Rick Bragg is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of the New York Times bestsellers All Over But the Shoutin’, Ava’s Man, The Prince of Frogtown, and I Am a Soldier, Too: The Jessica Lynch Story. He has twice won the prestigious American Society of Newspaper Editors Distinguished Writing Award and more than fifty writing awards in his career. He is currently a professor of writing at the University of Alabama in Tuscaloosa.
Jerry Lee Lewis helped define the wild frontier of rock and roll. His most recent albums, Last Man Standing (2006) and Mean Old Man (2010), were his most successful in thirty years. Still performing today, he recently opened Jerry Lee Lewis’s Cafe and Honky Tonk on Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. He lives in Nesbit, Mississippi.
Book Title: Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story
A pioneering icon in the history of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis has lived a storied life of fame and failure, sin and redemption—a hell-raising life marked by God and the Devil, and, of course, music. While others have attempted to tell “the Killer’s” story, it has taken Pulitzer Prize-winner Rick Bragg to excavate the whole truth direct from the man himself. Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story recounts this consummate Southern story as only Bragg could—shaping Jerry Lee’s own memories with the keen-eyed observation and a poetic narrative style that has gained Bragg praise as the Bard of the American South.
Born into hardscrabble poverty in Depression-era Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis discovered his talent for the piano at an early age. After the tragic death his older brother—the “good” son—his parents placed their heartbroken hopes in young Jerry Lee. At the urging of the mother he adored, he tried to apply his musical gifts to Pentecostal worship service, but the lure of secular music, particularly the Blues of the neighboring black population in Concordia Parish, was too strong. Dropping out of high school, he began scraping by, playing the piano in bars and clubs, drawn to the music at the roots of rock and roll. He dreamed large, and knew he could be as big as his Mississippi contemporary, Elvis Presley, if he could only find the song to make him a star. He found “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and never looked back.
But, Jerry Lee Lewis was as hard to tame as his music. While his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, has spent his life condemning rock and roll, Jerry Lee embraced its temptations. He would practice bigamy, and fall from public grace when he married his thirteen-year-old cousin—an act he still maintains was acceptable in the culture and time he grew up in. More than once, his excesses would come close to destroying his career. Outlandish onstage performances and off-stage antics—drugs, alcohol, tax problems, brushes with the law, and two near-death experiences—fueled his bad boy image. Still, what Bragg discovers is a man, raised in a hardcore Christian culture, who is haunted by the question: “Can a man play rock and roll and still go to heaven?”
And then there is the music itself. The first performer inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, Lewis has played with everyone from Elvis to Kid Rock, has influenced generations of musicians, and has lived to see himself portrayed on Broadway and on screen. He has outlived all of his Sun Records colleagues and married for the seventh time in 2012.
“He is more than an American icon,” says Bragg. “He is more than a gifted and masterful musician. He spans so many genres and has lived such a violent, sad, and wonderful life that, at times, it seems he cannot be real, let alone still alive to tell about it.” Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story is an essential work about the history of rock and roll, the culture of the South, and the life of the man whose destiny converged with both.