On Tuesday afternoon Jerry Lee Lewis sat down at a red baby grand piano at F.Y.E. Records in Rockefeller Center and proceeded to rock and roll. His left hand pumped boogie-woogie chords, his right splashed and jabbed, and his voice easily leaped up to the high notes of â€œGreat Balls of Fire.â€
He didnâ€™t kick over the piano bench. But in â€œWhole Lotta Shakinâ€™ Goinâ€™ Onâ€ a commanding glance and a few imperious gestures established the air of joyful menace summed up in his nickname: the Killer. Afterward fans swarmed him, holding up collectorsâ€™ item copies of his 1950â€™s Sun Records singles in hopes of an autograph.
â€œIâ€™m not quite as young as I used to be,â€ Mr. Lewis had said a little earlier. â€œBut I can still play pretty good.â€
Mr. Lewis, who turns 71 tomorrow, is in New York this week promoting â€œLast Man Standingâ€ (Artist First), his first studio album in more than a decade. The album is packed with rock-star guests â€” three Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton â€” and Mr. Lewis easily dominates them all. Today and tomorrow Mr. Lewis is recording a PBS special with guests including Don Henley and Kid Rock. On Saturday he will be one of the stars at the Farm Aid concert in Camden, N.J.
People who know Mr. Lewis well are unanimous about him. â€œHeâ€™s a force of nature,â€ said Jimmy Rip, who produced the album. Mr. Lewisâ€™s daughter Phoebe, who is now his manager, said, â€œHeâ€™s got his way of doing things, and thatâ€™s all there is to that.â€ Hutch Hutchinson, who first joined Mr. Lewisâ€™s band in 1961, said: â€œJerry Lee wonâ€™t be tamed. He doesnâ€™t answer to anybody, never has. Heâ€™ll pull no punches on you. Heâ€™ll just tell you what he thinks. And he donâ€™t care if youâ€™ve got 900 trillion dollars or you ainâ€™t got 10 cents.â€
Even in a white bathrobe and pajamas, walking slowly to sit for an interview in his hotel room before the performance, Mr. Lewis still had the wavy hair and familiar profile of the piano pounder who turned up at Sun Studios in Memphis in 1956 to whoop, snarl and yodel through songs that became cornerstones of rock â€™nâ€™ roll. He went on to a career as a country hit maker in the 1960â€™s and 1970â€™s but eventually grew disenchanted with a record business that wanted to keep him in the country category.
Mr. Lewis has been through scandal and sorrow. He married his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra, in 1957 â€” a choice that derailed his career for a decade â€” and has had two wives die young, shot a band member in the chest and lost two children in accidents. He has wrecked cars, drunk hard and showed up at the gates of Graceland waving a gun. Last year he divorced his sixth wife. Now he lives in Nesbit, Miss., eight miles from Memphis, sharing a house with Phoebe, and they have dinner regularly with Myra, Phoebeâ€™s mother. He calls other people â€œKillerâ€ when heâ€™s feeling jovial.
Genial but guarded at first, Mr. Lewis warmed when he spoke about growing up in Ferriday, La., and hearing the music that he would meld into rock â€™nâ€™ roll. He took a few piano lessons. But he got his education by sneaking into Haneyâ€™s Big House, a club owned by his uncle, Lee Calhoun.
In the era of segregation it was an African-American club for blues and rhythm-and-blues, where musicians like B. B. King would perform. â€œThey never knew I slipped in there and set under the table and listened to them play,â€ Mr. Lewis said. â€œHaney would catch me in there, take me by the nape of the neck and put me out. He said, â€˜Boy, your mama would kill me and your uncle would sure kill me if he found out you were here.â€™ He said â€˜Donâ€™t come back now, Jerry Lee.â€™ And I would be back there in 30 minutes. I felt like I was crossing a line, I shouldnâ€™t be going there, but nothing could stop me from going unless it would be God.â€
â€œMy mama wondered, â€˜Where you learning them songs at?â€™ â€ he added. â€œ â€˜Whereâ€™d you learn that song, boy?â€™ I can hear her now.â€
He was sent to study at the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Tex., where his music stirred up its first ruckus. â€œI didnâ€™t graduate,â€ he said. â€œI was kind of quit-uated. I was asked to leave for playing â€˜My God Is Realâ€™ boogie-woogie style, rock â€™nâ€™ roll style. I figured thatâ€™s the way it needed to be played.
