Jerry Lee Lewis did not know where he was, precisely, just somewhere in Canada. The caravan thundered down highways that were barely there, the roadbed eaten by permafrost, the gravel flying like buckshot against the bottoms of the big cars. There was a long Lincoln Continental, a Fleetwood Cadillac, a mean-looking Hudson Hornet, and a brand-new Buick Supreme; it was new for only a thousand miles or so, till the potholes got it. The big sedans might have been different colors, once, but now they were all a uniform gray, the color of the blowing dust. Jerry Lee rode in the passenger seat of the Buick, sick of this great distance between crowds and applause, six hundred, seven hundred miles a day. “I didn’t drive. . . . I was paid to play piano and sing. Stars don’t drive.” Instead, he read Superman, or used a cigarette lighter to fire up one cherry bomb after another and flung them out the half window to explode under the trailing cars.
“That first tour was me, Johnny, and Carl, and Sonny James, Marvin Rainwater, Wanda Jackson. We put eighty, ninety thousand miles on that Buick, across Canada, across everywhere . . . throwing cherry bombs the whole way.” Sometimes he missed high and the cherry bombs exploded against windshields or on the hoods, and Johnny and Carl would curse him mightily, curse unheard, but one time he misjudged and the cherry bomb bounced off a window frame and into J. W.’s lap, and J. W.’s screams echoed inside the Buick for a good long while, longer than was seemly for a man. They could have used a chaperone, all of them, or a warden. The lead car was jammed with drum kits, guitar cases, and sharp-cut jackets and two-tone shoes. The only other provisions they packed were whiskey, cherry bombs, and comic books.
He cannot really remember all the little cities and towns they traveled through, not even the names on the road signs, only the vast, empty spaces in between. They would go two hundred miles or more and not see a café or a motel. “We’d stop at a store and get some Vienna sausages and bologna and bread and pickles and mustard, and pull over to the side of the road and have a picnic. . . . Calgary, that was one of the places. Quebec. They went crazy in Quebec. Pulled their dresses up.”
To the owners of the motels and truck stops, it must have seemed like the lunatics had wandered off the path, had stolen some good cars, and were terrorizing the countryside. “Johnny came in my room and saw this little bitty television in there, and he said, ‘You know, my wife’s always wanted one of them.’ And I told him, ‘Fine, go steal one from your own room.’ ” And it went that way, eight hundred, nine hundred miles a day, half drunk, pill crazy, larcenous, and destructive and beset by loose women and fits of temper, and it was perfect.
“We had some good fights,” says Jerry Lee. “A good fight just cleared the air.”
Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash had begun the tour as headliners. They were still the big names at Sun then and, Sam Phillips believed, his best moneymaking ventures. The problem was this newcomer, this blond-haired kid, who did not know his place and had no governor on his mouth, and in such close proximity, they could not tune him out and could not run away and could not kill him, either, though they considered it. He even had the gall to suggest, as the days wore on, he should close the shows, him with just two records cut and shipped and not even one yet on the charts. Who, they wondered aloud, did that Louisiana pissant think he was?
They were starting to call the music “rockabilly” now, but the kid refused to label himself as that, to endorse any kinship with that hillbilly-heavy blues that sold so well in any town with a tractor dealership on its main drag. To Jerry Lee, the word was denigrating, something imposed on these country boys and their music by the outside world. “I wasn’t no rockabilly,” he says, “I was rock and roll.” Carl was pure rockabilly—“Blue Suede Shoes” was the music’s anthem—and Johnny, the storyteller, was more country than most young rock and rollers aspired to be, though his “Get Rhythm” rocked out good and strong, as Jerry Lee recalls. The audience loved all of it, bought tickets by the handful and just moved to it, man, because it made old, traditional country music seem like the record player was too slow, and in town after town they lined up, hungry. But increasingly, as his stage presence swelled and swelled, it was Jerry Lee who created the excitement, who got them dancing, and so he demanded more and more of the spotlight. It was, he believed, only his due.
