Jerry Lee Lewis: ‘Without Great Balls of Fire, rock’n’roll would be boring’

The pioneering rock’n’roller on how John Lennon embarrassed him by kissing his feet, how a handgun habit felt normal, and flipping his Rolls-Royce

Hi, Jerry. How are you feeling? (1)
Well, I really feel great.

Where are you?
I’m presently relaxing at my home.

Do you still live in Nesbit, south of Memphis?
Yes, I still live right south of Memphis.

And you’ve still got the piano-shaped pool, and a Harley-Davidson parked in the living room?
Yes, I still have the piano-shaped pool, but the motorcycle is in my club on Beale Street.

How do you intend to mark the start of your ninth decade on this planet, in September?
I plan to keep rocking and rolling if God blesses me as he has.

You once said there were only four stylists in the world: Al Jolson, Jimmy Rodgers, Hank Williams and yourself. Do you still believe that?
More than ever now.

Who had the most revolutionary impact on America, you or Elvis?
I think we both did in our own way. I think we both were true to our music.

Was it weird when John Lennon kissed your feet? (2)
Yes, I was a bit embarrassed.

Which of the Million Dollar Quartet (3) was most fun to go drinking with?
I really did not drink with any of them, though later Johnny [Cash], Carl [Perkins] and myself did many shows together.

Jerry Lee Lewis performs Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On in 1964

How different would your life have been without Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Great Balls of Fire?
Well, without those two songs rock’n’roll would be boring in my book.

Do you consider yourself first and foremost a rockabilly, country, blues, rhythm & blues, or rock’n’roll artist?
First and foremost I am pure rock’n’roll, but my country songs are Jerry Lee Lewis country, with blues flavour.

Can you remember much about the recording of the Live At The Star Club album in Hamburg in 1964? (4)
I remember it well. What a great night. The fans were great and it was pure Jerry Lee Lewis rock’n’roll.

You once said that your cousin Jimmy Swaggart, the televangelist, saved your life, at a difficult time (5). Is this true?
I do not remember ever saying he saved my life other than he is my cousin and I love him.

Can you remember the first thing you said to Jack Clement, producer and engineer at Sun Records? (6)
Yes, I told him I could play piano like Chet Atkins plays guitar – and I did show him.

Who did a better job as you: Waylon Payne in the Johnny Cash movie Walk the Line, or Dennis Quaid in Great Balls of Fire!?
Well, I don’t really think either Dennis or Waylon really portrayed me in the right way, but I liked Waylon, even if his part was short.

What were Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen like to work with on your 2007 album, Last Man Standing?
They were fun and very professional. It was obvious they were honoured to be in my presence, but the same with me to them.

Did you really flip 10 Cadillacs and destroy another two Rolls-Royces in one year?
I only flipped one Rolls – no Cadillacs.

How many times in your life have you walked into a bar with a piano and been asked to play it with your foot? Several thousand?
Maybe not that many, but fans expected me to play with my foot, so of course I did.

Is it true that, among your collection of guns, you owned machine guns and you took them with you on tour?
Ha, no – only maybe a handgun. I was a sheriff, if you did not know that. (7)

Was that because of threats from audience members?
No – threats because of life. It was just the thing to do.

Lewis performs Great Balls of Fire in 1958

You have a fearsome reputation. Which rock’n’roller scares “The Killer”?
None. I cannot be scared of something I helped start.

Jerry Lee Lewis appears in the documentary series Rock’n’Roll America on BBC4 on 10 July and 17 July, at 9pm.

Footnotes

(1) An article from 2014 stated that Lewis had “spent much of the past two years battling a fractured leg, a near-deadly infection, crippling arthritis, pneumonia and shingles”.

(2) Backstage at a gig, Lennon fell to the floor and kissed the rock’n’roller’s feet. The feeling wasn’t mutual: “I never did care for the Beatles all that much, to tell the truth,” Lewis later remarked.

(3) The name ascribed to an impromptu 1956 Sun Studios jam session involving Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Lewis.

(4) Considered one of the best live albums ever.

(5) Lewis was abusing painkillers and alcohol, and once took a .45 automatic, blasting 25 holes through the door of his own office in Memphis.

(6) Label owner Sam Phillips was away, in Florida.

(7) Wanted by the law – that we know about. A lawman? That we didn’t know.

Contributor

Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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