That Old Feeling: Golden Sun

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I say meet me in a hurry behind the barn
Don'tcha be afraid, y'know I'll do you no harm
I want you to bring along my rockin' shoes
'Cause tonight I'm gonna rock away all the blues
I heard the news, there's good a-rockin' tonight.
— recorded by Elvis Presley, September 1954

He died 25 years ago next Friday (he did die, didn't he?), but the Presley industry is bigger than ever. "A Little Less Conversation," an obscure 1968 tune from the movie "Love a Little, Love a Little," was recently the #1 song in Britain in a remix by Dutch deejay JXL. A collection of 100 alternate (read: not-so-hot) takes of Elvis songs fills a new four-CD box set. A pity that daddy Vernon didn't record his infant son squealing in the crib; then RCA could release "Elvis: the Colic Years."

Anyway, this is a time to celebrate a hallowed anniversary. Fifty years ago, Sam Phillips, who ran the Memphis Recording Service (Preserve those weddings and bar mitzvahs forever on wax! Bring your child in to sing "Jambalaya" — he could be the next Hank Williams!), started his own record label. He called it Sun, and it was good.

Sun started out as a "race music" label, as Phillips brought into his modest studio some exemplary blues shouters and players: Howlin' Wolf, B.B. King, Rufus Thomas, James Cotton, Sleepy John Estes, Herman "Little Junior" Parker and the Blue Flames, Little Milton Campbell, Ike Turner (yes, Tina's future ex-).

Then a young truck driver, stupefyingly shy until he stood before a microphone, walked in to make a record for his mother. A few visits later, abetted by guitarist Scotty Moore, bass player Bill Black and Phillips at a primitive console, Elvis Presley fooled around until he came up with a variation on the Arthur Crudup song "That's All Right." It was, too. "That's different," Phillips legendarily said. "That's a pop song now, just 'bout." What it was, just 'bout, was rock 'n roll — a mighty mutant of pop, blues and country, born July 5, 1954, right there at 706 Union Avenue.

Within a year, Phillips had sold Presley's contract to RCA Victor for $25,000. He says he never regretted the decision, never looked back. He soon had another rockabilly prodigy, Carl Perkins, whose "Blue Suede Shoes" kicked some serious chart butt: #1 country & western, #2 pop and rhythm 'n blues. Johnny Cash, the Arkansas gent with a grave voice and a lifer's stare, recorded "I Walk the Line": #1 country, #17 pop. Roy Orbison, who would not fully flower till the '60s, did an early stretch at Sun, recording some goofy rockers and writing a hit song (for the Everly Brothers) about his girl friend Claudette. Charlie Rich came in as a staff songwriter and soon had his own smash, "Lonely Weekends." All of these performers got the can't-miss slapback echo-chamber treatment, and all eventually bolted Sun. By the end of the '50s the revolution was over for the bright yellow label with the sun-ray stripes, the rooster and the encircling clef notes.

Only one Sun star — that big swig of Louisiana moonshine named Jerry Lee Lewis — stayed there when he became hot, and that is because, quite soon, he was not. (Marrying your 13-year-old cousin-once-removed will do that.) But it's Lewis who embodied — hell, embodies — so much of what was feral and profound about the new music. He knew its varied roots and how to tap them. As he announced at the conclusion of his belated, heroically defiant debut at the Grand Ole Opry in 1973: "Let me tell ya somethin' about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen. I am a rock-'n'-rollin', country-and-Western, rhythm-'n'-blues-singin' mothafucker."

Good mo'nin', judge, and your jury too
I've got a few things I'd like to say to you:
I'm gonna murder my baby
Yes, I'm gonna murder my baby
Yes, I'm gonna murder my baby (yeah, I'm tellin' the truth now)
'Cause she don't do nothin' but cheat and lie.
—recorded by Pat Hare, May 1954

Phillips deserves all praise for finding these musicians — including blues guitarist Hare, who in 1960 did indeed let life (or rather death) imitate art by murdering his baby. In the uniquely free-form Sun atmosphere, Sam helped performers express their tangled visions; they would come in with no songs or arrangements prepared but just noodle and canoodle until inspiration struck. Of course, he also should earn a week's detention for dropping the black acts when Presley showed him he could make money with white ones. But, hey, that's show business.

