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Softening a rock myth: Jerry Lee Lewis drank a lot of ... milk?

September 30, 2010 |  2:04 pm

LEWIS_GRAMMY_EPA_3_ The Grammy Museum isn't the place to go for lurid rock 'n' roll details. Like the awards for which the institution is branded, Grammy Museum events aren't necessarily ones filled with dirt. But that wouldn't stop a fan at a session with Jerry Lee Lewis on Tuesday night from at least trying, although he did apologize before presenting his question. 

It wasn't all that probing, and it wasn't one Lewis hadn't been asked before, but in an evening in which Lewis was prodded to offer his thoughts on the Beatles and the Rolling Stones (spoiler: he likes them), it was downright scandalous. What, the fan asked, did Lewis think of 1989 bio-pic "Great Balls of Fire," in which Dennis Quaid portrays the artist known as "The Killer"? Inspired by true events, the film showcases the more exaggerated aspects of Lewis' reckless mythology -- a drunk, an abuser and the controversial marriage to a teenage cousin that derailed his career. 

As a man with a reputation for the unpredictable, even if the artist has been a bit declawed these days (the Grammy Museum event happened on the eve of his 75th birthday), the audience hushed. His most recent album, after all, is named "Mean Old Man." The fact that the elder rock legend has lost a bit of his lighting-fast quickness only added to the tension.

"It was kind of a distortion," Lewis said after a pause. "It wasn't really up to par. I'm really trying to say something but I don't know what to say. I was displeased with it. Dennis Quaid did a good job ...  But there was a lot of fiction in it." 

In lieu of follow-ups, the evening moved on to more merrier moments, allowing Lewis to perform a brief set -- one new song as well as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire" -- that revealed he hasn't slowed a bit when it comes to owning a piano. The Times' Randy Lewis covered Lewis' appearance Saturday in Pomona, writing "If it’s no longer with the fire of youth that once drove him, he still projects a focused intensity."  

The brief concert was preceded by a Q&A hosted by Grammy Museum's executive director Robert Santelli. Few would be more equipped to interview Lewis, as Santelli's background in academia, in addition to his days leading Cleveland's Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Seattle's Experience Music Project, have made Santelli virtually a walking encyclopedia of music history. He can rattle off side-man and B-sides like Bill James can spit out baseball stats, and Santelli kept the evening moving fast.

The answers Lewis gave were short, and not necessarily deep, but Santelli didn't let the tough interview subject get much of a breather. The early part of the evening was focused on "Mean Old Man," with Santelli questioning Lewis, as well as his longtime collaborator Kenny Lovelace and his daughter Phoebe, on nearly every duet on the album. The likes of Mick Jagger, Kid Rock, Tim McGraw and Sheryl Crow guest on the set, and Santelli was able to show that the church-raised Lewis still has a bit of the devil's spark in him.

"It's a good one," Lewis said of the new album, and it's clear he appreciated some guests more than others. "The little girl whose name is Crow," Lewis said, generating laughs from the crowd. "Good looking girl. I can't remember the name, though." 

It was the kind of lighthearted tone -- some may even say it was borderline offensive -- that the crowd happily took in. Lewis still has bite, but old age has softened the sting.

Few dispute the effect Lewis had on rock 'n' roll, as his piano-laced bursts of energy touched on gospel, country and rhythm and blues. In the late '50s, he was a figure with a personality as big as Elvis Presley or Chuck Berry, and joined a group of luminaries who defined the template for decades of rock 'n' roll, as well as the excesses of rock stardom. Yet he's also a troubling figure, and late in life audiences seemed to have embraced Lewis as something of a colorful uncle, avoiding such uncomfortable details as his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. 

Instead, Lewis was asked to discuss the first song he learned on the piano ("Silent Night"), and what it was like watching "Million Dollar Quartet," the Broadway musical inspired by the famed recording session that featured Lewis, Johnny Cash, Presley and Carl Perkins. Lewis spoke of performing at the musical, where the Tony Award-winning Levi Kreis, who plays the musician in the production, attempted to join him for "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." 

"When he started to play a little bit," Lewis recalled, "I said, 'Don't do that.' "

Santelli for his part tried to get Lewis and Lovelace to share some road stories, asking about when the group was touring nonstop in 1957 and 1958. Lovelace said the group would often play 25 nights per month, giving two shows per night. And after the gigs, Santelli asked?

Lewis and Lovelace would go back to the motel and eat chili and drink a glass of milk, Lovelace said. 

"Milk?" Santelli said, with more than a little doubt. He added that he would have thought Lewis' beverage of choice was something else.

"I did that too," Lewis said, "but I wasn't doing it as much as people said I did."

-- Todd Martens

Photo: Jerry Lee Lewis at the Grammy Museum. Credit: Paul Buck /EPA