We have been reading revisionist nonsense about Jerry Lee Lewis being a “second-tier deity in rock’s overcrowded pantheon” (Matthew Hennessey of Manhattan’s City Journal, you know who you are!) and we won’t have it. Quite simply, you do not have rock and roll music without Jerry Lee Lewis. He’s not just the straw that stirs the drink, he’s the straw that gets drunk and high, accidentally shoots the drink in the chest and then sets fire to the glass. So to speak.
Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg is in a unique position to understand the sociopathy of this mad and gifted man, because Jerry Lee is practically a long-lost cousin of the author of All Over but the Shoutin’. Mr. Bragg, currently a mild-mannered teacher of writing at the University of Alabama, has caused Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story to come to be, and we asked him about that while he was minding his own business at a nice hotel in Atlanta.
Weld: Are they feeding you all right at the Ritz-Carlton?
Rick Bragg: Well, you know, it is a mighty nice place, but the truth is, last night I dined sumptuously on a bag full of Krystal burgers. I wouldn’t want my doctor to know this, but I had the Krystals with some chili cheese fries. I figured if I’m going to work myself to death on the book tour, then I might as well go out happy.
Weld: Your fine book tells us everything we need to know about Jerry Lee, but putting it all together strikes me as an intriguing process. Who was the first famous person you ever interviewed?
RB: I guess it would have been Bear Bryant. But you know, it was me and 5,000 other sports writers in a room. Once I interviewed Jimmy Dean of sausage fame. He told me, “Y’know, you make a hit record like ‘Big Bad John’ and people remember you for a little while. But if you make some good sausage, they love you forever.”
Weld: I’m guessing you got a slightly different frisson from meeting Jerry Lee Lewis than you got from meeting Jimmy Dean.
RB: Yeah. For one thing, it took a whole lot longer.
Weld: How did you get hooked up to do this project in the first place?
RB: I would love to say there was a lot of serendipity involved, that Jerry Lee and me had met in a bar fight in Pascagoula, Mississippi, in 1979, but that’s just not it. It came about the way so many books come about: my agent gave me a call. He said, “Hey, have you got any interest in doing a book on Jerry Lee Lewis?” And I thought, how could that possibly be dull? And I was right.
Weld: Where did your conversations with Jerry Lee take place, and how often did you get to talk with him?
RB: That’s a good question; it’s one of my favorite things about this whole story. They took place over two summers at his ranch in Nesbitt, Mississippi, up there about 15 minutes out from Memphis. He’s got a big place up there, with iron gates with a big ol’ piano on the front. Jerry Lee was not feeling well. He’d had crippling arthritis in his back, he had shingles, he had a compound fracture in one leg, he had pneumonia, and a lot of that stuff, for an older person, which I am getting to be — that can put you down. And it put Jerry Lee momentarily down.
He was in his bedroom. There were these really hot days, I remember, but the bedroom was always kind of cool and dark, and I would sit in a rocking chair beside his bed, and Jerry Lee would walk me back off down the past, to Sun Records, to Ferriday, Louisiana, to the day he made Elvis cry.
Weld: Were there any ground rules or things that were off limits during the interviews?
RB: No, because this book would have been useless if we had whitewashed Jerry Lee. Jerry Lee didn’t want to be whitewashed. Jerry Lee didn’t want to be like everybody else. That would defeat the purpose of ever being Jerry Lee.
We talked about awful things. We talked about plane rides where law enforcement would shake pills out of the seat cushions on the plane. We talked about playing honky-tonks in Iowa where he would bust a man in the head with the butt-end of a microphone stand because the man insulted him. We talked about Myra, his 13-year-old cousin whom he married, and the resulting publicity brought him smoking to the earth, after he had risen as fast as any singer ever has. You see what I mean? It was a very Southern Gothic setting and tale.
Weld: Given Jerry Lee’s bent for self-mythologizing, how did you assess the veracity of what you were being told?
RB: That was actually pretty easy, because there has been so much written about the man that he despises. Part of that was written when he was drunk, or high, or mad — and by “mad,” I don’t necessarily mean angry. He would let people write or say anything just to kinda see them swing on the gallows of his humor. But over the years, there was so much said that Jerry Lee just wanted to — you can say “set the record straight,” if you like — but Jerry Lee just wanted to get his version out there.
I came to see that Jerry Lee’s version was not embellished or whitewashed. Often, it was worse, more damning, than what we had heard. But it became clear that he’s the only person on earth who’d say he was doing a book to give his side of things and then not care what you or I thought about it. If you think about Jerry Lee, you understand that Jerry Lee doesn’t care much what the secular world has to say or to think about him. He has bigger fish to fry.