The two groups are integrated on a couple of Sun anthologies: the newly issued two-CD set "Sun Records: The 50th Anniversary Collection" (from BMG Heritage); and the older, fuller three-CD opus, "The Sun Record Collection" (on the ever-dependable Rhino label). The BMG set has some strange omissions: there's no Howlin' Wolf, whom Phillips called the greatest artist he ever recorded ("This is where the soul of man never dies"); no "Good Rockin' Tonight"; and, criminally, no "Great Balls of Fire," the Jerry Lee Lewis number that ... well, I'll save those superlatives for later.

Black and white did mingle in the studio, not physically but in their overlapping styles and choice of material. Turner's piano work, backing Jackie Brenston on Phillips's first hit, "Rocket '88'," has some of the boogie-woogie triplets, rolling rhythm down low and bang-it-till-it-breaks urgency on high that were later identified with Lewis. In September 1954, Parker recorded his own "Mystery Train," a spectral blues song that has sax-man James Wheeler evoking a train's mournful whistle and Floyd Murphy's guitar providing the chugging wheels. Ten months later Elvis covered it, speeding the tempo and lending the tune his own eccentric authority.

Sun artists often covered one another's songs, at Phillips' encouragement: He owned the catalogue. He also took droit de seigneur on certain compositions. Somehow, between Little Junior's initial recording of "Mystery Train" and Elvis' remake, Phillips had become the song's co-author. (Presley took instruction from the master: when he moved to RCA, he demanded and got co-authorship on Otis Blackwell's "Don't Be Cruel" and "All Shook Up.")

In rock 'n roll's wildcatting days, everybody was borrowing, stealing, learning from everyone else. "At that time," says Milton Campbell in "Sun Records: An Oral History" by John Floyd, "the trend was, whoever had a hit record out, you would try to make up some lyrics as you go along and try to sound as close to that record as possible." On the "50th Anniversary Collection" you'll hear a 1953 instrumental, Jimmy & Walter's "Easy," whose melody closely copies the 1950 Ivory Joe Hunter ballad "I Almost Lost My Mind." Cash's "Folsom Prison Blues" was, as they say, "inspired by" Gordon Jenkins's "Crescent City Blues"; in the late '60s, the courts ruled that a better word would be "swiped," and Cash had to pay up. Rufus Thomas's "Bear Cat (The Answer to Hound Dog)," whose composition was credited to one Sam Phillips, was so direct a copy of the Leiber-Stoller hit that Sun had two pay Lion Records two cents a copy. (All this and much more itemized in Colin Escott and Martin Hawkins' book "Good Rockin' Tonight: Sun Records and the Birth of Rock 'n Roll.")

Phillips was not the fastest man with a buck. One reason Cash and Perkins left Sun for Columbia was that Phillips paid 3-percent royalties instead of the standard 5 percent. The boss retired a rich man — not from selling Sun Records, which he did in the late '60s, but because he was an original shareholder in another mid-century Memphis business, Holiday Inns. Inc.

He didn't sing or play an instrument; he often left session supervision to his assistant Jack Clement, an actual musician and songwriter. But Phillips did have an ear. He could hear the brilliance in a raw musician. (Sam liked raw; it was what made him rock's first impresario.) He could also hear what wasn't there but could be: what a performer might accomplish if given full freedom in the studio.

Who knows where Phillips got this gift of creative listening? Says singer Jim Dickinson: "There are people who will say about Sam's period of genius that ... it is the same period of time as his alcoholism, and it's also right after his shock treatment therapy" in 1951. Dickinson recalls a time when Sam took a screwdriver to a fuse box. "It looked like lightning struck the thing. And Sam has yet even to recoil. He says, 'A little one-ten doesn't hurt you. You need a two-twenty every now and then just to know you're alive.'"

The music Sam Phillips godfathered had the same effect on American kids as the jolt from a 220-volt fuse. It let them know they were alive.

