The Killer’s unbelievable, outrageous life
MUSIC | Remembering rock and country star Jerry Lee Lewis
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“It’s unbelievable. But it happened.” So said Jerry Lee Lewis to his biographer Rick Bragg over a decade ago after regaling him with a typically outrageous story from his past.
Which story doesn’t matter. The quote would’ve fit any of them where “the Killer” was concerned.
Lewis died three days before Halloween at 87, an age that at one point no sane person would’ve ever thought he’d see. He was only 40 when whiskey (“enough to lift any ship off the ground,” he once sang), amphetamines, and painkillers deposited him at death’s door for the first time.
Yet he kept bouncing, rocketing, or crawling back, fueled by the belief that he was always just one more hit record or dynamite live performance away from reclaiming whatever ground he’d lost as a hellion nonpareil.
As with many a larger-than-life character, practically anything you could say about him—good or bad (there wasn’t much in between)—was true. He was a rock ’n’ roll immortal, a country star, and a hyperkinetically prodigal son. He sowed the wind and reaped the whirlwind. Only near the end, sapped of strength, did he try to live by the Assemblies of God tenets that, along with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, he’d absorbed as a child.
He attended, and was kicked out of, Bible college. He did some preaching. He barrelhoused, glissandoed, and pounded pianos within an inch of their lives while keeping and treasuring the one on which he’d learned to play. He gave as good as he got in countless brawls. His portrayal of Iago in a rock-opera production of Othello earned him raves. He was a friend of Elvis Presley until 1976, when, drunk, he crashed his Lincoln Continental into the gates of Graceland.
And, yes, he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra. That abusive marriage lasted longer than most of his other six, but, like all but the last one, it withered quickly.
His true love was music.
18 Original Sun Greatest Hits, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, and his appearance on Granada TV’s Don’t Knock the Rock (viewable on YouTube) are the places to start, Killer Country the place to finish. He also made hay on The Session … Recorded in London With Great Artists and his eponymous 1979 Elektra LP. “I’ll Fly Away,” from his 1971 gospel album In Loving Memories, gave hints of his ability to stir up the faithful.
“Who’s gonna play this old piano,” he sang in the 25th of his 40 Top 20 country hits, “after I’m not here?” The question was rhetorical then. It’s more rhetorical now.