He called himself “the last man standing,” a reference to the rock ‘n’ roll icons of which he was among the most notable. Jerry Lee Lewis died last week at age 87. He was the last in a line of rock greats whose records I played as a 16-year-old disc jockey at a small radio station in Rockville, Md.
Lewis, also known as “Killer,” was preceded in death by Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. There is a classic picture of the four of them taken at Sun Studio in Memphis in December 1956. They were dubbed “The Million Dollar Quartet.”
Lewis was controversial to put it mildly. After marrying his 13-year-old cousin (while he was still married to someone else), radio stations refused to play his records and personal appearances were canceled. To the extent he was able to overcome what was then universally regarded as a scandal and moral failure, it was the power of his music that eased his comeback.
While his best known songs are “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless,” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (a not so subtle appeal to a woman to engage in intimate activity with him), Lewis had a fine country voice and even recorded Gospel songs, though his life and lifestyle were about as opposite Gospel’s message as the behavior of another cousin, TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Swaggart had confessed to an unspecified sin following publication of a story in Penthouse magazine that claimed he had cavorted with a New Orleans prostitute, which he denied.
Lewis’ other cousin, Mickey Gilley, was far less controversial, sticking with country western music and establishing a famous restaurant — Gilley’s — in Pasadena, Texas. Gilley’s featured a mechanical bull patrons could ride. The bull appeared in the film “Urban Cowboy,” starring John Travolta.
Like Elvis, Lewis was a force of nature. I saw him perform live once near the end of his career (Little Richard and Chuck Berry were also on the program). While he was phoning it in by then, occasionally the old boogie-woogie style came through.
I also recall seeing him on Dick Clark’s Saturday Night TV show at the Little Theatre in New York. Lewis wanted to perform “Great Balls of Fire” with tubes on both sides of the stage that would shoot fire into the air. The fire marshal was called in to approve the devices, which some thought posed a risk to the old and probably highly flammable theater. The stunt was approved, but firefighters stood by. Anyone who saw Lewis perform along with what looked like flame throwers will never forget it.
There’s a video on YouTube featuring Lewis with Ray Charles and Fats Domino, backed up by Rolling Stones guitarist Ron Woods. It runs seven and a half minutes and I defy anyone to sit still while watching it.
Lewis was one of the many white performers who played what some called back then “negro music.” As with Elvis, many parents also labeled it “the devil’s music,” but later mostly came to accept it. Little Richard said white kids kept Pat Boone records on the top of their dressers, but hid his music and that of other Black performers in the drawers so their parents wouldn’t see them.
Jerry Lee Lewis had a style unique to himself. I’m putting on some of his records (now on CDs, though I still have several 45s left over from that radio station) and recall what it was like as a teenager to have been left “breathless-uh.”