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Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story

by Rick Bragg

Other authors: Jerry Lee Lewis (Subject)

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1205153,664 (4.29)2
"A monumental figure on the American landscape, Jerry Lee Lewis spent his childhood raising hell in Ferriday, Louisiana, and Natchez, Mississippi; galvanized the world with hit records like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire," that gave rock and roll its devil's edge; caused riots and boycotts with his incendiary performances; nearly scuttled his career by marrying his thirteen-year-old second cousin--his third wife of seven; ran a decades-long marathon of drugs, drinking, and women; nearly met his maker, twice; suffered the deaths of two sons and two wives, and the indignity of an IRS raid that left him with nothing but the broken-down piano he started with; performed with everyone from Elvis Presley to Keith Richards to Bruce Springsteen to Kid Rock--and survived it all to be hailed as "one of the most creative and important figures in American popular culture and a paradigm of the Southern experience"" --… (more)



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I'm a unabashed fan of the Killer, Mr Jerry Lee Lewis, and own more books about him than could well be necessary. So, I thought I knew everything there was to know about the Killer.

"Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story" finds the Killer in his eighties, an old man surprised he's still alive, so much in pain that he can barely sit for more than a few minutes, but into his seventh marriage and his seventh decade as a living legend, author Bragg is still able to coax some eyebrow raising fare from the Killer.

Bragg can also write well and while he is not the first to write about Lewis in Old Testament fire and brimstone way he pulls it off, making you believe Lewis nothing less than a Prophet who fears he will spend eternity in hell, away from his loved ones.

Although it's sad to see the killer like this; aged, in pain, fearing for his soul, I feel the closest I've ever been to Lewis since I discovered him all those decades ago. ( )
  MiaCulpa | Apr 28, 2018 |
Rick Bragg's book on Jerry Lee Lewis is frankly adoring. That's the best word I can think of. Not that Bragg doesn't see the faults and the flaws--not that Jerry Lee Lewis (it's "in his own words" after all) doesn't know what those are in graphic detail--but it's still written in the spirit of someone who has met kith and kin in his subject. When Bragg says "there was a beauty about Elvis that southern men found hard to understand, but we get Jerry Lee" -- he is being absolutely sincere.

And that sincerity makes the book. If it is possible to adore a person even if you can't exactly admire them, then Bragg has achieved it here. And that sincerity lifts up the book even when it is inclined to go a bit over the top in the sing-song southern storyteller lingo that is Bragg's lingua franca. Bragg's writing sometimes reminds me of the way people will attempt to mimic Chandler and Hammett's "hardboiled" style and end up with something so imitative that it almost looks like satire:

"Even in the most barren times, when cigarette smoke hung like tear gas in mean little honky-tonks and he might have missed a step on his way to the stage, he gave them something they were looking for. "

Or how about:

"It usually started without fanfare; he just walked out there, often when the band was in the middle of a song, and took a seat. “Gimme my money and show me the piano,” he often said of how the experience would begin. But it ended like an M80 in a mailbox, with such a holy mother of a crack and bang that, fifty years later, an old man in a Kiwanis haircut and an American flag lapel pin will turn red to his ears and say only: “Jerry Lee Lewis? I saw him in Jackson. Whooooooooo, boy!”"

Only Bragg really talks, and really writes, and really does tell stories like this. Has done in every book I've ever read by him. If anyone else had written "but it ended like an M80 in a mailbox" I would have been rolling my eyes. But Bragg is just being honest. So you have to kind of surrender to it, and I think also you have to surrender to the story.

The upside to the book is that you get a really beautiful look at not just the Depression-era and post-War South, but also a stellar account of the grit and crackling energy of the early days of rock and roll -- when it lived in honky-tonks and speakeasies, not stadiums. Odds are, you'll be combing the net for tracks by the names that drift on and off the stages of the juke joints and roadhouses to add to your iTunes list. The coverage of Lewis's early days at Sun Records is especially good, including a detailed account of the so-called Million-dollar Quartet sessions that is probably worth the price of the book.

And the account of Lewis's rivalry-cum-friendship with Elvis is....interesting. It brings depth to the mythology of "the Killer" and "the King" which began in that impromptu meeting at Sun Records and ended when Lewis supposedly tried to kill Elvis twenty years later. It was a misunderstanding, an incident blown out of proportion -- but then, "blown out of proportion" is the way Lewis lived his life. Indeed, it's in the telling of his relationship with Elvis that the wary reader starts to get the sense of the story Lewis isn't telling. It's the down side to a book that lives up to its title: Jerry Lee Lewis, "in his own words." That includes a fair amount of mythologizing on his own account: "I knew looking at Elvis that day that I might have to come through him." he said in remembering the Million Dollar Quartet session.

