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VOL. 129 | NO. 212 | Thursday, October 30, 2014

Lewis Biography Details Turbulent Personal Life

By Bill Dries

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If you tuned into The Late Show with David Letterman Monday, Oct. 28, you saw Jerry Lee Lewis in a very unusual setting – not at the center of attention.


Lewis sat in with the studio band and played into and out of commercial breaks, getting a bit longer out of one break as he played the Sun Records hits he made that are in the cannon of rock and roll’s catechism. He also played snatches of some new songs from his CD released this week along with a new biography, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” written by Rick Bragg.

Coming out of one set of commercials, Lewis pressed the point by continuing on.

“Sometimes it seems that I’m falling behind,” he sang. “Just remember that I’m running on rock and roll time.”

The lyrics are a rare concession to time and age.

“If he’s not on stage, then he’s just really waiting to go on stage,” said Bragg, who talked with Lewis over the course of two summers for the biography. “He seemed to really like talking about how a song came together.”

But Bragg probed and got Lewis to talk about his turbulent life off stage, although it was difficult at times.

The two will get back together Nov. 7 for a show at the Cannon Center for the Performing Arts that will feature them talking about the book and some music from Lewis.

“You could forget a chronology with Jerry Lee. You are not going to get any chronology,” Bragg said. “He talked about things kind of as they occurred to him. Some days I could steer it down to a period. It’s a lot like riding a mechanical bull and the guy on the paddle is a little bit schizophrenic.”

The biography is comprehensive – “from Ferriday to present day,” Bragg said, referring to Ferriday, La., Lewis’s hometown.

Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize winning reporter for his work at the New York Times. His memoirs, “All Over But The Shoutin’” and “Ava’s Man” were best sellers.

Lewis has never spent much time publicly analyzing what has happened off stage. He still doesn’t understand the outrage that nearly derailed his career in 1958 after his arrival in Great Britain to questions about his marriage to his 13-year old cousin, Myra Brown Lewis.

Brown told reporters greeting Lewis at Heathrow airport that she was 15 and they were cousins. During the tour, the press found out she was 13 and that Lewis was still married to his first wife when he married her.

“He still doesn’t think it should have had the impact on his life and career that it had,” Bragg said.

And Lewis insists there was a distinction between the outrage and how he was received by the public in England.

“He maintains -- and he might not be far off -- that once the newspapers got their momentum up that they kind of fed each other. We know that can happen,” Bragg said. “To this day, he refuses to accept that most of the people in Great Britain were against him, that they were really offended.

“He believed up until the minute he left the country and maybe after that if he could have just had a little more time, if he just had a few more songs, then by the very power of the music he could have turned things around.”

Bragg also details the behind the scenes making of Sun’s next big star after Elvis Presley headed for RCA Records and from there a hitch in the U.S. Army.

With his first two hits being landmark rock and roll recordings, Lewis was arguably poised to eclipse Presley. Sun Records founder Sam Phillips warned Lewis not to take his wife and cousin with him on the British tour, Bragg writes, and began preparing for damage control. Lewis’s fall continued, playing honky-tonks, supper clubs and much smaller venues.

In some cases, Lewis’s recollection and interpretation of such key events doesn’t match better known versions from others. Bragg cited those versions and let Lewis tell his side of it.

“And he wouldn’t try to make it more interesting. Sometimes he made it less pat and less perfect than the legend allows,” Bragg said of Lewis. “Funny thing about a legend is it always has smooth corners on it. It may have great drama in it. But people like their legends to be smooth. Jerry Lee has few smooth edges on him.”

At 79 years old and with health problems, Lewis is still “not accepting of old age any more than a wolf is accepting of his foot in a trap,” Bragg said.

“He has had time to look back on his actions and his decisions and his own belligerence and his own stubbornness,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that he’s sorry. He knows he did some things that hurt people. He knows that his lifestyle was hard on those around him. He was the rock that people who loved him broke themselves on.”

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