Music legend Jerry Lee Lewis still has that “killer” instinct for performing live. The Rock and Roll Hall of Famer — who earned his “Killer” nickname for his exploits onstage and off — is known for his piano-rattling live renditions of signature tunes such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless.”
In his prime, Lewis was known to kick over his piano stool in the throes of a performance.
“If everything is going OK — the sound, the band, etc. — and I feel good, I still love to perform,” says the 78-year-old Lewis, who returns to Atlantic City 9 p.m. Saturday, April 12, at Harrah’s Resort. “My fans are what keep me going. I do it all for them, and I could not do without them. No retirement, as long as everyone wants to see and hear me on stage.”
The flamboyant Lewis, whose musical talents have at times been eclipsed by the travails of his personal life, has enjoyed a bit of a renaissance over the past decade. The latter has come courtesy of a pair of albums featuring a who’s who of blues and rock stars.
In 2006, Lewis released “Last Man Standing” (Artist First), a reference to his being the only surviving member of the famed “Million Dollar Quartet,” which also included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley. The album paired Lewis with such duet partners as Mick Jagger and Keith Richards of the Rolling Stones, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy.
A 2010 follow-up, “Mean Old Man” (Verve Forecast), used a similar formula, with Kristofferson returning to headline a long list of guests, including Eric Clapton, Tim McGraw and Kid Rock.
“All those musicians were great to hang out with,” Lewis says by email. “They all were fans and friends of mine over the years. I really enjoyed some of the young guys, like Kid Rock. I think we did some really good music together — some of my best.”
The Ferriday, La., native knows something about good music, having helped to pioneer the early rock sound.
Lewis started playing piano at age 9, showing such promise that his father took out a mortgage on the family farm to pay for a piano. By age 14, he made his performing debut at the opening of a car dealership. Around this time, he left school, including a brief stint at a bible college, to try to make something with his music.
“I am self-taught on the piano,” Lewis says. “The first time I sat down as a kid I could play.”
By the mid-1950s, Lewis made it to Memphis, Tenn., where he landed a gig as a studio musician at Sun Studios.
His career took off in 1957 with the release of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a crossover hit on the pop, R&B and country charts, along with “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless.” In the next decade, Lewis focused more on country material, charting such hits as “Another Place, Another Time” and “Invitation to Your Party.”
During this period, Lewis made regular appearances in Atlantic City.
“We came through with package shows,” he recalls. “I was out with (legendary DJ) Alan Freed, and we went all up and down from New York City down the Atlantic coast. It was me and Chuck Berry, Fats Domino and the rest. Those are great memories.”
Despite this groundbreaking musical success, Lewis’ career was nearly derailed by various personal controversies. He married seven times, including a controversial union with his 13-year-old cousin, engaged in tax disputes with the I.R.S., and fought alleged problems with alcohol and pills.
However, Lewis, who most recently wed in 2012, says his story hasn’t really been told comprehensively on-screen. He wasn’t impressed with the 1989 film “Great Balls of Fire,” which starred Dennis Quaid, for which he recorded new versions of his hits.
“I was not pleased with the overall movie — it only covered 18 months of my life,” Lewis says. “Dennis did a real fine job with what he had to work with, but it was a very weak script. Maybe we can get the rest of my life on film someday.”
Jerry Lee Lewis recalls ‘Million Dollar’ moment
In 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis, who was then known only for the regional hit “Crazy Arms,” joined a session at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tenn., that featured three other up-and-coming stars: Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
The collection of mostly gospel and country tunes didn’t get released as an album until 1981, with a subsequent “complete” version featuring 47 songs and musical snippets. The event also inspired a 1982 “Survivors” live album with Cash, Perkins and Lewis; the 1985 “Class of ’55” record, with Roy Orbison added to the mix; and a 2010 Broadway musical.
According to Lewis, the whole session was accidentally caught on tape.
“We did not even know at the time we were being recorded,” he says. “We were just sitting around the piano, jamming. It was a lot of fun, and now I’m the last one still out there playing.”