‘I ain’t never pretended to be anything,’ says the man they call the Killer. ‘I’ve lived my life to the fullest, and I had a good time doin’ it. And I ain’t never wanted to be no teddy bear.’
Jerry Lee Lewis is still recording and performing at the age of 79, but his legend rests on what he did in the couple of years after he turned 21. In 1957, ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ made him a $10,000-a-night sensation who sold more tickets than Elvis or Sinatra. Sam Phillips of Sun Records called him ‘the most talented man I ever worked with, black or white’. In 1958, Lewis torched his piano in order to outshine headliner Chuck Berry, sparked a full-blown riot in Boston and toured the UK under a storm cloud of outrage over his bigamous marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra. In 1959, the scandal metastasised and poleaxed his career back home. Rick Bragg isn’t exactly allergic to hyperbole, but he can be forgiven when he calls it ‘a rise and fall unequalled in American music’.
It’s a short heyday for a long life and a long book, and Bragg squeezes every last drop from it. He employs the kind of brawny, showy, sometimes hammy prose you often find in accounts of rock’n’roll’s founding fathers — Nick Tosches’s Lewis biography, Hellfire, being a classic example. These big, macho narratives can’t just be life stories; they must be parables of America itself. This is the kind of book where a paragraph begins: ‘The Spaniards came to the river in 1541.’ So Bragg can occasionally get overheated (one audience is hit ‘right between the eyes with a hot poker of rock and roll’); but then he has a high-temperature subject.
Like Elvis and James Brown, Lewis was a child of the South in the hard-scrabble 1930s.