Ed. Note: A reader wrote in Wednesday informing us that the reason Mickey Gilley required assistance moving at Friday's show is because he fell down some stairs in a 2009 accident. After several months at TIRR, where U.S. Rep. Gabrielle Giffords is now, Gilley has resumed performing (though not playing piano) both at his theater in Branson, Mo., and on the road.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Percy Sledge Nutty Jerry's, Winnie January 21, 2011
The Killer ain't dead. At least not yet.
Aftermath was nine years old when the movie Great Balls of Fire was released. At the end of the film, the closing title card reads "Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight."
It was a line that has stuck with us for two decades, always betraying a trickle of hope that someday we might get to see the rock and roll patriarch in person. Twenty years is a long time to wait.
Still, when we heard he was playing at a joint called Nutty Jerry's in Winnie, we hesitated. We didn't even know where Winnie was on the map. And at 75 years old, who knew what kind of product JLL could put out? For years we'd heard stories of his cantankerous persona, and last fall's disastrous webcast concert sure didn't help things.
Except that it kind of did. A few weeks ago, Chuck Berry collapsed onstage. Berry is 84 years old, and still duck-walking his way across America, but the collapse was a scare. And so the prospect of passing up what might be our last chance ever to see his colleague Lewis simply would not stand. (More on Berry, who by all accounts has fully recovered, in a minute.)
And so Aftermath did the only thing we could possibly imagine doing. We set the bar as low as it would go, and made the one-hour drive east on I-10, alone, to the rodeo barn/ABA basketball arena/concert hall named Nutty Jerry's. It was bound to be awful, but it had to be done.
When we pulled up to the building, a line of cars was creeping along the driveway, desperately looking for stray parking spots. Nearly everyone in our sight was wearing creased jeans, Carhartts, cowboys hats or something bedazzled. Surely Nutty Jerry's is the only place to be in Winnie on a Friday night. Not all of these people were here to see The Killer?
In the door, we spotted familiar faces: Honky-tonker Mike Stinson and Blues in Hi-Fi helmsman Clint Broussard. Neither had been to the concert hall before, and both has press badges, so we stuck together for the rest of the show.
It was nice to have someone to joke and people-watch with as two atrocious opening acts worked their way through Memphis standards. Maybe atrocious is too strong a word, but these were bands you'd normally see playing at the county fair or something.
Of course, both were better than billed opener Percy Sledge, who was pitchy and who didn't seem able to feel or connect with the crowd. Aftermath has never been a fan of his one hit song, but even "Take Time to Know Her," "Midnight Hour," "Sittin' on the Dock of the Bay" and "Bring It On Home" were little better than karaoke quality.
His voice, like his hair, has seen better days, though Sledge does get cred for playing almost every '60s-era soul song Aftermath loves. And by the time he closed with "When a Man Loves a Woman," couples in the audience had had enough of the Barefoot zinfandel and Coors Light to start slow-dancing.
Between sets, we were able to get a bit better look at the crowd. Amazingly, the age range was well-represented, from toddlers to octogenarians, and lots of families. One of Nutty Jerry's employees told us they place sold something like 100 tickets in an hour's timespan earlier that afternoon.
And it wasn't just Winnie-ites. We recognized several faces from Houston's music scene, and saw plenty of rockabilly haircuts to show that there was certainly a crowd in place for the headliner.
Local radio personality Al Caldwell took the stage and introduced the audience to Mickey Gilley, legendary boot-scoot purveyor and cousin to Jerry Lee Lewis. Gilley, who was sitting to the side of the stage behind barricades, required the assistance of two people to stand and wave to the crowd. He's just a year younger than Lewis, but he hasn't lost that slender nose or tight-lipped smile that made him one of country's better-looking men in the '60s and '70s.
And then out came Jerry Lee's right hand man, Kenny Lovelace, the guitar player who has toured with the Killer for more than 40 years. Lovelace led the Memphis Beats in a couple of covers before Jerry Lee took the stage, moving slowly but looking dapper in white long sleeves, white loafers and a black vest.
JLL started a bit timidly, with a few of his lesser-known post-scandal country hits. "Help Me Make It Through the Night" was slow-burning, but one thing was certain: His voice has lost none of its falsetto personality or excitement. And he seemed jovial, bantering with the crowd a bit between songs.
He sped things up with "Rockin' My life Away", giving his bass player, who'd performed "Wooly Bully" in the show's prelude, room to jam, and then slid seamlessly back down into "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye" and a heartbreaking but playful rendition of "Don't Put No Headstone on My Grave."
Yes, the video is shaky. Just keep your eyes on the hands.
During "Mexicali Rose," we noticed the band doing that '60s side-step choreography and by that point it seemed Jerry Lee had warmed up sufficiently. Maybe 30 minutes after taking the stage, he surged right on into "Great Balls of Fire," hammering away at the piano with the same manic dexterity that earned him his nickname in childhood.
He sure couldn't walk across the stage very fast, but his playing has barely lost its speed.
He didn't play Aftermath's favorite song, "Breathless," but he did follow up what may be one of the greatest rock and roll songs of all time with another major hit, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," sweet-talking the crowd into shaking justa little bit more, kicking back his piano bench and sitting on the keys before doing a little jig offstage. It was no Steve Allen Show, but it was way better than we expected, and seeing him play "Great Balls of Fire" was something for the life list.
Not bad for a country bumpkin with an unnatural talent for the devil's music.
Midway through the concert we met Steve Caldwell, son of DJ Al Caldwell and booker for most of Nutty Jerry's shows. The place may be a bit of a drive for some Houstonians, but their schedule is one to keep an eye on. This Wednesday, Merle Haggard is playing, and March 4, the inimitable Chuck Berry will be in town. After Friday night's experience, you bet your ass we'll be there.
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Personal Bias: Gimme a break. It's Jerry Lee Fucking Lewis.
Overheard In the Crowd: Actually, it was onstage. Percy Sledge told a five-minute anecdote about a monkey and a possum. I think it was supposed to be a joke?
Random Notebook Dump: When we tweeted that we were going to the show, every single response was "I thought he was dead."