HAMPTON BEACH, N.H. – The white limousine jolts to a halt outside the Club Casino’s back stairs, and the driver, Marty, hops out and opens the back door. In an instant, a laughing Kerrie McCarver Lewis bounces across the spacious backseat. She’s followed by her husband, Jerry Lee Lewis, who enters the car gingerly, aided by a cane.
Jerry Lee Lewis – legendary rock ‘n’ roll carouser, piano-pounding singer of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” – has just played an hour-long concert at the club. It was a stirring show, mixing rock and country, but it wasn’t Jerry Lee Lewis at his most frenetic. Lewis broke his leg 11 months
ago while jet skiing. He thought it was healing improperly so he asked the doctors to open the leg to look inside. Everything was fine, but the operation
was painful and Lewis had had the stitches removed the day of the show, last Friday. Even so, the leg injury is a mere inconvenience. Last month, Jerry Lee Lewis, nicknamed the Killer, was rushed to a hospital in Memphis for what was feared to be a stomach perforation. He had been there before, in 1981, with the same ailment. Then, he was on the critical list, given less than a 50 percent chance of living. This time, Jerry Lee Lewis was again placed on
the critical list, but the bleeding was caused by ulcers, not a perforation.
“I’m in good spirits,” says Jerry Lee Lewis. “I felt a lot better after my show.”Jerry Lee and Kerrie Lewis sit in semi-darkness as the limousine glides through the night. Lewis has just finished his first concert since getting out of the
hospital. He’s on the way to the Lawrence airport. From there, he’ll fly to New Jersey for another show.
Lewis, born 49 years ago in Ferriday, La., talks in a soft, growling drawl. He rarely speaks with reporters. But right now, he’s talking about his life and his most recent trauma. “Can you imagine,” he asks, “Jerry Lee Lewis having two bleeding ulcers?
“He was critical,” says 22-year-old Kerrie. “But you made it,” she says, turning to Jerry Lee and beaming. “They didn’t think you would.”
“By the grace of God I made it, yes,” says Jerry Lee.
The drinking, he says, has stopped. He hasn’t had a drink in three months – well, except, for a shot of brandy he had a few weeks ago. That, says the Killer, made him sick. “I never claimed to be that smart of a person,” he says, “but at least I got enough common sense to know that it’s time to straighten up and to
kick the booze and to kick the dope . . . It’s not been easy by a long shot.”
“He made up his mind that he wanted to live,” says Kerrie.
Jerry Lee Lewis was raised in the Pentecostal church where he played gospel
piano. He attended Bible school in Texas. He even preached for a couple of years. One of his cousins is TV preacher Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who has branded Jerry Lee the “bad seed” of the family.
“It upset me very much,” says Jerry Lee. “I’m not putting Jimmy Lee down – don’t get me wrong – but it makes a man wonder what’s going on with all this
money. Are they really feeding all these children they’re talking about when a man’s payroll is $300,000 a day?
“I’ve never misused God,” continues Jerry Lee. “I’ve never claimed to be a real Christian; I claim to be a Christian-minded person. I don’t claim to be
perfect by any means. I believe everybody’s got to die and face God some day. And I believe that I’ll go to heaven when I die.
“I believe sometimes we punish ourselves. But, I believe God lets us live with reason. I believe there’s something more to be lived for, I would imagine. I want to live as old as I can, go as long as I can. And God knows this. I think this is our main purpose in life: to live as long as we can and do as much as we can to help people, to give as much of our talent as we can in the best way we know how to give it.
“Sure, we foul up sometimes down through life. And we make our mistakes, but God’s always there to forgive us. I don’t mean that I’ve tamed myself down
or anything like that. I just mean I respect God.”
Has he always felt that way?
“Yes, sir, I have.”
Jerry Lee Lewis’ “mistakes” are many and they are legendary. Alcohol and
drug abuse has run throughout his life. He’s been married six times, the third time to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale. When news of Myra’s age was made
public, in 1958, it temporarily derailed Lewis’ career.
In 1975, Lewis took a .45 automatic and blasted 25 holes through the door of his own office in Memphis. In 1976, Lewis shot his bassist Norman Owens in the
chest; Owens survived to sue him. That same year, Lewis was arrested for drunkenly waving a pistol outside the mansion of his lifelong rival, Elvis
Presley. Two of Lewis’ sons died in accidents. Two of his wives died untimely deaths: Jaren Lewis, his fourth wife, drowned in a swimming pool June 8, 1982;
Shawn Michelle Lewis, his fifth wife, died from an overdose of methadone Aug. 24, 1983.
The Internal Revenue Service has long been after Lewis. Lewis recently won the latest battle of that long-running series: On Oct. 18, 1984 a federal court jury in Memphis acquitted Lewis of income tax evasion. “You can’t win when you’re wrong,” growls Jerry Lee, “and I told ’em they were wrong.”
Earlier that year, on April 24, Kerrie McCarver married Jerry Lee Lewis. He says now he’s a happy man. “We have a great relationship, we really do,” says
Jerry Lee, looking at Kerrie. “It’s been the best thing that’s ever happened to me in my life as far as women goes. The best friend we have is our mother, of
course. My mother passed away a few years back and I’ve been married several times, and it just never did seem to work out.”
“This one’s gonna work,” bubbles Kerrie. “I finally found the girl,” says Jerry Lee. “I didn’t believe this marriage would work out at first. It was so hard for me to believe that it would. But I can see now with my straightening up and getting my act together – maybe that’s what the problem was all the time. I don’t know. I wasn’t really hanging in there. I was dominating and overbearing and drinking a
lot, taking pills. When you’re doing that . . . alcohol will destroy you.”
