DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, sitting in for Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “GREAT BALLS OF FIRE”)
JERRY LEE LEWIS: (Singing) 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 of fire. I laughed at love ’cause I thought it was funny. You came along and you moved me, honey. I’ve changed my mind. This love is fine. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire. Kiss me, baby. Mmm, it feels good. Hold me, baby. Well, I’m off to love you like a lover should. Oh, you’re fine, so kind. Got to tell this world that you’re mine, mine, mine, mine. I chew my nails and then I twiddle my thumbs. I’m real nervous, but it sure is fun. Come on, baby. You drive me crazy. Goodness, gracious, great balls of fire.
BIANCULLI: We’re remembering rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis, who died October 28 at age 87 with excerpts from two interviews from our archives. In the second half of the show, we’ll listen back to Terry’s interview with Myra Lewis Williams, who was married to Jerry Lee when she was 13. They were cousins. The scandal which followed their marriage ended Jerry Lee’s career as a rock ‘n’ roll superstar, but he later found redemption in performing country music.
We’ll kick things off with an interview Terry did with Jerry Lee’s younger sister, pianist and singer Linda Gail Lewis. Before Jerry Lee Lewis became a star, their family lived in a shack in Ferriday, La. Linda learned to play piano from watching her brother. They started performing together when she was 14, in the early 1960s. They recorded together, and she toured with him for many years in the ’60s and ’70s before going off on her own. Linda Gail Lewis was on FRESH AIR in 2018, along with singer-songwriter and guitarist Robbie Fulks. They had just put out a record together called “Wild! Wild! Wild!” Here’s the opening track, featuring Linda Gail Lewis on piano and vocals.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “ROUND TOO LONG”)
LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) I’m the sister of a hell raiser, the daughter of an old tomcat. I was playin’ the piano in a honky-tonk before you bragged about that. If it’s a song about hard, hard livin’ (ph), it’s a song I’m livin’ in. If a rough road goes there, you can bet I’ve been. When the girls were playin’ at jump rope, I was playin’ (ph) the men for fools. I was drownin’ in a sea of whiskey when they were dreamin’ about Liverpool. Ever since I was a child, I was fast and wild. I guess I’m a wild one still. ‘Cause when they say you can’t, you know I will. I’m like a record that won’t wear out. I’m like a wheel that spins on. You can’t hardly stop rollin’ when I’ve been ’round too long.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
TERRY GROSS: Linda Gail Lewis, welcome to FRESH AIR. Robbie Fulks, welcome back to FRESH AIR, and congratulations on your album, “Wild! Wild! Wild!” So, Linda, we just heard a sample of your piano style, which is very similar to your brother Jerry Lee Lewis’ piano style. But you didn’t start playing until you were 30 or 40 or something.
L LEWIS: I was actually 40. You know, I knew the basic chords on the piano, you know, like, for just accompanying myself if I was writing a song or just singing a gospel song or a country song or something. But I didn’t know how to play rock ‘n’ roll or boogie-woogie because I’d been on the road with my brother. So that wasn’t needed in our act. When I left his band, it was necessary for me to figure it out. And thank goodness he had shown me a lot of things that I fortunately could remember.
GROSS: What did he show you?
L LEWIS: He showed me basically this – I call it the Jerry Lee Lewis invention because it’s kind of like a Bach invention, only it’s for boogie-woogie and rock ‘n’ roll. He came up with this thing for me to play, and he said, if you play this and you start out really slow and then work up to speed, then it will open up everything for you, and you’ll be able to play rock ‘n’ roll and boogie-woogie piano.
GROSS: What about the glissandos where you slide down the notes of the piano?
L LEWIS: That just comes naturally to me.
GROSS: I always think it must tear up your hands.
L LEWIS: It does.
GROSS: Does it?
GROSS: OK. You’re both from very different backgrounds. So, Linda, let me ask you. You grew up in a shack in Louisiana. Would you describe the shack for us?
