Jerry Lee Lewis: Article

With duets project, Lewis still shakin’
by Randy Lewis

LAS VEGAS - Jerry Lee Lewis sinks into a 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 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 - not the battle-scarred war zone of wrinkles like Keith Richards and Merle Haggard wear.

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

Lewis displays such respect for the instrument that it’s hard to believe he actually torched one - though legend holds that he did precisely that a 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. “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 piano. . . . They’re not going to allow the other Jerry Lee.’’

It’s difficult to imagine anyone - fans included - being able to box in Lewis.

His signature hits “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’’ and “Great Balls of Fire’’ were explosive songs that left adults of the 1950s convinced that the devil had arrived in the world to claim their children.

While Lewis 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 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 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 Shangri-La Music label in Santa Monica, Calif., plan to issue early in 2010 (a five-song sampler EP was made available online in November).

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’s country recordings in the 1960s and ’70s after his rock ’n’ roll fame flamed out.

“He’d get to town an hour and a half or two hours before we would start recording, he’d listen to the new song five, six, seven, or eight times, and then he knew it,’’ Kennedy said by phone from his Nashville home. “I think he uses a song likes a script: He crawls inside it and does his thing like an actor. . . . He never did anything the same way twice - that’s what was wild.’’

During playback of Lewis’s rendition of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,’’ songwriter Kris Kristofferson was in the control room.

“God almighty,’’ he said. “If I ever thought back in the day I’d be hearing this. . . . I’d think somebody brought me back from heaven to hear that.’’

© Copyright 2009 Globe Newspaper Company.


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