More than one music fan, more than one historian of rock and roll, have wished for a time machine, just so they could travel back to this one time, this one tour, to wedge into those packed auditoriums on the vast plains and in the Canadian Rockies, to see it all happen the way it did, to see Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, young and raw and wild, singing into big Art Deco microphones that looked like something that shook loose off the hood of an Oldsmobile, on stages scarred by a million metal folding chairs, in auditoriums where next week the featured attraction would be a high school production of The Merchant of Venice.
* * *
“And now, ladies and gentlemen, from Maud, Oklahoma, it’s the Queen of Rockabilly, Wanda…” And before the announcer could even get it out, the crowd was hollering and hooting—with here and there a wolf whistle or two—as Wanda Jackson came out from the wings in high, high heels, hips swinging free and easy like she walked that way going to the mailbox. She had not a made a sound yet, and already the loggers, drillers, and insurance men were beginning to sweat. This was no cowgirl. Her dresses were fringed, to accentuate her flying hips, and low-cut, to accentuate something else, and her legs were slim and perfect and her waist was so tiny a big man could encircle it with his two big hands. Her big hair was dark brown and flowing, and her big eyes were framed by a starlet’s arched eyebrows; she was a goddess with a voice like a beast, and she growled as she sang that a hardheaded woman is a thorn in the side of a man.
That was hard to follow. But here came Sonny James of Hackleburg, Alabama, striding out in his Western suit, a thin, dark-haired man who had survived the Korean War, singing a love song of the ages. “Young Love” was the song, and it wasn’t the words that made it lovely but how he did it, like smoke on velvet.
Next came that good-looking Marvin Rainwater, who wore a fringed buckskin shirt and a headband onstage, because he was one-quarter Cherokee. He sang in deep baritone about how he was “gonna find him a bluebird, let it sing all night long.” He was a mellow singer, a balladeer, and smoothed out the crowd before the real headliners came on, the boys from the land of the rising Sun.
First came Carl Perkins, in his too-tight pants and pointy sideburns, and he let it rip:
Well, it’s one for the money
Two for the show . . .
Through force of will, Jerry Lee had climbed up the bill and over and straight through Carl, till now there was only Johnny Cash, in his elegant, somber black, hovering just above him on the marquee. That night, there had been the usual argument over who would close the show. Johnny, with the bigger name and a song on the charts, had the promoters on his side: he got top billing, which meant he had to follow Jerry Lee. But first Jerry Lee had to surrender the stage.
The stage had become a kind of laboratory for Jerry Lee, and he was the mad scientist. Onstage he mixed and matched songs and versions of songs, stitched together some parts and discarded others; because he was Jerry Lee, he did what he felt like in the moment, in a set that was supposed to be four or so songs, but he ignored that, too. He gave them “Crazy Arms” one minute and “Big-Legged Woman” the next, and they clapped to one and stomped and howled to the other. His show got wilder and increasingly wicked on that tour, and the audiences bellowed for encores. He had heard that Canadians were earnest, reserved people, but he must have heard wrong. More and more he was beginning to understand that, while the music was at the core, that was just the start of it. Putting on a show was like flipping the switch on Frankenstein’s monster, then watching it show the first twitching signs of life. “You got to dress right, act right, carry yourself right; it all had to come together.”
The good-looking part, well, God had handled that. But you had to use it. His hair, by now, had become almost like another instrument. Under the lights, it really did shine like burnished gold, and at the beginning of a show it was oiled down and slicked back, and he looked respectable, like a tricked-out frat boy or preacher’s kid. But on the rocking songs, he slung his head around like a wild man, and that hair came unbound; it hung down across his face, and that just did something to the women—and their screams did something to the crowd, and things just got kind of squirrely. As it came unbound, the waves turned into tangled curls and ringlets, and it seemed to have a life of its own, a wicked thing, like Medusa herself. Sometimes he would whip out a comb onstage and try to comb it back under control, but it was too wild to tame. “I was the first one in rock and roll to have long hair,” he says, thinking back to that night, “and I did shake it.”
These were the biggest crowds he had seen or heard, and he can see and hear them still.
He did one encore, then two, and at the end he did “Shakin’,” in pandemonium.