L LEWIS: Well, it was this gray building. There was kind of, like, holes in it in places. And we didn’t have a bathroom on the inside. We had to bathe in a tin tub out on the porch in the summer or in the kitchen where there’s heat in the winter. It was tough. It was hard living there. And it was embarrassing for me when I’d get off the school bus because…
GROSS: Most of the other kids weren’t as poor.
L LEWIS: I didn’t see any other shacks exactly like that one, maybe one or two. But still, when it’s you getting off the bus and it’s your shack, it’s embarrassing. So it was hard for me. But, you know, I was able to leave there pretty early because, you know, my brother got us out of there when I was 10 years old.
GROSS: Well, yeah, because, you know, he became famous as Jerry Lee Lewis. He signed with Sun Records, and people know how that story went. So it must have really profoundly affected your family life when there was money coming in and he became famous.
L LEWIS: Oh, it was wonderful. We went to Memphis. I remember our first trip to Memphis. It was so great. But, of course, the main thing that I remember is that Jerry bought us a new house in town, a nice brick home with everything, bathroom on the inside. It was lovely. And he gave us $1,000 to go shopping. My mama had two dresses, one to wear to church and one to wear at home. That’s all she had. And we took $1,000 to Doris’ Dress Shop (ph) in Ferriday, La., and bought everything they had in our sizes.
GROSS: Everyone in your family made music, right?
L LEWIS: Well, yes. My mama was a great singer. She was the song leader in our church. And Daddy played guitar, and he played a little bit of piano.
GROSS: So one thing you have in common in terms of your background is I think, you know, you both grew up in musical families, although, Linda, there was a famous person in your family. Well, not just Jerry Lee Lewis. Jimmy Swaggart is your cousin, and he’s, like, the famous televangelist – a famous televangelist preacher. But he performed in those shows, too – didn’t he? – like, sing and play.
L LEWIS: Yes, he did. And he’s a wonderful piano player, and he is a wonderful singer. And he’s a great…
ROBBIE FULKS: Great singer.
L LEWIS: Yeah, he’s a great singer, and he’s a great preacher. And he was off of TV for a while because of the scandal. But he’s back on now.
GROSS: Right. And the scandal involved a prostitute and pornography.
L LEWIS: I think so.
L LEWIS: Although there are some little old ladies that think that he was framed (laughter).
GROSS: Is that true?
L LEWIS: I did have a couple of people tell me that. Yes.
GROSS: But you don’t think he was framed.
L LEWIS: Well, I think that’s far-fetched.
L LEWIS: I love Jimmy, and I wouldn’t say anything bad about him, but that’d be a bit far-fetched.
GROSS: OK. So – and did you both grow up singing in church a lot, too?
FULKS: I did a little bit, yeah.
L LEWIS: And I did a lot.
GROSS: Did you sing a lot of church songs at home even though you just did a little singing in church, Robbie?
FULKS: You know, I’m trying to remember. I did a lot of singing with my family, and I went to – I stopped going to church, partly because we were living so far from anything and I didn’t have transportation. My parents were churchgoers, but I think I stopped going to church around age 13, and they were largely, like, Methodist churches with uninteresting hymnal singing. They weren’t, like, the real cool music that Linda was probably doing.
GROSS: So, Linda, I think your family helped build the church that your family belonged to.
L LEWIS: Well, they did. You know, it was a Holy Roller church, so it wasn’t so popular. In our little town of Ferriday, you’d have, like, a thousand people attending the Baptist church and maybe 500 the Methodist and 200 Catholics and about 50 Pentecostals.
GROSS: And that was your church.
L LEWIS: And that was our church.
GROSS: So what kind of music was in the church?
L LEWIS: Oh, it was great music. And Robbie would have loved it, you know?
L LEWIS: He’d probably have been finding a way to get to church if he was going to that one. It was just – you know, it was wonderful music, upbeat most of the time – not all the time. But it was very emotional, though. I mean, sometimes, it was frightening and sad. But when they did those songs like “I’ll Fly Away” and stuff like that, it was absolutely wonderful.
GROSS: I’m wondering if your brother and you first got your hands on a piano in church ’cause if you were living in a shack, I doubt there was a piano in the shack.