Come on over, baby, we got a chicken in the barn/ Whose barn? What barn? My barn!
Come on over, baby, really got the bull by the horn
We ain't fakin', whole lotta shakin' goin' on.
—recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, February 1957

The summer of '57 was a blistering time for primal rock 'n roll. At a million places like South Jersey's Avalon Ballroom (admission: 25 cents), kids worked up a sweet sweat jitterbugging to Bobby Day's "Rockin' Robin," Elvis' "All Shook Up," Ray Charles's "Talkin' 'Bout You," the Crickets' "That'll Be the Day," Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly," the Coasters' "Searchin'," Buddy Knox's "Party Doll," Ricky Nelson's "Be Bop Baby," Fats Domino's "I'm Walkin'," the Everly Brothers' "Bye Bye Love," the Diamonds' "Little Darlin'," the Dell Vikings' "Come Go with Me" and Chuck Berry's "School Days." Then they'd slow down for some smooth churning to ballads like "Long Lonely Nights," "Love Letters in the Sand," "Loving You," "A White Sport Coat" and (the season's top-selling song, I'm chagrined to say) "Tammy."

But for me the summer of '57 belonged to Jerry Lee Lewis and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." Sun had issued his rendition of the song (written by Dave Williams and Roy Hall, a.k.a Sonny David) in the spring, but it started soaring after Lewis's July 28th appearance on Steve Allen's Sunday night show. I remember watching that performance with the same startled excitement that seized me when I saw Elvis's debut on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey "Stage Show" 18 months earlier. A sharp intake of breath, a gnarl of the stomach and an irresistibly bopping head could mean only one thing to a kid reaching puberty at the same time rock did: The revolution was here.

And if Elvis sent the Romanovs scurrying from the Winter Palace, Jerry Lee was Lenin triumphant — the shock of the new suddenly sitting, smirking, raving on the old throne. Except JLL sat on a piano stool. Sat at the beginning, anyway. Then the fingers at the ends of those long, thin, untanned arms attacking the piano with the furiously proficient ardor of a Rubinstein or a Rubirosa. Yes, children, I remember that performance as if it were from the best, clearest yesterday that changed my teen tomorrows. But Nick Tosches, Lewis' biographer, conjures it with an infernal eloquence I couldn't match. Here, then, a passage from "Hellfire":

"He sat at the big piano and he looked sideways at the camera, eyeballed it the way he has looked at those girls in the Arkansas beer joint, and then he began to play the piano and howl about the shaking that was going on. He rose, still pounding, and he kicked the piano stool back. It shot across the stage, tumbling, skidding... Steve Allen laughed and threw the stool back, then threw other furniture, and Jerry Lee played some high notes with the heel of his shoe. Then he stopped and looked at the camera sideways again. Neither he nor Steve Allen had ever heard louder applause."

Those three TV minutes revealed Jerry Lee's electrifying, near-electrocuting showmanship. But the music was what got me. The bass figure on the piano starts rumbling and, two beats later, J.M. Van Eaton's cymbals join in. After the four-bar intro (which he first used in his own composition "End of the Road," recorded November 14, 1956), Jerry Lee makes the vocal invocation: "Come on over, baby, whole lotta shakin' goin' on!" It's a firm but liquid tenor, at times quavering with the infusion of the Spirit (perhaps holy, perhaps profane) that Jerry Lee heard and sang in the Assembly of God meetings of his youth. Which is of course at the sundered heart of his music: a wrasslin' match between the Deity and the Devil. Jerry Lee, whose cousin is the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, has often said he is a man of God doing Satan's work. His music, beginning with "Whole Lotta Shakin'," imparts much of the thrill and dread of someone who has taken the Lord's gift and twisted it to make rock 'n roll gold.

