"Were doing the gig, andI would say four or five songs into the setVan announces over the microphone, "Now were going to do another song from our new CD that will be out in September. Its called You Win Again. At that moment, I knew that the album was going to come out."Linda Gail Lewis
Linda Gail Lewis is Jerry Lee Lewis younger sister, which meant she had no way of avoiding childhood living under the shadow of a true rock & roll legend. But when another rock & roll legend, Van Morrison, came calling, Lewis was able to prove what she can do as both a singer and a pianist on the duet album they recently recorded together, called You Win Again.
Music Matters caught up with Lewis during one of her rare moments at home in Tennessee. Lewis is very candid about her sometimes-wild upbringing, with her oftentimes-wild family, which also includes cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley.
DM: So, youre in Nashville now?
LGL: Well, I live in Big Sandy, Tennessee. But in the last seven months, Ive been staying in Whales. I live right on Cardiff Bay.
DM: Ive been doing a little reading about your career, and Ive noticed that youre awfully popular in Europe. Why do you think people there are so passionate about our roots music? It seems as if fans overseas love this music even more than Americans do.
LGL: Theres been a really big movement of rock & roll fans, and they have what we call the rock & roll circuit in Europeespecially in the UK. Theyre preserving the Fifties music, and theyre really into it. There are some fans of Fifties music here as well, but probably not as many, and theyre not as well organized. The United States is so big and so spread out. But for example, in England and say, Germanythey have fan clubs and stuff. But its all divided up into different countries. Unless you have a major record company thats going to spend half a million dollars promoting you, you cant even release a CD in this country and have people know about it. So very often, artists will go to Europe and take each country and work a CD. Like, I had a CD in Scandinavia and Norway. Ive had one in England. Thats worked really well for me during the last ten years.
DM: Lets talk about your new CD with Van Morrison
LGL: Now thats a global release!
DM: How did this whole thing come together? Whats the story behind the making of it?
LGL: You know, Dan, it was absolutely wonderful. It is a big break for me to have this opportunity to be marketed by a major record company, with the greatest entertainer and songwriter in the world. I have to pinch myself every day. Is this really happening?
The way it came about is that I met Van in 1993 at a Jerry Lee convention. You know, hes a Jerry Lee fan.
DM: Oh, I guess I could assume so from his music.
LGL: Not only thathe and my brother are really good friends. I met him just briefly in 1993, but it was this last spring when I was over in the UK on one of my many European tours, that we got together for dinner. This happened because a mutual friend of ours, Mac MacElroy, whos also a friend of my brother, has a place called the Kings Hotel in Newport, Whales where everybody plays. He invited the two of us to come there together, because I was doing a gig there that night. He said "Lets get together early in the evening and have dinner." That was the first chance I had to sit down and spend time with Van.
We found that we like a lot of the same songs. It was a wonderful experience just sitting there talking about music with him. We talked about all our favorite Jerry Lee songs. And of course, one of his favorites and one of mine is "Lets Talk About Us," which we ended up doing.
Ive always been a Van Morrison fan, but when I heard him sing live, it did something to me, and Ill never get over it. I told him, "Hearing you sing in person has changed my life." I didnt know what a great entertainer he is. I didnt know what kind of show he did. I didnt know what his voice sounded like when youre in the room with him. I had no idea how that would affect me. I was just floored, absolutely floored. I thought there was just one really great entertainer in the world, and that was Jerry Lee Lewis! Now I know that theres two! [Laughs]
DM: So it just doubled, the amount of great entertainers in the world?
LGL: I was standing there with my mouth hanging open. Van Morrison has the most beautiful voice Ive ever heard in my life. I love to hear him sing, and I hope that for the rest of my life I can hear him sing on a CD or a tape or at a gig. But every day of my life, I want to hear his voice no matter how I hear it. So I just became a much bigger fan. I always had a great deal of respect for him, because hes written some of the greatest songs that Ive ever heard.
DM: How did it get to the point where you actually made an album?
LGL: Well, what happened next was Van said "Lets just get together and make some music and have a jam session." I said "That sounds good to me." We met at the Kings Hotel once again, and theyve got a PA system set up there and we had the band that Id just played with, The Red Hot Pokers. So Vans singing, like, a couple of blues songs, and Im playing the piano with him. Hes playing his harp and Im singing, and I thought, "Well, this is so cool. Im playing with Van Morrison."
