October 25, 2014


Number One With a Bullet : JERRY LEE LEWIS: HIS OWN STORY By Rick Bragg  (DAVID KIRBY, Oct. 24, 2014 WSJ)

Speaking of Mr. Lewis's aversion to introspection, he writes, "remembering, if you are him, is like playing catch with broken glass." Later, Mr. Bragg says that "tragedy in [Mr. Lewis's] private life seemed to rattle and clank behind it all, the way tin cans do when tied to the bumper of a car," a fair assessment when you count up the damage and reckon that he buried two sons, saw six marriages, including one to a 13-year-old cousin, go down in flames, and got in more bar fights and car wrecks than any man has a right to survive. By his own account, he did everything he could to keep the Corvettes rolling off the assembly lines ("wrecked a dozen of 'em," he says).

Born in Ferriday, La., in 1935, Mr. Lewis was lucky in having a mother who adored him and a father who did a couple of stretches in prison but recognized his son's musical precocity. The boy was playing in the yard one day when he saw his father's old truck come up the road with an upright piano in the back; he found out later that he had mortgaged the farm to pay for the instrument. At the age of 9, young Jerry was playing before audiences. Largely self-taught, he didn't merely keep time with his left hand, like most piano players, but used it as deftly as his right, so that it almost seemed as though he was playing two melodies at once.

Still, he needed more. He had been steeped in gospel and country music within the family circle. Those are sturdy tools, but he knew there were depths to be plumbed, so he looked for a way to dig deeper into the human heart and soul. He found what he wanted at Will Haney's Big House, a temple to the blues where men routinely carried pistols and women slapped the wigs off each other. In segregated Ferriday, Mr. Lewis couldn't walk through the front door, though he could and did sneak in.

Everybody knew everybody in the little town, which meant that Will Haney had to pull him out from whatever table he was hiding under and tell him to crawl back through his bedroom window before his parents raised a fuss. He underestimated the Lewis orneriness, though, and it became a common occurrence for Haney's customers to call him over and say, "They's a white boy under my table."

Rock 'n' roll hadn't been invented or at least labeled yet, but by the time he was a teenager and touring the South, Mr. Lewis knew how to please a crowd. "We'd take an old country song . . . ," he says, "and we'd watch the crowd, and if you hit some jagged notes they liked and they stomped the floor, you knew to just keep goin'. We didn't know that was rock and roll." By the time the new music had a name, it was already spreading like fire leaping from tree to tree in a forest of dry pines, but only because the early rockers knew how to sell it. Mr. Bragg says of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (1957), Mr. Lewis's first big hit, that black music had sounded that way for years, but "it took a little touch of hillbilly to make it slide down easy for most white audiences, like a chunk of busted-up peppermint in a glass of home brew."

Posted by at October 25, 2014 7:28 AM

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