No one thought Jerry Lee Lewis would be the last man standing, least of all Jerry Lee Lewis
No one thought Jerry Lee Lewis would be the last man standing, least of all Jerry Lee Lewis.
But the other greats of Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet – Elvis, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins – are all gone and you can add early Sun star Roy Orbison to that list, too.
All of them except Elvis were still alive during a roughly four-year period of my life where, for whatever reason, the Killer and I got kinda close. Confessional-close almost. He’d rock; later, we’d talk. Backstage at a Boston club – him hitting on my then-girlfriend; in a limo on the way to an airport in New Hampshire; downstairs at the Bottom Line in New York drinking whiskey.
During that last encounter we were both, uh, kinda drunk and, as such, we decided I’d co-write his autobiography. In the cold light of day, nothing went further and I thought: “My god, what if I’d committed two years of my life to living, working and being with the Killer? And tried to write a true story? Would I have survived that?”
Those years were, roughly 1984 to 1987. A weird sort of synchronicity was in place.
Why am I bringing this up now? Well, the Killer’s coming at you one more time. On Oct. 27 at 8 p.m. ET there is a benefit tribute called Whole Lotta Celebratin’ Goin’ On. It’ll stream via Lewis’s Facebook, YouTube channels and www.jerryleelewis.com. The cast of thousands is listed at the end of this piece.
Let’s begin our story in that limo, summer of ‘’85 … We were in riding away from a concert at the Club Casino, a seaside concert venue in Hampton Beach, New Hampshire. Kerrie McCarver Lewis, 23, had been married to Jerry Lee, 51, just over a year and at his side, grasping his hand tightly. She became wife number 6 on April 24, 1984. They were on the way to an airport, probably flying back to the Lewis manse in Ferriday, Louisiana. The limo ride/interview had been Jerry’s idea. I told the friends I’d gone to the gig with to follow the limo closely in our car and to please stop if it did and maybe something or someone got tossed out. There were a couple of questions I knew I had to ask that he might not like.
Jerry Lee was reckoning what might become of him after death. “I believe everybody’s got to die and face God someday,” he said. “And I believe that I’ll go to heaven when I die. We don’t know what God’s gonna do. We know there’s a Supreme Being. We’ve never met the Supreme Being, but we believe there is a God. He holds the key. I believe sometimes we punish ourselves. But I believe God lets us live with reason. I believe there’s something more to be lived for, I would imagine. I want to live as old as I can, go as long as I can. And God knows this. I think this is our main purpose in life: to live as long as we can and do as much as we can to help people, to give as much of our talent as we can in the best way we know how to give it. Sure, we foul up sometimes down through life. And we make our mistakes, but God’s always there to forgive us. I don’t mean I’ve tamed myself down or anything like that. I just mean I respect God.”
VIDEO: Jerry Lee Lewis Last Man Standing
Same year, fall, following a gig at Boston’s Channel club. The Killer tore the club up. “I thought that was the best damn show you ever seen in your whole life,” he says to me as I enter the dressing room. “And if you give me a bad write-up, you dead.”
I’m pretty sure the Killer was joking. He does that a lot. He also mixes tall tales and truth and his mouth is running.
Jerry Lee Lewis has been on a roll and in love — hell, make that deeply in lust — with his own myth. Which is only right. The man ain’t lacking for ego and the myth ain’t lacking for color. The myth, of course is tattered and torn and at least partially true, full of all the right rock ‘n’ roll stuff: ups and downs, sin and salvation, heroes and villains, drugs and drink, sex and love, death and glory, Million Dollar Quartets and more wives than some folks have girlfriends. Rock ‘n’ roll’s prototypical bad boy, Jerry Lee’s wrecked cars, hotel rooms, pianos, marriages.
Tonight, Jerry Lee fingers his left hand with right. It seems that three weeks ago he broke his left hand, punching out an Eldorado. Moved it four inches, he says. The Eldorado won the fight, as so often happens. He was angry because his manager, J.W. Whitten, wouldn’t let him drive.
Drunk? I ask.
“We was all drunk!” exclaims Jerry Lee.
