“Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” is a book as big the man himself. With his subject’s cooperation, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Rick Bragg captures all of the Killer’s vulnerability, braggadocio and terse country wit. Neither offers excuses for the grand peccadillos — the pills, booze, brawling, and cheating — though Bragg makes a gallant effort to explain the circumstances, when possible. With Jerry Lee, it usually came down to this: “If I wanted something, I just did it.”
He was the most volatile performer in the field of early rock ‘n’ roll titans. Arguably, he has yet to be surpassed in this regard, since the immeasurable spontaneity that Lewis represents — roaring off nearly every page of Bragg’s unusually candid account — no longer has much place under the big top.
Bragg’s sympathies are with what he calls “the Rougher South.” Lewis grew up during the Depression in a still-untamed corner of the region’s interior, Ferriday, La., just across the Mississippi River from Natchez. There were youthful scrapes with the law, and his Pentecostal background created tensions that surfaced in the sound he pioneered.
Primary influences may have been Gene Autry, Hank Williams, Al Jolson and Moon Mullican, but a devilish R&B feeling also captivated the blonde-topped tyro. For Lewis, who “carried himself like the King of England,” public display came naturally: “Putting on a show was like flipping a switch on Frankenstein’s monster, then watching it show the first signs of life.”
Sam Phillips and Jack Clement, the honchos at Sun Records in Memphis, recognized Lewis’ genius immediately. His first hit for the label, 1957’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” almost became a casualty of the era’s culture war on rock. Things changed after two sensational minutes of hammering on “The Steve Allen Show.” When Lewis kicked away his piano chair and the host slid it back across the stage, his national triumph was complete.
The song “Great Balls of Fire” was set to consolidate his success, but when the news leaked to the British press that the Killer had married his 13-year-old cousin Myra, he was forced to cut short his 1958 tour of the Isles. The scandal followed him back to the States, a sorry episode Bragg (author of the memoir “All Over But the Shoutin’”) refers to as “a rise and fall unequaled in American music.” For several years, in order to survive, he was made to fight his way in and out of roadhouses across the nation’s heartland.
But he “was too hardheaded to lie flat,” notes Bragg. He returned to the charts in 1961 with “What’d I Say,” then crashed into Germany in 1964 and recorded “Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg,” one of the most electrifying, if not deranged, performances ever burned to magnetic tape.
After his unlikely casting as Iago in a 1968 rock-opera based on “Othello” — this actually happened — he re-exploded as a multi-million-selling country artist. (“It seemed like he could … sing the water bill, and they would have given him a standing ovation.”) He bought airplanes and countless luxury cars. With relish, he applied himself to amphetamines, which Bragg describes as “just part of sundown.”
Retrospectively, Lewis says, he could “out-everything everybody,” but, by the 1980s, his health had collapsed, and the IRS hounded him relentlessly. As always, the Killer battled back, making records, creating havoc and playing until dawn for the sheer love of music. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in its first year, 1986.
It’s not easy to hold one’s own against the Killer, but, in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” Bragg succeeds, and, in doing so, he never takes a cheap shot. With the robust hilarity of a log cabin intellectual, he writes knowingly from an endless store of imagined archaisms well-suited to his tremendous task. Bragg recreates all the legendary stories and flamboyant man-trums — one piano rising in flame; another shoved into the water.
While he may not inspire the sentiment reserved for his old friend Elvis, Lewis has been struck repeatedly by tragedy. Two of his sons died young. In 1984, Rolling Stone magazine insinuated he had murdered his fifth wife, Shawn, the prior year. (He was exonerated by a grand jury and prosecutor.)
Now at age 79, fate has been his match, but just barely. At the beginning of October 2014, he played the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville. Bragg reports that he enjoys a Coke float and cuddles with his Chihuahua, Topaz Junior. He has flown close to the sun, but one day it will be the fiery orb itself that must fall into the sea, because “Jerry Lee Lewis,” as he once observed about himself, “don’t disappear.”