Get Well Soon, Killer!
83-year-old rockabilly pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis suffered a stroke recently, and had to postpone his upcoming concert dates. His doctors say he will recover, and he plans to resume touring when his health permits. I sure hope he does.
Imagine being a fly on the wall at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee on Dec. 4, 1956. In an iconic photo taken that day, are Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Elvis had already hit it big, while his three friends were on their way. As their legends grew, they would come to be known as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” and there’s even a successful musical that documents the era.
If anyone had placed a bet that day on which of them would still be performing in 2019, I doubt they would have put their money on Jerry Lee. Even then, at 21, he was a wild child who lived fast. Within a few months, he would have the two big hits for which he’s best known: “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Mild by today’s standards, they were scandalous in the innocent 1950s. You’ve seen what current Grammy winners get away with on network TV. In 1957, many radio stations banned Jerry Lee because of words like “Now, let’s get down real low one time now, shake, baby, shake. All you gotta do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot, wiggle around just a little bit, that’s when you got it, yeah.” If someone tried to record that now, the record company would say, “Can’t you raunch it up?”
His career soon stalled. He married his 13-year-old cousin Myra in 1958, and that didn’t go over well. Radio stopped playing his songs, and by the time his fans forgot about the scandal, the Beatles had taken over the music scene, and Jerry Lee’s time had passed. He later switched to country music, but he never stopped playing his early hits.
His controversial personal life is depicted, warts and all, in Rick Bragg’s book, “Jerry Lee Lewis, His Own Story.” Seven wives, six children, and lots of tragedy. Two of his children died young, and a few of the wives died, shall we say, mysteriously. I highly recommend Bragg’s book. I doubt you’ll ever read about anyone who’s had a more interesting, chaotic life.
Here are my two favorite Jerry Lee stories. One is about the origin of his nickname, “The Killer.” I always thought it had something to do with his aggressive style of piano playing. He punished those keys. But actually, the nickname comes from his school days. According to Bragg’s book, twelve-year-old Jerry Lee showed up for the new school year, and sat down in the 7th grade classroom. There was one problem: he had failed 6th grade. The teacher, a burly football coach, told him to go back to 6th grade. Jerry Lee refused, and the teacher picked him up. Jerry Lee grabbed the teachers’ necktie, and pulled hard. It took two football players to drag him off. While the teacher gasped for breath, Jerry Lee was called to the school office. Another boy was waiting to be disciplined, but Jerry Lee’s case was more urgent. The principal suspended him for two weeks, saying “Son, we can’t have you killing teachers.” As he was leaving the school, the other boy said, “See ya later, Killer.” A legend was born.
The other story is attributed to various sources, and could have happened anywhere. Jerry Lee’s stage act was quite energetic, and he always felt he should be the headliner on a multi-artist show, because he worked the crowd into a frenzy. However, some other big names thought they should be closing the shows too. One night, fellow rock ‘n roller Chuck Berry insisted on closing the show. Jerry Lee cussed and stomped, but eventually gave in. He agreed to do his show while the great Chuck Berry waited in the wings.
As usual, Jerry Lee played the piano relentlessly, with both hands, his fists, and his feet. For his grand finale, with the crowd at fever pitch, he set the piano on fire. As he strutted off the stage amid screams and cheers, he looked at Berry and said, “Follow that, pal!” Except he didn’t say “pal.” Just think of the most colorful naughty word you know, and you’ll get the idea.
Get well soon, Killer. You’ve outlived your old Sun Records buddies, and that’s quite a feat. After all you’ve been through, if you can play the piano with your feet at age 83, there is hope for us all.
David Carroll, a Chattanooga news anchor, is the author of “Volunteer Bama Dawg,” a collection of his best columns. You may contact him at 900 Whitehall Road, Chattanooga, TN 37405 or firstname.lastname@example.org.