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A Half-Million Dollars: Biographies of Johnny Cash and Jerry Lee Lewis

C. Michael Bailey By

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The Title Page photograph is of Lewis backstage at the Star Club, Hamburg, Germany in 1964. Lewis is about to record perhaps the finest, most corrosive and disturbed live rock & roll album committed to magnetic tape. Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, recorded April 5, 1964, is a feral and bleeding document that exists as half myth, half legend and half fact, the latter manifesting the experience of rejection Lewis experienced from the bad publicity arising from having married his 13-year old first cousin, once removed, Myra Gail Brown in both the American and foreign press. That brief six years between High School Confidential and Live at the Star Club hardened Lewis' psyche and image, revealing him as mercurial, commanding and wholly unhinged genius who was, arguably, a greater talent than even Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee Lewis was not given his due and he was going to take it from his German audience at the expense of his young, English back-up band, that spring evening. If there is an operational definition of rock & roll music, it must be Live at the Star Club.

The back matter endpaper photograph is one taken of Lewis from behind the stage at the 2014 Beale Street Music Festival. Lewis is situated stage left, looking out at the crowd of the 20,000 true believers, most not born when he first released "Crazy Arms" in 1956. Not, 1974, not 1984 or '94 and not 2004. The year this biography was published... Bragg in his G&G article goes on to sharpen the point:

"Now there is only him to speak of the creation, only him and a wheelchair-bound Little Richard and a frail Chuck Berry and reclusive Fats Domino, to shout the birth of rock and roll. 'Daddy took after Chuck one time with a Barlow knife,' he said, never claiming memory is a neat and tidy thing. He fought Carl Perkins across the trunk of a '57 Buick. He watched Johnny Cash steal a motel TV..."

No, that May afternoon, on the banks of the Mississippi River, within sight of the bridge joining Tennessee and Arkansas, Jerry Lee Lewis delivered the same camp meeting message he has for the past 60 years... Look a-here, sweet mama, let's burn off both our shoes / Well, my heart's a-beatin' rhythm and my soul is singin' the blues...

Lewis' is an Horatio Alger story hopped up on dexies standing in a ditch filled with two feet of whiskey. He lived life con brio and outlived all but few contemporaries and remains the only one still performing. Bragg's account does not pull punches, nor does it need to. Bragg successfully grasps the meaning of Jerry Lee Lewis and the music he begat:

...And you laughed and laughed, because you know that no matter how outrageous a thing is that you might have done, he did it, better or worse, and did more of it, and if he can do all that for all these many years and still be breathing—no, living—then there is hope for the rest of us. Surely we will live forever."


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