By Mike Greenblatt
Linda Gail Lewis is a “Hard Rockin’ Woman” on her new Lanark Records release. Lanark, out of Pennsylvania, is the oh-so-cool rockabilly label headed up by musician/producer/visionary Quentin Jones. Robert Gordon and original Sun Records recording artist Charlie Gracie are among her labelmates. The CD rocks from start to finish and even includes a cover of big brother Jerry Lee Lewis’ “Rockin’ My Life Away.”
Goldmine caught up with Linda Gail on the precipice of a long tour to support the CD’s release. She was delightful and totally respectful of this reporter’s passion for… her brother.
GOLDMINE: Over and above the great honky-tonk and boogie-woogie, I dig that “Love Sick” song on the new album for its girl-group sexiness. It really stands out.
LINDA GAIL LEWIS: You know I love that song. My son-in-law, Danny B. Harvey, wrote that and he recorded it with Lynda Kay Parker (as The Lonesome Spurs on Cleopatra Records.) I heard their recording of it and I just liked it so much, I wanted to do it.
GM: I also like the gospel number “And Now I Win.”
LGL: Charlie (Gracie) had a really nice record on it as well. But Charlie’s version is more like a Johnny Cash uptempo song and mine is more like a church song because that’s just the way I heard it. Y’know, I can’t really copy what another person has done and I don’t know why I can’t. I just can’t. I’ve been friends with Charlie for quite awhile. I met him in the UK about 15 years ago. He’s such a sweet man.
GM: He’s been around awhile.
LGL: We did this show together once and he made this big announcement. He said, “Y’know, I’ve been married to my wife Joan for 50 years!” I said, “Well Charlie, I’ve been married for 50 years, too, just not to the same person.”
LGL: Yes darlin’, that’s my song. I wrote that.
GM: I could picture (singer-songwriter/guitarist) Tony Joe White covering it.
LGL: Well, I’m from Louisiana so that kinda explains that, doesn’t it? I’ve listened to that kind of music a lot in my lifetime, so I’m sure I’ve been influenced by it.
GM: How old were you when Jerry Lee Lewis burst onto the scene?
LGL: Ten. I remember it like it was yesterday. The thing I remember the most, though, is not so much the music but all the things that happened for us because of the music. At that time, Jerry was able to help us. When he got his first check from Sam Phillips, it was for $40,000 and that was a lot of money in the 1950s. Sam told him, “You should take this money and invest it in Holiday Inn stock.” But Jerry being the good person he is, he wanted to take care of his family. He took that money and helped us and his in-laws at that time, the Browns. Of course, he called Mama up and said, “Y’know Mama, I want you, Daddy, Linda Gail and Frankie to have everything I have.” So he shared everything he made with us. The first thing he did was buy us a brand new Fleetwood Cadillac. He also got us a beautiful new home in town. I’ll never forget the first time we went to look at this big old wood-frame house. It was really nice, much better than the sharecropper shack with the outdoor toilet where we were living. But we went to look at this house, Jerry was there, and he said, “Mama, this just won’t do.” Mama said, “I think it’s too much.” He said, “No, you don’t understand. This isn’t nice enough for you.” So he went right then and there to find her a beautiful brand new brick home with the picture window popular in the ‘50s that not one of us had ever lived in. So we all moved into that and he gave Mama a thousand dollars and bought her two new dresses. She took that thousand dollars so we were able to buy anything we all wanted at Dorothy’s dress shop in Ferriday, Louisiana. (laughs) It was so nice.
GM: Didn’t Jerry Lee grow up practically as brothers with his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart?
LGL: That’s true. And I didn’t realize it until he passed away just recently, but apparently preacher David Beatty also was around a lot. When David went off to Bible College, Jimmy started preaching on his own because he didn’t have the money for Bible College and he already had a wife to support.
GM: When did you get the music bug?
LGL: I absolutely always loved music. We would sit around the house singing gospel songs with Jerry playing piano and Daddy playing guitar. I just always loved to sing. I entered all the school talent contests. I remember Mama and Daddy taking me to my first talent show when I was 5 years old, playing an accordion and singing (laughs).
GM: What was your first job professionally?