L LEWIS: Well, my mama and daddy found a way to get my brother a piano when he was 8 years old.
GROSS: In the shack?
L LEWIS: Yeah, in – I guess, yeah. We were still…
GROSS: In the shack with the holes in it?
L LEWIS: Oh, we were definitely in the shack with the holes in it.
FULKS: It was at your aunt’s house, yeah?
L LEWIS: Well, he – they bought it from my aunt. My Aunt Eva had a piano she had bought for her daughter Norma Jean (ph). And Norma Jean just wouldn’t take the lessons and play the piano. So she said she just wanted to sell it. So she sold it to my mama and daddy. And Daddy moved that piano downstairs by himself…
L LEWIS: …Because they lived up over their cafe that they had. They had a cafe. And they lived up over it, so it was upstairs. And Jerry told me, he said, I can’t believe how Daddy could move that piano down those stairs by himself. It was an upright piano. My brother still has it.
BIANCULLI: Linda Gail Lewis, the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis. She spoke with Terry Gross in 2018 along with songwriter-singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks. We’ll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF HOWARD FISHMAN SONG, “DIRTY”)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s return to the interview and performance from our archives with pianist and singer Linda Gail Lewis, the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis, and singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks. They were on FRESH AIR in 2018 after putting out their record, “Wild! Wild! Wild!”
GROSS: So you sing great harmonies together. Did that come naturally? I mean, Linda, you certainly sang a lot of harmonies with your brother in the past.
L LEWIS: Well, I have. You know, my brother’s a great singer, and so is Robbie. So it reminds me of doing duets with my brother. And it wasn’t hard for me to sing with Robbie. I love singing with him.
GROSS: Can I ask you to do a song that you also do on the new album, “Wild! Wild! Wild!”? I’m going to ask you to sing your duet of “On The Jericho Road.” And did you both know this song before you decided to do it together?
L LEWIS: Well, I was sitting at a Burger King in Tromso, Norway. I got an email from Robbie saying, well, we need to do some gospel. And I suggested “Jericho Road.” Didn’t I, Robbie?
FULKS: You did. Yeah. And you directed me to Jerry’s insane performance of it…
FULKS: …With – yeah, unbelievable piano solo.
L LEWIS: Yeah. And then, I immediately told you, I’m not playing that piano solo. Then, I made you play the guitar solo.
FULKS: You made me play the guitar.
L LEWIS: (Laughter).
FULKS: And for better or worse…
L LEWIS: Not really, but I asked you to.
FULKS: …This is what we came up with.
(Vocalizing, playing guitar).
ROBBIE FULKS AND LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) As you travel along on the Jericho Road, there’s room for just two. Brother, don’t carry a load. Just bring it to Christ. Your sins all confess. On the Jericho Road, your heart he will bless.
FULKS: (Singing) On the Jericho Road…
L LEWIS: (Singing) On the Jericho Road…
FULKS: (Singing) There’s room for just two.
L LEWIS: (Singing) There’s room for just two.
FULKS: (Singing) No more and no less.
L LEWIS: (Singing) No more or no less.
FULKS: (Singing) Only Jesus and you.
L LEWIS: (Singing) Just Jesus and you.
FULKS AND LEWIS: (Singing) Each burden he’ll bear. Each sorrow he’ll share. There’s never a care. Precious Jesus is there. There’s never a care. Precious Jesus is there.
GROSS: Oh, thank you for that. I loved it.
FULKS: Warts and all.
GROSS: Oh, it was wonderful. And let me reintroduce you. My guests are Robbie Fulks, songwriter-singer, guitarist, and Linda Gail Lewis, who’s a pianist and singer and sometimes songwriter as well and also the sister of Jerry Lee Lewis. So we just heard you sing “On The Jericho Road,” which is a very Christian song. And Linda, I think you’re still in the church.
L LEWIS: Well, I’m not exactly in a church. They won’t have me.
L LEWIS: But I am a Christian.
GROSS: But you’re still deeply a Christian.
L LEWIS: Yeah. I haven’t found one that would agree with everything I do, but (laughter). But, yes, I do go to church occasionally. But I don’t, like, belong to a church. But I’m very spiritual, and I love the Lord.
