Jerry Lee Lewis, the American rock legend, died on October 28, at the age of 87. Last May, the director Ethan Coen, half of the famous brothers, presented in Cannes a film, Trouble in mind, revisiting the sulphurous myth of the "Killer". Return in six anecdotes on a career out of norms.
To speak of a "living legend" is often to risk using an overused expression. But used about Jerry Lee Lewis, no risk: it is terribly accurate. At 87 years old, the legendary American rocker has seen it all, lived it all, with an almost destructive intensity. The man who has always been called the "Killer" is the subject of a documentary presented at the Cannes Film Festival: Trouble in Mind, directed by the multi award-winning filmmaker Ethan Coen.
Journalist Rick Bragg had the opportunity to speak with Lewis at length to write his 2015 reference biography Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. He is convinced that the Killer doesn't romanticize anything about his life. "He's a singer who doesn't try to control his story," he explains to Vanity Fair. Jerry Lee doesn't care what anyone thinks of him. In fact, I remember during one of our discussions, I started a sentence by asking, "Is it true that…" and he cut me off with a direct answer, "Yes." As if the answer was "yes" to anything I might have asked about his life." Case in point.
The day… Jerry Lee Lewis was expelled from his Christian school for performing a religious song in his own way
Jerry Lee Lewis' mother sent her son to Southwestern Bible College in Waxahachie, Texas. It was difficult to train the wild child with a lot of evangelical songs, even in the middle of a church ceremony.
I was asked to leave because I was playing My God is real in the boogie-woogie style, in the rock'n'roll style. I figured that's how it should be played."
The day … Jerry Lee Lewis became the go-to artist at the legendary Sun Studios in Memphis
"He stepped forward to announce that he could play the piano like Chet Atkins played the guitar," says Jimmy Gutterman. In his 1991 book Rockin' My Life Away: Listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, the American author describes the audacity of the 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis when he showed up at Sun Studios in November 1956.
Sam Philipps, the head of the label, was out of town. Jerry Lee Lewis was welcomed by producer Jack Clement, and did not miss the opportunity to amaze him with his mastery of the piano. He signed with Sun in the wake of this, to create his own songs and to accompany other performers such as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. One month after his arrival, he participates in the improvised recording of the cult album Million Dollar Quartet. An impromptu jam session that also featured Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. That's all there is to it.
The day when… Jerry Lee Lewis set fire to a piano on stage
"When he told me that story, he still had sparks in his eyes […] He talked about it with relish." This anecdote, Jerry Lee Lewis denied it several times, before assuming it and making it a turning point in his career. Rick Bragg is convinced that the scene really took place.
He reports the account given to him by the main person concerned: "Often, Chuck Berry and him were in the same line-up. They would fight with their respective promoters to decide who would close the show. One day, one of them thought that Chuck Berry's name was perhaps more impressive than Jerry Lee Lewis'. It's not in his nature to be humble so when he agreed to let him finish the show, everyone should have known a storm was coming. Jerry did his usual show and at the end, during Great Balls of fire, no one saw the Coke bottle, full of gasoline, that he was bringing back. At the end of the song, he threw the bottle on the piano and set it on fire."
The day when… Jerry Lee Lewis showed up in front of Elvis' residence with a gun
When some music critics of the time speak of rivalry between the King and the Killer, the latter has always preferred to evoke a frank camaraderie. On November 22, 1976, however, Elvis called the police so that agents could arrest Jerry Lee Lewis, standing in front of his Graceland estate. After a very drunken evening, the Killer had decided to go to Graceland, on a whim. He had arrived at the gates of the mansion quite drunk and, above all, with a gun. Friendship isn't everything.
The day when… Jerry Lee Lewis inaugurated the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame
The Killer was one of the very first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, during the inaugural ceremony held on January 27, 1986. By his side? Little Richard, Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James Brown or Ray Charles.
The day when … Jerry Lee Lewis was made into a movie for the first time
1989. Jim McBride decided to put into images the dazzling success – and the descent into hell – of Jerry Lee Lewis with a daring bias: to adapt the "uncensored" biography written by the ex-wife of the rocker, Myra Gale Brown, a first cousin he married when she was 13 years old. The announcement of this union has extinguished the career of the rocker for several years.
Served by a five-star cast (Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder in the title roles), the film is not unanimous because of its cartoonish vision of the life of rock stars. It was like a cartoon; a grandiloquent portrait," says Rick Bragg. The doubts and demons of Jerry Lee Lewis can't be dug up in a movie that can be shown to thirteen-year-olds."
In fact, the events of the Killer's life would be more appropriate for a PG-13 movie. Two of his seven wives died under murky circumstances. Two of his children died, accidentally. In addition to the dramas of his life, his notorious setbacks have left him in debt and ruined as his career has gone downhill. He was sued by the U.S. tax authorities on several occasions. His addictions to alcohol and drugs have considerably degraded his health, causing him in particular serious problems of ulcers. In 2019, he suffered a stroke. A year earlier, he was still performing at festivals, singing the dark and provocative lyrics set to the danceable tunes that made him a hit.
Trouble in Mind, perhaps, will unlock some of the Killer's mysteries. Rick Bragg insists on the torments that haunted the artist, until the twilight of his life: "He wanted so much to enjoy everything. In the process, he broke his body, he broke his heart, he paid terrible prices. And the one thing that never left him, never abandoned him, was talent."