Great Balls of Fire! Jerry Lee Lewis rocks again at 75

The original wild boy of 50s music – he had six wives, including his 13-year-old cousin – returns to the studio to cut a new album.

Paul Bignell
Sunday 12 September 2010 00:00

Jerry Lee Lewis, a rock and roller who a lot of people will assume had gone to the great rehabilitation unit in the sky many years ago, is surprisingly alive, remarkably well, and is about to launch an album on the eve of his 75th birthday. The man whose "Great Balls of Fire" is one of rock's immortal songs is back in the old routine.

His latest recording comes some 53 years, six marriages, a small lake of drink and drugs – and a landmark sex scandal – after he first burst on an unsuspecting world. Called Mean Old Man, the album sees him return to his roots, covering rock and country, and is a reminder that he is the only remaining member of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet recordings.

That album is recognised as one of the most famous jam sessions ever committed to tape. But the years took their toll on the other performers – Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash, all now dead – and so it is left to "The Killer", as Lewis was and still is known, to keep rocking. "I could have retired a long time ago," he said last week in an interview with USA Today. "I don't even drink. Don't smoke. My life is as clean as it can be."

His comments to the paper would perhaps come as a surprise to those who knew Lewis in his early days: a hell-raiser with a penchant for women, who often didn't get along with many of his fellow musicians. Elvis Presley's guitarist, Scotty Moore, still refused to talk about Lewis when contacted by The Independent on Sunday this weekend.

Lewis's private life was as rambunctious and turbulent as his pounding piano style. Born in Louisiana, he fathered six children and had six wives. Two of his children died before they reached the age of 20 and two of his wives also passed away in terrible circumstances – one from a drug overdose the other drowned in a swimming pool.

But it was his marriage to his third wife, in December 1957, which would plague him for the rest of his life and practically ruin his career before it had even got going very far. Myra Gale Brown was just 13 when Lewis married her. He was 23. But her age wasn't the only problem. She was also his cousin and the daughter of his bass guitarist, J W Brown. The scandal, exposed by a journalist on a British tour in 1958, saw him blacklisted from US radio on his return home. He would almost vanish from the music scene, before rebounding as a country artist.

But despite the setback, Lewis is bullish about his fortunes over the years: "I never let the sad parts of my life stand in the way. I would just grit my teeth and go. I messed up along the way and got what was coming to me. I got respect, too."

He certainly has bucket loads of respect among his peers. His last album saw him perform duets with the likes of Eric Clapton, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Willie Nelson and Sheryl Crow. Jools Holland is also a fan.

John Schorr, the owner and president of Sun Studios in Memphis, where Lewis first recorded and which is often cited as the "birthplace of rock and roll", said: "Lewis, like Elvis, was adding a new twist to blues music – which was a performance angle that didn't exist in the blues. It was 'sit down and belt it out'. That's really what it was going to take to sell it to the rest of the world, adding a little bit of 'twang' that would drive all the teenagers crazy.

"He was definitely the wild boy – and he still is," said Schorr. "He's never really given up that wild dimension of his personality. He's still a rock and roller through and through. He's ornery and he won't let anyone tell him what to do."

Staying Power: The living legends (combined age 318)

B B King, 84

Over a period of 52 years, the blues singer and guitarist has performed more than 15,000 times. Four years after his "farewell" tour, King just can't put his guitar down. When asked why he was still performing years after he said he would quit, he remarked that he had never actually said the farewell tour would be his last.

Chuck Berry, 83

An early rock'n'roll pioneer with songs such as "Johnny B Goode" and "Roll Over Beethoven", Berry helped refine and develop rhythm and blues into the rock music we know today. He was also one of the first musicians to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame on its opening in 1986. He still performs once a month at the Blueberry Hill restaurant in St Louis.

Little Richard, 77

Little Richard, real name Richard Wayne Penniman, was recovering from a hip operation at the beginning of the year. But that is unlikely to stop him performing again as he was back in the studio recording a new track this spring. Best known for songs such as "Good Golly Miss Molly", the born-again Christian has spent years trying to reconcile rock and roll and the Ministry.

Buddy Guy, 74

Acclaimed by the likes of Eric Clapton, and Jimmy Page, Buddy Guy's 57-year career has seen even Jimi Hendrix emulate his virtuoso and flamboyant playing style. After 64 albums, Guy still continues to play live and record.

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