Keeping up with The Killer: My interview with Jerry Lee Lewis
At a stage and age where he could watch Turner Classic Movies in his pajamas all day, Jerry Lee Lewis keeps on killing it.
He’ll release a new album and biography Oct. 28. Rock & Roll Time welcomed a collaboration with living legends from Keith Richards to Neil Young to cover lost legends from Johnny Cash to Jimmie Rodgers. It was recorded, in part, at Memphis’ House of Blues Recording Studio.
For the biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Lewis collaborated with Pulitzer Prize-winning author/the guy who makes me gut-laugh or ugly-cry every month with his Southern Living column, Rick Bragg. The book will recount Bragg’s recent series of interviews with Lewis.
“I told the truth whatever I was asked. I remembered it all,” Lewis commented.
I recently sat down with Lewis to discuss rock ‘n’ roll, his favorite genre, and how it feels to be the “Last Man Standing”:
Q: Memphis just celebrated the “60th Anniversary of Rock-n-Roll,” referencing the 1954 release of Elvis Presley’s versions of “That’s All Right” and “Blue Moon of Kentucky.” How did that release, or Elvis’ early success, affect you?
A: Well, it gave me hope that someone else was recording the type of music I wanted to play and perform. Memphis was the birthplace of rock-and-roll. That was where it started and where I wanted to record.
Q: I’ve read that you used to play some of the old honky-tonks on Memphis’ Brooks Road.
A: I would show up in a lot of Memphis bars and play. The Vapors was a supper club, real nice and plush; honky-tonks like Hernando’s Hideaway.
Q: You’ve recorded in different genres over the course of your career. What’s your favorite Jerry Lee “period?”
A: The Sun [Records] days. It was all fresh — it was a new thing. With three to four musicians; no high-tech stuff — just a four-track tape machine and GO. With Jack Clement doing the recording.
Q: To what extent does being the “last man standing” motivate you to keep performing and recording?
A: [It’s] the love of playing. I love to perform for my fans; I love their enthusiasm to see me play. As long as the fans want to hear me, I’ll come out and play.
Q: What music do you like to listen to?
A: Gene Autry, Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, Al Jolson.
Q: Any favorite books or movies?
A: Turner Classic Movies: horror and Westerns. Early Gunsmoke. [Actors] James Cagney and Mickey Rooney.
Q: If you didn’t see it, in the December 2013 issue of The Oxford American, Norbert Putnam wrote an article about working with Elvis. In the article, he recalled your boisterous visits to Graceland and reflected: “I couldn’t help but wonder if Jerry Lee had been correct in his assessment of Presley’s career. Elvis had changed. The records now featured a big orchestral Las Vegas sound, and the vocal did showcase a more Dean Martin style of crooning . . . I began to wonder if Jerry Lee wasn’t the only true and honest friend the King had. The only one willing to shout out the truth, no matter the risk.”
Did Norbert get it right?
A: Norbert was right on, more or less. [People] had to understand [Elvis] was recording songs for movies. Elvis never changed — the system changed.
What’s your favorite Jerry Lee “period?” Tell us in the comments section below.