Jerry Lee Lewis: 'I worry where I'll go, heaven or hell'
At nearly 80, Jerry Lee Lewis has outlived his rivals and is preparing for his final tour. He tells why his seventh wife is the love of his life, how he became known as The Killer, and why Elvis was just a hillbilly
Published 17/08/2015 | 02:30
We're waiting for the Killer to get home. Judith, wife number seven, is telling me how best to get on with her husband. Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the founding fathers of rock'n'roll and reputedly the baddest of the bad boys, is known to have a temperamental side. There was the time he drove up to Graceland, drunk on liquor and high on pills, with a gun on his dashboard, demanding that Elvis come down from the house on the hill to prove who was the real king. And the time he shot his bass player, Butch Owens, in the chest, accidentally, he insists - Owens won $125,000 in damages. There were the two wives who died in tragic circumstances. But this is the past, says Judith in her deep Mississippi drawl.
"OK, you have to talk loud and slowly to Jerry. And don't mention any bad words, and nothing negative," says the formidable Judith, a former basketball player, and ex-wife of the brother of wife number three, Myra. Myra was the most controversial, because she was only 13 years old when Lewis wed her. "You can ask about me, but as far as all his wives and stuff goes, he doesn't like to talk about personal stuff," Judith says.
Jerry Lee Lewis is preparing for his final tour to the UK next month, to coincide with his 80th birthday. Sixty years on from the birth of rock'n'roll, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On and Great Balls Of Fire remain two defining songs of the 20th century. And Lewis, growling and yelping, is one of its most memorable performers. His music has been played around the world. Lewis was in the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. John Lennon kissed his feet when they met.
Lewis has been known as The Killer since school. Why, depends on who you listen to and when. As I discover, it's almost impossible to separate fact from fiction when it comes to Jerry Lee.
A black piano is sculpted into the huge iron gates outside Lewis's home in Nesbit, near Memphis. From the kitchen, we hear a car humming up the huge drive, past the private lake, the barking guard dogs and the Jeep parked outside (registration Killer8). Eventually a white Rolls-Royce Corniche carrying Jerry Lee Lewis rolls up to the mansion.
You can see the panic in Judith's face. "Don't approach him," she whispers. "Don't let Jerry see you." She explains that he won't want anybody to see him before he is fit for presentation. As I am shooed into the den, I peek out of the window and see The Killer. Lewis is accompanied by his road manager of 40 years, JW Whitten. They disappear for his transformation.
Meanwhile, Judith returns to play the hostess. She and Lewis have known each other for a quarter of a century, and are now into their fourth year of marriage. They had much in common - they both grew up in the south, with the snakes and swamps, the sweltering heat, the Pentecostal Christianity and fear of sin. She started nursing him when he was in bad health six years ago, then things grew from there.
Ahead of me, by the grand piano, is a mountain lion, eyes sharply focused, teeth still gnashing, now reduced to a tawny rug. "Oh, don't you worry about her," Judith says, smiling. "That's Jane. Jerry's second wife!"
"She's been skinned," says Greg Ericson, his manager, who has joined us. "Jerry called her Jane!" Judith says, now laughing.
His second marriage to Jane Mitchum had been combustible - he has said she threw claw-hammers and Father Christmas figurines through his car windscreen, and that he deserved it. Judith, 65, looks down at Jane. "We like her. She's no trouble at all. She doesn't talk or anything. She even lets you step on her." A number of wives said he was violent.
Lewis emerges, black suit, red shirt, white leather shoes and cane. At 79, his face is waxy and thunderous - whiter than any I've ever seen. His eyes are red, and his hair is thick and silver, with boyish curls. He poses for photographs, polite and patient. Until he is unhappy. Then he cracks his cane in anger.
