Just last week I played and sang a Jerry Lee Lewis song to an audience in St. Petersburg. The song was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which John Lennon once declared the greatest rock song of all time.
A week later Lewis, the man they called the Killer, was dead as a result of … well, you name it.
That he died at the age of 87, rather than 17 or 27 or 57 can be counted as a miracle. Attribute his longevity to rockabilly genes, medical science, and the fact that Jesus really loves sinners.
That Lewis survived countless blows to his popularity over the decades — right up into our cancel culture — says a lot. It means that in certain cases we can separate the glory of the art from the shame of the artist. We can forgive and restore — even in the absence of contrition or apology — but only if the work is in some ways transcendent.
Let’s not forget. Jerry Lee was banned from rock and roll in 1958 after he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown. He made no apologies. He explained that by the time he was 16, with two earlier wives, he was already a bigamist.
He took refuge in country music where he became a star, and where his sins and indiscretions looked more familiar. Rock and roll would take him back and placed him in the Hall of Fame with other pioneers.
When I played “Whole Lotta Shakin’” with that audience in St. Pete, it was part of a story telling event. I explained how at the age of 10 I was transformed from a pious altar boy, terrorized by visions of hell, into a rock and roll legend — at least in my own mind.
My conversion began in 1957 in front of a black and white TV set. The host of a variety show introduced a new rock and roll star. His name was Jerry Lee Lewis, and he would be performing his big hit.
The next three minutes changed my life, the wildest musical performance I had ever seen or ever would see. I watched that show again on YouTube to appreciate the elements of rock and roll genius.
His voice flowed out of the river where Louisiana yells and yodels meet gospel with a sharp turn through rhythm and blues. He was a white country performer banned from his Pentecostal church for playing music like a Black man.
His hair exploded. It walked into the room slicked down on top and curly on the sides. It walked out from every angle, liberated when he banged his head to the beat.
He wore shiny white shoes and danced with two feet while sitting down. He could raise his right shoe and bang the top notes with his foot.
His hands flew up and down the keyboard, a boogie woogie style he mastered from childhood. He began low on the keyboard with a striding rhythm, then reached high, his right hand a blur.
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Piano players prefer a boom mike so you can sing with the hands free. Lewis stuck the mike stand between his legs and played around it, even as he ran riffs, arpeggios and glissandos up and down the 88s.
Just when you thought you could not take another moment of reckless abandon, he climaxed the last chorus by kicking back his chair so it flew behind him.
Over my long career as a garage band musician, I have practiced all of these moves. The most memorable was when my wife helped me get my right leg up on the keyboard. I pulled a groin muscle.
We all want to be wild, don’t we? Even if it’s just a little? How much church, how much school, how much control can we stand?
If you read his obits, they will tell you about his six marriages, the deaths of siblings, wives and children. You will learn of his abuse of drugs and alcohol. About his own arrests and abuse of guns. About near-death medical emergencies.
I never wanted to be like him that way, and I don’t hold those failings as charming expressions of some primitive genius. His greatness was in his work, his craft, his art, his fusion of musical cultures, his collaborations with other musicians, a calling he expressed with exuberance to his last days.
I can’t help it. Every time I hear “Great Balls of Fire” I am ablaze with a youthful enthusiasm and sexual energy, as important an influence on my character as 12 years of parochial education.
I owe the man a lot. If you catch me near a piano, I will play him for you.
Roy Peter Clark is a contributing writer to the Tampa Bay Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.