This is Jerry Lee Lewis, live in England, in 1964. It is all-video, all-animal energy, all-Jerry Lee. Punk before punk was ever a word.
Like the kids in this video, I stood at the very edge of Jerry Lee’s piano while he played. Inches from the 88th key and his left hand.
The year was 1989 though, not 1964, and the setting was more subdued.
We were atop the Peabody Hotel in downtown Memphis and it was Jerry Lee’s birthday. He was turning 54 but sure seemed a lot older and frailer than that. Understandable. He’d lost a previous wife — one of seven –under tragic but fairly suspicious circumstances and that cloud hung with him for years.
I was there because somebody thought it was a good idea to make a movie about his life.
A good idea. Not quite a good movie. Though I sure liked it enough.
I was sent to Memphis by my newspaper because that is where the movie studio was doing its big dog-and-pony show.
We had three days there to see the movie premiere, party, interview the movie’s cast and director Jim McBride, party, and soak up the magic that is Memphis. Did I mention the partying?
I came back on my own ahead of the 10th anniversary of Elvis’s death for a private Graceland tour and interviews with surviving Memphis Mafia pals, Elvis fans, and executives of the booming corporation that has perpetuated his image and songs. That was fun but there is nothing like your first time in Memphis. You never forget.
My biggest impression from the night of the movie premiere was walking over to Beale Street to soak up some beer and blues. On the way, I passed a park bench occupied by a snuggling couple.
No, not snuggling. It was director McBride and one of his stars, Winona Ryder. She was leaning into his shoulder like the small child she portrayed in the movie. Neither looked celebratory. McBride looked deep in thought. Ryder looked very sad.
In the movie, she played Myra, Jerry Lee’s 13-year-old first cousin who became his bride, the union of which almost killed his career when the ensuing scandal broke. By then, Ryder had already done “Beetlejuice” and “Heathers” and was a bona fide star ascendant. This night, you might not have thought so.
Jerry Lee was played to an almost cartoonish height by Dennis Quaid, which negated the darker aspects of The Killer.
The next morning, which came too soon — they always come too soon in a town like Memphis — we made the rounds interviewing all of the key headliners, including John Doe of X and Mojo Nixon of outer space, who played Jerry Lee’s bandmates. I knew Mojo from back in San Diego where we’d downed a haul of barbecue together and talked career moves. (Winona starred in Mojo’s music video for “Debbie Gibson is Pregnant With My Two-headed Love Child.” Yep, that was a song. Mojo and his sidekick Skid Roper also had psychobilly hits with “Jesus at McDonald’s” “Stuffin Martha’s Muffin” — a tribute to an attractive MTV-VJ — and especially “Elvis is Everywhere.” San Diego was a fun city when they were ascendent, along with the Beat Farmers.)
The movie was based loosely on the memoir of Jerry Lee’s child bride. Winona was 18 when she played the 13-year-old and Myra was barely 22 when the movie was made. They were practically contemporaries.
The interviews were pretty routine. Actors only need to be “on” for 15-20 minutes max while you ask your inane and utterly predictable but necessary questions.
The climax was a Jerry Lee press conference. Also pretty routine.
Until a non-movie reporter and columnist from St. Louis asked Jerry Lee about the death of Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, his fourth wife. She drowned in a swimming pool while in the midst of divorcing Jerry Lee. The reporter didn’t exactly ask Jerry Lee if he killed his wife, but the question was close enough.
Jerry Lee went paler than he already was. Which I did not think possible.
He stammered, but not like he does in his songs.
The studio publicist, a good guy who I truly enjoyed working with and a veteran of many a Hollywood shit show, jumped up and started hustling the reporter out of the room.
For some reason, I also jumped up and stepped between him and Ms. St. Louis.
“She’s got a right to ask that question, Tom. Don’t throw her out or we all go out.”
He chastised her for “getting personal” and the press conference slowly ground down to a slow Death by A Dozen Boring Questions.
(Maybe this was my calling. I did the same thing at a backstage MTV Video Awards press conference where a UCLA student asked Bobby Brown if he was actually gay and if his marriage to Whitney Huston was a sham. Leave it to a college kid to ask what all the adults in the room were thinking.)
Later, the woman from St. Louis and I got very drunk together and spent way too much time looking for a famous barbecue joint that was actually across the street from the Peabody, the hotel where we were all staying.
The finale came a night later when everyone assembled on the roof of the Peabody under cloudy skies to celebrate Jerry Lee’s birthday. For the occasion, a local band was assembled to back the maestro. And holy hell, it was most of the crew from the Stax Records house band, including bass guitarist Duck Dunn and guitarist Steve Cropper.
A huge grand piano sat under a white sheet awaiting Jerry Lee.
I positioned myself right next to the keyboard. I wanted a ringside seat for this night.
Jerry arrived and the crowd surged around, much as you see them do in the concert video posted here. Only they were early-middle-aged writers and studio sycophants.
Jerry sat down. Acknowledged the crowd and thanked everyone for coming.
He hovered those pale, heroic, magical fingers over the keys as the band froze at the ready.
It started to rain.
Not a lot. But enough.
Jerry paused and looked up. And sighed.
“Oh, man, God must be punishing me for something,” he said quietly and unironically.
The rain stopped.
I thought I could hear God in that moment: “Oh, hell, Jerry Lee? Is that you man? So sorry!”
The rain stopped. Just like that.
Jerry’s fingers clawed toward the keys, the band exploded and a whole lotta shakin’ started going on.
To this day, I can’t tell you what he sang. The memory was all sucked up in the euphoria.
I recall they wheeled out a piano-shaped cake when the all-too-short concert was over and everyone sang “Happy Birthday” to the accompaniment of Jerry Lee and the band.
Jerry Lee cut the first slice.
The rain returned minutes later.
I’m positive that Jerry Lee Lewis went up to Rock ‘n’ Roll Heaven today. Too many of his old pals and colleagues who are up there would not have it any other way.
God bless, Jerry Lee Lewis.
Born: September 29, 1935.
Died: October 28, 2022.
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2 thoughts on “That time Jerry Lee Lewis talked to God atop the Peabody Hotel in Memphis — and God listened”
What an incredibly wonderful story. What an experience. Thanks for sharing.
We met in SMA