GROSS: And, Robbie, as I remember from our last interview, you completely moved away from the church.
FULKS: Yeah. I’m an atheist, which I haven’t really discussed with Linda until this moment. But there it is.
GROSS: Are you OK with that, Linda?
L LEWIS: I already knew that he was an atheist. I read it on one of those social media things.
GROSS: Your secret is long out.
FULKS: Yeah. Cat’s out of the bag.
GROSS: But you still love singing those songs.
FULKS: I really do. I mean, they’re great songs. I mean, songs about belief, you know, that’s what makes a love song great ’cause you believe it when you sing it. And songs about transcendental belief, to me, are all the more powerful.
GROSS: Linda, what did your parents think, being such church people, when Jerry Lee Lewis, along with you, his younger sister, started performing these, like, wild songs, totally secular, kind of blasphemous probably within your church? So how did that go over in the family? Now, granted, he was bringing in a lot of money and got the family out of poverty, so I’m sure they liked that. But there was a lot that went along with that.
L LEWIS: Well, you know, my parents defended my brother always. And they didn’t necessarily agree with his theory, which is that he was doing the devil’s music. They didn’t really feel that like he did. And – but the people in the church weren’t happy with us. I mean, Mama would still go. And she’d take me with her a lot of times. And people weren’t all that nice to us in the church anymore. But Jerry feels like – you know, he used to feel like that was the devil’s music. I don’t know if he feels that way so much now. I think he’s mellowed on that.
GROSS: Did you ever feel like you were going to go to hell because of the music you were playing or the life you were living?
L LEWIS: I never felt that way.
GROSS: Even when you were young and…
L LEWIS: Well, when I was young, I was scared to death. I mean…
GROSS: Of hell?
L LEWIS: Of – yeah, of hell. I mean, those preachers would preach those sermons and would scare you to death.
GROSS: Sure. But then you’re going from that to – I mean, you were married at the age of 14. You – I mean, you were drinking. You were on the road with your brother. I mean, that is not, like, what would be defined as the righteous life, if you want – do you know what I’m saying?
L LEWIS: I was pretty crazy as a kid.
GROSS: Yeah, that’s what I’m saying.
L LEWIS: I admit that.
L LEWIS: Yes, I was.
GROSS: So in those early days of being wild, as in “Wild! Wild! Wild!,” the album title…
L LEWIS: (Laughter) Back in the day.
GROSS: …Did you worry about hell? Did you worry about, you know, not being redeemed?
L LEWIS: Maybe a little bit when I wasn’t drinking Wild Turkey and 7UP…
L LEWIS: …And had a chance to think about it. But yes, I probably did worry about it. But I’ve just always felt like that Jesus forgives us of our sins because that’s what the Bible says. And a lot of people miss that. And they have all these ideas about what you can do and you can’t do.
GROSS: Tell us a little bit about what it was like to be performing with your brother when you were in your early teens.
L LEWIS: It was wonderful. It was absolutely great. I wanted so much to go on the road with him. And of course, I was in school. But then I met this guy and fell in love with him. And we got married. But it only lasted for, I think, a few months. It wasn’t long at all. And I ended up with a divorce. And then I said, well, I can’t really go back to school because I’ve just gone through this divorce. So how about me going on the road with you, Jerry?
L LEWIS: And he took me on the road.
GROSS: So you were – you met Elvis Presley. You probably met all the rockabilly performers and a lot of other now-famous performers, too.
L LEWIS: It’s been absolutely wonderful. I mean, Chuck Berry and Little Richard – and Fats Domino was a lovely man. It was so great being around all those guys.
GROSS: So we’ve heard you do duets together. And you’ve also both recorded a lot solo. What are some of the pleasures of singing harmony?
FULKS: I feel it’s kind of hard to describe. It’s like the pleasure, as I was saying earlier, of dancing with an excellent partner. And it’s like the pleasure of falling down on a nice, soft bed, you know? And when you sing with a great partner, like I get to do with Linda, it really is almost like falling into a bed in its thoughtlessness and comfort and the good feeling. And I wish I could be more scientific about it. It’s a good feeling.