It also means anything he doesn't want to talk about, doesn't get talked about. And for someone who likes to tell a story as much as Lewis, the places where he shuts his mouth are notable by contrast: the deaths of his wife and his son, for example. His silence on the subject of grief is stands out in an otherwise noisy life.

In the end Lewis apologizes for almost nothing. Not the drugs. Not the misery he caused the women in his life. Not the trouble he gets into and not the destruction he causes. Jerry Lee Lewis was a lot of things, but he was not a nice man. Bragg doesn't whitewash it, and he doesn't make excuses for him, but he does a marvelous job of making you see the full character of the man that all those Southern men just "get him." And when Bragg says "Jerry Lee Lewis was the bunched up fist. He was the swinging tire iron," the reader knows exactly what he means.
1 vote southernbooklady | Jun 6, 2015 |
Being the rip-roaring life of the legendary rock musician and wild man, grounded in interviews conducted by the author with his subject. The book is enjoyable to the point of being difficult to put down; Lewis' clipped truculence is a strange bedfellow with Bragg's groomed, expansive, almost purple prose stylings, but the effect is a not unpleasant, you-got-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter vibe. It must be said that investigative reporting is not this book's long suit; although Lewis and Bragg are plenty willing to 'fess up to some very wild rides, there are some limits, undoubtedly imposed by Lewis as a condition of his participation. Specifically, the sketchy adumbration of the death of Lewis' fifth wife under dubious circumstances is far from definitive and valuable mostly for a chance to hear Lewis' side of the story. That's basically all right with me, as Lewis' participation is vital to the book, and the voices who believe he should have been tried in that case have had their own outlets which are at least as widely read as this book will be. The book is frontloaded, which to me is a flaw; at its halfway point Lewis is all of twenty-one years old, and I doubt that too many readers would have minded if an editor had tightened this up by fifty pages or so, but books this fascinating don't come along that often, so I'm all in on this one. ( )
1 vote Big_Bang_Gorilla | May 20, 2015 |
I had to read this book. I love the blues, old country, old rock n’ roll and music period. Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story by Rick Bragg is the first time that I have read anything by this author. This biography is superb! This may be the only book that tells of his whole life so that is why I picked it. I remember seeing Jerry Lee Lewis on TV very long ago, can’t remember what show. But he stuck in my memory as a person who jumps into music with both feet and plays, plays, plays.

I didn’t know anything about his background growing up, but what Rick Bragg wrote fits as neatly as a suit of clothes. His cousin is Jimmy Swaggart and Jerry Lee Lewis was churched with the Assembly of God. There are no grays, it is either a sin or it is not. Jerry knows that he sinned. He also is sure that his music is a God given talent. Jerry Lee Lewis’s life is frenetic as his performances. Just count the number of marriages that he has had. His life is filled with troubles, deaths, addictions, falling out of favor with the press and with all but the most loyal fans.

His music is unique as his life and influences by the pounding of the piano at Haney’s Nite Club, an all black risk your life, dance all night and bring your own booze club. When he gets an idea in his head, he focuses on it with steel determination so even though he was much too young and he was white, he kept sneaking in until finally, he didn’t have to sneak in any more. He had his favorites of the singers and music players of the past and it doesn’t require much thought as to where his roots were. Rick Bragg brought all that out flawlessly. Mr. Bragg separated the truth from the exaggerated and helped you understand what makes Jerry Lee Lewis tick and also why he failed so many times only to pick himself up and start over again.

Rick Bragg does not hide anything about the bad stuff. Jerry Lee Lewis has tantrums, a well-developed roving eye when it comes to women, an addiction to drugs, drank too much alcohol and later pain killers. The author doesn’t sweep his infidelity under the rug or his affection for guns.

There are lots of tales of his relationship with his parents, Elvis, Johnny Cash, Little Richard, Chuck Berry, so many of the greats. Jerry Lee stayed loyal to those he respected but ridiculed those he didn’t.

Don’t pass this book up. Each page is a treat, a bonbon steeped in history. Rick Bragg has written the ultimate biography of Jerry Lee Lewis. I highly recommend it.

I received a copy of Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story from the publishers as a win from FirstReads. My thoughts and feelings about this book are 100 % my own. ( )
1 vote Carolee888 | Feb 19, 2015 |
√ "My Talent Comes from God"

JERRY LEE LEWIS: HIS OWN STORY is a wild, colorful tale of of one of the greatest musicians in America. In the opening chapters, we learn of Jerry Lee's first touch of a piano key when he was only 4 years old. Jerry Lee was at a relative's house, saw the piano, and reached out to press a key: “I don't know what happened. Something strange. I felt it in my whole body. I felt it."

