I started playing the piano when I was 11. My family wasn’t musical and didn’t own a piano. So every afternoon when the bus dropped me off from school I would walk the mile from my house to my grandmother’s house. She had an old upright with so many missing bits of ivory that it looked like a snaggle-toothed kid grinning back at me. But it was more or less in tune.
I took a lesson or two but didn’t have much patience for it. All that counting and sight reading felt too much like homework. But I did have a decent ear. And my grandmother always said that she’d rather hear someone play that had an ear for music than somebody with a tin ear that could read the notes but not appreciate them.
The first song I learned to play was “Amazing Grace.” Grandmother insisted that I start with a gospel song as sort of a tithe on my talent. “Always pay God what He’s owed first,” she said. “Cause’ He has ways of collecting on the interest if you don’t.” I didn’t exactly know what “interest” was, but I knew that God had once killed some folks in the Bible for being tightwads so I decided to keep my account in the clear.
I learned the old song well enough to play it at Church as an offertory. As far as I knew, this was the musical segment of the service that, if done right, would induce a spirit of giving amongst the faithful. As though a well-rendered offertory would turn dimes into dollars just as surely as Jesus turned water into wine. And apparently it worked! After the service one of the deacons came over and pressed a crisp five dollar bill into my hand. “It pays to serve the Lord,” he said. Of course, I was afraid to keep the money—it might be “interest”—so I dropped it into the collection plate on my way out the door.
Now that I was all paid up with God I figured I could risk learning a song off one of grandmother’s records that she kept under her bed. I was unfamiliar with most of the artists at the time, so I kept thumbing through albums until I ran across one that caught my attention. After laying aside Patsy Cline, Hank Snow, the Chuckwagon Gang, and some fella unfortunate enough to have had a mamma cruel enough to name him Engelbert Humperdinck, I pulled out a 33 by a wild-haired man beating on a piano like it owed him rent money. His name was Jerry Lee Lewis.
From the moment the needle first dug into the dusty grooves of that old record I was hooked. I had heard a lot of people play the piano, but never had I heard somebody make one sound like it was a living thing. Under his hands, a piano was like a wild bull caught in a net, bucking and stomping, trying to break free. And Jerry Lee didn’t so much play it as ride it.
So the second song I learned how to play was “Great Balls of Fire.” Since I couldn’t read music, and since no one has yet figured out how to commit a wild bull to paper, I had to just let Lewis teach me how to play it himself. I sat for hours on end, moving the needle on the turntable note by note, until I had picked them out on grandmother’s upright. I learned how to rock my left hand back and forth until it became a rhythm section of its own. I slid the backs of my small fingers back and forth across the jagged teeth of that old piano until my fingernails were as thick as nickels. And in a matter of days, I was hammering out the rockabilly beat like I had been doing it for years.
Grandmother said, “God gave you a gift. That’s what happens when you pay God up front.” Now, I am not sure that her theology didn’t have a few blind spots, but I do tend to agree in principle. I took to playing rock and roll and blues and boogie woogie and country piano as naturally as the wind takes to blowing. And by the time I was 16 I was playing on records, amazed that I could make money doing something that I would’ve done for free.
Fifteen years later, I was in a studio in central Louisiana playing on an album for two brothers from down around New Orleans. One of them could sing a little and the other couldn’t sing a lick, and that dynamic seemed to change from one song to the next. Due to a wicked combination of their disdain for staying on pitch and their mutual love of sour mash, the session ran late into the evening. Finally, the engineer said, “Guys, let’s break for the day and start again tomorrow evening.”
This meant that I was going to have to spend half a day in the swamps trying to find something to do. I was tired, frustrated, and almost to the point where I was ready to pack up and head back to Arkansas when the bass player, a lanky fella with one eye that everybody called “Wink” said to me, “Come say with me tonight. I’ve got something I wanna’ show you tomorrow.”
Well, I didn’t have anything better to do so I followed Wink back to his house in Vidalia. Even though I hadn’t spent much time in the area, I was familiar with it by reputation. Vidalia sits on banks of the Mississippi, right across from Natchez. But I knew it because it bumped right up against Ferriday, Louisiana. And Ferriday was the home of Jerry Lee Lewis.