LGL: I guess with my brother in Monroe, Louisiana. He called me up to the stage to sing a Johnny Cash song when I was 11 years old. I was 14 when I really started working with my brother, singing a couple of songs before Jerry went on. In those days, I didn’t even know it was called “opening” for someone. At first, he would just bring me out and I would do a song and we would do a duet. But then after a couple of years, I was good enough to actually go on by myself and open the show.
GM: Did you open the show in 1980 at the old Lone Star Café on 13th and Fifth in New York City?
LGL: No, but I did six years later when he returned.
GM: My two nights backstage in 1980 with The Killer were amazing. At first, he refused to answer my questions, and started singing pornographic lyrics to his own songs. Your brother even told me that road manager JW wanted to get in your pants!
LGL: (laughs) I had so many guys after me back in the day that my brother would always say things like that. I remember he once let me play his piano at a show. We were fighting over one of our duets and he said, “Well, why don’t you just bring your ass over here and play it your damn self!” At that time, I only knew one good lick that he had shown me. So I kinda played that one lick and I looked up at him when I was in trouble because I couldn’t go any further. I didn’t know anything else to play! Being the good brother that he is, he came and sat down beside me to play together so it would be alright. He saved my ass. I should have never sat down at that piano. Then, the one other time I played his piano was when I wanted to do that song “Let Me Be There” in 1986, when I was on the road with him for a year doing back-up vocals. (Guitarist) Kenny Lovelace said, “We don’t know the song, Linda, but if you really want to sing it, just play the chords on the piano and we’ll follow you. See, I’ve always known how to play chords a little bit on the piano. But a year later, in 1987, I became a real piano player in my own band.
GM: You’re such a good piano player!
LGL: It took me a little while but I got the hang of it. Jerry taught me a lot of stuff, and I was really fortunate that I could remember what he had shown me.
GM: It must be tough trying to make your way in the same industry where your brother is a rock ’n’ roll god.
LGL: I never had any problem with that, darlin’.
GM: Maybe because you’re a different gender?
LGL: It’s not so much that. I have understood and realized that I, and everybody else who plays rock ’n’ roll piano, play on a totally different level from my brother. He is the greatest. Period. I was humbled at a very early age. I don’t worry about being compared to him. Once, though, at the start of my first European tour, I got real scared. My brother came to see me at Hernando’s Hideaway and I told him I accepted this tour and was scared to death that I was going to go over there and they would hate me. He had never seen my show. I had just started playing and singing with my own band. So he said, “Well, go on now and play and I’m going to sit right here and at the end of the show, I will let you know if you’re going to be good enough to go over there and do the gig.” So I went on and did my show and he told me afterwards, “You’re gonna be fine.” And we shared a bottle of champagne to celebrate.
GM: When Elton John went on after Jerry Lee in New Orleans last May, did the two have a moment together? Elton’s a self-professed huge Jerry Lee fan.
LGL: Oh yeah. I was late for my own set because I couldn’t miss that meeting! I knew he was coming because Elton’s manager came in first to ask if Jerry would sign Elton’s album. He had brought some of Jerry’s vinyl albums for him to sign. I refused to go on until I saw Elton. (laughs) There was only 54,000 people waiting.
GM: Including me.
LGL: Elton came in, they had a nice little chat, it wasn’t that long. Jerry signed the autograph, everybody took pictures with Elton but me, because I had to get on out there on stage and when I did, Jerry Lovelace yelled, “You’re late! Where have you been?” I said, “I’m sorry. I wanted to meet Elton John!”
GM: A lot of those British rockers love your brother including Lennon, McCartney, Keith Richards, the lot of them. But it was the British who shunned your brother when he went over there with (child-bride/cousin) Myra. They gave him a horrible reaction. What do you remember about that chapter of rock history?
LGL: Not too much other than Mama was very upset over the whole thing. It was traumatic for us. We had been on this tremendous high. We had stayed in the finest hotels. We went from poverty to wealth and back to poverty almost overnight. Myra had to come and live with us when they got back from England. Jerry couldn’t keep two houses operating. Times got real hard, real fast. He went from making $10,000-a-night to $200-a-night. But, to his credit, he went right back out on the road. Traveled that little circuit he’d always worked while Myra stayed with us. And he kept doing that over and over and over again until he single-handedly built it back up to where it was great again. Then, when the country music establishment embraced him in 1968, he was a star. But there were a lot of lean years before that and he never stopped performing. I started with him then and we were playing joints and dives on the highway. Lord, I remember one time sitting backstage with Jerry and there were all these women walking around practically naked! Jerry said, “Well, Linda, those are strippers.” We were opening for strip shows! I was 14!