Jerry Lee’s family was big time into making whiskey: “There was whiskey running in the ditches 2 feet deep." His family was a bunch of “singers and guitar pickers and fiddlers and piano players, and some preachers and bootleggers, and some bootleggers one month and preachers the next, or both at the same time.

♦ The young Jerry Lee was full of mischief. He often tried to drag cousin Jimmy Swaggart into the mischief with him. Usually however, Jimmy refused to get embroiled in the same stunts as his more wicked cousin. One time, when the two went into a movie theater, Jimmy ran out immediately, decrying the evils inside--Jimmy was convinced of the wickedness of the movies. Another time, he snuck into a black music club called Haney’s. Jerry Lee got caught while hiding under a table, when the patron announced, “There's a white boy under my table."

♦ In one priceless account, we hear the story of how Jerry Lee's father mortgaged his farm to buy a piano for him: “He had a piano on his truck and my eyes almost fell out of my head." That piano would later be called “the wisest investment in the history of rock and roll.

♦ Early on, Jerry Lee struggled to find places where he could actually play for money. He had to scramble to find beer joints to play for tips. Eventually, He and his father, Elmo, put the piano in the back of the Ford, and they went out on the roads to try to make a little money singing and playing.

♦ Truth is sometimes stranger than fiction: Jerry Lee had a brief stint at a Texas Bible College. That is, until he played the piano one day at a concert--in a "faster tempo." It was so wild that he was expelled forthwith. The dean yelled, “Do you see what you've done to all these young people? You've driven these young people crazy!" Jerry said he didn't mean to hurt anyone. But the dean yelled back, “You ruined a great Christian college."

♦ Eventually, Jerry Lee realized that he needed someone to help further his career. That person was Sam Phillips of Sun Records. Phillips heard a recording of Jerry Lee playing and wondered, "Who is this cat--get him down here." This led to him recording his first great hit, "Crazy Arms. This also led to a meeting with Elvis, who had been wanting to meet that piano player."

♦ An even bigger hit was in store. It was “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On." However, the lyrics and gestures were so suggestive, that it was soon banned from the airways. Jerry Lee managed to get on television with Steve Allen, however--with milder gestures. (Note: The video of that TV performance is publicly available, and worth watching.)

♦ The author suggests that “the stage had become a kind of laboratory for Jerry Lee, and he was the mad scientist." On stage, Jerry Lee had more than one violent incident. In perhaps the worst one, he thrust the end of a mike stand into the face of a belligerent fan climbing onto the stage. The man lived, but he would “likely carry the crescent imprint of the butt end of the mike stand on his face for weeks." In another reckless incident, Jerry Lee was playing with a gun in his room, and just for fun, started shooting it randomly--putting holes into the dental studio next door. The dentist next door was mad because he “had shot his teeth off the wall."

♦ Perhaps the single greatest tragedy in his entire career happened in England. It was there that the public found out that Jerry Lee had married his first cousin--who was only 13 years old. This caused a huge public outcry, and many cancellations of concerts. Payment for his concerts dropped drastically. The papers "painted a picture of hillbilly culture gone mad, and it seems like every move he and his entourage made only riveted the image further in the minds of readers." Making things worse was the admission that Jerry Lee had actually been a bigamist. Newspaper headlines shouted, "Baby snatcher go home! We hate Jerry."

JERRY LEE LEWIS: HIS OWN STORY is a fascinating look at a great musician--a great musician, not just a wild one: "He had to prove that he was not just a crazy man who wrecked pianos, that he was just living life real loud. A dozen times, but he was not washed up, not done."

Throughout his entire career--but now, around 80 years old, Jerry Lee, despite his wild life and many deeds he regrets, is at heart a spiritual man. His spiritual upbringing is ever in his mind, and remains terrified of what he reads in the Bible. He recalls the verse about a man gaining the entire world, but losing his soul. Adding to his distress, late in life, his life full of excess has taken its toll on his physical health. He ended up with a ruptured stomach, among other serious health issues.

♫ A Review by Chris Lawson. Review copy courtesy of Edelweiss.

Note: I do not know the author of this book, and no one requested I write this review. The author was too cheap to even send me an autographed Jimmy Swaggart photo.

( )
1 vote bassocantor | Dec 11, 2014 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Bragg, RickAuthorprimary authorall editionsconfirmed
Lewis, Jerry LeeSubjectsecondary authorall editionsconfirmed
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They sow the wind and reap the whirlwind. - Hosea 8:7
To anyone who ever danced in their socks
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The party boats churned up the big river from New Orleans and down from Memphis and Vicksburg, awash with good liquor and listing with revelers who dined and drank and danced to tied-down pianos and whole brass bands, as their captains skirted Concordia Parish on the way to someplace brighter.
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