L LEWIS: I really – I enjoy harmonizing. Of course, I did with my brother and with my sister, Frankie Jean. And then now my son and my daughter sing with me. And that’s a lot of fun when we do that.
GROSS: Oh, that’s great.
FULKS: Woman plus man is an especially potent thing, though, at least in country music. Don’t you think?
L LEWIS: Oh, yes, of course. And the thing that mostly that I would do with my kids would be like gospel or folk music or something. But, yeah, the country songs with a man and a woman singing a duet, I think it’s really great.
GROSS: It has been so great to have you both here. Thank you for being so generous, playing your music for us. I really loved hearing it. Thank you so much.
L LEWIS: Oh, thank you. Thank you so much.
FULKS: Thank you, Terry. It was a great pleasure.
BIANCULLI: Pianist and singer Linda Gail Lewis, the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis. She spoke with Terry Gross in 2018, along with songwriter, singer and guitarist Robbie Fulks. The record they put out together is called “Wild! Wild! Wild!” Linda Gail Lewis toured with her brother, Jerry Lee, in the ’60s and ’70s. Here’s a duet from a record they put out in 1969. The name of the album is “Together.” The song is called “Secret Places.”
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SECRET PLACES”)
L LEWIS: (Singing) Every time you hold me close, we meet in secret places. We can’t go out on the town cause people know our faces.
J LEWIS: (Singing) We’ve loved each other all these years. We’ve lived with constant shame and fear.
JERRY LEE LEWIS AND LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) But we’ll go on and live our love tonight in secret places. Secret places, hidden faces, that’s all we’ve ever known. Stolen moments, warm embraces – we know we just can’t be wrong.
L LEWIS: (Singing) Why do we have to hide our love when we belong together? Our love is like a ship at sea that’s tossed by stormy weather.
BIANCULLI: Coming up in the second half of our show, an interview with Myra Lewis Williams, who married Jerry Lee Lewis when she was just 13. The scandal which followed ended his career as a rock ‘n’ roll superstar. Myra’s memoir, titled “Great Balls Of Fire,” became the basis of the movie of the same name. She didn’t think much of the movie. And music critic Ken Tucker has an appreciation of Jerry Lee’s turn to country music. That’s coming up after a break. I’m David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, “SECRET PLACES”)
JERRY LEE LEWIS AND LINDA GAIL LEWIS: (Singing) Secret places, hidden faces – that’s all we’ve ever known. Stolen moments, warm embraces – we know we just can’t be wrong.
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. I’m David Bianculli, professor of television studies at Rowan University, sitting in for Terry Gross. We’re remembering rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis today with interviews from our archive. Lewis was 87 when he died on October 28. With his huge hits “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls Of Fire,” he was the major radio rival to Elvis Presley. But in 1958 when Jerry Lee married his second cousin, 13-year-old Myra Brown, his career was destroyed by the resulting scandal. Myra divorced Jerry Lee in 1971 and went on to a career in real estate in Atlanta, Ga. In 1989, Terry interviewed Myra Brown Lewis, who is now known as Myra Lewis Williams. The film “Great Balls Of “Fire!,” starring Dennis Quaid as Jerry Lee, had just come out. It was based on Myra’s memoir of the same name. In 2016, Myra published a second memoir titled “The Spark That Survived.” She told Terry that she didn’t think much of the movie.
(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)
MYRA LEWIS WILLIAMS: When I walked in and I started watching this movie, which I put off about as long as I could – and my family drug me there. They said, you’ve got to go with us and see this. What I sat down and saw was a lightweight musical comedy. It was very entertaining, and it was very cute. And it does try to tell you a lot of information. But it is a year and a half in our life, and my book covered 30 years. And there are a lot of things that are factual in as much as far as they go. But it’s almost like you have to know what happened before and after to understand the reasoning behind what the person did.
GROSS: Well, let’s talk about your story as you actually lived it. How did you first meet Jerry Lee Lewis?
