The life of Jerry Lee "The Killer" Lewis is so much more than his signature hard-rocking, stand-up piano performance of "Great Balls of Fire!" and boffing his 13-year-old child-bride cousin. It's the story of a consummate performer with a knack for knowing the next big thing and the talent to capitalize on it. Of course, his seven marriages, taste for whiskey and guns, flirtation with death, flamboyant concerts and scandalous evangelist cousin Jimmy Swaggart haven't hurt his celebrity and fortune nor prevented his early induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lewis is a survivor--a "legend" who really is a legend. His story is the stuff of good-old-boy Southern hillbilly-lit, and Lewis spent a couple of summers telling it to the right guy. In Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist, author and professor Rick Bragg (All Over but the Shoutin') synthesizes Lewis's interviews and historical records to capture all the chords and chaos of the Killer's long life. Bragg grew up in the small northeastern Alabama town of Possum Trot, and his front-porch style of storytelling puts just the right down-home twang on a saga that otherwise might seem too farfetched to be true. Jerry Lee Lewis makes Keith Richards seem like a choirboy. Maybe that's why Richards and his hard-living bandmate Mick Jagger joined Lewis on his hit 2007 album Last Man Standing--if you can't out-rock him, you'd better join him.
This sweeping biography covers a lot of ground to portray a man in his late 70s who started playing piano at age five (a used Starck upright purchased with a mortgage on the family farm, "the wisest investment in the history of rock and roll") and did his first paid performance at age 13 at a car dealership. Lewis has had his fingers in nearly every piece of the 20th century's popular-music pie, and so Bragg's biography becomes not just the history of the man but a history of modern American music, the South and even the Pentecostal Church.
Lewis had a big family--one of those Concordia Parish families who "married each other till the clan was entwined like a big, tight ball of rubber bands." He knew and played with everybody who was anybody, and Bragg works them all into this mostly chronological story of choirs, honky-tonks, stage concerts and world tours. As important as the musicians were to Lewis's life, perhaps even more so were his audiences--raucous crowds of screaming girls and "young men with their hair slicked back with Rose hair oil and blast-furnace scars on their necks and arms.... They got Jerry Lee. He was a balled-up fist, a swinging tire iron."
In his introduction, Bragg neatly sums up Lewis's life: "It was like any life, really, but with the dull parts taken out." If you can read only one history of rock and roll, this is the one.
Bruce Jacobs' review first appeared in Shelf Awareness on Oct. 16, 2014.