffins from the earth and float his ancestors all the way to Avoyelles. Jerry Lee’s sister Frankie Jean, tells of the day the rains beat down, the rivers rose, and the swelling groundwater shoved the dead from the mud. ‘Uncle Henry and Aunt Maxine had been nippin’ and they went by Uncle Will’s grave and saw he’d come partway out of the ground. Uncle Henry said, “Oh, Lord, Maxine, the Rapture has done come and the Lord has left us here. He tried to take Will and Will just wouldn’t go. Oh, God, Maxine, we done been left behind. Oh, God, Maxine, I told you not to buy that whiskey”…’ The point is, it takes guts to stay with it when the land you owe the bank for runs liquid between your toes and balls of water moccasins form islands on the rising tide. Water was everywhere, was life, and death. A person could not live here in this low place, Jerry Lee believes, and be afraid of water.”
From that beginning Bragg follows the mad life of the quintessential wild man and walking-around legend that is Jerry Lee. Bragg loves the man and the legend just about equally and often, as in Tosches’ book, you’re not entirely sure what to believe and what to dismiss, especially since the subject of the book is also often the source of the tallest-sounding tales. (“It ain’t braggin’ if you really done it,” Jerry Lee says.) But in the end veracity doesn’t really matter; like reading the best of Hunter Thompson, you’re best off grabbing your nose and cannonballing into a deep spot and just going with the river wherever it flows.
Bragg charts Jerry Lee’s ups and downs in some detail. His rise to the pinnacle of rock ‘n’ roll, the ensuing scandal when it came out he’d married his thirteen-year-old cousin, his comeback as a country star and, later, again, as a rock ‘n’ roller. His travails with the IRS, to whom he owed seemingly countless millions, the health problems brought on by drugs, drink and general self-neglect.
Where many musicians cultivate a tough-guy image but fold at the first sign of trouble (I’d start a list but it would be too long), Jerry Lee Lewis was the original iron man of American music. Armed and dangerous or unarmed and just as dangerous, he took on all comers, engaging in fist fights with his audience, with cheating promoters, jealous husbands, drummers who couldn’t keep a beat, and anyone else who happened to get in his way. Accidentally and not-so-accidentally discharging a variety of firearms usually abetted by the pills, booze, painkillers, guns and fast women—including seven wives— that accompanied him wherever he went. Naturally a legend grew.
But without the music to back it up the legend would not persist; Jerry Lee’d just be another crazy redneck who left no record of his time on earth. In a way it was the music that kept Jerry Lee out of jail (most of the time) and on the prowl. It was the music that cleared the way for all that swagger, all those giant cigars. But Bragg loves Jerry Lee’s music as much as he loves the legend and writes lovingly, seamlessly about it.
“His spirit had not mellowed, not a bit, but his voice had, and his subtler delivery did justice to his far more mature material. Where once he had hollered through “Whole Lotta Shakin’”—and still could, of course—now he approached his ballads almost elegantly, though with that constant earthy undertone. He could sing a love song, and you still knew, watching him, that it was not one woman he had wronged or disappointed but one hundred, and you knew that if you messed up his song, he would come off the stage and kick your ass up to your watch pocket. As a pianist he had even more finesse and precision, yet he still loved to beat it to death for the sheer joy of it.”
Jerry Lee Lewis endures, decade after decade, comeback after comeback, and will probably outlive us all—just out of sheer cussedness if nothing else. He’s in his eighties and, though slowing down, is still touring some and recording some. Perhaps, if he lasts long enough, he will someday encounter yet another writer of the caliber of Bragg or Tosches or Palmer, but I doubt it, writers who make literature out of music only come along a few times in a generation
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To accompany my reading I naturally pulled out my Jerry Lee CDs. The 2 CD Essential Jerry Lee Lewis contains most of the Sun stuff—‘Whole Lot of Shaking Going On,’ ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ etc.—as does 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits, (one CD, half the material, but includes the very politically incorrect ‘Ubangi Stomp’ which Essential...’ doesn’t). 18 Original… remains in print 50-some years after its original issue. Both are logical spots to begin.
The Sun twofer, Rockin’ Rhythm & Blues/The Golden Cream of the Country features a leering, filthy ‘Big Legged Woman’ and a ‘Sweet Little Sixteen’ that is anything but sweet. If Live at The Star Club, Hamburg 1964 isn’t the best live album ever recorded, as some still claim, it is certainly one of the most raucous with Jerry Lee pounding out twelve of his greatest hits with a deranged energy that has the German crowd foaming at the mouth and speaking in tongues. Mercury twofers from JLL’s country years, including Another Place Another Time/She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye (Raven Australia reissue) which features ‘What Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),’ ‘Waiting for a Train’ and ‘Another Place…’ which made him a country star years after his first downfall. Highlights of Country Songs for City Folks/Memphis Beat (also BGO) are few; there are a bunch of lame covers—‘Funny How Time Slips Away,’ ‘King of the Road’— and (I’m not making this up) a Kennedy assassination song, ‘Lincoln Limousine’ that is perhaps the most embarrassing thing Jerry Lee ever recorded. The “Killer” Rocks On/Boogie Woogie Country Man (BGO Records reissue) which bounces back with a killer ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ and the single most lascivious version of ‘Chantilly Lace’ ever committed to record, it’ll make you want to lock up your daughters or just women in general. ‘Chantilly Lace’ was another of his many huge comebacks, establishing him as a rock ‘n’ roll star once again, as it was always intended. Just released, The Knox Phillips Sessions: The Unreleased Recordings, is a mid-seventies studio gig produced by Sam Phillips’s son. This is a lot of fun with Jerry Lee at his ‘muthahumpin’ best, in full command of his material, the session, his persona and, seemingly, the whole world.