We retire to the den. Lewis is propped up by cushions, Judith at his side. I ask him if he's reflective as he approaches his 80th birthday. Well, he says, he always thinks about his parents. "I would say 90% of my ability to do what I do is from my mother and father," he says in his southern slur. "I loved my mom and daddy. They did everything they could in the world to see me successful, and my music." In the background, a phone rings. Lewis looks up, sharply. "Cut that phone off please," he bellows.
His father, Elmo Lewis, was a farmer, carpenter and convicted bootlegger; his mother Mamie adored music and sang with Elmo. When Jerry was three, his seven-year-old brother, Elmo Jr, was hit by a car and killed. It was the first of many tragic deaths in Lewis's life. Elmo Jr had shown great promise as a musician.
When Lewis was seven, his father mortgaged the house to buy him a piano for $250. The story goes that he took one look at it and began playing. Before long, father and son realised their fortune lay in that piano (which still resides at the Lewis ranch). The young Lewis was tough, passionate, God-fearing and precocious. By 14, 15 or 16 (depending on his mood), he was married to Dorothy, whose preacher father had brought his Travelling Salvation show to Lewis's home town of Ferriday, Louisiana. Lewis almost became a preacher himself, but rock'n'roll got the better of him. He could not resist the lure of the devil's own music.
When I mention this he's not having any of it. "How can it be the devil's music? Satan didn't give me the talent. God gave me the talent, and I've always told people that."
There is a famous story that he asked Presley if he believed a rock'n'roller could go to heaven. Lewis smiles when I mention this. "I said, 'Elvis, I'm going to ask you one thing before we part company here. If you die, do you think you'd go to heaven or hell?' And he got real red in the face, and then he got real white in the face, and he said, 'Jerry Lee, don't you ever say that to me agin.' Hahahaha!" He laughs, mockingly, at Elvis's country accent."He was very frightened."
But Elvis wasn't the only one who thought about hell? Lewis nods. "I was always worried whether I was going to heaven or hell," he concedes. "I still am. I worry about it before I go to bed; it's a very serious situation. I mean you worry, when you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?"
Maybe it wasn't the music itself but the lifestyle he thought was ungodly. "Well, I don't know, I done the best I could," Lewis says.
"That's all forgiven," Judith says. "He's going to heaven. We're going to change the subject."
Before succeeding in music, Lewis worked as a sewing machine salesman. Only he didn't sell them. He told "customers" that they had won the machines and all they needed to pay was $10 in tax. He made a fair bit of money before being found out. At 20, he hitched up at Sun Records, and said he wouldn't leave until Sam Phillips had heard him play.
Lewis sold 300,000 copies of his first single, Crazy Arms, in 1956, the year that Elvis had his first hit with Heartbreak Hotel. A year later, he became an international star with Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On and Great Balls Of Fire. Both songs represented the freedoms and desires of newly named teenagers. The establishment was outraged, some radio stations banned him.
Lewis's reputation was cemented by his feral performance. He decided that no one would follow him on the bill. Yet another story has it that when he was touring with Chuck Berry, and due to close alternate shows, Lewis saw red. Nobody closes a show but Jerry Lee Lewis. So, according to legend, he set fire to the piano with lighter fuel at the end of his act, walked off and told Berry "Follow that, boy." Nobody followed Lewis after that.
Did he think he was the best? "I knew that, yeah. Rock'n'roll, blues, boogie woogie, you can look at BB King, look at Elvis Presley, you can look at the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, but when it comes down to it, it's Jerry Lee Lewis. His music is definitely way ahead of its time."
How was his music ahead of, say, Elvis? "Elvis was more rockabilly. Not rock'n'roll. Rockabilly - which is close to hillbilly." Poor Presley was just a country bumpkin.
Who were his music heroes when growing up? "Me."
Anybody else? "Nobody," he barks.
Judith knows this isn't true. "Hank Williams? Jimmy Rodgers," she cajoles gently.
"Well, I listened to other people, I liked them, but I could never find anybody that was better than me."