WILLIAMS: Terry, I met Jerry by way of my father bringing him to Memphis. My father had been injured on the job, and he went to Louisiana looking for his first cousin, Jerry Lee Lewis, who he had not met. But he did know that he played piano and sang. And my father had been in a band with his brothers, you know, when he was a kid. And he wanted to form a band, so he went and found Jerry, brought him to Memphis. And when Jerry walked into our house, I was a 12-year-old kid sitting at the kitchen table doing my math homework – ponytail and crinoline and poodle skirt and all this. And I really didn’t even know who Jerry was or what he was.
GROSS: Your marriage to him became a scandal because you were 13 and he was 22 and you were second cousins. Did that seem unusual to you at the time – your age and marrying as second cousins?
WILLIAMS: It did to me. You’ve got to remember I grew up in a city. I grew up in Memphis, Tenn., the suburbs of the city. Jerry grew up on a farm in Louisiana. Where he came from, it was not unusual. But when Jerry decided that he wanted to marry me, I argued with him that I was too young, and he argued back that I wasn’t. So I was very aware of the age, that it was entirely too young.
GROSS: And I think his sister had married when she was 12.
WILLIAMS: Yes. Yes.
GROSS: So it really wasn’t that unusual in his family.
WILLIAMS: It wasn’t unusual. His mother had married, I think, when she was 16. Of course, my mother married when she was 16. But they had left that part of the country, and I had not been raised in that environment. So it was – you know, it was way out of the ordinary for me. But in Jerry’s family, it was still happening.
GROSS: How did you get married since you were underage?
WILLIAMS: Well, Jerry went to the courthouse in Mississippi. He took a girl that posed as me. She signed the certificate and said that she was Myra Gale Brown. And they put on there that she was 22 years old. And they did not question her, of course. And you had a three-day waiting period, I believe, at that time. And Jerry came back from this trip to my house, called me outside in the car, and said, sit down. I want to tell you something. I want to show you something. And he pulled out the marriage license.
And when I first saw it, I thought we had gotten married. I could not understand how a person could be married and not know it. And when he said, no, we’re going to get married – and that’s when I argued with him and said, Jerry, I am too young for this. And he said, no, you’re not. My mother married young, and your mother married young. And I’m making plenty money, and everything will be OK. And that’s the point where I jumped out of the car and slammed the door and ran off. And he came after me. And he caught me, and he whirled me around. And he said, Myra, I love you, and I want to marry you. And I said, well, I love you, too, Jerry. But I don’t want to marry you right now. I’m too young. And he said, well, it’s now or never. And of course, you could almost say the rest is history.
GROSS: You were in what grade when you got married?
WILLIAMS: The eighth.
GROSS: Did you drop out after you were married?
WILLIAMS: Terry, in 1958, there was a law that said you could not attend school if you were married, which was there to discourage young marriages. But all, in essence, it discouraged was an education. So, of course, I dropped out because I had to. But I would have myself anyway because, of course, Jerry wanted me to be with him. He wanted me going on the road with him.
GROSS: You know, I’m thinking about what it must have been like to be married – you were 13, and he was 22 – but not only to be married, to be married to this, like, super-libidinous husband, you know?
GROSS: I mean, your husband was someone who was singing the most kind of wild, sexy lyrics, you know? And he really had a very kind of sexually charged persona as a performer. Did you feel at all physically or mentally prepared for a marital, sexual relationship?
WILLIAMS: No, I was not prepared for anything. I had no idea what was expected of me. I had no idea what I was supposed to do or how I was supposed to do it. I did not grow up and get married. I got married and grew up. And to me, it was the most natural thing in the world, and the most normal, although I did realize that there was no one else on the face of the earth that was living life the same way I was living it.
GROSS: Did you find sexuality normal or disturbing when you were that young?
WILLIAMS: I did not find it disturbing. I don’t know what I found it. I found it my obligation more than anything else. I was very unknowledgeable about anything. As a matter of fact, I believe Jerry knew I was pregnant before I did. I had no idea. I had no idea why I was sick.
