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Despite the title of Jerry Lee Lewis’s 2006 album “Last Man Standing,” a few other survivors from rock’s early days still remain. Chuck Berry, an old nemesis, is still around. So are Little Richard, Fats Domino and Wanda Jackson, the let’s-have-a-party girl who briefly dated Elvis Presley and shouted her own version of the Lewis anthem “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Still, Lewis is the summation of that early period, before cleaner-cut teen idols like Frankie Avalon and Fabian came on the scene. In Tolkien parlance, he’s the one ring that binds them, and as such, he deserves a rich and textured biography.
There’s plenty of richness in Rick Bragg’s retelling of the Killer’s life, but the texture is problematic. The reader is advised to approach this prolix history with several grains of salt, because Bragg, clearly entranced by his willing and cooperative subject, provides little. As one of Lewis’s own songs proudly proclaims, it’s the Lewis boogie in the Lewis way, and few are left to contradict him. Some who might — Buddy Holly, Sam Phillips of Sun Records, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Elvis himself — are long dead.
Jerry Lee (so he refers to himself, as in “Jerry Lee Lewis has seen the Niag-uh Falls. Now let’s go home, boys”) was a hell-raiser from the start, a breech baby who came into the world feet first. The doctor showed up in time to do the delivery, but not exactly sober. Jerry Lee’s father, Elmo Lewis, gave him some corn whiskey, and Dr. Sebastian promptly passed out. Elmo delivered the baby himself as his wife, Mamie, deep in labor, exhorted him to be careful of the arms and head.
In 1940, at the age of 4, Jerry Lee discovered the piano in his Aunt Stella’s house. “I saw it, and I just stopped, cold,” he tells Bragg. “I just had to get at it.” In 1943, Elmo Lewis mortgaged his farm to buy his talented son his own piano. By the age of 10, Jerry Lee was sneaking into a local blues emporium called Haney’s Big House (he urged his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, to come with him, but Jimmy, fearing damnation, refused). He played his first professional gig at the local Ford dealership, blasting out Stick McGhee’s “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee-o-dee.” His aunt and his mother (whose favorite axiom was “Money makes the mare trot”) passed the hat, and Jerry Lee took home $14, one dollar for each year of his young life.