By Mike Greenblatt
New York, New York. By all accounts, it was a night to remember. Despite nobody yet knowing where the museum would be constructed, and Bill Graham on hand to argue long and loud that it deserved to be built in San Francisco, the First Annual Rock ’n’ roll Hall Of Fame Induction Ceremony took place in the Grand Ballroom of the Waldorf-Astoria Hotel in New York City. More than 1,000 music bizzers and invited guests dined on smoked river trout and fruit sorbet, drank California wine and witnessed a glittering array of rock stars dressed up and getting down with the kind of all-star jam one could only dream about. (The Harlem Blues & Jazz Band performed during pre-show cocktails and hors d’oeuvres.)
“It’s very difficult for me to talk about Chuck Berry,” Keith Richards said as he made the very first induction, “because I lifted every lick he played,” to which a leering Berry replied “dynamite!”
Hank Williams, Jr. inducted Jerry Lee Lewis; Steve Winwood inducted James Brown; Quincy Jones, during his induction of Ray Charles, told a great story about how he and Ray used to be in a 1950s Seattle jazz band together providing music for strippers; Billy Joel inducted Fats Domino; Neil Young inducted The Everly Brothers. Little Richard had been in a 10/8/85 car accident that left him unable to attend and sent in a hospital room video clip thanking everyone. He was inducted by Roberta Flack, who decried the lack of female inductees: “Maybe next year will be the year of women.” (Aretha Franklin would be the first and only female the following year.)
The posthumous inductions were Elvis Presley by Julian and 10-year old Sean Lennon, Buddy Holly by John Fogerty (in accepting, Holly’s widow, Maria Elena Holly, said, “I’m not going to say I wish Buddy was here tonight…because I know he is”) and Sam Cooke by Al Green. The living legends-on-display were in good spirits as a palpable sense of camaraderie was evident throughout. Disc jockeys Scott Muni and Norm N. Nite inducted the late DJ Alan Freed who coined the term “rock ’n’ roll” on his Cleveland radio show, thus the site of the museum’s ultimate construction…despite Bill Graham grumbling, “I have no idea why Cleveland!”
Rolling Stone publisher Jann Wenner (who thought up the idea of a rock hall with Atlantic Records Chairman Ahmet Ertegun and Sire Records President Seymour Stein) inducted boogie-woogie piano player Jimmy Yancey (1898-1951) as an “Early Influence.” Ertegun, after telling reporters that televising the event “would take away from its dignity,” inducted Sun Records President Sam Phillips and Columbia Records talent scout John Hammond. Phillips gave the longest speech of the night, a rambling preacher-like saga of discovering Elvis, Jerry Lee, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and others. Hammond, who discovered Springsteen, Dylan and many others, had just suffered a stroke and could not attend. He would die a year later. The two other “Early Influences” to receive honors were bluesman Robert Johnson (1911-1938) as inducted by critic Robert Palmer and country singer Jimmie Rodgers (1897-1933) as inducted by producer Jerry Wexler.
Then came the jam.
Paul Shaffer led the house band which featured saxophonist David Sanborn, guitarist Sid McGinnis, bassist Will Lee and drummer Steve Jordan. Their rousing ceremony-starting overture featured the signature tunes of all 10 inductees. At one point, towards the end of the night, Chuck Berry, Keith Richards and Hank Williams Jr. stood side-by-side wielding guitars while Billy Joel, Fats Domino and Jerry Lee Lewis shared two pianos for a balls-to-the-wall ragged-but-right jam on Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.” “Johnny Be Goode” had Berry with John Fogerty, Neil Young, Ron Wood and Richards playing guitar. Berry took over for “Little Queenie” and even sang a duet with Julian Lennon. Joel and Steve Winwood shared a piano, Winwood switching to organ in blasting out “Gimme Some Lovin’,” the song he recorded as a teenager with The Spencer Davis Group. Berry did some blues. Chubby Checker materialized to sing and dance “The Twist.” Fogerty let loose with “Proud Mary” to close the night, the first time he played the song in public in 14 years.