GROSS: You are really a classic example of going from living in your parents’ house to living in your husband’s house and going from having parents as the authority figures to having husband as authority figure without having any time as an independent person. And the impression I got is that Jerry Lee Lewis really was an authority figure in the home and that he tried to control you in many ways. You say that he tried to choose the clothes you wore, the books you read, told you not to wear makeup, chose the records that you could listen to. And I was really curious what records he didn’t want you to listen to.
WILLIAMS: If they had his name on them, I could listen to them.
GROSS: Anything else?
WILLIAMS: And if they didn’t, I was not supposed to be listening.
GROSS: Did it seem like – did it ever seem really hypocritical to you that here was this wild guy whose behavior really knew no bounds but for you, his wife, he would draw the line and, you know, make you toe the line?
WILLIAMS: It’s called a double standard, Terry.
GROSS: Were you aware of it being that way? Did you ever object to it when you were 12? Or did you just accept, well, that must be the way things are?
WILLIAMS: No, I accepted it at that age. You see; I let Jerry raise me. I let him tell me what I was supposed to think and what I was supposed to believe. First off, I didn’t have anyone else to tell me, and I had to grow up, so I had to think something. And in the Deep South, you’ve got to remember, it’s – a wife was almost a possession to her husband. My grandmother called her husband mister. Now, that’s quite a time ago, but still, that can almost show you how women were very subservient position to their husbands. So it was not strange to me.
I believed everything he told me. He spoon fed me life in little bitty sips, and I accepted it and sought no other opinion, never for a moment thought of disobeying him or not agreeing with him until I started growing up. And then I said, wait a second. Somehow all this can’t be right. There’s an entire world out there that’s not going to agree with this. And when I started thinking on my own, I realized that there was more to life than what I was getting.
BIANCULLI: Myra Lewis Williams speaking to Terry Gross in 1989 – more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF JERRY GRANELLI’S “NEVER GONNA BREAK MY FAITH”)
BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let’s get back to Terry’s 1989 interview with Myra Lewis Williams. She married Jerry Lee Lewis, her second cousin, when she was 13 years old in 1958 and divorced him 13 years later in 1971.
GROSS: Well, let’s describe the story a little bit. What happened was, as you said, you went with Jerry Lee Lewis on tour to England. It was his first performances there. There was a big press conference at the airport, I think it was.
WILLIAMS: We arrived in London, and the press was there to meet and greet Jerry and take photographs.
GROSS: And one reporter asked who you were, and you said that you were Jerry Lewis’ wife, and he asked you your age.
WILLIAMS: He asked my age. And I decided – Jerry had talked about me telling people that I was older, and he was trying to tell people that I was older anyway. And instead of being 13, I told him I was 15. I thought, well, that’ll make a whole lot of difference. And the next day, it came out in the press that Jerry – it said Jerry Lee Lewis is here with his child bride, Myra, who is 15 years old. And this was an incredible scandal. It was bad enough right then. Then the next day, it came out – it said, Jerry Lee Lewis is here with his child bride, Myra, who is really 13 and is his second cousin. And then on the third and the last day, it came out that Jerry Lee Lewis is here with his child bride, Myra, 13 years old, his second cousin, and he is not legally divorced from his second wife. And then we went home. We were asked to leave the country. That was the end.
GROSS: Did you feel like he was pretty well blacklisted after the story broke?
WILLIAMS: Oh, he was. There’s no doubt about it. It was – for 10 years, Jerry’s records were held off the air. He could not get a decent concert date. There were certain radio stations that would not touch him at all. Sponsors, more than anything else, said, no, you will not play his music. He went from making $10,000 a night to making $200 a night.
GROSS: Now, when his income plummeted and his career kind of stopped dead in its tracks, did he blame you for it because of your age, because you’d said something to that reporter?
WILLIAMS: No, Jerry never blamed me. That was one good thing about Jerry. He never pointed the finger and said, this is your fault. If he was ever put on the spot with it, he would put his arm around me and say, I paid millions of dollars for this little girl, but I love her. And he never, for a moment, blamed me.
GROSS: Did he still play at home even when he wasn’t getting good performance dates?
