Jerry Lee Lewis records again as ‘Last Man Standing’

Published 11:39 pm Saturday, September 16, 2006

Jerry Lee Lewis is the last man standing from his generation of rockers, and no one could have expected that.

His hardheaded life of self-destructive recklessness — filled with drugs, booze and broken marriages — wasn’t exactly the formula for a long career, but “The Killer” is still rocking.

Just shy of his 71st birthday, Lewis is releasing his first studio album in more than a decade. Its title? “Last Man Standing.”

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“I just felt like I was ready to do it again,” Lewis said with a smile.

As a pioneer rock ’n’ roller for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records, Lewis was a member of the so-called “Million Dollar Quartet” with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Together, the young Sun stars carved a special place in the history of American music for Phillips’ label and influenced generations of future rock ’n’ rollers.

Of course, they never really performed together as a quartet, even though a photo from Dec. 4, 1956, shows them gathered together at a Sun Studio piano — with Presley, not Lewis, at the keys.

Now, Lewis is the only one left.

Presley died in 1977, Perkins in 1998 and Cash and Phillips in 2003.

“I AM the last man standing,” Lewis said. “And the last one breathing.”

The new album, scheduled for release Sept. 26, was five years in the making, produced by Jimmy Rip and Steve Bing for Bing’s Shangri-La Entertainment.

He’s joined on the 21-song album by 21 guests that include Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King, George Jones and Kid Rock. But the focus is clearly on Lewis.

“I had an understanding on that on the front end,” said Lewis, who’s never been known for happily sharing the spotlight.

The guests are big names, but they mostly sing harmony, backup or play instruments without singing.

“Jerry Lee’s talent had to be front and center,” Rip said. “His voice and his piano are the loudest things in every mix on every song, and we think that’s the way it should be.”

And he’s still plenty loud, even though he may not pump the piano as easily as he once could.

“He’s 70 years old, you know. That’s just a fact,” said his daughter Phoebe Lewis, who handles her father’s personal affairs. “But he’s always able to come through with what he’s got to do. He just does it.”

At a Memphis radio station to record promotional spots for “Last Man Standing,” Lewis shuffled out of a sound booth wearing flip-flops, an open-collar gray shirt and black sweat pants dotted with drawings of small red chili peppers.

Led by his daughter, he plopped in a chair to rest before the drive home to Nesbit, Miss., just south of Memphis. “I’m pretty tired,” he said with a sigh, but he was happy to talk about the new album.

“I’m definitely satisfied with it,” he said. “I think it’s the best album we’ve done in 20 years.”

Rip said he asked longtime friend Mick Jagger to take part on “Last Man Standing,” and other artists began signing up as the project grew.

“We never really planned this as being a duet record. It just sort of turned out that way,” Rip said by phone from Los Angeles. “People actually started to ask me, ’How come I’m not on the record?”’

Lewis said he had doubts about having so much company.

“I didn’t know how they were going to get all those people together,” he said. “But it went smooth as silk.”

Most of Lewis’ work was done in Memphis at Sam Phillips Recording Service, a studio run by Phillips’ sons; some vocals were recorded at the old Sun Studio, now a tourist attraction.

But many of his guests recorded their contributions elsewhere, with the final product mixed by Rip, who refused to say which artists were in the studio with Lewis.

“Some were and some weren’t,” he said. “I’ll never tell who was there and who wasn’t because, to me, that kind of ruins the illusion.”

Rip said he had to explain to Lewis that with modern technology recordings can be made just about anywhere.

“He asked, ’Can we do them in bed?’ And I said, ’Well, we can do the ballads in bed, but you’ve got to sit up for the rock ’n’ roll,”’ Rip said.

For the work at Sun, “it was just the two of us with a pair of headphones and a computer,” Rip said, “and, man, he just sang. In some of those vocals, he sounds like he’s 20 again.”

The album includes “Pink Cadillac” with Springsteen, “Traveling Band” with John Fogerty, “That Kind of Fool” with Keith Richards, “Trouble in Mind” with Eric Clapton,” “You Don’t Have to Go,” with Neil Young and “Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Age” with George Jones.

From the beginning, back when Lewis was a teenager kicked out of preacher’s school in Waxahatchie, Texas, for playing “the devil’s music,” his personal life has been a mess. He’s wrecked cars, been hauled in drunk by the police, played around with guns, once shooting a band member in the chest and nearly killing him.

He set off one of the great rock ’n’ roll scandals by marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1957, while still married to someone else.

Lewis, who nearly died from bleeding ulcers in 1981, has stumbled through six marriages, two of which ended with the deaths of his wives.

His fourth wife drowned in a swimming pool while divorcing him in 1982, and just a little over a year later, the next Mrs. Lewis, 23 years his junior, died of a drug overdose. He divorced his sixth wife last year.

He’s buried two children who died in accidents and fought the federal government over unpaid taxes, with tax agents even showing up at concerts to seize his pay, which he preferred in cash.

Nowadays, according to daughter Phoebe, Lewis spends his free time entertaining friends with lemonade and stories of the old days and with leisurely drives around rural Mississippi in his red Cadillac convertible.

Lewis wraps up the new album with Kris Kristofferson and “The Pilgrim: Chapter 33,” a song about a life of wrong turns spent reaching for the stars. The album ends with Lewis speaking one of song’s main lines — that “the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.”

“I don’t know if I agree with that line or not,” Lewis said, “not all the way.”