GM: You had to grow up fast.
LGL: I did but Jerry took care of me. Even at the wild parties, and they had plenty of them, Jerry saw to it that the road manager would always escort me to my own motel room where I would watch TV or read.
GM: Your brother attended Bible School in Waxahachie, Texas, to be a preacher but quit school to play the “devil’s music.” He had to make a decision to stay in school and become a preacher like his cousin Jimmy or play what he truly believed was the music of Satan. Yet he chose it anyway, knowing in his heart that it was the road to hell. That right there makes him the greatest rock ’n’ roller of them all, and a personal hero of mine. Imagine! Knowing in your heart and soul that you were, indeed, going to go to hell in a handbasket if you keep rocking but it only makes you rock harder.
LGL: That just shows how much he loved the music.
GM: No rock ’n’ roller ever had as much to lose as Jerry Lee Lewis because his eternal salvation hung in the balance. That’s commitment. That’s bravery.
LGL: It’s true. He was willing to risk eternity in hell to play the music he loved so much. Yeah. Y’know, through the years, he has mellowed on that. He’s done so many good things for so many people, and he knows deep down in his heart, that just because he sings and plays “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” he is not going to hell. He is a good Christian man.
GM: But how long did it take him to come to the realization that rock ’n’ roll music was not going to send him to hell?
LGL: (pause) Probably about 70 years. It was a gradual realization.
GM: (laughs) 70 years?!
LGL: Okay, okay. Maybe not 70 years, more like 50 years. You have to realize that our church has some strict rules. When you’re a fundamentalist Christian, it’s hard not to be hard on yourself. But nobody can live perfect like they ask you to do. I know I can’t.
GM: You’re going to have to carry on the torch someday for true rock ’n’ roll, y’know. Do you ever think about that? There’s going to come a day when we won’t have Jerry Lee Lewis anymore. And when that day comes, rock ’n’ roll, the true spirit of such, not the corporate money-maker it’s become, will have died with him. It’s up to you. I mean, think about it! When Jerry Lee Lewis, Charlie Gracie, Fats Domino, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Brenda Lee, Connie Francis and the one remaining Everly go, rock will, indeed, be dead. It’s my contention there hasn’t been pioneers like that since the ‘60s.
LGL: My brother will be like Pinetop Perkins and live to 100. (Perkins died in 2011 at 97.) That’s 20 years from now.
GM: You’ll be 88.
LGL: If I’m even still here. So I don’t know how much of that torch-carrying I will be able to do. Jerry’s the last man standing. He’s really gone through a lot and he’s still with us. I’m hoping he keeps going until at least his late 90s. And that means I will also retire at that time if I’m not already in heaven.
GM: Or hell. It depends how many drugs you did. You see these 60-something rockers dropping like flies these days.
LGL: There’s so many rock deaths now that it’s scary, isn’t it? I’m so thankful that Jerry’s still playing at such a high level. His voice is still so good. It’s such a thrill for me and my daughter to open for him, as we’ve been doing. Plus, he’s playing that piano just as good as he ever has. The only thing that he cannot do — and I cannot do it either at 68 — is to climb up on the piano like all the impersonators do. What is even the point of that? Jerry did that a long time ago and it drove ‘em crazy. What do these impersonators have to be cocky about?
GM: Did you ever see the Broadway musical “Million Dollar Quartet”?
LGL: Now that’s the other thing. There’s a couple of guys from there who are very respectful of my brother. They’re really nice kids. Lance Lipinsky and Jacob Tolliver, I love both of them, and they do a great Jerry Lee Lewis. They’re so sweet. They’re certainly not going to go around saying that they’re the illegitimate son of Jerry Lee Lewis (like Jason D. Williams). That’s some crazy crap right there! Lance and Jacob just do their job. They love my brother. They know how great he is and they show him every courtesy and respect. Jacob even came to his birthday party last September. I didn’t see the musical, but Jerry saw it and said it was really good.
GM: Did you read Rick Bragg’s 2014 biography “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story”?