â€œThe boy that wanted to sing it, poor old boy, he wanted to sing it real slow and draggy,â€ Mr. Lewis continued. â€œI said: â€˜Son, you want this song to go over? Or do you want it to be real draggy and drug out?â€™ He wanted it to go over, and I said, â€˜Well, do it this way.â€™ Doomba, doomba, doomba, doomba, and it went, man. It went over. They didnâ€™t kick him out of Bible school, but they wanted to kick me out. But every kid in the Bible school said, â€˜If you kick Jerry Lee Lewis out of this school, then Iâ€™m going too.â€™ The dean came over and said, â€˜You see that? You have ruined a great school.â€™ I said, â€˜I havenâ€™t ruined anything.â€™ I said, â€˜Look, let me just take a couple of weeks off, to cool things off, and Iâ€™ll be back.â€™ And he said, â€˜Thatâ€™s a good idea.â€™ I didnâ€™t go back.â€
At Sun, he would meld his boogie-woogie piano with a voice steeped in country yodeling and gospel flamboyance to make songs like â€œWhole Lotta Shakinâ€™ Goinâ€™ On,â€ which many radio stations initially banned. â€œIt was just another song to me,â€ he said. â€œI never noticed that it had an effect on anybody that bad. The girls went a little berserk, but thatâ€™s girls for you.â€
Fifty years after his first Sun singles, Mr. Lewis sounds more weathered but no less scrappy on â€œLast Man Standing.â€ He was persuaded to make it by the albumâ€™s producers, Mr. Rip and by Steve Bing, the film producer and owner of Shangri-La Entertainment, who financed the recording. Lifelong fans of Mr. Lewisâ€™s music, they coaxed him back into the recording studio, first to record songs for an unreleased movie, â€œWhy Men Shouldnâ€™t Marry,â€ and then to make â€œLast Man Standing.â€
The album includes rowdy rock â€™nâ€™ roll, piano-stoked country songs and blues. â€œWe tried to pick songs that could almost be chapters out of Jerry Leeâ€™s life,â€ Mr. Rip said.
The album has Mr. Lewis and the country patriarch George Jones cackling through an old Western swing song, â€œDonâ€™t Be Ashamed of Your Age,â€ and Eric Clapton wailing a bluesy solo on the blues standard â€œTrouble in Mind.â€ Songs like the Hank Williams hit â€œLost Highway,â€ Kris Kristoffersonâ€™s â€œPilgrimâ€ and the Bandâ€™s â€œTwilightâ€ contemplate age and regret, and in â€œThat Kind of Fool,â€ Mr. Lewis and Keith Richards sing about a settled life they never had. Meanwhile Bruce Springsteenâ€™s â€œPink Cadillacâ€ and Led Zeppelinâ€™s â€œRock and Rollâ€ insist that Mr. Lewis doesnâ€™t plan to go quietly. His piano playing roars and crashes through the songs; his voice is knowing and cantankerous.
In the studio Mr. Rip said: â€œThere were times when he would come in and he barely looked like he could make it to the piano. But the second he did, the piano jumped about two feet from the ground and he was Jerry Lee.â€
Mr. Rip didnâ€™t set out to make a duets album, he said. But once he had done a few duets, he found it hard to turn down the offers; the album has 21 songs and two dozen guests. Mr. Lewis has completed another album with no guests â€” though Mr. Rip said heâ€™d make room for Bob Dylan if he became available â€” and is planning a gospel collection.
Before his record-store appearance, Mr. Lewis made one more stop: to the offices of Rolling Stone magazine. He was greeted by the magazineâ€™s founder, Jann Wenner, who looked as awestruck as a fan. Mr. Lewis sat at a conference table surrounded by bright-eyed staffers too shy to ask questions. So Mr. Wenner did, asking Mr. Lewis if he was proud his music had such influence.
Mr. Lewis took in the question, and smiled. â€œI didnâ€™t know it was going to stir up such a stink,â€ he said.