The song is a familiar 12-bar blues in boogie-woogie tempo: two verses, a chorus ("Shake, baby, shake"), two verses of instrumental break (one featuring Jerry Lee amok on piano, his pummeling accentuated by an arpeggio as if he were running barefoot over the keys, and one of Roland Janes's less ornate but momentum-sustaining guitar work) followed by a reprise of the second verse with the inspired vocal filler "We got a chicken in the barn/ Whose barn? What barn? My barn!" (the drums whacking the "whose-what-my" to give it extra force and fun), then two softer, near-spoken verses — one with the ad-lib "You can shake it one time for me" and a brief impression of the Elvis baritone ("Did you hear me, I said come on over, baby" but, in the Presley style, omitting all consonants), the second a little sermon on shakin' ("All ya gotta do, honey, is kinda stand in one spot,/ Wiggle around just a little bit,/ And that's when ya got something, yeah") — and finally, after the caressing, the orgasm, the imperious "Shake it, make it shake!" as the piano pumps like a marathoner's heart, the stool goes rush-stumbling across the floor and the listener rises in exhausted exaltation.

You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love drives a man insane
You broke my will
But what a thrill
Goodness gracious! Great balls o' fire!
—recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, October 6-8, 1957

I remember another Lewis manifestation, on Dick Clark's "Bandstand." It was Thanksgiving Day 1957 and, as Tosches notes, the other guests were the teen duo Tom and Jerry, later Simon and Garfunkel. For the kids in Philadelphia, Pa., Lewis sang his follow-up hit, "Great Balls of Fire." He tore through the number and, toward the end, shook his long, slicked-back blond hair until it fell forward, like a toupee attached at the brow line, virtually covering his face. He was suddenly a peroxided version of the Addams Family's Cousin Itt, and for a moment I could feel my stomach clutch. Hair wasn't supposed to do that, not in the '50s. Gene Vincent's was greasy, James Brown's extravagantly pompadoured, Elvis's as carefully coiffed as the 18th green at Augusta. Jerry Lee's hair was a creature from a horror film, a redneck monster that arose, erupted and smothered its host. The Attack of the 50 Ft. Flaxen! Great bolls of follicles!

Anyway, I was once more transfixed by the music. I still believe that "Whole Lotta Shakin' " and "Great Balls of Fire" constitute the most potent one-two punch any pop performer ever launched and landed. And of these, "Balls" is certainly the greater. The first song was standard 12-bar boogie: C, C, F, C, G-F, C. "Great Balls," written by ace '50s rock composer Otis Blackwell (of "Don't Be Cruel" and "Fever" fame) and Jack Hammer, is a declaration of lust so impatient it needs only eight bars, dropping the second and fourth C lines. It gets the job done in a majestically compressed 1min, 50sec.

Other improvements over "Whole Lotta Shakin' ": 1) Jerry Lee's pianistry was never so pertinently fortissimo. 2) The singing has a ferocious assurance, hitting preacher-like peaks. 3) And because the song is in the deranged-exclamatory mode — the lyric engorged with religio-carnal seizures ("You came along and mooooved me, honey!"), adolescent giddiness ("Kiss me, baby! Mmm-mm, feels good!"), desperate anticipation ("Hold me, baby! Well, I wants to love you like a lover should!") and obsessive-compulsive behavior ("I chew my nails and I twiddle my thumb!") — the comic intensity of JLL's glissandous vocal underlines, not undermines the sexual fervor. This is singing in tongues, wild sex behind the barn, rock for the ages.

Four bold notes, ascending by thirds, and then a break; the pattern repeated four times in the first verse, and Van Eaton's drums emphasizing the musical statement, as JLL itemizes a lover's complaint, "You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain..." Mid-rant, he muses that passion has its perverse perks ("You broke my will, but what a thrill"), before surrendering to ecstatic inanity: "Goodness gracious! Great balls of fire!" The second verse, which explains the singer's agitation as an agreeable form of sexual psychosis, punctuates the news with three right-hand arpeggios, while the bass drum is joined by a foreground tapping (presumably the rim of the snare drum), as if someone is keeping time on the mike with his buck teeth. In the bridge, Jerry Lee's left hand rumbles menacingly up to the break, when four-note poundings heighten the melodrama of the lyric: "You're fine, so kind/ Got to tell this world that you're mine mine mine mine!" Back to the verse, with more rumblings and eruptions — "C'mon, baby, ya drive me crazy" — and on to the two instrumental sections.

