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It's a Killer comeback

Goodness, gracious! Jerry Lee Lewis, 69, launches an album with the help of some famous admirers.

June 12, 2005|Robert Hilburn | Times Staff Writer

Hi, how ya doin', killer?" Jerry Lee Lewis asks guests backstage at a casino showroom near San Bernardino where the famed "wild man" of rock 'n' roll will go onstage in 20 minutes.

Well, maybe it's time to forget that wild man part. After nearly a half-century on the road, Lewis looks like a rock 'n' roller approaching the end of the trail.

At 69, his face puffy and jowly, Lewis moves so slowly backstage that you wouldn't want him near a treadmill without paramedics in the building. Watching him slumped in a chair, it's hard to imagine him being able to do anything more onstage than accept an award. Then again, people have counted Lewis out for decades -- only to see him bounce back, from delicate stomach operations and career-threatening scandals.

And sure enough, this night at the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, Lewis not only makes it to the piano but comes alive once his fingers hit the keys, pumping out that distinctive Lewis groove that is part honky-tonk, part boogie-woogie, part juke joint and all magic.

"You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain!" he shouts at the beginning of "Great Balls of Fire," one of the lustful tunes that made anxious parents in the '50s thankful for the less-threatening Elvis Presley.

It's "oldies" night at San Manuel (Lewis was followed onstage by Little Richard and Chuck Berry), and many of the 2,000 cheering old-timers dance in the aisles the way kids did on "American Bandstand" during rock's first decade.

No one in the audience is more excited than a silver-haired man in a Rolling Stones "Tumbling Dice" T-shirt and jeans who has been going to Lewis shows since he was a teenager in the '70s. After school, he'd rush over to the old Palomino Club in North Hollywood early enough to nab the spot closest to the stage.

That fan, Steve Bing, no longer has to wait in line to be close to his rock hero. He's the guiding force behind an album that should catapult Lewis back into the national spotlight -- much as record producer Rick Rubin revived Johnny Cash's career in the '90s and record producer-musician Jack White rekindled interest in Loretta Lynn in 2004.

The difference is that Bing, 40, isn't a record producer. He's a film producer and heir to a real estate fortune who helped finance "The Polar Express" and has donated to political, environmental and child-development causes. The normally press-shy Bing, who attracted considerable attention in a paternity suit involving Elizabeth Hurley, has spent more than $1 million on Lewis' comeback collection.

Bing's close friend guitarist Jimmy Rip oversaw the production of the album, which is expected to be released by Columbia Records this fall or early next year. It features guest turns by a battery of Lewis fans, including Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Neil Young, Don Henley, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr.

As Lewis finishes his set, Bing smiles as he sees the standing ovation.

Not one to hang around after a show, Lewis heads straight for the limo to go back to the hotel, pausing only when asked what the album and the renewed activity mean to him.

"What does it mean? It means everything," he says firmly. "When you have people like this working with you and Keith Richards and George Jones wanting to record with you, it's wonderful.

"There was a point when you wondered if anyone cared anymore, you know what I mean? But you see they do, and it makes you feel good. You'd have to be a fool not to."


The man in red pajamas

Lewis had pretty much disappeared by the time Bing and Rip started looking for him in 2000. They had long dreamed about working with him and felt they could combine business with pleasure by having him record a couple of songs for possible use in a Bing film.

"I was on the Internet, making phone calls, but we couldn't find a manager or agent," Rip, 49, says. "What I discovered was he had basically retired to his bed. He couldn't stand the way his life had turned out.

"When I first met him, I asked how much he played every day, and I couldn't believe it when he said he never played except at a show. I mean, here's an absolute genius musician and he doesn't play most days."

Rip and Bing finally caught him and booked a session for July 2002 in Memphis, near Lewis' home, to record the two tracks.

Rip was nervous. He had heard all kinds of crazy stories about Lewis in the studio. There was talk of him shooting his bass player in the leg. And tales of Lewis not liking to record with headphones and that he'd sometimes be so moody he'd leave after playing one note, or not show up at all.

They called the session for 8 p.m., and Lewis, to Rip's delight, came shuffling through the door at 8:01, wearing red pajamas and flip-flops and smoking his pipe.

One of the songs they recorded that night was Led Zeppelin's "Rock and Roll," the ode to '50s rock.

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