Jerry Lee Lewis Rocks On

A new club on Beale and the Beale Street Music Festival are on tap.


Jerry Lee Lewis - JOHN BRANSTON
  • John Branston
  • Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis, the last living member of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, sat beneath a photograph in his den of that signature moment in the history of rock-and-roll in 1956 and vowed to keep on rocking.

Now 77 years old and recovered from a broken leg that kept him out of last year's Beale Street Music Festival, he is touring again and will play the festival on May 4th. And on April 27th, he will be honored with a parade on Beale Street and cut the ribbon outside of Jerry Lee Lewis' Café and Honkytonk in the building that formerly housed Pat O'Brien's and Dancing Jimmy's.

Lewis, of course, is usually associated with the Sun Records Studio on Union Avenue, which was recreated in the musical Million Dollar Quartet that opened on Broadway in 2010 and recently finished its second run at the Orpheum. But he said that as a young man he often went to Beale Street.

"I think it's about time I should have a place up there," he said this week in an interview at his home in Nesbit, Mississippi. "I used to listen to a Dixieland jazz band down near the river. I don't think that's Beale Street now, though; it's all changed up so much."

Lewis was married for the seventh time last year. He and his wife, Judith, live in a red-brick ranch home with a lake on 30 acres. He is far from the cocky chatterbox portrayed in Million Dollar Quartet but his voice and handshake are strong, and he cracked up when his old friend J.W. Whitten produced a long-lost picture of Lewis and astronaut Neil Armstrong, who carried his music to the moon, and said, "Them Martians are rockin'!"

The man who has kicked over thousands of piano benches still has a trace of a limp.

"I had that broken leg operated three times before the plate was removed," he said. "That kind of took the wind out of my sails."

The den is decorated with a Yamaha piano, gold records, album covers, and photographs, including two copies of the famous one with Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash at the piano in Sam Phillips' studio. Elvis died in 1977, Perkins in 1998, and Phillips and Cash in 2003. Lewis recorded "Last Man Standing" in 2006.

He didn't bite on a question about competition and who influenced whom the most. "It went both ways," he said. "I always held my ground." He has fond memories of that day at Sun Studio.

"I remember the day that picture was made very well," he said. "Elvis' girl was standing to the right of him, just out of the picture. I was looking straight at her, and she was looking straight at me. I never knew it would turn into something like that, but you never know what's going to happen."

He saw Million Dollar Quartet on Broadway.

"I thought it was great," he said. "They had me come out onstage. The drummer had a hard time keeping up with the beat."

In 2010, he made another album of duets called Mean Old Man, but he disavows the title.

"I'm certainly not a mean old man," he protested.

"Why, he's an angel," Judith added.

A halo on Jerry Lee Lewis? Great balls of fire! I asked about performers he especially admires ("this guy Elton John is pretty good") and the young bands in the festival.

"They're fans of mine and friends, but as far as getting together and playing, I don't see that happening. Like that picture of me in the Million Dollar Quartet, we didn't know what was going to happen, and you never know what's going to happen with the younger generation."

My time was up. "Thanks, killer," he said, and stuck out his hand. No, thank you, Killer, from a grateful Memphis.

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