Rock ‘n roll icon Jerry Lee Lewis passed away yesterday. It always sucks when rock icons die; there aren’t many left from the original batch. Jerry Lee was especially iconic.
In the early days of rock, Jerry Lee was the unabashed rule breaker. He was cocky, arrogant, almost fatally full of himself. But, that attitude was rock and roll. You can draw a direct line from Jerry Lee to punk. Glam rock owes a ton to Jerry Lee. Setting pianos on fire while you play them – that’s as sparkly as it gets! He wasn’t know for being especially kind or kindly. Going along to get along – that wasn’t how Jerry Lee rocked or rolled. The Jerry Lee I “know”, I know from having researched him while writing a script about Jerry Lee – and his two very famous first cousins: late country music star Mickey Gilley (whose massive bar “Gilley’s” featured in the John Travolta movie “Urban Cowboy”) and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Trust me: this Jerry Lee Lewis movie shoulda been made.
An Amazing Story As Yet Untold
The script needed more work. All scripts need more work. Hell, I don’t know why we call writing “writing”. It’s always actually “rewriting”. Nothing’s ever really finished. This needed a bit more work than most. It was telling a huge story about a fascinating family.
I was leaning to a degree on Nick Tosches’ excellent “Hellfire” and an “unauthorized biography” I’d found of Jimmy Swaggart by Ann Rowe Seaman. This was a serious biography with footnotes. On top of that, I spent a weekend in Henderson, Nevada with Mickey Gilley, interviewing him, watching him perform, interviewing him some more. He was completely down with my approach to telling not just Jerry Lee’s story, but the story of his two cousins – Jimmy and Jerry Lee – and their collective, problematic relationship.
The three cousins were all born about the same time – late 1935, early 1936 – in Ferriday, Louisiana. They all grew up in a simmering gumbo of intense, fire-breathing fundamentalist religion, diverse musical influences (blues from the Delta, Hillbilly from the Ozarks, gospel from all over) and intense family dynamics. For example, Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart were first cousins on both their mothers’ AND their fathers’ sides. Both were just “ordinary” first cousins with Mickey Gilley.
Jerry Lee and Jimmy Swaggart were flip sides of a twisted coin. Jimmy’s dad was a preacher of limited success. Assemblies of God. Sometimes he’d have a small church under his feet. Otherwise his ministry traveled the backroads, putting on tent revivals, living off the meager donations to the collection plate. Personally, I find Jimmy’s story the most interesting. He never had a chance to live a normal life.
A Calling All His Own
From age five onward, Jimmy’s parents Sun and Minnie Bell told Jimmy he was going to be a preacher. Consequently, they raised him like a veal. But Jerry Lee sat on Jimmy’s other shoulder. Jerry Lee’s dad wasn’t a preacher, but they all towed the religion line, um, religiously. In fact, Jerry Lee envied his cousin Jimmy’s tight relationship with God.
But, Jerry Lee had a calling of his own. He told the story about how, as a young kid, he first encountered blues legend Robert Johnson. He was playing with a Black friend outside the friend’s home – a sharecropper’s shack. The friend’s dad was playing Robert Johnson’s “Terraplane Blues” on a Victrola sitting in the window. Something in Johnson’s voice struck a chord deep inside Jerry Lee.
Jerry Lee’s young friend told Jerry Lee what his father had told him – about how Robert Johnson had made a deal with the Devil to get that voice. Jerry Lee was horrified yet compelled. Suddenly he didn’t care what he owed any Devils. If he could sound like Robert Johnson by making the exact same deal, he’d do it. It would be worth it!
Jerry Lee & Jimmy Diverge
Jerry Lee’s story never sat right with cousin Jimmy who would never have made such a deal. Instead, he envied his cousin Jerry Lee for having the balls to make it. All three cousins competed in talent shows when they were kids. Jerry Lee and Jimmy competed especially. In the end, Jimmy gave up competing. Jerry Lee never did.
But, competitive as he was with his cousins – Jimmy especially – Jerry Lee could be quite gracious and supportive. After signing his first deal at Sun Records, Jerry Lee convinced Sun’s Sam Phillips to sign Jimmy as the label’s first gospel artist.
Jerry Lee was making $20,000 a week at the time. Jimmy was dirt poor, preaching to half empty tents. But, Jimmy refused the offer. God owned him.
My research said that Jimmy and Jerry Lee’s relationship began to come apart when Jerry Lee’s marriage to an underage cousin hit the news. Not only was cousin Jimmy not there at Jerry Lee’s back, Jimmy pointedly preached against Jerry Lee’s behavior. That favor got returned in 1986 when a competing televangelist named Marvin Gorman hired detectives who photographed Swaggart visiting a prostitute outside Metairie, LA. Jimmy got no backing or support from cousin Jerry Lee.
Standing between these two men – loving both – was Mickey Gilley. Mickey was warm and gracious. He talked about how madness stalked the Lewises. He saw it and genius in both his cousins.
Mickey told me his dream was to get his cousins Jimmy and Jerry Lee speaking again. I don’t know if he ever succeeded. The producers I worked with had a really grand ambition. They wanted the movie project to be the catalyst for Mickey’s ambitions. The dream involved a reunion performance – one time only – the three cousins up on stage at three grand pianos – boogie-woogie-ing together for the first time in 60 years. Talk about ambitions!
The reunion never happened. Neither did the movie. At one point, Billy Bob Thornton signed on to direct the movie and act one of the parts. I spent a lot of time with BBT (that’s what his friends call him) – sitting in his home studio listening to BBT’s music. At the time, BBT was touring with his band The Boxmasters. I thought they were great!
In addition to it being a great story, this movie would have produced an amazing soundtrack. The music really would have been extraordinary – all roots. Think “Oh Brother, Where Art Thou?” but even better.
I think, in the end, this story ran out of time. If you don’t know who Jerry Lee Lewis was – or Jimmy or Mickey – the story loses a lot of its value. But – just my humble opinion – it will remain a quintessential American story about quintessentially American characters.
Someone oughta make it. But then, I would say that, wouldn’t I?