LGL: I did! I thought it was great.
GM: I still say you are going to inherit this mantle of rock ’n’ roll aristocracy. It’s yours. By birthright.
LGL: Well darlin’, that’s so sweet. But I don’t want it. I want my brother here beside me, and we’ll carry the torch together.
GM: Get real, sister, there’s gonna come a time when Jerry Lee ain’t here no more. You know that and I know that. It’s gonna come down to you!
LGL: I love playing the music but to think of him not being here is totally unthinkable to me.
GM: C’mon, he doesn’t even have a stomach. How long can he last?
LGL: I was there! I was so upset. I was totally out of it. We all thought he was going to die. (Lewis suffered a ruptured stomach in 1981.) I refuse to think about losing my brother. I just won’t. It’s too horrible. If he does leave this earth before I do, it will be really hard for me. I don’t even know if I could stand it.
GM: He will channel his talent through your fingers because, girl, you sound just like him when you play. “Hard Rockin’ Woman” is the best damn Jerry Lee Lewis album by someone who’s not Jerry Lee Lewis. Does that make sense?
LGL: (laughs) I hear you, darlin’. I had somebody tell me a long, long time ago that I can write a song just like Jerry Lee Lewis. I said, “I don’t know about that.” But the more I think about it, I like that. Maybe it’s because I’ve been on the road with him for such a long time.
GM: Your daddy Elmo Lewis (1902-79) is sort of famous, too, in rock ’n’ roll history. Did he really put a gun to Chuck Berry’s head?
LGL: No, no. That never happened. It was a knife. There was some misunderstanding at a show as to who would headline and who would open. Jerry had to tell Papa who that was and not to mess with him. My mother would have killed Papa had he hurt Chuck because Mama was a huge Chuck Berry fan.
GM: Your brother looked me right in the eye and told me, “I did not burn no damn piano. That’s a damn lie!” I had asked him about that night when he was forced to open for Chuck and, as the myth goes, he set his piano ablaze during “Great Balls Of Fire,” passed Chuck in the wings who was waiting to go on, and sneered, “follow that!”
LGL: Somebody must have made that up. It’s a great story, though, isn’t it? It’s such a shame to let the truth get in the way of a good story.
GM: Jerry said to me he hates Chuck Berry because “he’s too damn good.” Loved Fats Domino, though. I even remember his quote: “Now that’s one piano-playing fool.” When I asked him if he liked Willie ’n’ Waylon, he called their music “hillbilly sh*t.” He called Michael Jackson “white,” he said the Everly Brothers “couldn’t fart a hit,” The Beatles and Stones “were pure sh*t” and the only ones to listen to were himself and Elvis. “Elvis had the charisma and I got the talent,” he told me.
LGL: He sounds like he was in rare form that night.
GM: He also said there’s only three great stylists in the history of music: Al Jolson, Hank Williams and Jerry Lee Lewis. “And don’t let anybody tell you any different.”
LGL: He went on the road without me one time because I was sick. So we were at his Memphis house and he said, “Now, Linda, don’t mess with my Al Jolson 78s while I’m gone. I don’t want you playing them because you’ll scratch them.” And, of course, the first thing I did when he left for the road was to take those records out and play them. He loved Al Jolson so much. He told me once it was because Jolson could capture the feelings and emotions of an audience in the same way he does. Like Jerry sings one of those beautiful country or gospel songs, you just feel it straight to your heart. It moves your emotions. Jolson did that as well. My brother and I watched “The Jazz Singer” and we’ve listened together to “Mammy.” It’s a totally different kind of music, but, darlin’, it carries the emotion. And Hank? When he stood onstage at the Ryman Auditorium on “The Grand Ole Opry” to sing those songs he wrote like “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” and “I Saw The Light,” they say you could feel something down deep that you couldn’t feel with anybody else. So I agree with him about Jolson and Hank. But I agree with everything my brother has ever said.
GM: Everything? He told me some wild stuff those two nights. I got it on tape! I’m not even gonna tell you some of the stuff he came out with. I mean, I’m hard to shock but man! He was feeling a little too good those nights.
LGL: I wasn’t around for much of that. But I do love that picture I see of him on Facebook every now and then with a bottle of Jack Daniels and a caption saying, “No matter how cool you think you are, you’ll never be this cool.”