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