“They wouldn’t let me off the stage.” By the time he finished, the people were out of their seats and the constables were looking antsy. Jerry Lee swaggered off the stage, one arm held stiffly in the air, a salute more than a wave. “And I left ’em wondering who that wild boy was.”
Johnny Cash stood there, sweating and almost white, as the crowd screamed for more. As Jerry Lee remembers it, “he was like a statue. He never said a word.”
In the auditorium, a woman had fainted in the aisle.
Jerry Lee walked right on by Johnny. “Nobody follows the Killer,” he said over his shoulder.
The crowd was still yelling “Jerry Lee! Jerry Lee!” as Johnny came out onstage.
They quieted, respectfully, as he sang “I Walk the Line.”
I keep a close watch on this heart of mine.
I keep my eyes wide open all the time.
They loved Johnny in Canada, but it was like a lull after the storm. “Johnny wouldn’t follow me after that, said he wouldn’t never follow me again,” says Jerry Lee. “He said, ‘When he’s through, it’s done.’ Can’t nobody follow me.” That night, after the show, the girls came by not one or two at a time but in a crowd. “It was unavoidable, too,” says Jerry Lee. “The girls come by in the evening, even before the shows sometimes, when the sun went down. And I just told ’em to go on,” and then he smiles at that, at even the possibility of such a thing happening, of his sending away a beautiful girl.
“My gosh, what a time.”
Some legends begin like that, in great drama, and others are purely accidental. Somewhere on the road, in another place he cannot really recall, he got sick and tired of playing sitting down while everybody else in the place was on their feet, so he just rose up to play standing. He loved the piano, but it did anchor a man and give him feet of clay. But as he rose, the piano bench was in the way. “So I decided I would just take the heel of my boot and push the piano bench back just a little bit, to make some room, but my boot got caught and I gave the bench a flip across the stage, and man, it tore that audience up. And I said, ‘Well, so this is what they want.’ ” If they liked it when he just tumped it over, what would they do if he hauled off and kicked it across the stage? So he did, and they howled and hooted and the women screamed, so he had to do it every time now, every blessed time.
“Oh, yeah,” says Jerry Lee, “I was a little bit out of control.”
Performers came and went on the tour, but Jerry Lee spent most of his time with Johnny and Carl despite the tension between him and the other two. It seems almost sweet now, to think of them as a fraternity of young men playing jokes and scuffling in the dirt and acting like spoiled children on the road, as they hammered out their craft. But the road was a good bit darker than that. Everyone was addicted to something. Carl drank hard, most nights and some days, and Johnny was hopelessly hooked on pills, always talking about deep things like man’s inhumanity to man, and prisons, and whether or not pigs could see the wind. And there was Jerry Lee, flying high on all of it and running hot.
“I liked Carl,” says Jerry Lee. “He became my friend. He was a great talent. He could sing, had a real good voice, and he could play that guitar. He could play all over that guitar.” His feelings about Cash are more complicated. “Johnny, well, I just didn’t think he could sing. Wrote some real good songs . . . but let’s just say he wasn’t no troubadour.” He and Cash would be friends off and on and even record together as older men, but in the cold northern spring of ’57, the man in black was one more obstacle in his way.
Oddly enough, when things finally boiled over, it was not Cash he had to fight. One night, in a town he cannot really recall, he and Carl Perkins sat in some lounge chairs outside a small motel, just cooling it in the chill air. Springtime temperatures in the Canadian mountains were about zero some days, but they hated being cooped up in the tiny hotel rooms. At some point in the evening, there had been a quart bottle of brown liquor in their proximity, but no one could remember exactly where it went.
“Carl was pretty well drunk,” recalls Jerry Lee, “and I was just drinking, a little bit.”
That night, Perkins was wearing a fancy shirt from Lansky’s in Memphis, where Elvis got his clothes. “Does this shirt look good?” he asked Jerry Lee.
Jerry Lee did not care if Carl was wearing a burlap sack tied together with fishing line. He only cared what he looked like, and he knew he would be elegant standing in a mudhole.
“Don’t I look good?” Carl asked.
Jerry Lee felt like spitting. He snarled, “You an’ Elvis, always walking around in these fancy clothes, always worried about how you look . . .”
