Jerry Lee Lewis is the last American wildman. The tapestry of his life is founded on his musical genius, which is supreme; his repertoire is a storehouse of vital 20th-century American music with which even the Smithsonian Institute would find it hard to compete. On stage he can sing literally thousands of songs redefining and re-interpreting them every time he plays. This is not a show, it is real life. The most fundamental conventions of show business fall by the wayside as he acts out his life through his music. It is a life that reads like a mixture of Shakespeare and Tennessee Williams - murder stories - death - insanity - bigamy - drug abuse - violence - bankruptcy - vandalism - racism - arrogance - egotism - genius. All these are part of Jerry Lee's incredible life and style.
His personal life has been pulverised by uncontrolled sexuality, drug and alcohol abuse and tainted by death. He has been through more tragedy than Shakespeare could conceive, losing two sons and two wives in tragic accidents, and both parents to cancer.
These mammoth events have absorbed the media ever since the British press arched its pompous nose at Jerry's marriage to his 13-year-old second cousin - a normal occurrence in the southern states in the 50s. Jerry's now infamous 'child bride' marriage has made him better known in the public consciousness than the great musical talent which first propelled him to fame. The recent movie Great Balls of Fire has further perpetuated the mythic aura that surrounds Jerry, that of a man who loves young girls and sets Steinways on fire. Jerry is no angel' and indeed did once set a piano on fire. However, there are hundreds of recordings to prove that he has played pianos superbly, a point of little interest to the mass media. The true Jerry Lee story comes out of the searing environs of the southern states, where his mother's musical influence created a passion so great that it would fill the spectrum of American music and make Jerry Lee Lewis its greatest living exponent.
A Jerry Lee show is not simply a show, it is a confrontation with life and death, a musical explosion akin to opening your door and having Niagara Falls gush through. Too wild to tame, too tough to die. The runway of Jerry's mind is deeply scarred by the hereditary sins of racism and blasphemous Bible-bashing. His double-first cousin is the notorious Jimmy Lee Swag-gart, a public ego-basher in the larger-than-life tradition, while another cousin is Mickey Gilley, former owner of Gilley's Night Club in Texas, The Largest Honky Tonk in the World'.
Swaggart leaked on to an unsuspecting world as God's messenger via the Bible-bashing American T.V. Network and had at one stage a viewing audience of more than five hundred million worldwide. His fall from grace produced the most mortifyingly embarrassing scene ever seen on T.V. Live, in front of millions of viewers, he begged forgiveness with tears streaming down his face before his designer-suited wife.
The media struck Jerry Lee a cruel blow again in 1984 when Rolling Stone, the up-market magazine for yuppies and ageing rockers, virtually accused him of the murder of his fifth wife, Shawn.
'It wasn't the failed marriages that brought me down - it was the passing of caskets.'
Jerry Lee remains aloof, noble, arrogant, witty and spontaneous even when surrounded by such degradation.
Jerry Lee: 'I would have to be at least dead or 5,000 years old to do all the things they say I have done. I am what I am, I've always said what I've wanted to say, done what I wanted to do and been what I wanted to be. I've never tried to hide anything, everything I've done has been out in the open. If people don't like that then that's their problem. I've been picked on, abused, sued, jailed, ridiculed, persecuted and prosecuted, but I never let it bother me.'
Jerry Lee has truly lived his life as a man who controlled his own destiny.
The Hollywood star machine was blamed for the corruption of morals of American youth and society in the 30s and 40s, but in the 50s rock 'n' roll and its stars were to be the target. Jerry Lee was to endure and survive more attacks than anyone else. His courage, stamina and tenacity were mammoth. He never stopped touring, entertaining and giving his whole talent to his public. His spirit was the spirit that helped rock 'n' roll survive against the onslaught of the pretentious moral high ground. Jerry kept rockin 'n' rolling even though everything possible was done to stop him.
The media image has done immense harm to his career and his life, and it has deprived the world of the knowledge of his great artistry, his generosity and his humour. To know Jerry Lee is to expect the unexpected. Those who know him find him a perfect, charming, southern gentleman, yet also unpredictable and volatile.
His influence on modern music and his relationship with fellow artists are well known, especially the media hyped 'envy' of Elvis Presley. Both Jerry and Elvis shared the same Doctor, the notorious George Nichopoulos who has twice appeared in front of the Tennessee Board of Medical Examiners for indiscriminately overprescribing drugs to both Elvis and Jerry Lee. Elvis died of a massive drug overdose in 1977.
However, although Elvis died and Jerry Lee survived, it is Jerry Lee who is remembered as the young man. Jerry Lee is still the wild tiger-suited rock 'n' roller who zapped the U.S. in the mid 1950s with such rip roaring hits as Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On, Great Balls of Fire and Breathless. Few realise that he moved on to even greater recordings. Blacklisted after the scandal in England, he made his comeback on country hits such as Green Green Grass of Home, What Made Milwaukee Famous Has Made a Loser Out of Me, Another Place, Another Time, I'll Find It Where I can, I Wish I was 18 Again, Me and Bobby McGee. He went on to record dozens of albums, featuring blues, soul, country, rhythm 'n' blues, dixieland, pop, boogie-woogie, gospel and rock 'n' roll. Anyone just has to listen to a small fraction of his recordings to realise his genius. Those who have not seen this man on stage are missing one of life's greater experiences. He is the ultimate professional and those who dismissed him as a piano-bashing hillbilly in the 50s are having to eat their words as this established musical virtuoso and showman supreme goes from strength to strength.
When John Lennon first met Jerry Lee in 1973, he fell to his knees and kissed Jerry's feet.
When you have read this book you will understand why.
Charles White, August 1993
Copyright © 1995 Charles White and Jerry Lee Lewis
Photograph: Phoebe Lewis