Wednesday, September 29, 2021

Awesome Audio (Delta Demons and Divinities Edition)


 Early rock 'n' roller and country music star Jerry Lee Lewis was born on this day in 1935 (he died in...Oh, wow, he's still alive.) He's had many hit records in both genres, but it's his life outside the recording studio and away from the stage that interests me today. In the past 70 years, Lewis has married seven times, including his third marriage at age 22 to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Brown, whom he quickly remarried as the divorce from his second wife had not been finalized (though that second marriage itself also seems to have been bigamous as it took place before the divorce from his first wife had been finalized.) Lewis made a lot of money in his career, including $274,000 that he should have but didn't report to the IRS, which the agency then tried to recoup by seizing several automobiles, five motorcycles, a tractor, home entertainment equipment, jewelry, and several firearms from his ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi in 1979. Five years later, the IRS seized more property, and four years after that Lewis filed for bankruptcy, petitioning that he was $3 million in debt, $2 million of which he owed in back taxes. It wasn't just the IRS that came after him. In 1976, a drunken Lewis drove his new Lincoln Continental right into the front gates of Graceland mansion, then emerged from the wreck brandishing a pistol. Elvis Presley, watching all this on closed-circuit television, called the police. Lewis was charged with carrying a pistol and public drunkenness, his mug shot wired to newspapers around the world. Getting back to some of those multiple marriages, wife number three claimed mental and physical abuse, wife number four drowned in a swimming pool before the divorce was finalized, and wife number five was found dead in Lewis' home, from what the coroner later ruled a suicide, though journalist Richard Ben Cramer, writing in Rolling Stone, claimed it was much more violent than that, and that the always volatile Lewis was somehow involved. Now, when it comes to famous people, especially if they're show biz types, things can get exaggerated, but even if only half of what I just told you can be proven beyond doubt, then Jerry Lee Lewis, for all his talent, seems to have been a rather disreputable character. I'm certainly not going to defend him, except to point out that, whatever misdeeds he may have committed, Lewis does have his...

 ...spiritual side.

The above album came out in 1970, but Lewis' religiosity doesn't begin there. He was raised in the Assemblies of God church, a Pentecostal domination, but, perhaps unbeknownst to his devout parents, that wasn't his only influence growing up. His hometown of Faraday, Louisiana had a black juke joint called Haney's Big House that young Jerry Lee and his two cousins Jimmy and Mickey used to peek through the windows of and watch patrons dance to a style of early jazz (or swing) called boogie-woogie. If that wasn't enough, another, slightly older cousin named Carl had discovered that exact same music while visiting New York City with his father, brought it back home to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, and taught the young Jerry Lee how to play it on the piano when he came to visit. These two influences, the religious and the worldly, came to a head-on collision when Lewis at age 16 was sent by his mother to the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, in the hope that he would become exclusively a gospel musician. But one night at a church assembly, Lewis played a wild, boogie-woogie version of "My God is Real" and was expelled from the school the next day. So he decided to try his hand (and given the way he played the piano, sometimes his foot) at secular music, eventually ending up at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee. However, none of this means he had left the Lord behind, as can be heard in this theologically heated exchange between Lewis and legendary Sun Records founder Sam Phillips. Listen:

So just what brought on this religious debate? Phillips was trying to convince Lewis to record this song:

Lewis thought the phrase "Balls of Fire" had something to do with Hell, and figured the whole song must be blasphemous. Eventually he was persuaded that the expression had many different... 

...connotations. "Great Balls of Fire" turned out to be Lewis' biggest hit, and remains his signature song to this very day.

  "The Bible doesn't even speak of religion. No word of religion is even in the Bible. Sanctification! Are you sanctified? Have you been saved? See, I was a good preacher, I know my Bible? I find myself falling short of the glory of God."

Jerry Lee Lewis may have committed many sins in his day, but the sin of hypocrisy wasn't among them. Oh, sure, he put out gospel records while behaving in the worst possible way outside the studio, but that's only hypocrisy if he held himself up as leading the exemplary life that those songs extoll. And he didn't. In many an interview over the years he flat out expressed doubts about the mostly secular career and mostly secular life he has chosen for himself, suggesting that when the Day of Judgement arrives, those choices would be regarded as chief among his sins. And while he may have hid things from the local sheriff and the local magistrate (or just paid them off), he would never be able to hide from God. Now, I'm not a Pentecostal. It's not my belief system we're talking here. I believe what Jerry Lee believes is nonsense. Yet I have a certain admiration for the sincerity and the fervency of those beliefs as he expressed them to Sam Phillips in that recording (while at the same time believing he should go the slammer if the worst of his alleged sins is ever proven in a court of law.) I also admire his survival skills. In 1986, Lewis was among the first ten performers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Three of those inductees--Elvis Presley, Sam Cooke, and Buddy Holly--were no longer alive by then. Other than Lewis, the six living inductees were Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, The Everly Brothers (counted as one), James Brown, and Ray Charles. In the 35 years since that inaugural induction, six (technically seven) of those rockers have died, Don Everly just this past August 21. That leaves only Lewis. Who'da thunk he'd be the sole survivor? Jerry Lee Lewis may have run with the Devil, but he also seems to have had an angel on his shoulder.  

I'm not sure what was on his shoulder, but this extended family member is still around, too.


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