Jerry Lee Lewis Liked Sex, Drugs and Rock ’n’ Roll Before It Was Cool

The first great frontman dug life on the road.
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The first great frontman dug life on the road.
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Jerry Lee Lewis was a man of appetites. Rock ’n’ roll’s first wild man - called “The Killer” by his myriad fans - liked a strong bass line and a rambunctious crowd, but he loved women, whiskey, and prescription pills. By the early sixties, he’d released “Great Balls of Fire,” “Money," and "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On," and become dependent on illegally–obtained medicine. The only thing that matched his cravings was his superhuman ability to survive his own questionable decisions. He’s as surprised as anyone else that he made it out alive. The following is an excerpt taken from Rick Bragg’s "Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story," out now from HarperCollins Publishers.

His reliance on pills and whiskey ratcheted up. Once Jerry could eat them by the handful and they didn’t faze him, maybe gave him a little nudge in the late nights or a soothing pat on his fevered head when he needed to go to bed. He could still drink his three fingers and six fingers and drink until he couldn’t measure them even if he had to take off his socks and shoes, and though he maintains now that he never drank that much, the stories of his tolerance are legendary.

But as he entered his third decade, the late nights and pills and liquor finally began to show, not in his still lean body but in his face. He had a grown man’s face now, with a line or two, but more than that—he just looked like he had lived some heartache. The world had finally marked him. “I could still take care of my women,” he says, which was the real barometer of a man. But sometimes he took it so far, ate so many pills and drank so much, that it made him crazier than he was already prone to be, and when the dark moods that were part of his blood descended, the chemicals fed the rages and made the darkness even blacker, if such a thing were possible. He would rail at the world, stomp, rage, and scream, and it seemed there was always a reporter there, unbelieving of such good fortune, to chronicle the madness of Jerry Lee Lewis.

“That was blues and yellows time…. I tell you, greatest pills ever made,” he says. “People said it made me crazy, but I was crazy before the blues and yellows. That would keep me going. Desbutal. Man, you couldn’t beat the Desbutal. Went hundreds of miles a day on them… biphetamines [black beauties], Placidyls, up and down. I took ’em all.”

It seemed like everyone in the business was popping.

“Back in those days, people were desperate to get a pill. Man, amphetamines, we thought, was the real answer. They thought, psychologically, that it’s really helping you, you know? But it’s not. It’s a miracle that any artist that is still around got through that. It’s only by the grace of God. That’s about it, you know?”

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But friends and longtime fans would marvel how all of it—the drugs and straight whiskey and the lack of sleep—seemed mostly like something he could slough away on command; he says it was because it was exaggerated to begin with. In family photos and publicity shots and even television interviews and footage of his shows, he is always tall and straight and steady, as if it were all something he could just switch off if he wanted to and be a regular man, the man he used to be. Some would theorize that he had just done so much of it from such an early age—from the days when truck drivers at the Wagon Wheel tipped him with big bags of amphetamines—that his body was able to somehow metabolize it, and maybe that was true, for a while. He was still the best-looking man in the room, and while he might have been a little drunk then, from time to time, he was rarely a sloppy one. Since he was a teenager, he had known that pills could do, for a long, long time, what food and rest were supposed to do, so he popped the lid off a bottle and made himself strong, and endeavored to persevere. He was Jerry Lee Lewis, the Killer, and he was nobody’s victim.

“I’ll tell you this, I never dropped no drink. Calvert Extra. I never dropped no drink.”

But underneath the chemicals was a plain streak of ornery, with bright flashes of outright crazy. He began to collect guns, nickel-plated .357s and even machine guns, carried them with him in the touring cars, on private planes, and even took pocket guns on stage, a habit that would continue for years and years. “I’d go up onstage, pull my pistol out, set it on the piano,” he says. There were threats, and rumors of threats, and they still had to fight their way out of the beer joints they played, and he used that trick with the microphone stand again and again, from the Midwest to Atlanta. He had learned to take the microphone off the stand and fling it out like a rock on the end of a rope at a rude fan or a drunk, holding to one end of the cord so he could snatch it back if he missed and fling it at the offending target again.

His bandmates, playing with the great Jerry Lee Lewis, on the ride of their lives, soaked up the crazy and spat it back at the world.

“It was Buck Hutcheson with me then, on guitar. He could pick, but he couldn’t drive. Tarp Tarrant played drums. Tarp did a lot of my fightin’ for me. Herman ‘Hawk’ Hawkins played bass. Danny Daniels played the organ for me. Me and him fought once, over a woman. I had him whipped but I just went weak, just lost my strength. . . . Don’t know what happened. I never got tired.”

In Grand Prairie, Texas, in 1965, members of his band—Tarp Tarrant, Charlie Freeman, and Hawk Hawkins—were arrested, along with a teenage girl who was just along for the ride, for possession of prodigious amounts of prescription pills. But the pill-and-whiskey-rich atmosphere of the mid-1960s made them invincible and unstoppable—as long as there was bail money. They didn’t just play music but played it strong and hot and tight and a little bit wild, in town after town, and then they moved on to some place beyond the blurry horizon where they were some other sheriff’s problem.

“The women?” Jerry Lee says. “Well, they were always sympathetic with me.”

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They all wanted to heal the wounded artist. He let them try.

“I’d have ’em go to bed with me, and they’d wake up the next morning and I’d be gone. But I remember once…. It happened in El Paso. I remember we’d been to Juárez and watched some dirty movies…. Anyway, there was this girl, this beautiful girl. Blonde. I met her backstage. She never even mentioned her name. The next morning I woke up and I reached out to put my arm around her and she was gone. I wondered what happened to that girl. I always did. I kinda hated to see her leave. I bet she was married.”

There was not a lot of romance in it.

“I’d just say, ‘Wake up, baby, it’s time to rock again,’ and they’d be ready to rock,” he said. “If we was flying, I always kept an empty seat on the plane, in case there was somebody.” The faces usually changed with the zip codes. “But I gave ’em a plane ticket home,” he says.

If this was exile, he could stand it for a good while longer.

“Really, man, I lived it all,” he says. “I guess my reputation for all that stuff went ahead of me, too, and I had to live up to it, had to travel hundreds and thousands of miles a day, play good music, and take care of the women, too,” and he grinned at that, at the burden.

Excerpt of "Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story" (C) 2014  JLL Ferriday, Inc. Reprinted courtesy of Harper, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.