In many ways Jerry Lee was the reason I was there at all. He had been my earliest inspiration. And it was by learning to play that rough and rowdy style that I had gotten all of these opportunities to work on stages and in studios all across the South. I had even played on one record for Jerry Lee’s granddaughter who still lived there around Ferriday. So I reckoned that after I had finished with Wink the next morning I could ride around exploring The Killer’s old stomping grounds. Someone even said there was a museum of sorts dedicated to him at the Arcade Theater in town.
When Wink wasn’t thumping his bass guitar at the studio or the Pentecostal church, He spent his time as custodial manager of the local hospital. “Basically,” he said, “that means that I make sure that all the bedpans get emptied out at least a couple times a week.” At breakfast the next morning he asked me if I would mind riding with him to the hospital. Then he could show me what he wanted to show me.
“Sure,” I said. “I don’t really have much else to do.” Though this was a little bit disingenuous because I wanted to get away as fast as I could to go on my little pilgrimage.
When we got to the hospital he told me to just act like I belonged there and no one would ask any questions. “But try to be quiet,” he insisted. “Nobody here wants to be here, and most of them are just trying to rest.”
I followed him in and out of rooms while he emptied bedpans and collected sheets and discarded gowns. “This is not how I wanted to spend my morning,” I thought to myself. But Wink was a nice fella and he only had that one good eye so I figured life was difficult enough for him without having to endure my bellyaching.
Then, right before we made our way to the end of the hall, He stopped and said, “Here’s what I wanted to show ya’.”
I squinted at him, more than a little perplexed.
As we stepped into the last room, He pointed to the bed over by the window. An old man was asleep in it. Snoring loud enough to make the leftover Jello on the tray table dance like a hula girl. He was facing the window so that his bare butt was smiling at us from the open back of his gown.
“Thanks,” I whispered to Wink. “That’s just how I wanted to start my day, staring at some old man’s naked behind.”
“Walk around to the other side,” Wink said. “He’s dead to the world. He’s got double pneumonia so they’ve been giving him high power drugs to help him rest.”
“I don’t care if he’s in a coma!” I said a bit sharply, forgetting for a moment about Wink’s lone eyeball. “I ain’t going to gawk at some stranger.”
“Just do it,” said Wink. “I think you’ll get a kick out of it.”
So I slowly moved around the end of the bed and walked over to where I could see his face. Wink was right. I did get a kick out of it. The man’s mouth would open wide, like one of those overgrown fish that can swallow a whole school of carp, and then slap closed again like a steel trap. It was this sucking and blowing that produced such a racket as he snored. And I admit I chuckled a bit.
But then it dawned on me who was lying there with his mouth agape and his rear end flapping in the wind. “My God!” I half-hollered. “That’s the Killer! Wink, Jerry Lee Lewis is in this bed.”
“I know,” He said, that one eye gleaming.
“No!” I argued. “You don’t understand. I’m standing here staring at the tonsils of one of the founders of rock and roll! The man who made Elvis cry. This here is Jerry-Lee-Damn-Lewis!”
“I know.” He said again. “Told ya’ you’d get a kick out of it.”
I tried to move away but I couldn’t. I looked down again. I saw his hands, gnarled with age, and thought “those are the hands.” I had to fight the temptation to reach out and touch them.
“We better go,” said Wink.
So I slowly backed away from the bedside of my boyhood idol. “That’s the Killer,” I said again to Wink.
“I know,” He laughed.
And while I can’t say that I’ve met him, I can say that I’ve seen a side of Jerry Lee Lewis that few ever have. The silent Killer. Mouth agape. Tail end taunting the whole world.
I spent the rest of the day riding around the bayous of Louisiana listening to “Crazy Arms” and “Lucky Old Sun” and “Who’s Gonna Play this Old Piano.” As I made my way back to the studio to finish a session with the Booze Brothers, I said to myself, to Jerry Lee, and I suppose to God, “I will. I’ll play that old piano.” Because God has a way of collecting interest on the gifts He has given. And I want to keep my accounts in the clear.