Jerry Lee may have been slightly more drunk than he recalled. “Carl come out of that chair ready to fight, and the next thing I knew we were fighting across the trunk of that Buick.” It was not, he says now, an epic battle. “I wasn’t throwing no good punches, and Carl wasn’t, either.” He does remember getting in one good backhand, and then it was over, and they were friends again, but the jealousy would continue. “It was unavoidable. I would get encores in front of twelve thousand people, two encores, three encores. . . . They knew. They knew, even then, they were seeing the greatest thing.”
He played one stage that was built on a giant turntable that spun slowly around as he played. “I didn’t like that. I liked to stay in one spot, so I could keep my eye on certain people.” He would lose sight of a pretty girl, he said, if he was spinning, spinning. “And then I just had to get my eye on ’em all over again. I could always spot my girl then. Wasn’t no problem, finding a beautiful girl. Look, I’d say to myself, there’s a couple. I’d say, Look, there in the third row.” In Quebec, he almost fell in love. “They pulled them dresses up, and I hollered, ‘Pull it up a little bit higher, baby,’ and they did. Man, they just laid it on you. And they kept on just layin’ it on you, night after night, city after city.”
He was still married, of course, to the volatile Jane, who was still in Ferriday with his son and his parents’ family, but the truth is that he tried not to think about her that much, anymore. It had been a marriage of necessity, and it seemed less necessary two thousand miles away. “I was living the dream,” he said, even if the reality it was based on was, for the time being, more than a little thin.
They drove on for nearly two months, doubling back for even more shows in more remote places, wide-open during the day, wide-open at night, smelling of sweat and whiskey and gunpowder. He was off his leash completely now and, it seemed to some people, almost a little out of his mind. He had taken to playing the piano sometimes with his feet, his size 9½ loafers, and the crowd roared for that, too. “I played it with my feet, in key. It can be done, if you know what you’re doing. It wasn’t just no stunt. I played it.” He was showing off and showing people up, and the crowd was in love with all of it, and by late spring his lightning was bouncing around the airwaves, just weaker and more distant than he would have preferred.
The musicians who played with him remember any encounter with him as a kind of validation, a kind of certificate of authenticity. Guitarist Buzz Cason would later write how he walked out of a theater in Richmond and saw Jerry Lee, the great Roland Janes, and Russ Smith, his pint-size touring drummer, dancing after a show on the roof of a ’58 Buick, just dancing, because the time onstage was never quite long enough. He remembers traveling with Jerry Lee to Buffalo, and that Jerry Lee wanted to make a side trip to Niagara Falls. He stood on a wall overlooking the great cascade, his blond hair whipping in the wind, and stared down into the abyss for maybe thirty seconds, then jumped to the ground. “Jerry Lee Lewis has seen the Niag-uh Falls. Now let’s go home, boys.”
Once on a swing through Texas, he saw two singular-looking individuals sitting at a table in a big nightclub. One was his onetime piano hero, Moon Mullican. The other was the homely but melodic Roy Orbison, another Sun artist. “It was in Odessa, Roy Orbison’s hometown. Roy, his point was, he wanted to borrow fifty dollars from me, so he could get out of that town. . . . He said he knew he could cut a hit record if he could ever get out of that town. And I said, ‘Well, I’ll be glad to loan you fifty dollars.’ ” Orbison quickly grew jealous of Jerry Lee at Sun, believing that Sam Phillips was devoting too much of the label’s energy to one man. It wouldn’t be the last time that happened. “He got a little upset,” says Jerry Lee, but at least he got out of Odessa.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was finally on the radio, not just in Memphis but nationwide, and according to Billboard, “taking off like wildfire” in country, rhythm and blues, and pop. By the time he got back to the South, it had become a constant on Memphis radio. “They were playin’ it in all the hamburger joints,” he says, and he would ride down the streets of Memphis in his red Cadillac with the top down and hear his own genius wash all around him and into the almost liquid air that is Memphis in summer. Sometimes he’d take his cousin Myra, who made goo-goo eyes at him under her dark-brown bangs.
Excerpt of “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story” (C) 2014 JLL Ferriday, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.