Jerry Lee Lewis, rock & roll’s most reliably untamed and untrammeled performer, is an artist whose cultural impact co-exists on the same monumental scale as his talent. When his crazy ass hits the piano bench at the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Friday night, for his first local show in many years, the 82-year-old will summon not only the volcanic American crucible that forged rock & roll but also the echoes of a long, fruitful affiliation with Los Angeles, a city closely associated with some unusually creative moments in Lewis' storied career. Beginning with his infamous arrival here in 1958 to shoot the opening sequence of High School Confidential, Lewis returned again and again, with a frequency and intimacy far beyond that of a music superstar exploiting one of the nation’s most lucrative markets.
The occasion of his Ace Hotel show seemed a propitious moment to ask the Killer about his long relationship with L.A. An initial interview was unfortunately canceled, but L.A. Weekly was able to have an email exchange with Lewis, conducted under the stewardship of his wife, Judith, but with all questions, per management, “answered by the Killer himself.” (For the sake of clarity, some of Lewis' responses have been lightly edited.)
In spring 1958, a year after “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin' on” established him as rock & roll’s most dangerous practitioner, Lewis spent two weeks at Hollywood’s Knickerbocker Hotel, shooting at MGM by day and performing nightly to standing-room crowds at Jimmie Maddin’s Sanbah Room, a small club located at the point where Hollywood and Sunset Boulevards converge. “It was really great, the first time I had ever been in a movie,” Lewis said. “I wrote the song for it. It's where I met Elizabeth Taylor for the first time. The shows came off great — I remember it very well, playing those shows.”
The song “High School Confidential” was one of Lewis' few songwriting credits in his six-decade career (“a crazy, swingin’ rocker in his usual frantic style,” Billboard noted) and the singer clearly had a ball during his star-studded Tinseltown initiation. Not everyone in town was won over by the Killer's charms, however. Teen songwriter Sharon Sheeley, whose “Poor Little Fool” would shortly become Ricky Nelson’s first No. 1 hit, went with Nelson to a post-Sanbah after-party at Lewis' hotel suite. But when the Killer, after offering them drinks, excused himself and began urinating on the wall, the aghast pair fled
Ten years later, in spring 1968, after the scandal of Lewis' marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gayle Brown, effectively derailed his rock & roll career, he began an unlikely comeback as a chart-topping country crooner. Around the same time, he returned to L.A. for an even more unexpected turn, appearing as Iago in the stage musical Catch My Soul, billed as a “dazzling, magnificent rhythm-blues version of Othello,” at the Ahmanson Theatre. Produced by British television maverick Jack Good (Shindig!) and starring the great William Marshall (later famous as the star of Blacula) as the Moor of Venice, the show featured a bearded, fur-trimmed Killer gleefully chewing through Shakespeare's iambic pentameter and stirring souls with brilliantly unconventional songs like “Let a Soldier Drink,” and “Lust of the Blood,” testing his abilities in entirely new ways.
“Catch My Soul, wow, what a great experience,” Lewis said. “I didn't even know how hard it would be, but it was a sensation. Rehearsed for six weeks and then played for six weeks! I think I made a bad mistake by not following Jack to Broadway and beyond with it, but I was ready to get back to playing my shows. [Theater] work was just too hard for me.”
A subsequent screen version of Catch My Soul, featuring Richie Havens, Tony Joe White and Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, failed to gain traction. But by then, Lewis had begun a long-term bond with his de facto West Coast headquarters, North Hollywood’s country music shrine the Palomino.
The Pal was a dark, low-roofed netherworld where country music’s biggest stars had been letting their hair down for decades. At the Pal, Killer was King Bee of the honky-tonk hive, buzzing madly through spontaneous, anything-goes shows very unlike his larger theater dates. “That was my home away from home,” Lewis said. “We built that place up and it was packed every time we played it [and we] would play it two [to] three times a week or more. [Owner] Tommy Thomas was a fine man; we had many great times together. He would always get me in there anytime I wanted. Also I would play for the door money for him. I wouldn't let him guarantee me pay — and I think we might have made more doing it like that!”
For Lewis, to this day, it always comes down to one thing: the music. (“I’ll be recording while I’m in L.A.,” he noted of his current swing through our city.) And his tastes haven’t changed: “Jimmie Rodgers is my favorite,’ he said. “The Blue Yodeler, the Singing Brakeman — no one could sing country or blues like him.”
Throughout an extraordinarily chaotic life, one of the few constants (apart from assorted ruckuses and legal woes) has been perennial show opener “Roll Over Beethoven,” followed by “You Win Again” ultimately building up to “Whole Lotta Shakin’.”
“It just works out that way,” Lewis said of his set list. He calls “Roll Over Beethoven” composer and original performer Chuck Berry “the Hank Williams of rock & roll music. A great writer, a great showman and a great friend. My fans request [“You Win Again’] so much, and I like to play it, but I don't think it's always my second song.”
At 82, the Killer is in far better condition than he has any right to be, and displays a more contemplative self, one now able to reassess his previously unshakeable superiority. While fans have been pushing a grassroots call for his enshrinement in the Country Music Hall of Fame, Lewis, uncharacteristically, balks at the subject.
“Well, I haven’t put much thought to it myself,” he said. “I’m in the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame for that; first one inducted! I have had many, many country hit records, but personally, I don't know if I should be in there … I think that is up to the fans.”
He almost seems more like a regular human being than the otherworldly, hell-raising insurrectionist we have all come to know, love and fear — an openly sentimental family man. “What keeps me going? My music, my wife and my grandchildren.”
Jerry Lee Lewis plays the Theatre at Ace Hotel on Friday, Nov. 24.