He once shook — and still shakes — the rafters with the most frenetic of rock ‘n’ roll songs, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’. He sings the most soulful ‘Georgia On My Mind’. And he’s always sung ‘Sweet Little 16’ like he means it, man: ain’t nothing in the world he wants more than sweet little 16. Still. Forever. Always. If you wanna read something creepy into it, that’s your right.
There’s more contradictions and convolutions than you can shake a stick at. Tonight, the bottle of whiskey stays on the side table, but something’s coursing through Jerry Lee’s veins. He’s primed. He says he’s had 73 number one hits (actually, he’s never had a number one; ‘Great Balls of Fire’ reached number two in 1957) and three of them with a bullet.
Yeah, I ask, what kind of bullet?
“Hollow point,” he says.
VIDEO: Jerry Lee Lewis performs “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on The Steve Allen Show
Tonight, Jerry Lee’s mind is a jukebox. Backstage, he’s scatting from one old song to another, often rendering bawdy snippets of rock classics. Tonight, the Killer is on a rip-snorting, hell-raising jag. He’s also bantering with Kerrie McCarver Lewis, 23, whom he made wife number 6 on April 24, 1984. Tonight, she’s a surprise guest. Over the past half-year — along with the expected accounts of Jerry Lee’s hospitalization and near-death (a regular occurrence these days) — the wire services have reported severe marital strife. And now it seems Kerrie has filed for divorce.
“It’s true. We’re getting a divorce,” says Jerry Lee. They sing ‘The Hallelujah Chorus’ in unison. “Finally got it through to her. When you gotta go, you gotta go. It happens. You burn out,” he says.
“Burn out bad,” says Kerrie. “We couldn’t make it.” Why?
“‘Cause I don’t eat her!” hoots Jerry Lee. “Think about it now. I’ve thought about it: A man is clean, some of them, but I’m not sticking my tongue in!”
Kerrie winks at me. Soon, she sasses him. “I’m gonna pinch your head off,” he shoots back, “shit in it and screw it back on.”
“Then,” snaps Kerrie, smiling, “I’d be full of shit.”
“My life is like a damn good country song,” he growls later, to her. “And, honey, you’d make a good casket.”
“I would, wouldn’t I?” smirks Kerrie. “I’d be a pretty casket.”
So it goes. The badinage has a comic, nasty edge to it, as I suppose it should. Still, this seems like private stuff, and then the thought begins to dawn on me: There really must be some sort of freedom, some primal anarchic release, that comes when you really, truly do not give a fuck who hears what. Or maybe all of it helps enlarge the myth. But they certainly weren’t doing it for my benefit; I just happened to be there.
His body thin, his muscles taught, and his eyes piercing (as always), Jerry Lee Lewis’s skin is like wax, but “at least I don’t look as ugly as the Everly Brothers.” He’s punctuating the air with karate stabs and scattered barbs, sinking into redneck humor. He’s raving on.
* About getting arrested after shooting a gun off outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion: “I shot the hell out of that! If I could have made it in… I run out of bullets.”
* About Class Of ’55, the reunion album recorded with Sun vets Cash, Orbison and Perkins: “Worst album I ever heard ‘cept for my parts. Johnny Cash is the worst singer in the world. Roy Orbison is the ugliest sonofabtich I ever seen. Carl Perkins is a one-hit wonder.” And of the missing member, Elvis? “Elvis Presley — they laid him out in blue suede hip boots.”
* About his charter membership in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame: “Bullshit. The Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame means…no royalty checks. I was indicted, I mean inducted, into the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame by threat. I told Chuck Berry I’d kill him. I killed Elvis Presley anyway — got rid of him, finally. It took a long time. I got him! I got rid of Ricky Nelson. Everybody around me dies.”
* About booze: “I drank enough whiskey to lift any ship off the ground. Drank enough beer for a whole damn town.”
And yet, as this juggernaut of crude wit, marital scraping and (good-natured?) peer disembowelments begins to roll over you, Jerry Lee Lewis turns serious: “Son, if you and I don’t go to heaven, what have we gained? We have missed it all. Everything.” This comment, delivered almost as an aside this evening, is more like the Jerry Lee Lewis I’d talked to previously. Generally speaking, Jerry Lee Lewis has been the sinner looking for salvation.
