American Routes Shortcuts: Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis was the first interview I ever did, back in college radio, 1969. I’ve talked to him a couple of times in the nearly fifty years since. It’s always memorable. In 1999, American Routes went to his Nesbitt, MS ranch near Memphis for the Killer’s 64th birthday celebration. The next afternoon, a just-awakened Jerry Lee kindly came to the back kitchen screen door in his robe and glasses, barefoot with Chihuahuas nipping at his heel.
Nick Spitzer: Hey there Mr. Lewis, how ya doin?
Jerry Lee Lewis: Excuse me, I just woke up.
NS: Well, a man needs his rest. Well Jerry Lee, I just wanted to ask you, what does it take to make great rock and roll?
JLL: It takes a real great God-given talent to make a real great rock and roll singer or piano player, guitar player, whatever you might be. Course I play all instruments myself. But piano is my instrument.
NS: Beyond your God-given talent, you also did some serious learning it sounds like. I know you learned something from the blues and from gospel music as well.
JLL: Oh, the old colored people around Ferriday, picking the blues on the guitar, outside on the streets, on the corners, by the picture show, places like that, I used to hear them there, and I really liked it. They called it blues, they called it boogie-woogie, then they changed the name of it to rock and roll. So, I don't know, mine’s a little bit different I think.
NS Well, you kind of changed the name of it to rock and roll, too I think.
JLL: Yeah, I think so, yeah.
NS You put your signature on that keyboard.
JLL: For sure.
NS: Why do you think that among rockabilly musicians there’s really only one great known piano player like yourself?
JLL: Well, ‘cause there just wasn’t any others that could cut it, I don't guess.
NS: Now we’re from New Orleans, we know you have some affection for New Orleans being that it’s the great old city of your home state.
JLL: Yeah I’ve always wanted to live in New Orleans.
NS: Never made it down there to live?
JLL: Not to live, I often thought of it. Still thinking about it! Well I even hitchhiked down to New Orleans one time, trying to get a record out. I was about thirteen, fourteen years old. Scared my momma and daddy to death. But I gave up on that trip, and I come on back to Ferriday, and then I come to Memphis when I was twenty years old, and I got my record out and got started with Sam Phillips. Sun Records.
NS: Looking back on your life in rock and roll, blues, country music, all the things, your ups, your downs, would you ever try to do anything different?
JLL: No, not a thing… Well maybe a few things [laughing]. In a little bit different way, I don’t know. I gotta do some heavy thinking on that.
NS: You took rock and roll from the middle of the century in America. We’ve got another century coming. Do you think rock and roll has a future?
JLL Oh, I don’t think there’s any doubt about that. I don't think rock and roll will die, if it does, I’d like to see what they’re gonna replace it with. [Laughing]
NS: You have fans in country music, who sometimes, they didn’t like the rock as much. On the other side of the life here, you’ve got some rock and roll fans that came to your rockin’ side who never quite understood you were a country boy to begin with.
JLL Yeah, well I’m a country boy it’s true, but I never was a country boy. Me, I was kind of a country/city boy. I always wanted to be in the city, I never liked the country. I didn’t liked farming. My daddy, he worshiped farming. And that was something I knew was not my talent.
NS: Well you can raise cotton or your can raise a ruckus.
JLL: I can raise both. [Laughing]
NS: Whoops, sorry, let’s make sure kitty cat stays in.
JLL: Don’t want the big dogs to get it.
NS: No that would be terrible.
JLL: (Yells aside) Hey, you’re just getting here!
NS: Let me just say happy birthday, I know you’ve got a party going on this weekend.
JLL: Yeah, we’ve got a party going on, started yesterday, yeah we’re having it out at Sam’s Town tonight at the casino, we’re having a party out there tonight for all the fan club members and people.
NS: Thirty-Nine and Holding?
JLL: Fifty-nine and scheming, sixty-four and dreaming. [Laughing]
NS: Jerry Lee Lewis, I want to thank you for being with us here on American Routes.
JLL It’s my pleasure young man, good to see you again.
Jerry Lee Lewis passed away October 28, 2022.
To hear the full program, tune in Saturdays at 5 and Sundays at 6 on WWNO, or listen at americanroutes.org.