Saturday, 16 January 2016

I Remember the Night Jerry Lee Lewis Played at the Kilburn State

Rock and Roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis was born into a poor family in Ferriday Louisiana in 1935. His musical talent was obvious from an early age and his parents mortgaged their house to buy him a piano. His mother enrolled him in the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, so that he would sing evangelical songs. But Lewis daringly played a boogie woogie rendition of ‘My God Is Real’ at a church assembly. The next morning, the Dean of the School called Lewis into his office to expel him. 

Years later Lewis was asked, ‘Are you still playing the devil’s music?’ He said, ‘Yes, I am. But you know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t’.

Jerry became known as ‘The Killer’ from a school nickname and as ‘the ‘wild man of rock’ from his high-energy performances of piano playing and singing. In 1956 he went to Sam Phillips’ Sun Record Studio in Memphis where he recorded ‘Crazy Arms’ which sold 300,000 copies.

On 4 December 1956, Elvis Presley paid a social visit to see Phillips. Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Lewis backing him on piano. Johnny Cash was also there. The four men did an impromptu jam session and Phillips left the tape running. These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived, and have now been released under the title the 'Million Dollar Quartet'.

Left to right: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash

In 1957 Jerry’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On’ became a huge hit in both America and here. The next song, ‘Great Balls of Fire’, was even more popular and went to Number One in the UK and US where it sold a million copies in the first ten days. 

Kilburn State
In 1958 Lew and Leslie Grade and the Rank Organisation arranged a six-week tour of Britain by Jerry Lee Lewis. The first night was at the Regal in Edmonton and the second was in Kilburn.

On the 25 May 1958 he played at the Kilburn State, and I was there! The 4,000 seat cinema was sold out that night. The lights dimmed and there he was in a shocking coloured suit and a black ribbon-tie. The noise was deafening: the Irish girls behind me were screaming, ‘Great Balls of Fire, Great Ball of Fire, Great Balls of FIRRRE!’ But the other half of the audience were shouting: ‘Go home cradle snatcher! and, ‘How old is your old Lady!’ After performing a few numbers, the noise got louder and louder.

Between numbers, Jerry remained calm and sitting quietly on the piano stool, he took a comb out of his pocket and combed his long curly hair. Then he launched into another song, kicking over the stool and pounding the piano with his hands and the heel of his foot. But when the uproar became overwhelming, he suddenly walked off stage and the show was abandoned half-way through.

What was all the fuss about?
Reporter Ray Berry had been at Heathrow to cover the arrival of Jerry Lee Lewis. He asked a young girl who she was; Myra Gale Brown replied, ‘I am Mrs Lewis’. Jerry said she was 15 and they had married a few months ago and were very happy.

The next day in the fashionable Westbury Hotel in Mayfair, Jerry Lee was shown a copy of the Daily Herald. There was a large photo, taken at the airport the night before, of Jerry Lee and Myra Gale embracing, and in bold black letters the words, “ROCK STAR’S WIFE IS 15 And It’s His Third Marriage!”

Jerry and Myra, 1958

But Berry found out that Myra was Jerry’s cousin, the daughter of his bass player J.W. Brown. She was 13 years old, Jerry was 22. Their marriage had taken place in December 1957, at Hernando, Mississippi, where it was legal to get married at age 12, with the parent’s permission. It was Jerry’s third marriage but he was a bigamist, as his divorce from his second wife was not finalised until the 13 May 1958.

The press were merciless in their pursuit of Jerry Lee. ‘The People’ called for all teenage subjects of the Crown to boycott Jerry’s concerts and thus, ‘show that even rock and roll hasn’t entirely robbed them of their sanity’. The Daily Mirror published a picture of the loving couple and interviewed Lewis. He admitted he hadn’t got Myra’s parents’ permission and that he was still married to his second wife at the time. ‘I guess you could call the mix-up a technical hitch. My manager is straightening it out.’ 
Myra said ‘I love Jerry dearly, I would marry him again, a million times.’

On 25 May in the House of Commons, Sir Frank Medicott asked Iain Macleod, the Minister of Labour to explain the grounds for allowing Jerry Lee Lewis a permit to tour Britain. Medicott said: 
‘Is my right Hon. Friend aware that great offence was caused to many people by the arrival of this man, with his 13-year old bride, especially bearing in mind the difficulty that others have in obtaining permission to work here? 
Will he remember also that we have more than enough "rock-'n'-roll" entertainers of our own without importing them from overseas?’

Jerry playing with his unique style

After just three shows the tour was cancelled. At 2:15 on Tuesday afternoon on the 27 May, Jerry and Myra Gale left the Westbury Hotel through a side door. Limousines carried them to the airport, where photographers and reporters were waiting. Leading Myra Gale past them, Jerry Lee picked up a paper at the airport news stand and glanced at the headline, which proclaimed that France’s new premier had averted civil war. 
“Who’s this De Gaulle guy?” he said loudly as the newsmen caught up with him. “He seems to have gone over bigger than us.”

The next day the press were waiting for him at Idlewilde Airport in New York and he and Myra were blinded by the flash bulbs. Hurrying away, they flew on to Memphis that afternoon. Thinking that it might placate the press, Jerry decided to remarry Myra the next weekend. He and Myra drove south to Ferriday Louisiana where the second ceremony was took place.

In America the bad publicity and scandal almost finished Jerry’s career, as his popularity quickly faded and he had little success in the charts. Banned from radio shows, his live performance fees plummeted from $10,000 per night to just $250.

His career was resurrected in the 1960s and he continued to tour. In fact, he rose from the ashes again and again, first as a country artist, later as a miraculous rock ’n’ roll dinosaur who could still tear the place up and play the piano with his feet. Mick Jagger once waited to get his Jerry Lee albums signed; and backstage John Lennon dropped to his knees and kissed Jerry’s feet. The feeling wasn’t mutual: “I never did care for the Beatles all that much, to tell the truth,” Lewis later remarked.

Many years later while interviewed for his biography, Jerry looked back at his life and said;
“It was brutal, I tell you. It was killin’.” And then, in the next breath: “It was ­beautiful.”

No comments:

Post a Comment