The next thing, Van says, "Do you know the words to Lets Talk About Us?" This is because wed been talking about that song at dinner the week before. I said, "Well, yes," because I do the song. So I wrote down the words to it and Van started singing it. He started motioning for me to sing it with him. So I did. I was doing something kind of like background vocals. But then hed motion at me again, like, No, I want you to sing the whole song. So at the end of it, I said "Van, did you want me to sing the whole song with you?" He said, "Yes, thats why were hereto rehearse these duets." [Laughs].
Then I was thinking to myself, "What duets?" I didnt know what was going on, but I thought, "OK."
DM: So he already had the plan, he just didnt bother to tell you.
LGL: He didnt tell me. Then we did "Jambalaya," we did "Old Black Joe," "Crazy Arms," "You Win Again" and it was just going great. We sang so well together.
So the next thing that happened, we were sitting down having tea and he picks up the telephone and he looks over at me and says, "Are you free next Tuesday?" And I said "Yes." And so he calls up his studio and I hear him saying "I need the studio for Tuesday." And then I heard him say, "Well, this has nothing to do with my band. This is Linda Gail Lewis and her band." So Im flabbergasted. He hangs up, and I said, "Van, are we going to go in the studio and record these songs that weve been doing today?" And he said, "Well, yes." Like, "Of course." I was so excited, I jumped up and I ran over and I gave him a big hug. I know I had tears in my eyes. I said, "Van, I am so excited. And Ill never forget it." He just laughed. He thought that was so funny because I was so excited.
So we went into the studio and we did it. And then I thought, well, maybe nothing will become of it because very often Van experiments, and he just puts them on the shelf and thats it. But I still felt like I was fortunate to have had the experience of going into the studio with him. I was just grateful and thrilled and excited about that.
I came home to Tennessee for three weeks, and then I went back because I had more gigs in the UK. Van invited me to come and have tea out at his studio. He said, "Well, Im thinking about releasing this for my next album. Im thinking about putting the other album on the shelf for now, and releasing this as an album." And I was, once again, thrilled. But I still didnt know for sure, because it was, like, he was thinking about it. He said, "We have to have more songs." We started talking about what songs we could do. We went back in the studio and did some more songs. Then Van said, "Well, I cant commit and say that Im gonna do this album until we do a gig together and see what kind of chemistry we have on stage, and whether or not we can work together." We had to do a live gig.
We did one rehearsal, and we did the live gig, and no one knew what was going to happen. Vans there; his managers there; Mac MacElroy is there. Were doing the gig, andI would say four or five songs into the setVan announces over the microphone, "Now were going to do another song from our new CD that will be out in September. Its called "You Win Again." At that moment, I knew that the album was going to come out.
DM: It sounds funny the way he operates. Its almost as if he just assumes youll agree, so he doesnt tell you directly.
LGL: I have told him every day Ive worked with him how much I appreciate it, and he knew how excited and how happy the Pokers and I were to be doing anything with him. So he never ever had to doubt for a minute that we would be there in a heartbeat to do whatevercancel gigs, rearrange gigs. To have the opportunity to do music with Van Morrison is the best thing that ever happened to me and its the best thing that ever happened to the Pokers.
DM: The impression that I get from people in the press is that hes kind of a difficult guy to work with.
LGL: Thats crazy. Hes not like that at all. We did an interview together, and it was absolutely wonderful. I didnt have the chance to say anything. I had heard these rumors and stuff that Van wasnt really open to doing interviews, but he did most of the talking and handled himself in a wonderful way. Van is so smart and so knowledgeable about the musiches very interesting to talk to. I know that he doesnt do a lot of interviews, because hes so very busy. And lets face it, he writes the most wonderful songs. Hes written over 300 songs. And someone whos that creative, and into writing, probably doesnt have the same kind of time that, say, I would have. Yesterday I did 14 interviews. Today Ill do 13.
DM: My goodness.