No guitar solo this time; in fact, I don't hear a guitar at all, just the pumping piano and the pulverized drums. The first instrumental verse starts with a sassy, Jelly Roll Morton-style line, then bangs out another four-time, four-note, four-on-the-floor figure with, this time, four arpeggios; it's how a sex-crazed Tex Avery cartoon wolf would express himself if he could play hot piano. Then the right hand pounds the same four high keys while the left hand describes a familiarly stealthy boogie-woogie figure, creeping up and down the lower register. We're back into the bridge, Jerry Lee's enunciation more forceful, and rampaging through the final verse. At "C'mon, baby, ya drive me crazy," the chugging bass figure is briefly counterpointed by a cute hearts-and-flowers, silent-movie piano flourish, as if sentiment not sex were the theme of the story — he's lying with his right hand, telling the truth with his left. A last "Goodness gracious! Great balls of fire!", a final four-note blast, and it's over.

My name is Jerry Lee Lewis from a-Louisiana
I'm gonna do ya'a little boogie on this here piana
Do it mighty fine, gonna make you shake it
I'll make ya do it and make ya do it until till ya break
It's called the Lewis boogie in the Lewis way
Oh Lord I do my little boogie-woogie every day.
—recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, early 1958

If Elvis was the King, the monarch of proto-pop, Jerry Lee was Moloch, the pagan deity of the Middle East whose worship involved the sacrifice of children. The early-surly Elvis, once under the stern tutelage of the illegal immigrant from the Netherlands who called himself Col. Tom Parker, was processed and pasteurized into a nice young man who went Hollywood (and Vegas) almost as soon as he became a star. Jerry Lee, who had and would tolerate no image-makeover Svengali, wore the musk of venereal danger, styled himself as a reckless teen girl's wet dream and her mom's nightmare. As Memphis native Michael Bane said of Lewis in another terrific Tosches book — "Country: The Twisted Roots of Rock 'n' Roll" — "He made Elvis acceptable. Elvis tried to be good.... But Jerry Lee was always a shitkicker." His nickname was 'The Killer,' and who knows how close he came to living down to his legend?

When asked to compare himself and Elvis, Jerry Lee used to say, "We are entirely different performers. 'Bout the only thing we got in common is that we're from Tennessee." Except that Presley was from Tupelo, Miss., Jerry Lee in Ferriday, La. He was born September 29, 1935, 274 days after Elvis, in Ferriday, La. Among his cousins were Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, who much later would mimic Jerry Lee's style and sell far more singles than the Moloch Man.

From the beginning, Jerry Lee was an apostle, an addict to music: inhaling all kinds, then reproducing and blending it on the family piano, where he would do his little boogie-woogie every day. As Tosches writes: "The child sang in church, and he sang along with his daddy's old records, and he sang along with the children of the black sharecroppers who lived nearby. And sometimes, when he was singing by himself, thinking that no one could hear him, he mixed it all together. ... Whatever he heard, he swallowed it, then he spat it out on that old Starck upright."

When he was 20, Lewis made the rounds of Nashville's country career-makers. JLL recalls that, in the post-Elvis greeding frenzy, "They said, 'Well, now, you change your act to a gittar and you might could make it.' I said, 'You can take your gittar and ram it up your ass.'" What an affront! Jerry Lee was, after all, the consummate keyboard man, with the best left hand in the business. Pumpin' that piano was his religion and his most consummate vice. But even commercially, his retort seemed to make commercial sense in 1956, when some of the best rockers were singer-pianists: Little Richard, Ray Charles and JLL's fellow Louisianans Fats Domino, Allen Toussaint and Huey "Piano" Smith. If '50s record producers thought they could make a mint with a white kid who sang like a black man, why couldn't a white kid who played like a black man be big too?

