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  Texas : Features : Columns : "Letters from Central Texas"

The Killer and Me
An interview with Jerry Lee Lewis

by Clay Coppedge

Jerry Lee Lewis once offered me a drink of whiskey but I turned him down because I was sixteen years old and conducting my first ever interview with anyone but myself.

It happened in 1969 at the Bigger ‘N Dallas nightclub less than a mile from my house in Lubbock. The interview, set up by newspaperman father at my request was, I suspect, a way for me to compensate for my own lack of music talent.

Like others of that ilk, I went on to write about music for a time. I have talked to Willie Nelson, Tom Petty, Johnny Paycheck, Deborah Harry and dozens of others but the few minutes I spent with Jerry Lee Lewis when I was 16 years old stand out, and not only because it was the first interview I ever tried to conduct. I had asked my newspaperman father if he could set up an interview with Jerry Lee Lewis for me, and he said he could and would.

Being a responsible adult, he did just that. Being a teenager, I forgot all about it until he came home the next day and said the interview was set up and that I was to meet Jerry Lee at Bigger N’ Dallas that Saturday night.

Some real fear set in after I found out I was really going to do this and not just talk about doing it. I had no idea what to ask the man. All I knew was “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and a couple of others, and I knew he’d made a bad career move by marrying his 13-year old cousin and taking her on tour to England with him.

Now he was a country singer, where audiences apparently tended to judge such arrangements with more tolerance than the English had. Now he recorded songs like “Another Time, Another Place” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me.”)

What else, I wondered, was there to know?

The fear passed because I kept forgetting about my impending appointment with a superstar, right up until an hour before the interview was supposed to start, when dad reminded me and added it would be the last time he was going to remind me. I knew that wasn’t necessarily true but I made it to the Bigger ‘N Dallas on time where a pretty waitress led me to the back of the club and knocked on a door and someone said, “Come on in.”

There, sitting on a leather couch embroidered with cowboys, horses, cows and cactus, was a man who looked exactly like Jerry Lee Lewis. He had been drinking. He still was. A half-full bottle of whiskey (I don’t remember the brand) was on a table between the couch and a chair. The chair also had the cows and cactus motif.

Sit down,” Jerry Lee Lewis said to me and I took a seat in the chair. He asked how old I was and I lied by a year and said I was seventeen, though I knew I looked more like a 12-year old.

“You want a little shot of this, son? “ He pointed the bottle my way.

“Not while I’m working,” I said, nodding seriously.

Jerry Lee and two hippie-looking guys holding up a wall behind us all thought that was pretty funny.

“What you want to know?” Jerry Lee asked.

“Well, why do they call you The Killer?”

He said he didn’t know, but he didn’t mind it because it was better than having some wimpy nickname, like Elvis the Pelvis. “Me and Elvis are buddies,” he added. “Don’t put that in your story.”

Was that legal? I made a note to ask my dad if Jerry Lee Lewis could ask me not to write something he said if he actually said it. It didn’t sound quite right to me.

My next door neighbor had said he wanted to know what Jerry Lee thought of the Beatles, so I asked him that.

“Ringo is the only one I’d care to have a drink with but don’t put that in your story either.” There followed an almost pensive pause. “The Beatles have said a lot of nice things about me. I was sort of an inspiration to them, I guess. Hell, if I want ‘em to know what I think of ‘em, I’ll tell ‘em myself.”

I continued with my relentless line of questioning by asking if he liked the Rolling Stones. No, he didn’t much care for them. He might have used the word ‘fairy.”

Again, that famous counteance took on a pensive, thoughtful expression. He said, “Dope killed Hank Williams.” I told him I had seen the movie “Your Cheating Heart” and allowed as how to that was true.

“Alot of these young guys don’t know that, or care,” Jerry Lee said. “Hell, a lot of them {expletive deleted} probably don’t even know who Hank Williams is. Or was. But dope killed him, sure as the world.”