January 14, 1987, New York, NY — Jerry Lee Lewis is sitting with a reporter in his dressing room at the Lone Star Café less than a year later. There’s a strange glint in his eye. The reporter is asking him questions but all he wants to do is sing pornographic nursery rhymes. Frustrated, the reporter asks where Road Manager JW Whitten is. “I had to kill him,” says The Killer.
“My bonnie lies on my bed,” sings Jerry Lee, “she used to lie on my floor! My bonnie floats face down in the ocean, by then I knew she was a whore!” Desperately trying to resuscitate the interview, the reporter meekly asks another question but Jerry Lee swipes the tape recorder, stands up and balances it on his head. “Don’t worry, I won’t break it,” he promises. “It’s only one of my many talents. C’mon, sing with me.” Figuring if you can’t beat ‘em, join ‘em, the reporter harmonizes with Jerry Lee on the more traditional lyrics of “My Bonnie,” after which the legend visibly softens and says, “Damn! That’s a hit!
“Alright, fine, what do you want to know,” asks Jerry Lee.
The reporter asks him about being inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The answer comes in two syllables: “F**k ‘em!” Undaunted, the reporter asks about the other Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.
Buddy Holly: “He couldn’t fart a hit.”
Little Richard: “He can’t play piano for sh*t.
Fats Domino: “Now THERE is one piano-playing son-of-a-bitch! He can show you a quick trick. Fats plays piano like Chuck Berry plays guitar. Now THERE are two of the greats.”
Chuck Berry: “Hate his guts. But I’m jealous. He’s too damn good. And I never did burn no piano. That’s a damn lie.”
The story goes that Lewis, incensed at being forced to open a show for Berry, had whipped out a can of lighter fluid and set the keys of his piano on fire while singing “Great Balls of Fire.” With the crowd going practically apoplectic as a result, he heads backstage, passes Berry coming on, stops, and says, “follow THAT!” There’s many variations of this story, one even has his daddy Elmo Lewis holding a gun to Berry’s head backstage.
“It was my show,” he insists. “Chuck wanted to close the show and I was gracious enough to let him by going on first. But I never set no damn piano on fire — you’d have to be a lunatic to do that! — and Chuck never even went on that night because the crowd went so wild for my show. But he is the king of rock ’n’ roll. I told him once, `you cut a country record with me and I’ll sign a contract to work with you for nothing.’ I told him, `Chuck, you’ll outsell that Charley Pride and you’re crazy if you don’t think so. Charley Pride can’t sing a country song on a toilet.” And with that, Jerry Lee stands up and sings a beautiful note-for-note version of “The Great Speckled Bird,” a 1936 Roy Acuff hit. “Now THAT’S country,” he says with a self-satisfied grin.
Elvis Presley: “He had more charisma in one little finger than all these sons of bitches have in their whole bodies. Except for Jerry Lee Lewis. I do not have the charisma he had, but I got the talent that he didn’t have. So we split the difference and we called ourselves the Kings of Rock ’n’ Roll. All the rest of ‘em suck.
“Let me tell you something about Elvis Presley, son. Elvis Presley did exactly what he damned well wanted to do. All them idiots he had working for him? Can you believe people can be that stupid? Elvis made fools of ‘em all. One time Elvis got locked up for going 150 miles-an-hour down Democrat Highway in the middle of town. He just did it for kicks.”
“My music ain’t exactly country and it ain’t exactly rock’n’roll,” Lewis continues. “It’s more like Al Jolson, Hank Williams or maybe Jimmie Rodgers. Y’see, son, Jerry Lee Lewis is a stylist. I’ve been that way ever since I was born. Came out feet first jumpin’! My first word was WOMAN. I’m natural-born piano-playin’ mother-humper! Great balls of fire! I am the personification of the constipation of rock’n’roll: hard doo-doo! And all I like to do is f**k!”
