No Dousing Those ‘Great Balls of Fire’
Jerry Lee Lewis with the Tom Hambridge Band
At: Hot Tin Roof, Saturday Night
By Jim Sullivan
If you’d made a bet that Jerry Lee Lewis would make it through his entire life without playing Hot Tin Roof on Martha’s Vineyard, you’d have thought you’d made a good wager. In part, because Lewis has had a lifelong habit of missing shows and, in part, because these days Lewis is more on the summer-tent circuit than he is on the roadhouse (however clean and upscale) circuit. Also, because the Killer is supposed to have been dead many times over by now.
You’ve never seen a livelier cadaver. As waxy as he may look, here he was Saturday night opening up the summer season on the island, and at 61, he was pretty happy to be there. Taking the stage an hour later – he still runs on Jerry Lee Lewis time – he chatted (mumbled) up the Vineyard as “one of the most beautiful places in America or the world” and said he’d been out on the bluffs earlier, smoking his pipe and listening to the chattering of gulls, girls, and boys.
He sang, mostly, about girls – “Sweet Little 16,” “Eight Legged Woman” – and about boogie-woogie-ing and boppin’ at the high school hop. Oldie-moldies? No way. Lewis’s slap-happy songs swing dileriously, and his backing quintet, led as ever by polished guitarist Kenny Lovelace, followed his spontaneous selections. Lewis has another keyboardist helping out now, but when ace guitarist James Burton and Lewis cut loose they cut most young’uns any day. Both can do it sitting down, too. (Burton had to do this Saturday thanks to recent ankle surgery.)
A chink of the charm lies in the danger and the mythology. Lewis may not be dating teenagers anymore, but he marries young and often. He’s buried two wives, both of whom died suspiciously. He once shot his bassist in the chest; he was once arrested, drunk, outside Graceland with a gun, swearing he had come to kill Elvis. He’s also prayed for salvation and keeps a running God vs. Satan dialogue going in his head. The stuff of legend, tainted and scarred, but still...
Put it this way: He is one of the few who walk among us who deserves to refer to himself in the third person, which he does constantly when he talks and when he revamps songs.
When Jerry Lee’s onstage, make no mistake, the world revolves around Jerry Lee.
He was one of rock ‘n’ roll’s co-founders and he doesn’t treat it like a trip to the museum. Lewis, who played a 70-minute set, still bangs the ivories with a certain regal, if manic, style; still closes the set with “Great Balls of Fire” and plops his bun down on the keyboard and flips the piano stool. He had a soft drink perched on his piano and said dryly, with a cocked smile, “Nothin’ like a good Sprite.” (Booze isn’t on the approved list anymore.)
Hi backing band played four familiar tunes and after a tasty “Proud Mary,” Lewis came on with Chuck Berry’s “Roll Over Beethoven.”(His and his ex-rival’s catalogs have been pretty much merged.)He God-blessed the 400-plus, near capacity crowd a half-dozen times.But there was a moment of tension.He spotted someone near the front who he thought was mocking him.“I’m trying to do the best I can for you,” he said.“I know when people are making fun of me.I am what I am, not what you want me to be.”
You do not cross the Killer.
The show was weighted more toward rock ‘n’ roll than country, though his cover of Hank Williams’ “You Win Again,” a gold record for Lewis, was a bittersweet tearjerker.But this was the start of the summer and the people wanted to boogie and ol’ Jerry Lee did provide.There’s still fire in “Great Balls of Fire,” still no penal crackdown in “Jailhouse Rock.”
Celebrity spotting: The ubiquitous Cam Neely and the spooky Dr. George Nichopoulos, the late Elvis and Lewis’ on-going personal physician – Dr. Feelgood.Dr. Nick was standing in the wings.
The Tom Hambridge band, fronted by singer-drummer Hambrige, provided a perfectly complementary table-setter of a set: Some oldies, some originals, a closer of Elvis’ “Viva! Las Vegas!”Hambridge, who’s often provided support for Chuck Berry, knows these ropes.