“He’s just growing up!” says Kerrie.
“I don’t know how to take that,” says Jerry Lee.
She plants a wet kiss on his cheek. They laugh.
Kerrie says she met Jerry Lee 12 years ago, when she was 10, and decided right then and there that she was going to marry him. It was at a Toys for Tots benefit in Memphis. Later, when she was 18, they ran into each other at a club. “We met for a while,” says Kerrie. “He had other interests at the time.”
Is Jerry Lee’s shaping up attributable to her influence?
“Yeah, I threatened to kill him!” she says, laughing.
“What’d you say?” exclaims a startled Jerry Lee.
“I said, ‘I threatened to kill you.’ I said, ‘You better just straighten up or you’re gonna get it.’ No, I just love him and I just want him to live and be happy and play his piano and not be miserable and sick . . .”In 1982 at another show at the Club Casino, it was Shawn Michelle Stephens who was sitting backstage next to Jerry Lee. She was demure, silent. Jerry Lee did whatever talking there was to be done. His eyes were penetrating, but warm. He was sober. If he was talking to a man he called the man “killer,” if it was a
woman, he called her “baby.” Shawn Michelle – young, blonde and pretty – clutched Jerry Lee’s hand.
At the time, he talked about coming back after his recent hospitalization: ”I changed. I think a lot more. I’ve settled down a lot; I’m more positive on
what I wanna do. I’m thinking about it before I jump.”
Shawn and Jerry Lee were married June 7, 1983. Less than three months later, Shawn was dead at Lewis’ Nesbit, Miss., ranch. An autopsy done in Memphisfound her death was caused by an overdose of methadone.
A grand jury found no reason to suspect foul play. But last year, a Rolling Stone story by Richard Ben Cramer raised a number of questions about that
decision, implying that Lewis was, at the least, not entirely blameless in his wife’s death. Cramer
interviewed the investigators of the case, members of Shawn’s family, and associates of Lewis. He painted a disturbing picture: broken glass on the floor, a sack of blood-stained clothes in the master bedroom, blood and bruises on Shawn’s body.
Furthermore, Cramer reported that Shawn’s mother, Janice Kleinhans, had received a phone call from Shawn the day before her death. According to Kleinhans, Shawn said she was going to leave Jerry Lee. Shawn’s sister, Shelley, told Cramer of fights between Jerry Lee and Shawn. Another sister, Denise, in the Detroit Free Press, quoted Lewis as saying: “Your sister’s dead and she was a bad girl.”
In the limousine en route to Lawrence, Jerry Lee Lewis is asked about the Rolling Stone story.“I saw it,” he answers. There is a stony silence. “A bunch of garbage. I never thought Rolling Stone would give me a write- up like that. He quoted people
that worked with Shawn . . . just people who wanted to get their pictures in the paper. Shawn wasn’t nothing like that, didn’t talk nothing like that. It’s
ridiculous, the most ridiculous thing in the world. “How do I feel about Shawn? I loved Shawn very much. She was a good girl, a fine person. She just made a mistake. I think she thought she was taking a handful of aspirins or something and she took some methadone pills that were prescribed for me two years ago that I didn’t even fool with. They were just setting on my cabinet. She didn’t know what they were. And they killed her. It made me mad, real mad. I got
“I don’t know. I was angry with her at first. Then, I could see it really wasn’t her fault.”
Jerry Lee Lewis tells his story of Shawn’s death. “She never intended once to kill herself. The furthest thing from her mind. That’s why we went on the bed and went to sleep. I couldn’t imagine that she had took anything that could kill her. And she didn’t know it either. She didn’t die until 30 minutes before
we woke up.”
Before we woke up?
“Before I woke up. Excuse me. Before I woke up – wishing that it could have been a we. I didn’t know that she was dead. She was still warm and everything
and I kept trying to wake her up. And then I got to thinking about it and I still wouldn’t accept her being dead. She lived all through the night. I know a couple of times I checked Shawn through the night, to see if she was breathing, to see if she was all right. I didn’t wake her up or nothing. I just felt her heart beating and everything and it was perfect.
“My life is an open book,” Jerry Lee continues. “I have nothing to hide. I know it’s a very suspicious looking situation. I can see to where it would be and
I don’t blame anybody for looking at it suspiciously, but believe me, Jerry Lee Lewis would never harm a hair on nobody’s head, much less take someone’s life.
That, I could never do.”
“That’s the truth,” says Kerrie, softly.
“I’d maybe die for someone,” says Jerry Lee, “but I would never hurt nobody.”
The car is nearing the airport. Jerry Lee talks about upcoming plans. He’s soon to record an album with his cousin Mickey Gilley. A long-delayed movie, ”Jerry Lee Lewis: Great Balls of Fire,” is scheduled to begin shooting in three months. Mickey Rourke will be playing the Killer. Jerry Lee will contribute the
soundtrack. His hands will be the hands that are seen on the
What would he most like his fans to know?
“Tell ’em,” says Jerry Lee, “I’m a sober man, straight as an arrow right now, and we’re gonna continue to be that way. I’m a very happily married man and got a good wife. And I thank God for it . . . I’m used to drinking and not doing it kind of takes getting used to. But before I kill myself, I will get used to it.”
Does he worry about what’s ahead?
“I think God has warned me enough on the booze and the pills and things. I just have to use my own brain to take care of myself now.”
Kerrie breaks in: “He said he had woke up and had had a dream the other night that I was beating him over the head! “And he was hollering ‘Stop! Stop!’
And I said, ‘That’s a warning.’ ”
Kerrie laughs. Jerry Lee chuckles and growls: “OK, down, down girl.”