Another story that has changed with time to grow juicier with each passing decade is the tale of Jerry Lee being arrested outside the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion brandishing a gun and demanding to see Elvis at 4:00 in the morning.
“That’s not really true,” he clarifies. “Elvis called me up that night because I was playing in town. I’ll be honest with you. I was drunk. He said he wanted to see me because he was depressed. I was doing good at the time [the incident occurred on 11/23/76] and driving a Lincoln Continental about a mile long, man!
“I got to the gates of Graceland and there was a guard who I didn’t know [Presley cousin Harold Loyd]. He looked at me and I looked at him. I was trying to pull my window down and couldn’t do it because of the seat belt, so I took a bottle of champagne and threw it through the window! Well, there was this gun that the nightclub owner had given me, a .38 Derringer, sitting right there on the dashboard. He told me to leave it up on the dashboard because if you concealed it in the glove compartment, it was illegal. So I left it up there. That’s what caused that. And I never did get to see Elvis that night.”
With that, Jerry Lee is called to the stage. The lucky Lone Star Café patrons wind up seeing one of the greatest sets of honky tonk country, rockabilly, gospel, blues and ballads they’re ever likely to see. The Killer raises the roof off the joint! With his sister Linda Gail Lewis on second piano, plus some flyin’ fiddle, guitar, bass and drums, Jerry Lee deals out such celebrated fare as Lester Flatt’s bluegrass classic “Rollin’ in My Sweet Baby’s Arms,” Doug Kershaw’s “Louisiana Man,” Carl Perkins’ “Blue Suede Shoes” and his own “I Am What I Am.” Stopping to catch his breath, he looks down and sees the reporter looking up at him and tries to engage him in another a capella duet of “My Bonnie” to no avail.
The temperature in the club is rising by the minute. Everybody’s sweating. The Killer slows the pace to croon the most beautiful version of “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)” before standing up and pounding the piano for “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.”
Then he starts “Great Balls of Fire.” But it’s a tease. He starts it in the middle of the song as a soft-shoe shuffle like nobody’s ever heard before. It’s almost like how Bob Dylan oftentimes takes his most recognizable songs and makes them totally unrecognizable in concert. The audience doesn’t know what to make of it. But it’s delicious. At a given point, the band stops, and he shouts out with characteristic aplomb, “YOU SHAKE MY NERVES AND YOU RATTLE MY BRAIN!” But that’s it. Just that one sentence. Then silence. The audience looks at each other. The Killer smiles, then chuckles. “That’s a good one,” he says, “but I’m not going to play that song just now.” And with that, he breaks into Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven,” alternating lead vocals with his sister.
“I can still hear the music in the rest room,” he sings soft and sweet with a touch of yodel on the next song. “Sad songs don’t care whose heart they break. Yeah, I can hear the music in the rest room but I can’t hide the hurt on ol’ Killer’s face.” It’s a poignant lament, and the power of The Killer’s dramatic delivery quiets the room to an expectant silence. He uses the moment to segue into Charlie Rich’s “Don’t Put No Headstone On My Grave” and just when the hushed church-like spell is at its deepest, he plays “Great Balls of Fire” the way everybody knows and loves and wants and craves and the place erupts like a cherry bomb on the Fourth of July. There’s no time after that for anything else but “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Folks are up out of their seats dancing in severely limited space. Two girls have climbed on a table-top to shimmy and shake.
The song ends. The Killer disappears. Although the crowd is mad hungry for an encore, he’s already back in the dressing room. The reporter follows the road manager’s lead and disappears downstairs also. Jerry Lee is brandishing a broom. The reporter falls into his arms with love and awe. The broom drops to the floor. The Killer whispers into the reporter’s ear, “you ain’t seen nothin’. Come back tomorrow night.”