One of the hipsters behind us, the band’s bass player as it turned out, mentioned that he’d head that George Washington smoked opium. Jerry Lee didn’t like that. He jumped up from the couch and spun around to confront the blashphemer. He held the whiskey bottle in his hand like the weapon it could become at any second.

“That’s a {expletive deleted} lie!” he screamed at the now terrified bassist.

The bass player stammered that it was just something he’s heard, that it probably wasn’t true.

“It’s a {expletive deleted} lie is what it is.”

Then Jerry Lee wheeled on me and demanded to know if I intended to put that in my story.

“Oh no, sir. Not if it’s a {expletive deleted} lie.”

Jerry Lee sat back down on the couch and lit a cigarette. He was calm now, almost serene. “Now what else can I tell you, young man?”

I asked him how he learned to play the piano.

“Hell, I just sat down and started playing it, son. It’s a God-given gift. My music. A God-given gift. It is. A God-given gift. You can be damn straight about that, son”

He didn’t ask me not to put that that in my story.

I asked him how he got along with Buddy Holly, Lubbock’s own rock and roll legend. The Killer felt kindly toward Buddy Holly and said so. “He has a good mama and daddy too,” he added.

Then he said he hated nearly all the singers named Bobby – Bobby Vee, Boby Vinton and Bobby Rydell. Just didn’t care for ‘em. The pop charts were dominated by Bobbys for way too long, Jerry Lee believed.

A man wearing a straw hat and a string tie stuck his head in the door and said it was time to go and was Jerry Lee ready?

“Hell, I was born ready,” he said and jumped up from the couch and staggered to the stage. He sat down at the piano and began playing honky tonk piano with clear-headed clarity and raw energy. The bartender tried to kick me out for being too young but the pretty waitress who had taken me to see Jerry Lee Lewis made him let me stay.

Even the predominately middle[-aged crowd got down and got funky to “I Got A Woman,” “Breathless” and of course “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin.” This was almost ten years before Willie Nelson was bringing the hippies and rednecks in Austin together for a common cause, and it would be nice to say it happened in Lubbock that night too but there weren’t any longhairs in attendance, except the ones in Jerry Lee’s band. Still, Jerry Lee Lewis sounded a whole lot like I wanted to feel.

Oh, what a night for a Lubbock teenager. The night club atmosphere. The pretty waitress. Meeting The Killer. I guess I was hooked on all of it. After that night I never really quit talking to people and writing about it.

The story I wrote about Jerry Lee Lewis stressed his dislike of the Bobbys and his kind words about Buddy Holly and Buddy Holly’s mama and daddy. That was about it. I sent the story to Rolling Stone, and put in the part about him drinking heavily and singing a lot of country music because I thought it would be news to the magazine’s editors and readers. Apparently, it wasn’t. Rolling Stone sent the story back without comment.

I kept up with Jerry Lee Lewis the next few years. He was busted outside Graceland for raving like a lunatic, demanding to speak to Elvis and waving a pistol. He had rolled a Rolls Royce the day before, and was charged with a lot of things, including driving while intoxicated. That charge was dropped because he passed the breathalyzer test.

Nick Tosches, who wrote the Lewis biography Hellfire wrote in his book Country: “The week after he shot his bass player, Jerry Lee was arrested at his home and charged with disorderly conduct. Neighbors had complained that Lewis was shouting obscenities at them.”

Two of his sons and two of his wives died. One of the wives died under hazy circumstances. The official ruling was that she died from a methadone overdose and got some blood on her and Jerry Lee in the process.
Hell Fire

“Writers have not had much success interviewing Jerry Lee,” Tosches wrote in Country: “One night in Brooklyn in 1973, an editor of Country Music asked Jerry Lee a question. The interviewee responded by leaping across the table, breaking off the pint bottle of Heaven Hill, and sticking the interviewer in the neck with it.”

After reading that, I figured my interview with Jerry Lee had gone quite well. With Jerry Lee Lewis, it seems that any interview you walk away from is a good interview.

Jerry Lee Lewis
Killer Piano

© Clay Coppedge
"Letters from Central Texas"
February 3, 2008 Column
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