Heartbreak and tragedy. Hard liquor and harder living. False endings and bitter ironies. Jerry Lee Lewis’ life rivals Melrose Place for drama and cliff-hangers. And it ain’t over yet, despite daunting odds that shadow him on the third night of the International Cowboy and Indian Congress, where rock & roll’s most infamous wild man isn’t even the main attraction. In fact, hardly a soul at this hokey Scottsdale, Ariz., fair seems interested in the man who, with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, pioneered rock & roll. When a local DJ introduces ”the vocalist volcano, the pugilist of the piano,” no more than 150 fans, seated on bales of hay under the full moon, are there to bear witness. No matter. Whether the audience numbers 10 or 10,000, when it’s time to perform, the 59-year-old earns his Killer nickname and slays the audience.
Wearing a crisply pressed black suit, his hair slicked back, Lewis slides behind the piano and thunders right into ”Roll Over Beethoven.” Then, bam-bam-bam come the hits that made him a first-year inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: ”Great Balls of Fire,” ”Breathless,” ”Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Ripping off raucous solos, he surprises even himself. ”Mercy!” Lewis exclaims like the preacher he almost became (cousin Jimmy Swaggart did become one), before he gave himself over to the devil’s music. ”I didn’t know I had that in me.”
Lewis may no longer be rock’s most electrifying performer, but as Young Blood, his first album in nine years, amply proves, there’s still a whole lotta shakin’ somewhere inside him. ”I was surprised how clear his voice is, and how nimble and subtle the piano playing is,” critiques longtime fan Henry Rollins. ”He’s such a great blues and honky-tonk singer. He really has that deep, lonely, mournful thing going on.”
Despite Young Blood’s critical raves, the betting is usually against legends making monster comebacks. But never mind: Lewis is just glad to have another shot. ”I thought it’d be great to put out one of these little bitty records,” he says with a laugh. ”CDs they call ‘em. Damn! My last record, there was no such thing.”
The Killer’s return is like last year’s resurrection of fellow legend Johnny Cash. But next to Lewis, Cash is the man in white. ”One look at Jerry Lee and you think, here’s a guy that, if you got in his way, he’d just go for it,” says singer Chris Isaak, who grew up believing Lewis was as big as the Beatles. ”He’s the original bad boy.”
In the Jerry Lee Lewis story, the myth often overpowers the man, his music, and the fact that in the late ’50s, the hyperkinetic kid with platinum curls from Ferriday, La., was hotter than Elvis. But controversy bit him suddenly and hard in 1957, when Lewis, 22, married his second cousin, 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown — before divorcing his previous wife. The ensuing scandal slammed the brakes on his burgeoning career, but not on his rambunctiousness. Seemed like one tabloid headline followed another: that night in 1976, when, drunk to the gills and waving a .38 derringer, he tried to ram the gates of archrival Elvis Presley’s Graceland estate. The accidental, nonfatal shooting of bassist Butch Owens that same year. The deaths of his fourth and fifth wives (one from drowning, the other, mysteriously, in an apparent drug overdose). The tragic loss of his first two sons (from drowning and a car wreck, respectively).