Weld: How free did you feel to imbue this narrative with your touch of poetry?
RB: Well, I can only write one way. I’m a one-trick pony.
Weld: Pretty good trick.
RB: It’s worked out pretty well. If you can do one thing — I mean, look. Georgia Tech’s been running the end-around for about as long as I’ve been alive. It’s working for ‘em. They don’t go to the national championship, but they don’t get beat a real whole lot.
I’m a Southerner. I write about people who swing hammers for a living. I write about people who run chainsaws. I write about people who lose their fingers, hands and arms in cotton mills. I write about people who wipe the tables at the Waffle House. There’s a grit, just a grit in Southerners, especially in working Southerners. That lends itself to a certain amount of Southern Gothic. My people made liquor and walked to the jail with babies on their hips to get their daddy out. So, quite frankly, talking to Jerry Lee Lewis about his family was not exactly my first goat roping.
Weld: I imagine that you found Ferriday [Louisiana, the place of Jerry Lee’s raising] to be mighty similar to Possum Trot [Alabama, the site of Rick’s].
RB: It really was. The thing about Ferriday was, it was bigger. Even though it was rural, that Louisiana bottom land and mostly fields, those low forests and that big river. But it was kind of a wicked place. Our wickedness was hidden. Our wickedness had a veil of trees and a deep curtain of leaves on it in the foothills of the Appalachians.
The wickedness in Jerry Lee’s world — man, it was right there. It was a railroad town, and probably, as one historian said, the wickedest place on earth. My culture was mostly hill people. They were mostly one color. They wore one outfit: overalls or faded flour-sack dresses. Jerry Lee’s world was a swirling mix of races and jobs and people. These big trains were going through, boats were churning up the Mississippi. It was busier. But you know what? They don’t talk much different from us.
They made liquor, too. His daddy went to federal prison twice for making liquor. So, yeah, there were an awful lot of similarities in our people. And they like to fight! They like to fight and they like to sing and it wasn’t unusual for a man to be drunk on Saturday and preach on Sunday. The more Jerry Lee talked, the more I realized I have a long-lost cousin there in the state of Louisiana.
Weld: Apropos of sin and such, one of the great tableaus in the book involves Jerry Lee and his producer, Sam Phillips, in the Sun recording studios, about to cut “Great Balls of Fire,” when Jerry Lee decides he doesn’t want to sing it, because it’s blaspheming.
RB: Can you imagine that scene? First of all, there had been considerable drinking going on.
Weld: Most great theological discussions have started that way.
RB: That’s right. So Jerry Lee, Sam Phillips and a whole room full of musicians were pretty well tight, and Jerry Lee decided he will not record, “Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire,” because it was the Devil’s music. Sam Phillips was trying to convince Jerry Lee that he could lift people’s hearts, which Jerry Lee does believe now. His mama told him as much, that you can lift people’s hearts with the music and lift the blues off their shoulders, to make their life feel better for just a little while, and how can that be an evil?
But Jerry Lee just starts quoting the Bible and hollering at Sam Phillips, and the musicians are going, “Oh, man, let’s just cut it.” And this went on into the morning, and finally, finally, pretty well drunk, they sit down and do one of the great rock and roll songs of all time.
Weld: Just the way Ezekiel wrote it.
RB: I guess so. But those are some of my favorite parts of the book, like when Jerry Lee meets Elvis. And it’s a window, it’s Jerry Lee speaking to it the way his eyes recorded it, and that’s what we have that’s different.
Weld: You have all these conversations, you’re told these rich stories — what was your process for organizing all of this information?
RB: I tell my students there at the University of Alabama that organization is the hobgoblin. The words come to us here in the Deep South. I really do think there’s something in the dirt that we draw from, and we can write pretty. We can write pretty about ugly things. I’m not that bright, so what I try to do is to simplify everything. So we did this chronologically.
I tried to get Jerry Lee to start with his mama and daddy and their lives, then walk me through his life, but Jerry Lee kinda does things the way Jerry Lee wants to. He’d talk about 1935 one moment, and 15 minutes later, we’d be talking about 1957 and his first Cadillac, then we’d be talking about 1977 and flipping over his Rolls-Royce — it just kept going like that.
Weld: So it took three years to put all this together?
RB: Yeah. I figured out that if I figure up the amount of time I put on the book, it probably came down to about minimum wage.
Weld: Have you heard from Jerry Lee about whether he liked the book or not?