At 22, he married his cousin, Myra Gale, age 13. “It’s my third wife, but this time it’s the real thing,” he told the Associated Press. Two of his sons have died in accidents; two of his wives died untimely deaths. He’s blasted holes through the door of his own office (Memphis, 1975) and shot his own bass player in the chest (Norman Owens, 1976). He’s fought the law, the IRS, and, recently, he’s won (“Stay off my ass! I beat ’em bad!”)
VIDEO: Jerry Lee Lewis on The Ed Sullivan Show
Back to the limo ride … The topic of Jerry Lee’s previous wife, Shawn Michelle Stephens, comes up. They were married June 7, 1983; a little more than two months later, she was found dead at Lewis’s Nesbit, Miss, ranch. An autopsy done in Memphis found her death was caused by an overdose of methadone. A grand jury found no reason to suspect foul play on Jerry Lee’s or anyone else’s part.
But an exhaustive Rolling Stone story by Richard Ben Cramer raised a number of disturbing issues. Cramer implied that, at the least, Lewis was not entirely blameless in his wife’s death — and, quite possibly, he’d killed her and tried to cover it up. Cramer painted a strong circumstantial case: broken glass on the floor, a sack of blood-stained clothes in the master bedroom, blood and bruises on Shawn’s body, which was neatly laid out on a bed in another room. Cramer suggested inept and/or corrupt police procedure. Furthermore, Cramer reported that Shawn’s mother had received a phone call from Shawn the day before her death. Her mother claimed Shawn intended to leave Lewis.
“I loved Shawn very much,” said Jerry Lee tells me. “She was a good girl, a fine person. She just made a mistake. I think she thought she was taking a handful of aspirins or something and she took some methadone pills that were prescribed for me two years ago that I didn’t even fool with. They were just setting on my cabinet. She didn’t know what they were. And they killed her. It made me mad, real mad. I got very angry.”
“I don’t know. I was angry with her at first. Then, I could see it really wasn’t her fault.”
So, Jerry Lee tells his story of Shawn’s death. “She never intended to kill herself. The furthest thing from her mind. That’s why when we went on the bed and went to sleep, I couldn’t imagine that she had took anything that could kill her. And she didn’t know it either. She didn’t die until 30 minutes before we woke up.”
Before we woke up?
“Before I woke up. Excuse me. Before I woke up — wishing that it could have been a ‘we.’ I didn’t know she was dead. She was still warm and everything and I kept trying to wake her up. And then I got to thinking about it and I still wouldn’t accept her being dead. She lived all through the night. I know a couple of times I checked Shawn through the night, to see if she was breathing. I just felt her heart beating and everything and it was perfect.”
As it turned out for Kerrie, wife No. 6, well, she turned out to be the woman married longest to Jerry Lee – 21 years. They were divorced in June of 2005.
I was telling this story not long ago to a friend, Warren Scott, who booked the Channel. “You mean when he said he listened to that wife’s heart beat throughout the night?” he said. “Don’t you find it strange he would do that, unless he was waiting for the heart beat to stop? Who listens to their wife’s heartbeat while they’re sleeping unless they are waiting for something to happen to them?”
I had a one-word answer: “Exactly.”
VIDEO: Jerry Lee Lewis 1990 Documentary
Whole Lotta Celebratin’ will benefit World Vision, a Christian organization working to help communities lift themselves out of poverty.
The event will be hosted by John Stamos. Celebrities lined up to celebrate “The Killer” include President Bill Clinton, Billy F Gibbons, Bonnie Raitt, Chris Janson, Elton John, Jacob Tolliver, James Burton, Jerry Phillips, Jimmy Swaggart, Joe Walsh, Lee Ann Womack, Linda Gail Lewis, Lindsay Ell, Marty Stuart, Mickey Gilley’s, The Beach Boys’ Mike Love, Priscilla Presley, Tom Jones, Willie Nelson and Wink Martindale along with appearances from Jerry Lee Lewis’ road band, Kenny Lovelace, Ray Gann and Kenny Aronoff.