As it happened, history was with the guitar; Elvis and Buddy Holly, B.B. King and Bo Diddley, The Beatles and the Stones, Jimi Hendrix and Jeff Beck, ad infinitum ad gloriam, closed that case. And Jerry Lee would be the definitive piano rocker in part because he was, in the music's infancy, one of its last. (The saxophone, primal ax of early rock, also went nearly extinct.) He worked under another disadvantage: A pianist, unlike a guitarist, couldn't take his instrument to a gig; at least back then he didn't. Janes ascribes some of Lewis' extreme behavior on the road to his annoyance at being given "some pretty bad pianos to play... A lot of the wild stuff he did on piano would be out of frustration because they'd give him pianos that maybe five or six of the notes didn't play."

But shoddy or shiny, those rocket 88s did let him blast off. He sold records by the millions, induced puberty in America's young and shrugged off the charge by Jerry Lewis (born Joseph Levitch) that Jerry Lee had stolen his name! He also refuted the skeptics by proving that a man could still make concert-stage mayhem from a sitting position. Jerry Lee's one condition for business and pleasure: "Just give me my money and show me where the piano is."

At the live rock 'n roll shows that blossomed around the country, Lewis would often tour with — and against — his formidable rivals Chuck Berry and Little Richard. In an Alan Freed extravaganza at the Brooklyn Paramount, both he and Berry demanded the closing spot. Freed chose Berry, for reasons of seniority. And again we consult the Gospel according to Tosches:

"Jerry Lee did as he was bid that night; he went on before Chuck Berry. He had the crowd screaming and rushing the stage, and when it seemed that the screams had grown loudest and the rushing most chaotic, he stood, kicked the piano stool away with violence, and broke into 'Great Balls of Fire.' As the screaming chaos grew suddenly and sublimely greater, he drew from his jacket a Coke bottle full of gasoline, and he doused the piano with one hand as the other hand banged out the song; and he struck a wooden match and he set the piano aflame, and his hands, like the hands of a madman, did not quit the blazing keys, but kept pounding, until all became unknown tongues and holiness and fire, and the kids went utterly, magically berserk with the frenzy of it all; and Jerry Lee stalked backstage, stinking of gasoline and wrath, and he said to Chuck Berry, real calm, as the sound of kids going crazy and stamping and yelling shook the walls; he said, 'Follow that, nigger.' "

Jerry Lee often said that pop music had produced only four supreme stylists: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and himself. (Al Jolson??) On that incendiary night at the Brooklyn Paramount — March 28, 1958 — JLL could reasonably expect he might soon be the most popular of the four. "Breathless," his follow-up to "Great Balls of Fire," was chugging up the charts. His next single would be the theme song to a (minor) Hollywood film, "High School Confidential." And in May he would begin a headlining tour of Great Britain. A star was born. A star prevails.

And angry unkind words you've said
They make those teardrops start
Why can't I free your doubtful mind
And melt your cold cold heart?
— recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis, early 1961

A star fell.

In London he acknowledged that the young lady accompanying him — Myra Gale Brown, the 13-year-old daughter of his cousin J.W. Brown (who played bass in his touring band) — had been his wife since December 12, 1957. Jerry Lee was used to hell breaking loose around him, but usually he was the one who opened its cage. Now he looked pale and defenseless in the tabloid press's glare. The Rank theater chain canceled his bookings, he returned to the U.S. to find the reception no kinder, and the bride and groom found themselves the Monica-and-Bill of the '50s. Top-40 radio stations exiled Jerry Lee's music, and Sun Records issued his next single, "Lewis Boogie," as the B side of a derisive novelty number called "The Return of Jerry Lee," which intercut snippets of his records with a reporter's mock-interrogation. "What did Queen Elizabeth say about you?" "Goodness gracious! Great balls of fire!"