LGL: But Van would never have the time to do that, because hes probably writing a song right now. And hes giving the world this absolutely wonderful music, so I think its unkind and unfair for anyone to say that hes grumpy. You cant be grumpy and write a song like "Have I Told You Lately That I Love You" or something really wonderful like "Philosophers Stone." That doesnt sound like a grumpy guy, does it?
DM: No. What do you think is the greatest benefit, and alternately, what is the greatest drawback of being Jerry Lee Lewis younger sister?
LGL: I guess the greatest benefit is the fact that my brother really loves me and hes been a wonderful brother to me and a great inspiration to me musically. He shared everything he had with his family and treated all of us in the most wonderful way. Thats the greatest benefit. And, of course, theres the thing that it makes it easier for me to work because people know who I am and I have a name because of him.
And as far as a drawback, there is the fact that I operate within a big shadow. But that is good in a way, because I have to try harder, work harder and be better than anybody else to succeed. When Im playing a gig, and about 60 percent of the people in my audience are Jerry Lee Lewis fans, then Im going to do "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shaken Goin On." Ive really got to do it, and Ive got to do it really well.
And when I decided to play the piano, I had to really work on it and try to come up to the standard of our family. So that is a drawback in a way, because you cant let up for a minute. Youve really got to work a lot harder than anybody else. I guarantee you that Ive got to work ten times harder than anybody else.
DM: Im always fascinated by your family and the amazingly talented people that have come out of such a small circle like that.
LGL: It is kind of strange, isnt it? Theres not another family like ours.
DM: Have you given any thought as to why so many people, like Jimmy Swaggart, Jerry Lee, Mickey Gilley and you ended up as blood relatives?
LGL: You know, I dont know really why that is. I know that were different from other families, and this stuff does kind of run in families, because you have Judy Garland and Liza Minelli. But still, this family is different because you have these three men, these three cousins, that came from the same little town, and now, of course, Ill be the first woman to really get any recognition from the family. So theres all four of us, really, coming from the same small place. Its kind of strange, and I dont know what made this happen.
DM: Were you raised in a fairly strict home, as far as a religion goes?
LGL: Oh yeah. All of us, my cousins, my brother and I, grew up in the Pentecostal church. And my mother, and her sistersone of those sisters was Jimmy Swaggarts motherand Mickey Gilleys mother, who was my fathers sister, and Jimmy Swaggarts grandmother, who was also my aunt, because were related on both sides of the family which is another story I mean, those women got together and they built the Pentecostal church there in Ferriday, LA.
DM: It seems like, except for perhaps Jimmy, you all have had kind of a wild life.
LGL: All of us have (had a wild life). Mickey just has a good press agent. [Laughs] His life has been as wild as all the rest of us, you just dont know about it.
DM: Would it be safe to say that that your wild living was a reaction to the strict upbringing you had?
LGL: It could be that.
DM: You have children, right?
LGL: I do have four.
DM: Did you raise them any differently, based upon your own experiences? Were you less strict, than, say, your parents were?
LGL: Well, you know, my parents werent really that strict, because they had three completely crazy children. My sister and my brother and I feel so bad for them, because they had to try to manage three crazy people.
When I was 11 years old, I was driving my mothers Cadillac, dating a boy 18, smoking cigarettesat the age of 11! And Id sneak out with my sister, Franky Jean, who was only, like, 15, and wed go out to one of the local bars. And both of us looked old enough to buy drinks.
So my mother and daddy had a really hard time. And of course, my brother was just wild from day one and just running up and down the roads and going to New Orleans and Natchez, Mississippi. And he and his childhood friend, Cecil Harrison, were dating older women that were like, in their forties and stuff, and they were almost like gigolos. My mother and daddy were trying to keep up with them and trying to make sure nothing happened to any of us. I dont know what happened. There must have been something in the water.
DM: But they must have done something right, because, I mean, youre still around.
LGL: Ill tell you what really stuck with me. When I was 39 years old, I decided to start my solo career. I had a lot of people laugh at me and tell me, "You should have done this when you were 20. Youll never be able to do this now." And I have done it. All the things Ive wanted to do, Ive done. And this project with Van Morrison is like an added bonus. It was a blessing that has happened. But Ive been able to do the things Ive wanted to do, because my mother and daddy taught us and made us believe we could do whatever we wanted to do, you know, within reason. Obviously, I cant be a rocket scientist. I was never ever really discouraged by what other people said.
