Jerry Lee Lewis, one of rock and roll’s founding fathers, died today at age 87, according to his publicist. (There had been erroneous reports of his death on Wednesday.)
Lewis was a flamboyant showman, but scandal and wild living (particularly his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin in 1957) sidetracked his career. He had continued to record music up through a few years ago, and was one of the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
The Killer has died. He was an incredibly exciting performer in his day. Here he is reconstructing his act for the film American Hot Wax. He had largely been forgotten in the post-Beatles world of modernn rock when that movie was made but he still had the stuff.
On stage, he performed in a state close to frenzy. A savage, raw energy burning within him, he hammered the keyboard like a man possessed.
His life was a toxic cocktail of scandal, addiction and violence. Two of his seven wives died in suspicious circumstances; another was barely more than a child.
This was the man who - legend has it - once drove to Graceland, high on alcohol and pills, with a gun on the dashboard. “Come out,” he said to Elvis Presley, “and we’ll soon find out who’s King.”
Lewis was disgraced many times. But those early tracks - A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls Of Fire - were so deeply part of the soundtrack of the 20th Century, that he never quite faded from the scene.
I have two recollections of “The Killer” I would like to share:
In the documentary Johnny Winter: Down & Dirty (2014), bassist Tommy Shannon goes out of his way to call Mr. Lewis “an asshole” (without explanation) and even encourages the filmmakers to leave the comment in the film.
Many years earlier, late one night, vapors flowing freely through the air, some of us were gathered in front of a TV in search of something to watch that would hold our attention (this being sometime before the Age of the Infomercial ruined late night TV viewing). We stumbled upon a concert by jazz pianist Oscar Peterson. We had perhaps heard of him, but none of us were really into jazz or all that familiar with him. Surpassing all our expectations and musical biases, he gave an awesome performance.
Hours later that same night, having watched some movie I have long forgotten, we were again flipping channels in search of engaging stimulus. We found a concert by Mr. Lewis (perhaps mid-late ‘80s vintage?) At first, he seemed underwhelming, as though coasting through the show. One of us remarked how he seemed much less impressive than Mr. Peterson. As if on cue, Jerry Lee started to play piano with his feet (and pretty well, too). That was something even the hugely talented Mr. Peterson had not done at all.
We ended the evening impressed by both performances.
I remember when Swaggart, probably post-scandal, and Bob Guccione Jr., then the publisher of SPIN magazine, were on CNN’s “Crossfire”, and Swaggart said, "If you had any idea what rock & roll has done to my family - " and Guccione, who turned out to have some pretty serious sexual issues of his own, replied, “And what if he’d been a professional athlete?”