Anecdotage

As most of you probably didn’t notice, Jerry Lee Lewis (left) got married five weeks ago….for the seventh time. Lee Lewis isn’t quite the world’s oldest rocker – on December 5th this year, the inimitable Little Richard will be 80 – but he is by far the most incessantly outrageous.

On March 9, he married Judith Brown, his carer. But if that all sounds a tad geriatric, think on this:¬† Judith Brown is the ex-wife of Rusty Brown, Lewis’ second cousin. And Rusty Brown is the brother of Myra Gale Brown, the minor-cousin-once-removed whom Lewis married in 1957.

Jerry came to the UK on tour in 1957, and immediately faced immigration problems because – although the marriage to Myra Gale was legal in his home State – in Britain marrying a second cousin aged fourteen struck most of us as disturbingly like incestuous paedophilia. If I’m being honest here, it still does today. On the other hand, if one applies those rules, then 100% of European royalty is descended from the results of such sexual congress. No wonder they have such big teeth.

But none of this Deliverance stuff mattered to me in 1957. Although only nine years old, I had a brother aged 13 who was into rock n roll. So once Mike started buying Elvis singles like All Shook Up, I too began looking for a niche in this amazing, leg-shaking, can’t-sit-still music. The first EP (Extended Play) disc I bought was Little Richard & His Band – upon which were all his hits to date, including the classic Long Tall Sally. But the defining single of the 1950s for me was Jerry Lee Lewis’s Great Balls of Fire.

You shake my nerves and you addle my brain/too much love drives a man insane

You broke my will/but what a thrill

Good -er-ness gracious great balls of fi-yerr.

It would be 22 years before I managed to see Lewis in person. By this time, I was married, about to start a family, and on the verge of a meteoric career rise. But the memory of those early Jerry Lee singles lived on.

The venue was The Rainbow in north London. Sadly no longer there, it was an amazing place: the bars upstairs ran on for miles, the sound quality was always excellent, and over the years I saw some amazing acts there…all the way from Joan Armatrading to J J Cale.

On this particular evening, there was an unusually eclectic audience. It was a curious mix of latter-day rock n rollers become a bit posh, and unreconstructed greasers. After the warm-up band’s set, we went upstairs to the infinite bars and – as I tucked into a beer – I noticed a group of Glaswegian leathered bikers. They didn’t look like people to mess with.

On the back of one of them was studded the legend ‘Jerry Lee – the Killer’. As I stared at the words, I became suddenly aware that its owner was in turn eyeballing me in the bar’s mirror. Fearing the worst, I flinched as the bloke turned round.

“Hey Jammy,” he began, “Can ye tell me…who the f**k’s playin’ here tonight anyway?”

We all fell about. I’m not sure precisely why, but every sectarian city in the UK has this same ironically black humour. Liverpool and Belfast folks are exactly the same.

And so we all trooped back down to our seats, and awaited the Great Man.

Without warning or announcement, he wandered onto the stage left, trademark towel in hand, and sat down to play a clasically morose country song. That number was followed by a Deep South religious thing. By this time, the audience was becoming restive. Then Lewis grabbed the mike and said he hoped we’d like this next slow one, which was (he claimed) one of his favourites. As his fingers hit the keys, this lyric broke forth:

Open up a-honey it’s your lover-boy Jerry that’s a-knockin’

Ever’body’s gettin’ ready goin’ down to the High School rockin’

Scottish rockers, London solicitors, middle-aged admen and schoolteachers leapt for the aisles and began to jive like nobody in Britain had jived for twenty years. It was (and remains) the most wonderfully spontaneous rock concert moment of my life. Michelle Shocked getting fans onto the stage to join her for Makin’ Jam in 1992 runs it a close second, but this coup de theatre by Jerry Lee Lewis will probably always be the best live music moment for me.

The rest of his performance went from early rock via country to gospel, but running through it all like the words in a stick of rock was the unbridled sexuality of a Southern white man in the mould of Elvis Presley. As a precocious chum of mine at Grammar school remarked some time around 1960, “Jerry Lee Lewis sings about doing it“. His name is Dave Russell, and today he lies in a Lisbon hospice run by reformed prostitutes. Dave has spinal dystrophy, a horrible disease for which there is no cure. Like me, he was an undiluted Jerry Lee Lewis fan. But he can still move a small part of his left thumb, and I’d be willing to bet that this one remaining active digit would still jerk about if he heard the opening bars to Lovin’ up a Storm.

Oh, when our kisses fly like oak leaves/ Caught in a gust of the wind/ My heart beats fast as a clickty-clack/ Like a train goin’ round a bend
I call that lovin’ up a storm/ I said that’s lovin’ up a storm/ Well, it’s good for you, honey/ It won’t do you no harm

24 thoughts on “Anecdotage

    • I never went, but Alexander’s was the basement below Bazaar, the Mary Quant/Alexander Plunket Greene shop at the corner of Markham Square and King’s Road. The premises is a Cornwall Pasty shop today.

      • Yes! that’s right, I went there with the “crew” after Demis Roussos did the Festival Hall gig where he did a spot with Dave Lewis the guy who wrote Happy to Be.
        Food was nice but ordinary, I had spaghetti Bolognaise, unremarkable but, nice. Ha! memories…

  1. JLL one of the greats. I remember that trip to Manchester in 1957. Libertarian that I am I wondered what all the fuss was about, mostly generated by the Daily Mail if I remember correctly. Le plus ca change…..

  2. Aged 14 we had tickets to see Jerry Lee in Glasgow in 1957 and were so disappointed it was cancelled, we couldn’t have cared less if he married his mother then! his music was great. I finally got to see him live in the two day country and western festival in then, West Germany, in 1980 and it was worth the wait, he just came on and played for two solid hours and was as great as ever.

  3. john, Being a plod back in the seventies Jerry Lee Lewis was billed to appear in Walthamstow. I was on duty by the side entrance which led to the stage door. A stretch limo arrived and the great man was poured out of the car. He was drunk. Helped through the stage door, I followed,. He was taken straight unto the stage-the curtains were closed and the compere was telling jokes,-positioned on a seat by the piano his backing group all prepared the announcement was made, screams started, curtains opened and Jerry Lee Lewis came alive and gave an absolutely brilliant performance!

  4. I grew up in southern Oklahoma during the era of prohibition… and juke joints where bootleg alcohol flowed freely. When I was 16, 1959, a friend took me to a juke joint in the vicinity of Sulfur, OK to see Jerry Lee. No ID for admission – everything going on in the place was illegal anyway no matter what your age. It was a life changing experience in setting the course of my musical sensibilities, for sure. He WAS a great man. I saw him there again on his next tour through Louisiana, Arkansas and OK. The last time I saw him was at a concert he did in Portales, NM, maybe about 1971-2. He did a great concert, complaining about the piano throughout, and then demolished it at the end. Was he the inspriation for the guitar rockers destroying their guitars at the end of their concerts? Jerry Lee used his feet!

  5. Slightly before my time, my father was a big fan of him & Chuck Berry amongst others. He told me a few stories about the feud between Jerry & Chuck, it must have been wild, 2 very strong willed characters. Here’s Chuck putting Keith Richards firmly in his place:

  6. I believe m’luds, the comment was that by the age of 18, Jerry Lewis had already packed more living into his life than most of us will ever accomplish.

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