Doors man John Densmore recently released his book The Seekers, and he asked us to publish a segment, chapter 15, which is all about the late Jerry Lee Lewis. Which, thanks to permission from Hachette Books, we were only too happy to do. Enjoy.
Jerry Lee Lewis — Killer Energy: When I was a kid, I couldn’t get enough of Jerry Lee’s boggie-woogie piano. I listened to Great Balls of Fire over and over, although I didn’t know what the lyrics meant. I mean, I knew it was sexual, but couldn’t figure out the literal meaning. It couldn’t mean that when he was with his girl, she lit a match under his testicles, could it? I knew Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On was about doin’ the nasty. The thing that got me, even as a 13 year old, was the ENERGY coming off of Jerry Lee’s records. It made me feel like I just drank a couple cups of strong coffee, and I was still too young to have a taste for java. There was no way you could listen to the man from Ferriday, Louisiana, and not move. Your body would not allow you to remain sitting in your chair.
I finally saw a clip of JLL live, and was blown away. Lewis would occasionally pound keys with the heel of his foot, kick the piano bench aside and play standing, rake his hands up and down the keyboard. It sounded like Mr. Lewis was breaking his fingers going up and down those 88 keys. The calluses must have been on all of his fingers, because the way he slid from the bass notes to the high notes and back, it seemed as if his extremities were made of wood instead of flesh. When he would turn around and sit his butt on the keyboard and jab rhythm he was playing in time, like a percussion instrument.
These antics really turned on a young teenager like me, but later as a musician I realized that Lewis wasn’t sacrificing any musicality doing these crowd-pleasing pranks. Like his contemporaries (Little Richard, Chuck Berry), Jerry Lee is a showman, an entertainer. Not that he’s a con-man, the substance of what he’s doing is great, but he’s really good at selling what he does.
After several big hits, unfortunately the passion crossed into his personal life and Jerry Lee married his 13-year-old cousin. Not a good PR move. His career took a major nosedive until many years later when he broke into country music. That was when we met him.
The Doors had become big enough to be able to dictate who we wanted as our opening act. The Rolling Stones had given a nod to the blues great BB King by having him start their show. We wanted to further acknowledge the ’50s rock n’ rollers who had fed us and furthered the genre. Several months before, trying to honor an earlier musician that we admired for our Hollywood Bowl gig backfired. We loved the song I Walk the Line, so suggested Johnny Cash as our opener, who was relatively unknown at the time to the younger generation. Musicians certainly knew how talented he was, but this was before his TV show, and the masses hadn’t caught up yet. Obviously the promoters hadn’t either, because their response was: “We’re not hiring an ex-con… he’s a felon.”
Playing the eighteen thousand seat Inglewood Forum, we tried again. Touch Me had quickly reached #1, so our clout was stronger and the promoter agreed to let us have Jerry Lee start the show. They said nobody will know who he is, but we ignored that comment. My book Riders on the Storm sets the stage: “We were thrilled that Mr. Lewis was “acceptable.” They said he wouldn’t draw, but we didn’t care. They said he only played country music now, but we didn’t care.” Actually, we did have our managers suggest to his manager that he throw in some of the old rock hits, which we felt would elicit a more favorable response from our audience.
At the sound check we finally came face to face with “The Killer.” He was known for combing his hair in the middle of his show, combing it in between piano notes, and lo and behold, he whipped the black instrument out of his back pocket and gave his blond hair a couple swipes before shaking my hand. What a showman! Riders again: “’Can my boys borrow your drums?’ ‘Sure, Jerry Lee.’ I smiled. He turned to Robby. ‘Can we borrow a gittar?’ ‘What kind of guitar do you want? I have several.’ Robby replied. ‘Any old rock ‘a day Fender gittar’ Jerry Lee quipped. Apparently Mr. Lewis’s band showed up at the gig without any instruments.”
Jerry Lee not only obliged the audience with some of the old rock hits, he played a whole set of them. Unfortunately some of the groupies were shouting, “Jim, Jim, Doors, Doors,” during The Killer’s show. Too often current generations don’t understand that musicians honor those who come before them. We gained a love for their particular art form and learn our craft by studying and admiring the previous generation’s work.
Jerry Lee didn’t seem to mind the catcalls. In fact he seemed to thrive on the confrontation. Finally The Killer jumped on top of the grand piano and made a farewell speech. “FOR THOSE OF YOU WHO LIKED ME, GOD LOVE YA. FOR THE REST OF YOU, I HOPE YOU HAVE A HEART ATTACK!”
We apologized for the heckling, and complimented him as he came off stage. I was mimicking Ed Sullivan’s idiosyncratic pronunciation saying, “great shoe, really great shoe.” He seemed to enjoy himself… even thriving from the friction with the audience. If you’re going to take on Jerry Lee Lewis, you better be ready, cause he’ll come back at you with more that you dished out. I was very pleased that we jump-started the look back to the roots of rock n’ roll, and it was an honor to hang a little with the man who hung with Elvis and Chuck Berry.
As a kid, I was seduced by Jerry Lee’s dynamics. He would get real soft on “wiggle around just a little bit,” in Whole Lotta Shakin,’ pulling the listener in. Then in the last chorus, he would blast you. I was taking this all in, not knowing that later I would get real soft in the song The End, then blast the last section. The dynamics in classical music also had the same effect on my drumming. It was so emotional to have loud and soft, and everything in between. It ran the gamut of human feelings. If you put on a JLL record (or stream, or whatever delivery system floats your boat), you will get so much ENERGY listening to him, you’ll immediately find the time to go directly into your creative space and work out! Jerry Lee Lewis was another one of my teachers in the “school of rock,” and he can be yours… The Killer killed me… and he will “kill” you, too… if you let him.
Jerry Lee Lewis — Killer Energy: John Densmore will be reading from The Seekers at 7 p.m. on Friday, December 16 at Vromen’s Bookstore in Pasadena.
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