Lewis rocks, but won't talk about past

June 16, 1996|By Neil Strauss | Neil Strauss,NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

It's not easy to get an interview with Jerry Lee Lewis these days. It's not that he's getting tired of rock and roll and piano-pounding; after all, he performed in New York for the first time in a decade Friday and Saturday and will perform in Baltimore Thursday. It's that he's tired of reliving old scandals.

"Jerry basically says to me, 'I would do interviews every day all day long if people would treat me nice and write good things rather than going back to when my son died or a wife OD'd or I married my third cousin,' " said his sixth wife, Kerrie. "That was 30 years ago. Here he is with a brand-new career. There's nothing wrong with his health, he's got life insurance for the first time in his career, he's paid off his debt to the IRS, he's flying in to Nashville to meet with record producers, he just had an unbelievable 40th-anniversary show. Things are going his way more than you could ever possibly imagine."

So after some hemming, hawing and postponing, Lewis, 60, agreed to an interview. He spoke in a style best described as affably evasive, deferring most questions to God.

It took three follow-up questions to find out something as simple as how long he'd been playing with the guitarist James Burton (10 years). If a question touched even slightly on his 1958 marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, which nearly ended his career, the deaths of two of his wives and two of his children, or his pistol-waving episode outside Graceland in 1976, he tried to end the interview with lines like, "Come to the show, we'll finish this discussion then."

dTC In the long run, it is Lewis' music and not his lifestyle that will survive, and he realizes that at 60 he is now an employee of nostalgia. " 'Great Balls of Fire,' 'Whole Lotta Shaking Going On' is what people who come to see me want," he said. "If I didn't do those songs, they'd shoot me at the end of the show."

Though Lewis doesn't listen to contemporary rock or realize that his performances beat punk-rock to the punch in terms of rebellion and wildness, he doesn't mind taking credit for it all. "I started it," he said about rock and roll. "Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis, Chuck Berry, Fats Domino, Little Richard, we kind of kicked it off, and I imagine we'll be held responsible for how it sounds today."

At the same time, Lewis hopes to continue his career well into the future, citing B.B. King as an example of how to age gracefully as a performer.

After talking about the fishing, jet-skiing and motorcycle-riding he does on his 70-acre estate in Nesbit, Miss., Lewis relinquished the phone to his 34-year-old wife, Kerrie. "I'm fixing to knock him out, that's what I'm fixing to do," she said as Lewis clowned around in the background.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Where: Pier Six Concert Pavilion, President Street and Eastern Avenue

When: 8 p.m. Thursday

Admission: $25 reserved; $12 lawn

$ Call: (410) 481-SEAT

Pub Date: 6/16/96

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