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Jerry Lee Lewis: Whole lot of playin' going on

Rock's original wild man may have mellowed a bit, but he's still busy pounding the keys. And even playing a little guitar. His latest project is a country album.

December 06, 2009|By Randy Lewis
  • THE KILLER: Jerry Lee Lewis, at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, is still going strong at 74.
THE KILLER: Jerry Lee Lewis, at the House of Blues in Las Vegas, is still going… (Kirk McKoy / Los Angeles…)

Reporting from Las Vegas — Jerry Lee Lewis sinks into a regal looking leather chair backstage at the House of Blues. The 74-year-old rock 'n' roll pioneer has just completed an impressive hourlong set at a private party for an associate of country star Tim McGraw. He's sharply dressed in a white vest embossed with floral curlicues, over a simple black shirt tucked into black denim jeans.

But the most striking thing about his physical presence might be his skin: Few of even the hardest-living rock or country musicians have been through as much as the man also known as the Killer. Yet his face is youthful, smooth -- not the battle-scarred war zone of wrinkles likeKeith Richards and Merle Haggard wear.

And there are those fingers: elegant, long and graceful, and still fully capable of tickling, tapping or pounding the ivory keys of the instrument with which he is synonymous.

"You can't beat a piana," he drawls.

Indeed, he displays such respect for the instrument that it's hard to believe he ever actually torched one -- though legend, of course, holds that he did precisely that, a good decade before Jimi Hendrix tried the same trick with a guitar. It was that act that helped earn the Louisiana native another nickname, the "Ferriday Fireball."

"I like to play guitar too," he says in an almost confessional tone. "I play my guitar just about as good as anybody plays guitar. Yeah! I can play some heavy blues, and some good rock 'n' roll on guitar . . . But I don't want to do that, because then I'm gonna be obligated to do it. I know [fans] expect to hear a piana . . . They're not going to allow the other Jerry Lee."

Sun discovery

It's difficult to imagine anyone -- fans included -- being able to box in Jerry Lee. His signature hits "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire" were explosive songs full of unbridled lust that left adults of the sedate 1950s convinced that the devil himself had arrived in the world to claim their teenage children.

While Jerry Lee might have mellowed with age, he is, as acknowledged by the title of his 2006 album, "Last Man Standing -- the Duets," the only surviving icon of a singular generation. Among the artists Sam Phillips discovered and first recorded at Sun Records in the 1950s -- including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins -- Lewis, the biggest hellion of them all and the one Phillips once described as "on balance, probably the most talented human being I ever had the opportunity to work with," has outlived every one.

"Last Man Standing" is chock full of superstar duets with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and a slew of others, which helped it sell nearly 200,000 copies.

Many of those guests are back, with new names added to the list, for another set that Steve Bing and his Santa Monica-based Shangri-La Music label plan to issue early next year (a five-song sampler EP was made available online last month).

A third album is set to follow about nine months later.

But it's not strictly about big names paying their respects. Among the raw tracks Bing is working up with the album's co-producer, veteran drummer-to-the-rock-gods Jim Keltner, is one featuring "the other Jerry Lee," with Lewis accompanying himself on guitar on a freewheeling, country blues rendition of Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues."

Naturally, he remakes the lyrics to fit his own outsized personality: "I shot a boy in Memphis / Didn't want to watch him die," adding a sardonic little "heh-heh" after his revamp.

And there's Lewis at the piano, singing the gospel song "Peace in the Valley": "The bear will be gentle and the wolf will be tame / The lion shall lie down with the lamb . . . [and] I'll be changed from this creature that I am."

Lewis is more lamb than lion these days, although he flashed a bit of the old bite at the recent 25th anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts at New York's Madison Square Garden. After a laudatory introduction by Tom Hanks, Lewis kicked over his piano stool to start the second night's show, delighting the crowd.

The country side

One surprise amid the 43 songs he's put down with Bing and Keltner is his take on Kris Kristofferson’s "Sunday Mornin' Comin' Down," which Cash turned into a No. 1 country hit in 1970. "I never heard John's record," Lewis says, and it's easy to believe him after listening to the 100% Jerry Lee version that streamed from the monitors recently at a Hollywood recording studio.

A lot of the songs he's recorded for Shangri-La have been on his set list for decades. Others, like the Rolling Stones' "Sweet Virginia," he would learn after a few listens in the car on the way to sessions.

"He's the quickest study I ever worked with," said producer Jerry Kennedy, who oversaw hundreds of Lewis' country recordings in the 1960s and '70s after his rock 'n' roll fame flamed out.

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