In 1958, at 22, Lewis became one of America's first rock'n'rollers to tour Britain. He had made it his ambition to overtake Elvis, and it looked a possibility - not least because of Presley's fear of flying. He arrived at Heathrow, and gave a now infamous interview alongside wife Myra.
Lewis claims he didn't know that marrying a 13-year-old was taboo in Britain - he always said it was the norm in the southern states of America. So he had no qualms about showing Myra off to the press. A shocked journalist asked how old she was and Jerry claimed she was 15. The next day's newspapers splashed with headlines about Jerry Lee Lewis and his child bride. After further digging, the newspapers revealed that Myra Gale Brown was actually 13, his cousin, and that for the second time, Lewis had failed to get divorced before remarrying. Lewis was shunned and concerts were cancelled. On his return to the US, it was said he had brought shame on the nation. As a rock'n'roll star, he was destroyed.
Lewis went from earning more than $10,000 a night to $250. But he carried on rocking, harder and wilder than ever before. He would gig in tiny clubs to the backdrop of drunks fighting. If anything, failure made him even more unrestrained. Fifty-one years on, his album Live At The Star Club, Hamburg still shocks with its raw, filthy energy.
Then, in the late 1960s, Lewis found commercial salvation in the country music he had grown up on. Jerry Lee Lewis became one of the great country singers with songs like What's Made Milwaukee Famous and Another Place, Another Time.
There have been films made about Lewis's fabled bad behaviour (Great Balls Of Fire, with Dennis Quaid as Lewis). Today, he tells me he was misunderstood. "I never done anything I'm ashamed of." He pauses. "I wasn't the kind of guy who'd take a girl and put her up on a hill, and live with her for eight years, and then just marry her when I got her pregnant." And a lot of men would do that? "That was a fact. I'm not mentioning any names."
Judith gives me a helping hand. "The initials are EP," she says.
I look at Lewis and ask if he's talking about Elvis Presley.
He stares me back in the face. "I wouldn't be talkin' about Elvis Presley unless I was talking about Elvis Presley."
"He did that?" I ask.
"Sure he did it. It's well known. I married my girls."
Elvis is said to have moved his then girlfriend Priscilla into Graceland when she was 14 and he was 24. Lewis has never understood why he was singled out for marrying Myra.
I look at Judith and ask how he's doing with his seventh wife. "She's the one I've been lookin' for all the time," he purrs.
Has he found love with Judith? "Yes, I definitely think so."
Had he been in love before Judith? Suddenly, Lewis decides this isn't such a good line of questioning after all. "That's none of your business," he roars.
Good answer, I stammer.
"I wouldn't tread too much on thin ice." He throws me a cold stare, then shuts his eyes. We change the subject.
In 1956, Sam Phillips recorded a jam session with Lewis, Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins that became known as the Million Dollar Quartet. All four were hard-drinking pill-poppers, and Lewis is the only survivor.
How does he explain it? "I never drank that much," he protests. You took plenty of pills? "Well, I have took a few pills in my life, but who hasn't?" In 1984, doctors cut away a third of his stomach, after he was diagnosed with perforated ulcers. He was given a 50pc chance of survival. Of course he survived.
But many of those closest to him didn't. In 1962, his son, Steve Allen, drowned in a swimming pool, aged three. In 1973, his eldest son, Jerry Lee Jr, aged 19, overturned his Jeep and died. In 1982, his fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, drowned in a pool, shortly before their divorce settlement was finalised. A year later, after 77 days of marriage, his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, was found dead at their home after overdosing.
Rolling Stone published an article that more or less accused Lewis of killing Stephens, intentionally or otherwise, pointing out that the bed she was found in hadn't been slept in, she was bruised and bleeding, had taken 10 times the safe amount of his methadone, and that Lewis had paid for a private autopsy. A grand jury cleared Lewis of any crime. He did admit that they had been fighting that night - and that they fought most nights.