DM: Your parents really instilled self-confidence in you.
LGL: Oh they did. They made us believe that we could do it. It never occurred to me that I couldnt do this. Youd think that its crazy39 years old, and shes gonna start her solo career!
DM: Ive heard many stories about the origins of that piano style associated with Jerry Lee Lewis.
LGL: He got it from inside his own head. He was a child prodigy. When I said in my book "The Devil, Me, and Jerry Lee"that he just walked up to the piano at age 8 and started playingone of the critics said, "Oh thats impossible. Ridiculous." But that is exactly what happened. My mother and my daddy were visiting my aunt, who had bought a piano for my cousin. Jerry just walked up to the piano and started to play it. Thats when my mom and daddy bought that piano from my aunt. And they really couldnt afford to do it, because we were really poor. Jerry Lee Lewis is a genius. Its like I told Jason D. Williams one time, "Jason dont be too cocky and dont be too happy that you can play some of Jerry Lee Lewis licks on the piano, because you didnt think of em. I can play them too. You can play them. Mickey can play them. Jimmy can play them. We can all play them. But we learned them from Jerry Lee Lewis, who came up with the style. He came up with that style of piano playing, and Mickey Gilley will tell you, and Im sure Jimmy would probably tell you too, we all learned it from him. Thats where it comes from."
DM: What did you listen to growing up? Did you listen to country or gospel or did you kind of mix the two?
LGL: Of course, we listened to a lot of gospel music by being in the church a lot. A lot of that spiritual, kind of up-tempo Pentecostal, music, which is just great. But then of course, my daddy played Jimmy Rogers records and Hank Williams records and stuff like that. We used to listen to the Grand Ole Opry on the radio. So we listened to country music.
And then Jerry would, of course, slip off and go down to Haneys Big House and listen to all the really great black artists like Bobby Blue Bland and Ray Charles, because theyd all be coming from Memphis going to New Orleans, and theyd come through Ferriday and play Haneys. You werent supposed to go there if you were white. You certainly werent supposed to go there if you were about ten years old. But Jerry would go down there and listen. But you know, hes one of the originators of rock & roll, so I had the benefit of hearing rock & roll music before it was even born.
DM: Some people have the belief that rock & roll is some sort of an evil.
LGL: If you listen to the lyrics of the songs, its very sexual music. Because of the gospel influence, you get that spiritual thing kicking with it. Its spiritual and its sexual, and its a hell of a lot of fun. Kids were listening to it, and they were going out and drinking beer and making love in the back seat of the car and they were doing things they hadnt done before. This music influenced them to do it. It liberated us. It made us a freer society. And some people would say it was for the best, and other people would say that its not. America changed with the birth of rock & roll.
DM: In what ways are your kids like you? Are they musicians?
LGL: Well, my daughter thats 21 is a singer, and were now working on a project with her. My daughter thats 28 is a singer, but shes also a nurse at Vanderbilt Hospital in Nashville. And my eldest son is an outdoorsman. Hes kind of like Jeremiah Johnson. He lives out in the country with his dad, and he likes to be outdoors. Hes 37. My youngest child is a boy. Hes 18 years old. He has a wonderful, normal life, Im happy to say, because weve kept him in a small town. Hes been playing football throughout his high school years. Hes a great kid and hes going to college, but hes very talented and has a wonderful singing voice. Hell probably at some point in time get involved in the music business, but Id really like for him to get a degree first. I used Garth Brooks as an example, and I said "You know, Garth Brooks went to college first, so you should do that." I hope he will.
DM: What kind of music would you say that you do? Are you a rock & roll artist? A rockabilly artist? A country artist, or a mixture of a lot of those?
LGL: I would just describe myself as an artist. I like all kinds of music. I cant even begin to tell you what a wonderful experience it has been for me learning 96 Van Morrison songs.
DM: On this tour that you two did together, did he do a lot of his old familiar stuff?
LGL: Right. I have a new teacher now. And he gives me piano lessons, too. Theres a certain kind of style to Vans music, and one day he said "Well, let me just show you." And I thought, wait a minute. You cant play a piano! Then he sits down and he starts playing, and I thought, good gummit, he can play the piano!