The most exciting and earth-shattering music of modern times had long since lost its rebellious attitude when Jerry Lee Lewis once again effortlessly lived up to his reputation as the unpredictable ne’er-do-well of rock ‘n’ roll. It was the summer of 1998 in Berlin, King Elvis had been dead for more than twenty years and three of his surviving rivals were on tour, together, not together. To call the atmosphere between Legends toxic would be an understatement. They had never particularly valued each other anyway, at best they respected each other initially, during their Sturm und Drang times. In Berlin, there was little to remind of this, especially since the concert had to be moved from the Wuhlheide to the Columbiahalle at short notice due to a lack of demand.
And so sat Jerry Lee Lewis Morosely backstage, complaining of nausea and nothing good to report on the state of the tour, while Chuck Berry in sweatpants and captain’s cap reeled off his repertoire, accompanied as always by local musicians, whom the star paid little attention to. Little Richard’s performance also offered primarily routine, vocally at least exalted as usual.
Lewis was reluctant to perform in front of Berry
The pause was so long that the organizers had serious fears that the public’s growing displeasure could escalate into demands for money back. Jerry Lee Lewis had just declared himself unable to complete his part and retired, untraceable. Negotiations were feverish behind the scenes, the protests of the fans grew louder, but subsided when Chuck Berry came onto the stage a second time, to the astonishment of everyone present, and unabashedly repeated his program, his now visibly baggy pockets filled with cash.
The order of appearances at such package shows was not irrelevant to Jerry Lee Lewis, he only reluctantly appeared before Berry. When it came to this sequence again through rotation, the killer set his piano on fire with gasoline as an encore and hissed in the glow of the blazing flames in Chuck’s ear: “Follow that, boy.” A foretaste of the purgatory that the notorious sinner expected anyway, not least as payment for the heinous porn perversions Chuck Berry had been convicted of.
Lewis was not friends with Little Richard either, the worlds of the keyboard maniacs were too far apart. Jerry Lee found Richard’s zealous missionary demeanor and the queer whirlwind of his travesty performance repulsive. Although he himself was certainly not an innocent lamb. The innocence with which Jerry Lee Lewis introduced his thirteen-year-old cousin Myra, whom he had just married, to a reporter upon arrival in London in May 1958 speaks volumes. Jerry Lee was twenty-two and it was his third marriage. Nothing reprehensible in Ferriday, Louisiana. The fact that he was not yet divorced from his second wife is of course an oversight, but he will make up for it quickly. What Jerry Lee Lewis didn’t have was a sense of wrong; What he didn’t understand was how scandalous his behavior was, that his tour was canceled and he was covered with abuse and disgrace in the media.
His career had just gotten off to a flying start, with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls Of Fire” storming up the charts. And they remained his only global rock ‘n’ roll hits because radio stations and concert promoters dropped him.
Lewis switched to country music, very successfully until the end. On October 28, Jerry Lee Lewis died near Memphis at the age of 87, with Judith, his seventh wife, at his side.