January 15, 1987, New York, NY — It’s cold and it’s raining and there seems to be double of the amount of people in the street on the corner of Fifth Avenue and 13th. They’re waiting to catch a glimpse of a legend. A long white stretch limo pulls up to the curb and the legend strides out of it with purpose and dignity. He stands there for a brief moment surveying the scene. The reporter tries to get close but there are dozens of others blocking the way. Luckily, though, for the reporter, The Killer himself spots him and calls out to him. JW gets out of the car and yells, “let this man through.” The reporter bumrushes the perimeter and the three of them head into the venue.
Tape recorder set, pictures taken, the interview begins. But first, Jerry Lee has to jump up and attack the air with a few karate chops and kicks. Then he locks the dressing room door and lets out with a barrage of unidentifiable sound that can only be described as talking in tongues. When he sits back down, he looks the reporter straight in the eye and it is he who asks the first question.
“How do you know I’m not going to kill you right now?”
The reporter backs away. The Killer advances. “C’mon,” he says, “arm wrestle! Right now!” The Killer wins two out of three. His sister tries to get in the room but finds the door locked. She starts banging on it. The Killer lets her in and takes some verbal abuse before telling the reporter what a nice ass his sister has. Then he starts telling the reporter what a big dick his father Elmo had. The reporter tries to get in a question about production on the movie Great Balls ff Fire in which Dennis Quaid is said to be playing Lewis. [It would come out in 1989 to poor reviews, Quaid totally missing Lewis’s dark side, instead playing him as an eye-bulging cartoon character.] The Killer, on this night, though, is not interested in the question/answer format of a formal interview. Instead, he starts singing random snatches of blues and gospel songs and then says, “my grandpa was 90 when I caught him f**king my wife!”
There’s no stopping him now so the reporter just goes with it.
Jerry Lee starts quoting Shakespeare. (He played one of the most evil characters in all of literature, Iago, in a 1968 theatrical production of “Catch My Soul,” based on William Shakespeare’s Othello.) He sings a Crash Craddock song. He sings a song from his cousin Mickey Gilley. He then castigates his cousin, calling him a failure. He says how he’s going to kill Geraldo Rivera. Rivera, on a nationally televised episode of 20/20, practically accused The Killer of killing his fifth wife, Shawn Michelle Stevens, after she was found dead three months into their marriage from an overdose of methadone, this after his fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, was found dead in the backyard pool from drowning. Jerry Lee has also survived the death of two sons and a brother. Son Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. died in a car crash. Son Steve Allen Lewis drowned. Brother Elmo Lewis, Jr., died when hit by a drunk driver.
“Why did you even let yourself be put in that position on 20/20,” the reporter asks.
“He never hurt me or my career,” says The Killer. “He hurt himself more. When you’re wrong, you’re wrong. And he was wrong. He was out-of-line. I think he was trying to be cute in a way. At the end of the show, he said, `here’s where The Killer lives.’ Hell, I give him the benefit of the doubt. But if I ever see him again, I’ll rip his head off, sh*t in it, and then screw it back on.”
JW is knocking on the door. Loud. The interview atmosphere was so intense, neither artist nor reporter noticed that the band had been playing, the fans were chanting “KILLER, KILLER,” and Jerry Lee was nowhere in sight. This time, though, he doesn’t answer the door. The reporter meekly tells the legend that maybe he should go upstairs and start to play.
“F**k you,” says Jerry Lee. “I’ll do what I damn well want to do.”
Now the Lone Star Café manager is also banging on the door to the dressing room. Jerry Lee looks cool and calm as he adjusts the cuffs on his shirt. The band is into their fourth or fifth song without him. Yet he’s still not coming out.
“I may want to hire you to do some publicity work for me,” he says. The reporter nods yes and opens the door. Jerry Lee stands up, says, “it’s been fun,” and goes upstairs to face yet another audience.
Mike Greenblatt’s book, "Nobody You Know," with the complete Jerry Lee Lewis two-night interview, as well as other rock and roll adventures, will be published in 2012.