RB: Oh, sure. We’ve done two book events together. We did a massive signing in New York, at the Barnes and Noble on Union Square in Manhattan. Jerry Lee walked out, and I walked down from the stage to take his hand. There was this phalanx of still photographers there; so many of them, from France, from Asia. As I reached out and touched his hand, all those flashes went off. We were both blinded for a minute, but when I looked up and looked in his face, there was this beautiful smile on his face.
Weld: He was back, baby.
RB: That is exactly what I thought. And I gotta tell ya, so far that’s been one of the nicer moments.
The next night in Manhattan, he played a show at B.B. King’s nightclub. He took the stage and tore it up. I’m not a music nerd — I’m a nerd of several varieties, but not a music nerd — so I’m a fan of Jerry Lee, but not an expert on his music. I was sitting next to my editor, Calvert Morgan, who is a huge Jerry Lee fan and a piano player. Jerry Lee did something on the keyboard that seemed to defy gravity and to defy the kinetics of that art form. I turned and looked at my editor and my mouth opened, just like, wow. He said, “It took me three years to figure that out.”
Jerry Lee can still play, man. He did “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and he didn’t kick the piano bench back anymore. He doesn’t jump up on the lid of the piano and survey his kingdom like he used to do. But halfway through, he stopped and he dedicated the song to me. I don’t think he would have done that if he did not like the book.
Weld: Did you ever wind up having a favorite Jerry Lee song?
RB: I did. But I can never narrow it down to one. He’s got a new CD [Rock and Roll Time] that has a song on it called “Mississippi Kid.” But if you’ve ever heard Jerry Lee Lewis do Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say”, or hear Jerry Lee’s “Big Leg Woman”, or, God help me, you can listen to him do “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”, and it’ll make you just kinda start to grin. I like a lot of things that weren’t huge big rock and roll hits, but I tell you what: “Crazy Arms”, his very first real recording, was beautiful, as was anything he covered by Hank Williams. I was already a Jerry Lee fan, but what I became was a fan of the music you don’t hear every day.
Weld: My theory is, Jerry Lee could have been Moon Mullican’s lineal successor, just one of the really good saloon piano players, but he was driven by a deeper need to prove himself worthy — to God, to the world, to Myra — that seems to have been the impulse that drove him to succeed. Have you had that same sort of impulse in your career?
RB: I think so. I think we all do if we grow up on the back of our mama’s cotton sack. It’s not a myth or cliché; my mama raised me by cleaning other people’s houses, raising other people’s children and dragging me on that cotton sack. I’ve been talking about my mama for 20 years, because she remains the motivating factor in my life. I think if you grow up like that, you do have a chip on your shoulder. There’s just no way around that. You try to trim it down over time and it never goes away…but you shouldn’t care what other people think when you get to be 55 years old. You ought to do what Lewis Grizzard said: you ought to stop wearing socks, and if you want a fried baloney sandwich every day for lunch, you ought to have a fried baloney sandwich every day for lunch.
You think that if you fail, you’ll fall. Bear Bryant said — I don’t know if he believed this, but he said it — that if he had ever had a losing season, Alabama would send him away and he’d have to go home to Arkansas.
Jerry Lee Lewis — there’s a great story of him and his mama and daddy standing on the levee watching these party boats go by on the river. These boats, they had pianos on them, bolted down, and the rich folks would ride the boats up the river from New Orleans or down from points north. Man, they would dance and drink. One day, Jerry Lee and his mama and daddy were there on the river, and this group of revelers toasted them from the middle of the river. Raised their glasses — Jerry Lee thinks it was mint juleps — raised them up high and toasted this poor family in their overalls and faded dress. It was an insult. Jerry Lee’s daddy, a fearsome, young man, pulled him to his hip and said, “Don’t you worry, boy. That’ll be you.” And it just showed, they didn’t want to steadily rise. They wanted that boy to shoot up and to take his place among the rich people.
My mama ain’t like that. She doesn’t want me to do anything except be happy and come home for Thanksgiving.
Weld: And your mama’s doing all right now? I understand she had some heart problems awhile back.
RB: She did, I think from a lifetime of fried cornbread patties and fatback. It’s a wonder that it didn’t happen earlier, but she’s doing good. Y’know, Mama’s always been a tall, kind of spare-boned woman, not the person you think about as having that kind of trouble, but she got a stent. She didn’t want to do it. I told her, “Mama, this operation ain’t no big deal, they do it every day.” And Mama said, “Well, it ain’t your heart, now, is it?” But she got the stent and her doctor read her the riot act — which, of course, she mostly ignores — and she’s doing good. I’m beginning to think I should just shut up.
Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story is available for $27.99 from HarperCollins at better bookstores all over creation.