The death of his two sons caused the most pain (Jerry Lee Jr had played drums in his band). Does he think his losses have made him stronger? "Well, I don't know if it made me stronger or not, sir, but it got my attention real good, I know. That was a very hard time, a very sad time for me. But I pulled through it. I buried my own. I took care of everything."
I ask Lewis if he ever felt he would grieve himself to death. "No," he says. "I get down sometimes. A little bit down. I pull myself out of it. I pray, and I think about the things I have now."
How many times a day does he pray? "Just about as many hours as there are in the day, I pray. I pray all the time."
"He talks to God like he's just talking to you, it's amazing," Judith says.
Is death something he fears? "No, I'm not too much on fear. Well, I love God, I love Jesus Christ, and I worship the precious, precious, precious Holy Ghost. But I love living, breathing, I thank God for that all the time."
Lewis has been clean for decades. Is he happy? "Yeah. I got my old girl here. She's the best of them. Better than all of 'em put together. I done pretty well. I got myself a fine place here. I'm happy now. That's all I know." He talks about his surviving children, how Jerry Lee III is the chef at his club, how his grandson Jerry Lee IV was born only a couple of weeks ago. "I've got a good wife, good friends. I'm a pretty good old boy myself."
Through much of the 1990s and early 2000s, Lewis didn't make records. He was in poor health, unhappily married to his sixth wife, Kerrie McCarver, and he couldn't find anybody to produce his work. But over the past decade he has made three critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums of duets, mixing rock'n'roll and country. Creatively, he's on a high. Yes, this will be his final tour abroad, and there will be at least one more album coming.
Does he still like to use his guns? "If somebody breaks into my house to kill me and my wife, I will stop 'em, yes." So he never shoots in temper now? "No!" Was that exaggerated? "That's a bunch of baloney. Every bit of it."
Perhaps you weren't helped by your nickname? "Ach, that," he says. "I didn't mean nothing bad by that." How did it come about? "I was leaving high school one afternoon with my friend, and he or me said, 'I'm going home now, I'll meet you at the pool hall.' And he or me said, 'OK, I'll see you there, killer.' And that's how it got started."
But in Rick Bragg's authorised memoir, you say you were named Killer after trying to strangle your teacher? "The what?" he shouts.
"Did you ever get involved in a fight with a teacher?" Judith asks.
His face lights up. "Yes, I was strangling him by his necktie. I was swinging on it. He was weakening, losing his breath."
Despite a number of run-ins with the law, Lewis has never received a custodial sentence. Does he think he's lucky? He laughs. "Well, I only strangled one!"
I ask if he has ever been scared of anybody. Eight, nine, 10 seconds pass. "Why would you be scared of somebody?" he eventually replies. "I don't know what you mean."
"Are people scared of you?"
"I expect so, yes," he says quietly.
"Do you like that?"
"No. That's all just a bunch of baloney."
Earlier in the day, Whitten told me how Elton John was shaking when he met Lewis in New Orleans recently.
"No wonder," I say, trying to lighten the mood, "he probably thought you were going to pull a gun on him."
"No, he was nervous because Jerry's his idol," Judith says.
"He was just nervous because he was meeting me," Lewis says. "He wasn't scared I was going to hurt to him. I don't want people to be scared of me."
I feel as if Lewis and I have gone 15 rounds. He's won, of course. But as he is helped out of his chair, I see a gentler side; the polite, elderly gentleman from the deep south, doing battle with a bad back. When the photographer asks him if he would sit at the piano, he does so and within seconds his fingers are moving along the keyboard. It brings a lump to my throat.
He shakes my hand as he leaves for his summer hideaway just outside Memphis, and hobbles to the Rolls-Royce Corniche. Lewis bends himself into the driver's seat and reverses down that endless drive. "See ya later, Killer," he says.
©Simon Hattenstone / Guardian News & Media
Jerry Lee Lewis plays the London Palladium on September 6 and Glasgow Clyde Auditorium on September 10; roccobuonvinoproductions.com.
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