Interview by John Wisniewski
Joe Bonomo is the author of This Must Be Where My Obsession With Infinity Began (essays), AC/DC’s Highway to Hell (33 1/3 Series), Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Installations (National Poetry Series), Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band, and Conversations With Greil Marcus (editor). Five-time “Notable Essay” selection at Best American Essays. Music Columnist for The Normal School. Associate Professor of English at Northern Illinois University.
Why did you choose to write about rock and roll legend, Jerry Lee Lewis? What attracted you to his story?
I’d always been a fan, although as I write in Lost and Found, it took me a while to get to him. I loved his Sun Records stuff, but when I first heard Live At The Star-Club sometime in the early 1990s, I was floored. I think that I’d had some preparation—or a warning!—before I listened; I might’ve read a review somewhere. But nothing really prepares you for the rawness and unbridled momentum of that charging, phenomenal record. After I published my first book Sweat: The Story of The Fleshtones, America’s Garage Band with Continuum (now Bloomsbury) in 2007, I pitched Live At The Star-Club to the press in one of their open-call submission periods for the 33 1/3 Series. My editor David Barker wrote back to say that the project wasn’t quite right for the series, but would I consider writing a full-length book about the album. I was grateful and jumped at the chance.
I was, and am, especially interested in Live At The Star Club not only because it’s one of the greatest performed and recorded live rock and roll albums and surely Lewis’s best overall, but because of the circumstances of its making. Lewis and his backing band, members of The Nashville Teens, recorded the album over two sets on April 5, 1964 in Hamburg, West Germany, when Lewis was about as irrelevant and forgotten in the American marketplace as he’d ever be and after formerly staunch supporters such as Dick Clark had all but abandoned him. The so-called marriage scandal of 1957 still dogged him, and his albums and singles weren’t selling. He’d left Sun—the last or the major Sun artists to do so—and signed with Smash in 1963, but his fortunes didn’t change there, and he was reduced to playing bruising one-nighters across the county, often in front of small and hostile crowds, in order to make money and survive. A virtual ghost in his home country, he was, of course, also competing with The Beatles, who by 1964 were well on their conquering way. One of the most satisfying and I think telling details I uncovered in my research was that on the day of the evening Lewis played at the Star-Club, the Beatles filmed the opening scenes of A Hard Day’s Night in London, running down the street ducking screaming hordes of girls behind them. It’s a truly emblematic image of Beatlemania and of pop culture, of what Pete Townshend recently called The Beatles’ potency. But Lewis was always more popular in Europe and England then in the States after 1957, and the reception in Hamburg was warm and raucous. That night, left behind commercially and culturally in the Beatles’ wake, Lewis cut his greatest album. So I wanted to write a book that explored how Lewis got there and what he had to prove there, wherther he was aware of that or not, and how he restored himself commercially on the Country charts later in the decade and revived his career as a honky-tonk singer. I was interested in how greatness can come out of darkness, obscurity, doggedness, and desperation.
Was Jerry Lee Lewis a rebel?
Good question. I guess it depends on how you define rebel. Did he organize against corporate interests, or hid he play the game? For all of Lewis’s iconoclastic infamy—doing what he wants on his terms, whether in his private or public life—there was a lot of industry-placating going on, too. Above all, Lewis wanted to sell records, and he did what he had to do—sign with a major label (Smash, a subsidiary of Mercury); re-record his early material, field songs from hopefully-popular songwriters, go on the right television shows, play his hits onstage for decades. Sure he rebelled on occasion—he’ll probably never be inducted in the Country Music Hall of Fame for the reasons I explore in the book, despite the outrage among his fans and among many critics. He didn’t move to, and kiss enough butt in, Nashville; he famously cursed, or spoke coarsely anyway, at the Grad Ole Opry; his shows, especially in the 1970s when his alcohol and drug abuse was peaking, were always erratic, either-or affairs where he’d do the corporate thing or he’d do his own thing. It could be argued that the most rebellious thing Lewis did was to stay with Sam Phillips and Sun Records for so long, hopeful for another hit, years after the iconic roster of early stars had departed. Or maybe that was just obstinacy on his part, or a combination of that and Phillips’ contractual hold on him. Lewis is certainly very stubborn, from all I’ve gleaned from accounts, and that’s probably his most marked personal characteristic. Stubbornness can very quickly morph into short-sightedness, and maybe that’s a characteristic of him, as well. Is being stubborn being a rebel? I’m not sure. Phillips encouraged a rebellious climate in the studio in Memphis, in that he wanted his artists to play as freely and as intuitively as they could, and he’d capture the results in his unique way. Certainly Lewis was a rebel that way, riding the potency of his youth in a reckless but exciting and wholly original way. But I think that through the 1960s Lewis lost that edge, or didn’t find the right people to encoutrage and capture it. Thus his commercial free-fall and cultural irrelevance in that decade. After he started selling records again as a hardcore honky-tonk singer starting in 1968, it can be argued that he influenced the so-called Outlaw tradition that flourished the next decade, or he was simply simultaneous to its origins. It’s hard to say. Lewis always did, and always will do, his own thing. At this point in his long career it’s become difficult to distinguish his rebelliousness from his obstinacy. Which is fine—he’s a complicated, complex figure, hard to pin down. All true original figures resist easy taxonomy and easy summaries.