WILLIAMS: Oh, yes. He played every day. He played two or three times every day. Jerry would also make chords in the middle of the night with his fingers. If his hand was resting on my shoulder, it would be chording and playing. You could see him moving. You know, could see his fingers moving.
GROSS: You were pregnant when you were 15 and – is that right?
WILLIAMS: No, my child was born when I was 14.
GROSS: Oh, OK. OK. And so you had a son at the age of 14. And…
WILLIAMS: Yes, yes.
GROSS: He died at the age of 3 in a drowning accident in a friend’s swimming pool. When that happened, did you think God was punishing you?
WILLIAMS: No, I never thought that. Jerry thought God was punishing him.
WILLIAMS: But I never thought God was punishing either one of us. I just do not believe that God works that way.
GROSS: So you say that Jerry, though, thought that God was punishing him with this death. Was he afraid that he would go to hell because of the music that he played and the life that he led?
WILLIAMS: Jerry was raised in a background of – a religious background – holiness, Pentecostal religion. It was very strict and very stringent about things that you could not do. And Jerry said in judgment of himself continuously – because he could never get away from the raising and the teaching that he had – that, first off, he wasn’t supposed to be playing that kind of music. He wasn’t supposed to be living the life that he lived. And he was a man who was tormented daily by this – his expectations of what he should be doing versus, in reality, what he was doing. So he was tormented by this. And Jerry believed when we lost our son that God was punishing him for not being what he was supposed to be.
GROSS: Jerry Lewis and his cousin Jimmy Swaggart have always been painted as these really interesting opposites who each have part of the other within them – you know, that Jimmy Swaggart has part of the devil in him and Jerry Lewis is – Jerry Lee Lewis is also – you know, has this kind of spiritual drive in him as well and is always, like, caught between God and the devil. Where were you in the middle of all of this? Have you been doing your life like a spiritual person, a believer?
WILLIAMS: Yes, Terry. I’ve always been very – I’m not an extremely religious person, but I believe I’m a very spiritual person. And I’ve always basically sat at the feet of both of these men and listened to their instructions. Jerry was never living the life that he could – that he would tell you to live. But there were many years that I lived the life that Jerry told me to live. He wanted me to be good and pure and straight and, you know, a Christian and everything. And he wanted to have that kind of home. He wanted that environment. Even though he wasn’t a part of it, he wanted it there. There were many years – well, our entire married life, for 13 years, Jerry did not allow anyone to come in our home and drink. There was never, ever a bottle of liquor brought into our house.
GROSS: Did you go back to school after you left your husband?
WILLIAMS: I was going to school the entire time that I was living with Jerry off and on, Terry, from – the only time I could go to school was when Jerry was gone because Jerry did not like me going to school. So I would go at night when he wasn’t there. Or I would go on a weekend when he was gone. I had continuously gone back and tried to get an education. I wasn’t after any particular designation. I just enjoyed learning things. I enjoyed reading. I enjoyed knowing what happened in different areas. And, yes, I ended up going back to school. And I ended up getting my real estate license. I’ve been in real estate almost 10 years now.
GROSS: Do you see Jerry Lee Lewis at all anymore?
WILLIAMS: I saw Jerry about four or five months ago. I saw him at a party that Dennis Quaid had in Memphis, a Thanksgiving party. And when I saw him through the crowd, he saw me, and I saw him. And I started toward him. And when I got close to him, I put my arms out, and I hugged him.
GROSS: Myra Lewis Williams, thank you very much for talking with us.
WILLIAMS: Thank you, Terry. I’ve enjoyed it.
BIANCULLI: Myra Lewis Williams speaking to Terry Gross in 1989. Myra married Jerry Lee Lewis, her second cousin, when she was 13 years old in 1958 and divorced him 13 years later in 1971, and went on to a career in real estate in Atlanta, Ga. Jerry Lee Lewis died October 28 at age 87. And to continue our remembrance of him, we’ll conclude with rock critic Ken Tucker, who has an appreciation of the rock ‘n’ roller’s country music side. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF KEVIN EUBANKS AND STANLEY JORDAN’S “OLD SCHOOL JAM”)
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