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Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

Note to celebrities looking to publish their memoirs: forget about the ghost writer trying to tell your story in your own voice. Find a quality writer who has some knowledge about what it is that you do and let do what they do best and articulate your story. That's what Jerry Lee Lewis did with Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, author of All Over But the Shoutin' and The Prince of Frogtown. Bragg does an outstanding job of capturing Lewis' story and voice and has produced a real page-turner.

Born in poverty in Louisiana, at first glance Lewis seemed unlikely to take the world by storm with his music (he had one formal piano lesson in his life) Lewis spends much of his early life trying to reconcile his family's religious convictions with his desire to play the devil's music. Growing up close to his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis bounced between playing churches and juke joints and even enrolled in seminary for a short while. He was too rough hewn for many established record labels but found a home at Sun Records, home to Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Lewis's insights on contemporaries such as Elvis, Cash, Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry are some of the highlights of this book.

Lewis's career was starting to flounder when he convinced Sam Phillips to send him to New York City for a last ditch attempt to give him some national exposure. The gamble paid off when a rollicking version of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On (complete with piano bench being kicked across the studio floor) on The Steve Allen Show let the world know that he was a special talent. Great Balls of Fire and Breathless would soon follow and these great singles as well as half-crazed marathon shows made him the hottest star in the country.

Unfortunately, Lewis's fall would be swift, as he took his new bride Myra with him on his first tour of  Great Britain. When the British tabloids got word that his third wife was not only 13 when they were married but was a cousin as well, he was hounded and run out of the country before he could play all of his shows. While he had been advised to leave her at home, his orneriness became apparent in his insistence that he had done nothing wrong and would bring her with him, reporters be damned. Unfortunately this bad press sent his career into a long drought, although Lewis would never quit producing records or performing.

Following years of drug abuse, car wrecks (including a fantastic one at Graceland), concert fights, near-death hospital stays and even a role in a modern adaptation of Shakespeare, Lewis started to get the recognition that he deserved as he was initiated in the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Amazingly, at 79 Lewis is still producing albums and playing live. In this book he is fiercely unrepentant about a life that has brought him seven marriages, IRS troubles and a constant internal struggle between darkness and light.

Bragg does a fantastic job at bringing Lewis's colorful history into the light without making any of it seem trashy, which could have been easy given the material. He gives readers a sympathetic taste of the South in which Lewis was raised, which is as familiar as Mars to me. Bragg nicely colors the facts of Lewis's life with Lewis's own takes on his motivations and desires. All-in-all this book was everything that a memoir should be - a well-written fresh look at a fascinating person.

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