Linda Gail Lewis learned how to play piano and sing rock ’n’ roll music from her famous brother Jerry Lee.
As the younger sister to “the Killer, Lind Gail grew up standing by the piano listening to him sing what she thought was the most wonderful music in the world.
“I’m 75 now and I still think my brother’s music is the most wonderful music in the world,” Lewis said in a telephone interview. “I absolutely love it.”
Linda Gail went on the road with her brother for the first time at age age 14 as a back up singer and would go on to have a successful solo career of her own in the early 60s and 70s. After a decade off spent raising a family, she returned to performing in the late 1980s and has been on the road ever since, traveling the world proudly playing her brother’s hits and bringing her own high octane pumping piano sound to rockabilly fans.
“It was all I ever wanted to do,” Lewis said. “It was the most important thing to me. I still love it. When I go on stage and start playing and singing, I feel like I am 18 again.”
Lewis will be bringing her “Family Jewels” tour to the Rock ’n’ Roll Cafe in Memphis on September 2. She will be joined on stage by daughter, Annie Marie, and son-in-law, Danny B. Hervey, along with special guest Finley Watkins.
“It’s going to be a lot of fun,” Lewis said. “We’ve done quite a few shows together, but this is the first time where we have done this many gigs together all in a row. And I love that. My son-in-law is really like a son to me. He is my producer. He is my band leader, my guitar player, and advises me about everything I do in my career. And Annie has the voice of an angel. It is worth coming out just to see Finley too. He is great.”
Lewis said she knew from an early age that she wanted to be a rock ’n’ roll singer. The family grew up poor and lived in a run down shack in Black River, Louisiana where their father sharecropped.
“We were so poor we didn’t even have a bathroom on the inside,” Lewis said. “My daddy was working as a carpenter but he wanted to farm. That’s how we ended up in a sharecroppers shack, so he could farm. My momma and daddy always said things were going to be easier for us when Jerry makes it. It was never IF Jerry would become a star, it was always WHEN Jerry makes it.”
Jerry Lee became one of the biggest rock ’n’ roll stars of the 50s with his hits “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On.” Lewis said Jerry used his first royalty check - $40,000 from Sun Records in Memphis - to buy the family a nice brick house in Ferriday.
“We were all thrilled when Jerry was discovered by Sam Phillips,” Lewis said. “He moved us out of that shack and into Ferriday.”
Lewis sang with her brother for the first time on stage when she was 11 years old at a show in Monroe, Louisiana, where Johnny Cash was also appearing.
“I went out and I did ‘A White Sport Coat (and a Pink Carnation),’” Lewis said. “That was the first time I was in front of a large audience. I was pretty terrified.”
Lewis got married at 14 and when it ended in divorce, she begged Jerry to let her come on the road with him.
“When my husband left me, Jerry tried to figure out a way to make me go back to school,” Lewis said. “He really wanted me to get an education and do normal things. He was so good to me. But I didn’t want to go back to school. I said ‘please let me go back on the road with you.’ So it was bye bye school.”
Lewis said she fell in love with life on the road and learned a lot from traveling, watching other famous singers like Fats Domino backstage, and seeing Jerry wow the crowds.
“I learned a lot being with him on the road, not just about the music, but what needs to happen before you ever get to play music yourself,” Lewis said. “And I was right about it. It was exciting. I did enjoy traveling with him. And I learned a lot too from another ex-husband, Kenny Lovelace, who taught me about music and singing harmony, and from Cecil Harrelson, my brother’s road manager, who taught me how to handle promoters and money.”
More importantly, Jerry also taught her how to play rock ’n’ roll and boogie boogie piano music.
“He gave me many, many piano lessons,” Lewis said.”I think he is a musical genius. He is the greatest entertainer and greatest piano player of all time.”
Lewis embarked on her own solo career in the 1960s playing small music venues and honky tonks like Hernando’s Hideaway in Memphis, which was also a favorite hangout of her brother.
“I played there a lot back in the day,” Lewis said. “We used to have so much fun there. One night Jerry and I were sitting back stage and we were drinking this horrible champagne that probably cost two dollars a bottle at a liquor store. It was just the worst. We were laughing about it. I said ‘Jerry, why in the world are we siting here at Hernando’s Hideaway drinking this awful champagne?’ He said ‘we’re doing it because it is fun.’ It was one of his favorite places and I always loved it too.”
Lewis said she will never forget the first time she held one of her records in her hands.
“It was ‘Small Red Diary’ and the flip side was ‘Break Up the Party,’” Lewis said. “That was a thrill. And Mae Axton, who wrote ‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ wrote that song. That was the first time I remember having a single out. It was on ABC-Paramount in March 1965.”
Cleopatra Records just released a new album called Linda Gail Lewis: Early Sides 1963-1973 on vinyl, a compilation of her early work featuring 18 rockabilly, rock ’n’ roll and country song that showcase her pioneer rockabilly spirit and own unique talents. The album includes two tracks with Jerry Lee - “Before the Snow Flies” and “Baby (You’ve Got What It Takes).” The label is also releasing a CD and DVD called “Family Jewels” which is a recording from her live show in Arzon, France in 2015.
“It makes me really happy because I am really proud of it,” Lewis said. “It’s a really good album. And they did a great job with the DVD. They had four cameras and a sound truck to get really great sound. It shows how much I enjoy playing and really represents what I do.”
Lewis said she is looking forward to coming back to Memphis and plans to drop by and see Jerry Lee and her sister-in-law, Judith, at their home in Southaven.
“I will see him as soon as I hit town,” Lewis said. “I have a wonderful sister-in-law and I enjoy spending time with her and my brother. Sometimes Judith and I will talk so much that he will ask us to go in the other room because we won’t quit talking. He won’t be at the show though. It is really hard for him to go out and have any peace. People don’t mean him any harm, but they want his autograph and to have their picture taken and ask him a million questions. It’s been that way forever, but he’s 86 now, so it is a lot to put up with.”
She visited with him last year when he turned 85 and performed at a special tribute show at the Lewis Ranch in Nesbit. But as many times as she has opened for him over the years, Lewis said she was scared to death to sing in front of him. It was extra intimidating because her cousins, evangelist and Gospel singer Jimmy Swaggart, and country music star Mickey Gilley were there watching.
“I had to sit down at the piano and play in front of three of the greatest piano players in the whole world,” Lewis said. “I was so relieved when I got through it without absolutely falling apart. But I watched the film afterward and I could see that Jerry really loved it.”
Linda Gail Lewis with special guest Finley Watkins, Live at the Rock ’n’ Roll Cafe, 3855 Elvis Presley Blvd., Memphis. Sept. 2 5 p.m. to 7:30 p.m. Tickets $20.
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