The small band of loyal fans like me (I was born the same year as Myra) were reduced to rooting out his records only in 19-cent remainder bins. That's where I found "Lewis Boogie," a tune that, in its rollicking rockin' propulsion, fully merits a place next to his two signature hits. It begins as abrupt as wartime reveille: four four-note phrases, each an octave lower than the preceding, on a piano that sounds a little flat in the upper registers. Then JLL races into his vocal. This is a 12-bar blues with a difference: the breaks come not in the first two lines (as in, say, Little Richard's "Long Tall Sally") but in the fourth and sixth, giving the lyric room to build to a natural dramatic climax and the pianist room to paint his sound-portrait. Of course there's a slew of arpeggios (eight, to the all-time record 11 in "Great Balls") and the satyr-singer's invocation of the magic moment "when your hips start rockin'/ Honey, and your knees start knockin'." For a transcendent 1min, 58 secs., find the song on the Jerry Lee CD "25 All-Time Greatest Sun Recordings."

With a few exceptions (like "Lewis Boogie"), Jerry Lee didn't write his own stuff. He made other stuff his own. And though he kept recording and refining his style, it must have galled him that some of his later, minor singles were remakes of songs by his old rivals and traveling companions: Little Richard's "Good Golly Miss Molly," Chuck Berry's "Little Queenie" and "Sweet Little Sixteen." Yet Lewis was not one to hide; if the gigs paid a few hundred dollars instead of the thousand he once earned, he was man enough to show up. He had some country hits in the '60s, and in 1968 played Iago in the L.A. production of an "Othello" musical called "Catch My Soul"; he spoke the lines word-perfect, in his deep bayou drawl, and stole the show. "This Shakespeare was really somethin," he told the L.A. Times. "I wonder what he woulda thought of my records."

Ev'rything I say is wrong
Ev'rything I do goes wrong
My honey's tellin' me, "So long"
What am I gonna do?
—Baby Baby Bye Bye," recorded by Jerry Lee Lewis in early 1960

Why is Jerry Lee Lewis still alive?

He has abused himself with pills and booze for most of his adult life. He nearly died in 1981 from a ruptured stomach. He shot his bass player Butch Owens in the chest — accidentally, it is said; Owens survived. But Lewis's family tree is full of untimely deadwood. His elder brother Elmo was run over by a truck when JLL was three. His eldest son Jerry Lee, Jr., died at 19; car crash. Steve Allen Lewis, his son by Myra, died at 5 in a swimming pool. His fourth wife, Jaren Pate, also died in a swimming pool, in 1982. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, died a few months into their marriage; it was ruled a methadone overdose, which doesn't explain her "bruised, bloodied corpse" police found in the bedroom of the Lewis's Nesbit, Miss., mansion. Or the comment Lewis supposedly made to Stevens' sister Denise. As she told the Detroit Free Press: "I said, 'What happened?', and Jerry said, 'Your sister's dead, and she was a bad girl."

Jerry Lee wasn't the only rock star to endure or sow tragedy. Elvis's twin brother died at birth; Berry was convicted of having sex with a 15-year-old (not his wife) and served three years in jail; Orbison married the 15-year-old Claudette Frady, who died 11 years later in a motorcycle crash. But Jerry Lee had such a run of misfortune that the frequency and enormity of the misfortunes begin to seem ... unseemly.

Some of these events occurred after "Hellfire" went to press. The book is beautifully written, of course — Tosches is the Sugar Ray Robinson of biographers, muscular but not muscle-bound, gliding, circling, then stinging with an insight — and has an unflagging, indeed accelerating, vigor for 150 pages. Eventually, though, the narrative winds down into terse renditions of Jerry Lee's police blotter. It's as if Tosches were waiting, with suppressed impatience, for his subject to expire or explode.

Didn't happen. Sixty-seven this year, Jerry Lee Lewis refused to die. What Tosches wrote in 1982 about Lewis in 1962 pertains today: "Still he pumped onward, roaming the country in a dirty Cadillac, howling of the fire and the shaking, seeking his own vague salvation, indomitable." Perhaps God or the Devil has other plans for the Killer. Or perhaps Jerry Lee sees them still wrasslin' for his soul, and as referee he refuses to call off the match.

Could be he's just too damn stubborn to die. He may see the Oldies Show of rock 'n roll pioneers as a last-man-standing competition, in which he is determined to outlive Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Fats Domino and other pretenders to the throne — the jewel-encrusted piano stool — he always believed was his. You know what he said back in 1977 when he heard Elvis had died? "Another one outta the way."