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An Audience with the Killer: Jerry Lee Lewis Talks the Road, Drag Racing with Elvis and the Meaning of Rock ‘n’ Roll

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There are men and then there are myths. Jerry Lee Lewis is the latter. The rock pioneer first set the charts ablaze in 1957 with twin dynamos “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” and 60 years on he’s still pounding the keys before packed houses across the country. With the death of Chuck Berry in March—and Little Richard and Fats Domino largely retired—Lewis is the last of the great rock ‘n’ rollers still conjuring the sounds of long nights in long gone Delta juke joints. His colleagues at the seminal Memphis label Sun Records, including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich and so many more, have all passed into history. As the Killer notes in his 2006 album title, he is the last man standing.

His survival is made even more remarkable considering the string of dramatic personal tragedies and health woes that would have crushed a lesser spirit. Two of his sons died in freak accidents—3-year-old Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a neighbor’s swimming pool, while Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr was killed after flipping his Jeep, and two of his wives also died premature deaths. Drug and alcohol addiction practically paled in comparison to an adverse reaction to a painkiller that tore a hole in his stomach in 1981, nearly killing him.

Of course, a crucial part of his story is the infamous marriage to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin once removed. The scandal surrounding their union nearly torpedoed his career in 1958, leading to boycotts of his music, blacklisting at venues and dwindling performance fees. After rock ‘n’ roll turned its back on him, Lewis ultimately found a home in the Nashville music scene. In the Sixties and Seventies he scored an astonishing 30 Top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts, making him one of the most accomplished performers of the genre.

On Aug. 24, Music City will honor Lewis, 81, with a tribute concert at Skyville Live, featuring country luminaries including Toby Keith, George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Lee Ann Womack and Kris Kristofferson. The event will be streaming live beginning at 9 p.m.

Lewis, accompanied by his wife Judith Brown Lewis, recently sat down with PEOPLE in his dressing room just before a sold out show at New York City’s B.B. King Blues Club and Grill. His swagger, bravado, and bad boy charm undiminished with time, he still embodies those thrilling days when rock was new — and hot.

You’re still going out there, playing for packed houses across the country. What keeps you hungry?

Money [laughs]. No, that’s not true.

What’s going through your mind when you’re on the stage now?

It depends on the crowd. I feel the crowd out on the first song. I want to look into their eyes and see the emotion. Sometimes the commotion, too! It always works out good either way; I give them what they want. I just love music. I’m a musical person. I live for my music. I like everybody’s music — to an extent. When I cut sessions, I go home to my little small studio, I put my records on and I play them day in and day out. I listen to my music because it’s soothing and I love it. It’s good.

Was there a moment when you knew music was what you wanted to do with your life?

I’ve always loved my music. I put it first. I loved the stage, I love the records. I used to be crazy about the women. [looks to wife, Judith]

Do you still remember your first performance?

With women? [laughs]

Judith Lewis: Remember the time at church when you forgot the name of the song?

“What Would My Answer Be.” I sit down and hit the chord and go, “Hmmm, what was the name of the song I was supposed to do?” I hit the chord again. I hit it again. I just got up and walked down to my mother sitting in the front row. I said, “Mama, what was the name of that song?” And she said, “’What Would My Answer Be,’ son!” I said, “Got it!” So I sit down at the piano and hit my C chord.

How did you develop your playing style?

It’s just a God-given talent. Born with it. My mother and father, they backed me up 100 percent and bought me my first old piano when I was 8 years old. And after a couple of weeks I was playing, I was playing pretty good. So onward Christian soldiers.

Do you still have the piano?

Oh yes, it’s in a room at my house.

Are you sentimental? Do you keep a lot of things from your past?

I’ve got a lot of gold records, gold albums.

You’re being honored in Nashville at Skyville Live next month—congratulations!

Thank you, I just found out about myself.

Your status as a rock ‘n’ roll pioneer often overshadows the huge success you’ve had as a country star. Do you have any favorites from your country period?

Country hits, rock ‘n’ roll hits, pop hits. I’ve had number ones in every field of music you could imagine. I got “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Also a song called “Breathless,” “High School Confidential,” “Take Another Chance on Me.” My records would hit number one with a bullet on it.

How did you feel when your records would hit number one?

Well, I got so used to it. Me and [producer] Jerry Kennedy got to laughing about it one day. He’d say, “Would you believe it? This record is number one with a red mark on it. It means it’s going up, but how can you go up from one?” But it’s not hard; just put me in the studio and turn on the machine and let me go!

Do you remember your first time in Sun Studios?

Yes, I do remember it real well. I was 20 years old at the time and—could have been 21. But I knew I was on my way then. It was hard to get there, you know? I had to convince a lot of people that I could do what I was talking about. Mr. Sam Phillips and Mr. Jud Phillips, they were responsible for getting my hit records. Sam Phillips started it, and Jud Phillips got it to a disc jockey on WSPQ. If he played your record, it was a hit. If he didn’t play your record, it wasn’t a hit. But when he heard mine he knew what he had. Just like he started Elvis off the same way — so I’ve been told.

You played with Elvis, as well as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, at the famous Million Dollar Quartet session.

Yes, Sam Phillips was responsible for that. He knew what he was doing the whole time. You don’t know how much trouble he caused me! [laughs]

Was it fun?

A lot of fun. I never regret one minute of it.

It was just the 40th anniversary of Elvis Presley’s death. Do you have any memories that you’d like to share of your time with him?

We had some great times riding motorcycles, and racing cars! He always took my advice. Little did he know I wasn’t giving him great advice…[laughs]

Who would win when you were racing?

We both had Eldorado Cadillacs. Same year. I was coming down the street, Elvis was coming down the street. I saw this black Eldorado pull over into my line. I thought, “Whoever the hell this is, I guess we’re playing ‘Chicken.’ So we were blowin’ those Eldorados up Union Avenue just in front of the record store. We pulled right up to each other. He jumped out of his car, and I jumped of mine, and I didn’t know what else to do. He said, “I’m gonna sue you!” I said, “Sue me? Man, for what?” He said, “Mean Woman Blues.” He couldn’t get over that I covered him on it. I didn’t know I covered him on it! I had no idea. I rewrote it, I put different words over the tune. “I ain’t bragging but it’s understood, everything I do I sure do it good.” Stuff like that, I added to it.

You’ve always had your own way with words.

They said “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” were risqué records. I couldn’t see anything risqué about it!

Did that hurt you?

It didn’t hurt me, but it made me wonder — how could I be so stupid that I didn’t know what this meant? I am not risqué! [laughs]

Michael Ochs Archives/Getty

What makes you happy now when you’re not playing music?

My favorite thing to do nowadays is stay at home with my puppies and my wife and my son, Jerry Lee Lewis III. And I’ve got two grandchildren — that I know of! [laughs]

What does rock ‘n’ roll mean to you?

Rock ‘n’ roll? It’s a mixture of boogie woogie and my style. I kind of introduced rock and roll to the world with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On.” Elvis was not rock ‘n’ roll, he was rockabilly. And that’s a lot different from rock ‘n’ roll. “Ohh baby, whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on.” That’s rock ‘n roll. Elvis, Wanda Jackson, and a few of them, they were rockabilly. But I was rock ‘n’ roll, and you just can’t beat rock ‘n’ roll.