Try Red, Hot & Blue (Live Radio Broadcasts 1952 – 1964) by legendarily-crazed Memphis DJ Dewey Phillips to get an idea of what Southern radio sounded like in Jerry Lee’s day. I always suspected the tales I’d read of Deep South DJs playing blues, r&b and boogie-woogie records in the pre-Elvis era were at least half bullshit, but hearing this convinced me the phenomenon was real, at least in Memphis an vicinity. Phillips tells jokes or just jabbers over the music, sings along and pitches Champagne Velvet Beer and a used-furniture store with an ardor most people reserve for their best lovers. He sounds almost normal to one who grew up on Wolfman Jack howling over the hits, Jean Shepherd blowing twenty minutes of air time playing kazoo over Sousa records and the amphetamine sales pitch—shoes, Clearasil, drag racing— of Cousin Brucie blasted over the entire Eastern Seaboard at 50,000 watts. But Phillips, like Jerry Lee, is the original article.
I also pulled out my Elvis CDs by way of checking Jerry Lee’s principle competition at the time. The Sun Sessions CD (RCA) includes all the master takes, alternate takes and outtakes Sam Phillips recorded before selling Elvis to RCA. Great stuff that you should play at least twice a year into perpetuity. Even better is the 5-CD Elvis; The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll, The Complete 50’s Masters’ (RCA) which repeats the Sun masters but also gathers all the terrific (and not-so-terrific) RCA recordings as well. This is many hours of pleasure. Elvis had different ambitions from Jerry Lee and their success most be measured against those differences. Elvis wanted to be a pop star, as the 50s Masters make clear, Jerry Lee a rock ‘n’ roll star (as opposed even to a ‘rock’ star). Always suspicious of string arrangements and sentimentality, Jerry Lee would never wax anything nearly as gloppy as ‘Love Me Tender,’ or as plain dumb as ‘O Little Town of Bethlehem,’ ‘Lincoln Limousine’ notwithstanding. I’ll let Bragg and Jerry Lee have the last word here:
“The year before, he had told a camera crew that Elvis had failed rock and roll, that ‘he let the Bobbys take it, Bobby Vinton, Bobby Darin, all the Bobbys,’ and they turned it into treacle. ‘I think he let us down,’ he still says now, though with less scorn than sorrow.
“Once upon a time, he knows, ‘Elvis was a rocker. Oh, yeah.’
“A great singer? Of course. And ‘a great star.’
“Jerry Lee? He was a better pure musician than Elvis, truer to the spirit of rock and roll, and both of them knew it.
“Where do the rank in the pantheon of the music?
““After me was Elvis,’ he says, and that will make some people angry, those who followed this music and those who still wait for Elvis to appear in line at Walmart or behind a newspaper at Waffle House. But if you know how Jerry Lee looks at the world and his place in it, then you know he has paid his old friend a great compliment.”
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*My Ten Best: Bob Dylan’s Chronicles (2004); Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, by Nick Tosches (1982); Country: The Biggest Music in America, also by Tosches (1977); Peter Guralnick’s two-volume bio Last Train to Memphis: The Rise of Elvis Presley & Careless Love: The Unmaking of Elvis Presley(1994, 1999); Deep Blues: A Musical and Cultural History of the Mississippi Delta by Robert Palmer (1981); Sweet Soul Music: Rhythm and Blues and the Dream of Southern Freedom also by Gurlanick (1986); Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n; Roll Music by Greil Marcus (1975) (or Invisible Republic: Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes AKA Old, Weird America: The World of Bob Dylan’s Basement Tapes); Kansas City Lightnin’: The Rise and Times of Charlie Parker by Stanley Crouch (2013); Beneath the Underdog by Charles Mingus (1971); Raise Up Off Me: A Portrait of Hampton Hawes by Hawes (1974); Please Kill Me: The Uncensored Oral History of Punk by Legs McNeil & Gillian McCain (1997); Can’t Stop, Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation by Jeff Chang (2005); and Miles: The Autobiography (1990).
That’s twelve (fourteen if you count the Guralnicks as two and include both Marcus titles) but so what? It’s my list after all. If I was call it a Top 20 I would include Robert Gordon’s books on Memphis—It Came From Memphis (1995) and Respect Yourself: Stax Records and the Soul Explosion (2013) and his Muddy Waters book (2002)—and Dennis McNally’s new one, On Highway 61: Music, Race and the Evolution of Cultural Freedom (2014). I guess I should throw in Dave Hajdu’s Dylan book, Positively 4th Street: The Lives and Times of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Mimi Baez Farina and Richard Farina (2001). Also, in a category of its own, Patti Smith’s Just Kids (2010).