When Jerry Lee Lewis married his cousin, did this have a dramatic impact on his career?
Of course. But what I discovered was that the fallout wasn’t quite as immediate nor as dramatic as the myth would have it. His tour in England was dramatically affected, and curtailed, and his singles didn’t chart as high, in the U.S. certainly, following the incident. But who knows how much the latter had to do with changing tastes as much as public revulsion? Lewis did lose some big-name backers and public supporters following the incident, and that didn’t help. It was a different era. Had this happened now, Lewis would’ve gone on the Redemption Tour—humbling himself to the right people in front of the right people on the right social media platforms and television shows, and sooner or later he would be quote-unquote forgiven. In the late 1950s, a hillbilly from the deep South didn’t have access to that process. But he never stopped working; this is what impressed me. Some of the larger venues were wary of him after the marriage, but Lewis never stopped touring small clubs and theaters in the U.S., never stopped recording, never stopped releasing records. And his fame in the U.K. and Europe was for the most part undimmed, especially after the beat groups in the early-1960s took over. Just listen to the reception he got at the Star-Club, and the rapturous fans at his U.K, shows in ’64 and ’63. It’s all over YouTube. Amazing stuff. True, there was some resistance among labels and radio programmers, and Lewis didn’t start selling lots of records again until the end of the ’60s. By that time the so-called marriage scandal wasn’t the issue it had been earlier in the decade. It will always follow him, though; Lewis’s fate is that mention of that marriage will be made in the first or second line of every obituary that will be written about him, if he ever dies.
What was the relationship like between Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis?
We’ll never know for sure. Lewis has stated from the beginning that he and Presley were good friends. They shared a lot: religious upbringing; Southern traditions; loving moms; passion for music; fame. Lewis has said that Presley was a good man who was done wrong by his friends, and who let fame, and specifically his manager Colonel Parker, lead him astray. One incident will always mark Lewis’s relationship with Presley in the court of public opinion, that being Lewis’s arrest at Presley’s house in 1976. Lewis had been on a day-drunk at a bar called Vapors, and at Presley’s request stopped by Graceland to visit at the end of the night. But he rammed his car in the gate and had a .38 pistol visible in his car. Lewis has downplayed the incident over the years, and it was certainly nothing more than the louche and irresponsible behavior of a drunk. But like so many of Lewis’s sorry and lurid episodes, this one will follow him forever.
In both his 1995 memoir Killler! and in Rick Bragg’s biography from last year, Lewis is steadfast about his affection for Presley and his respect for his talent, but also about his distance, a gap that Presley tried to close on occasion but which Lewis stubbornly left wide by failing many times to visit Presley after he’d called. In a very interesting anecdote, Lewis asked Presley if Presley feels that he’ll go to heaven or hell having devoted his life to playing and singing rock and roll—a very real and graphic concern for Lewis since he started his career. Allegedly Presley grew very unconformable, and demanded that Lewis never ask him that question again. According to Lewis, that was the last time they saw each other.
Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee fought over who was the true king of rock and roll. Was there a rivalry between them?
This is the case where myth long ago trumped fact. Many instances of one-upmanship, racism, and braggadocio have been reported over the decades, but few have been verified. I think it’s certain that they had a professional rivalry in the sense that each wanted to sell as many records as possible, but Lewis says very little about Berry in the new authorized biography. I think what it was was Berry had hits before Lewis, and that’s what Jerry wanted: hits.They mattered more to him in the late 1950s than a mantle such as the King of Rock and Roll.
Joe, can we backtrack for this question? Could you tell us about when Jerry Lee Lewis was signed to SUN records?
Lewis signed to Sun in late 1956, after he’d auditioned. In November, he and his father had some sold eggs to afford the trip and hotel in Memphis, and drove up from Ferriday, Louisiana. Phillips was on vacation in Florida that week so Jack Clement, the Sun engineer, recorded him. He was primarily a session player at first—he played on recordings by Carl Perkins and Billy Lee Riley, but Phillips knew he was irrepressible and wholly original as an artist and issued his first single, “Crazy Arms” backed with “End Of The Road” fairly soon after signing him. His next single was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in early ’57.
What will your next book be about?
I’m the Music Columnist for The Normal School literary magazine, and I write two essays a year for them, so I’m working on my new essay now. And I’m always writing about music and art and baseball and photography and other things at my blog, No Such Thing As Was. I like to keep my book projects under the radar until they take shape, but I can say that I’m planning on writing my next book about baseball and baseball writing, probably about one writer in particular. But it’s very early.