My journalism professor always said that real life is stranger than fiction. It’s an adage that has served me well. I mean how else could we explain the life and saga of Linda Gail Lewis?
Lewis, the 71 year-old younger sister of legend Jerry Lee Lewis (“The Killer”) and once dubbed by radio personality Mojo Nixon as the “Fabulous Female From Faraday,” didn’t start playing piano until she was in her forties. A veteran of eight marriages and twice divorced before she was eighteen, Lewis sang vocals with her brother but it wasn’t until 1988 when she took up the instrument. She was prompted to take action by her sister-in-law who kicked her out of her brother’s band and wanted to take her opening slot. Linda Gail concluded there wasn’t room for the two of them. Her first gig was in Paris with Jerry Lee and Chuck Berry when she was asked to sub for Little Richard who had suffered a heart attack. The Killer was so knocked out by her playing he sent for her the next day with a question: “Were you on drugs?”
That showmanship and work ethic was on full display onstage at Jammin’ Java outside Washington, D.C. as Lewis joined Robbie Fulks for the beginning of a tour behind Wild, Wild, Wild the album largely of songs Fulks wrote describing her life history.
As the boogie woogie pianist thrashed the keys, Lewis’ fingers were moving so fast it seemed like they were suspended in a tremor, blurred in mid-air by some supernatural force. Lewis brought with her the kinetic energy you would associate with Wanda Jackson and that of a woman a third of her age. All in all, between the autobiographical narrative, her country songbook and recreations of her brother’s greatest hits, you had a night that largely chronicled the creation of rock and roll.
Fulks began the night with a four song mini-set with his band featuring acoustic guitar, stand-up bass, drums and electric guitar. The songs were emblematic of the singer’s wit and featured the emotional stand-out Kentucky from his forty-plus Doberman project which was available for sale on a USB drive. Fulks brought Lewis out and she quickly dismissed her celebrity status by remarking that she needed her small black purse with its lipstick.
Fulks recounted how the duo had spent a week in Nashville at AmericanaFest or as the sardonic songwriter dubbed it “hanging out with elderly white people who can’t dance.” He shared that the duo had been holed up at a Fifties-era hotel, only to be let out to run into town two to three times per day to do more nine-minute sets. Fulks was happy to be playing live with a woman he’d loved since the Sixties and after meeting later in life in Sweden.
Lewis, for her part, said she was honored to sing the songs Fulks wrote. She treated us to her warm-up exercises, a little piano jam before launching into “Boogie Woogie Country Gal.” “I like to boogie woogie,” she declared, slaying it with both hands and fingers, turning to Fulks, edging him on to match her on his acoustic guitar.
“He can boogie woogie too,” she boasted.
Lewis delved into “Lie and Deny,” the title track of an album she made at age fifty or as she described it, “when I was less mature.” The band’s background vocals gave it an air of the Jordanaires, Elvis Presley’s famed singers. Lewis gave testament to Fulks describing her life in “Around Too Long,” as the sister of a hellraiser.
“I got fire on my fingertips and fire on my brow,” she pronounced.
As she came out of it, Fulks was like the night’s emcee, commenting: “You haven’t lost a step since singing ‘Don’t Be Cruel’ on the television show Shindig.
That set the time and place for the next song, a country ballad she had sung on and had a hit single with her brother from 1969 called “Don’t Let Me Crossover” in which the couple was enjoined in sweeping harmonies. Fulks played a bridge before coming in for the third verse with a slight growl. After they finished, they nodded to each other in mutual admiration. “You can’t have country music without a little cheating,” Lewis said with a playful smile.
Lewis called for the set list but admitted sometimes at her age, it’s hard to see without her glasses. Instead she audibles, calling out for Big Joe Turner’s “Shake, Rattle and Roll,” and then following it up with a rousing version of her brother’s “High School Confidential,” guitarist Redd Volkaert spouting great rockabilly licks, Fulks in pure delight and Lewis hitting the chords with fury and in sync with the closing drum beats.
Fulks introduced “I Just Lived a Country Song,” a song that described a country singer who recalls the decades of his life. Lewis came in on the chorus singing about a hard way of living and giving extra resonance to the quasi-autobiographical memoir.
“It Came From The South,” rooted in the sound of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On,” was like a musical about the birth of rock and roll. “It’s a true story,” Fulks said coming out of the song.
The two proceeded to the house piano during “Your Red Wagon” where Fulks extended his leg over the piano keys in his best Jerry Lee impression.
But it was “Hard Luck Louisiana” that was the showstopper. The song was written about Lewis’ early years growing up poor in Blank River, Louisiana. She added that Fulks tells the story so beautifully it was like he was there with them. The duo ran through two gospel songs, “I Am a Pilgrim,” (originally recorded by the Lewis’) and “On the Jericho Road” from the new album. They finally launched into the new album’s title track “Wild Wild Wild,” a hybrid of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and Chuck Berry’s “The Promised Land.” That was the perfect segway into “Great Balls of Fire” in which Fulks and Lewis, who at one point was playing so hard she stood up, shot back verses like they were dueling:
Lewis: “Kiss me baby”
Fulks: “Real good”
Lewis: “Hold me baby”
Fulks: “Cmon’ baby”
Lewis: “Drive me crazy!”
Coming out of the frenzy, it was time for a story. Lewis reminisced about how the time Sun Records’ founder Sam Phillips sent her brother a check for $40,000. Jerry Lee had to go to their aunt’s house to make a call to their mother as they did not a telephone. Mom only had two dresses, one for church and one for home. He bought her new clothes, a brick house and a car, including her first Cadillac. From that day on he got her a new Cadillac every year.
“I used to drive it when I was eleven,” Lewis confessed, adding that her boyfriend, the preacher’s eighteen year-old son, rode beside her.
And then came the song that started it all, Jerry Lee’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” a song that was a rehearsal throwaway but Phillips help make the bedrock of rock and roll.
As Lewis took a bow, she was soon seen walking through the club to the merch area.
A line was forming and she spotted a younger picture of herself. Someone was holding the album Together, the album of duets she made with her brother.
“Oh come over darling and let me sign it,” she offered. Once you met her, she made you feel like she’d known you forever.