Jerry Lee Lewis changed Doug Cooke’s life forever.
He gave him the gift of music and inspired him to learn how to play the piano - Jerry Lee Lewis style, of course.
“I saw “Great Balls of Fire” the movie and loved the soundtrack,” Cooke said. “That’s what got me into music. I would never have played or even had an interest in playing the piano except because of Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Lewis, the piano pounding rockabilly pioneer whose hit songs “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On” helped define early rock ’n’ roll music, passed away last week at his home in DeSoto County at age 87.
The rock legend they called “the Killer” may have left the stage, but his musical legacy lives on in the clubs and honky tonks on Beale Street where generations of musicians who he inspired continue to share his music nightly with fans new and old from all around the world.
Cooke, a boogie woogie piano player who lives in Olive Branch and portrays Lewis in the traveling “Cash, Killer, & The King” tribute show, met Jerry Lee several times over the years at different shows and became practically one of the family at the Lewis ranch from 2000 to 2010.
“I referred to them as my cousins back then,” Cooke said. “I was friends with his daughter, Phoebe, and would come down and we would watch movies and hang out. They were great to me.”
Cooke said he met Jerry Lee for the first time in 1996 at a show at the 9:30 Club in Washington D.C. It was a standing room only crowd and Cooke said he got there early and stood behind Lewis at the piano so he could watch his hands.
“He was playing and playing and then he stopped mid-song,” Cooke said. “He said ‘sorry, the guitar was clashing a little with the piano.’ And then he pointed to me and said “He knows what I’m talking about. He’s a piano player.” I had only been playing for four years and was trying to figure him out.”
Cooke’s friend took him backstage to meet the music icon, but he almost didn’t get to go inside his dressing room.
“His wife Kerrie was closing the door because she thought I was security,” Cooke said. “He said ‘no, let that guy in. He’s a piano player.’ He just kind of smiled at me and kept singing some songs.”
He saw Lewis again at another show in Maryland and introduced his parents to him.
“He was speaking fondly of me and told them he enjoyed my visits, which made me feel good,” Cooke said.
He was invited to the Lewis Ranch in Nesbit for the very first time for Lewis’s 65th birthday party.
“I had met Phoebe through a mutual friend,” Cooke said. “I wasn’t trying to meet him, but through music you meet a lot of people. They had a 65th birthday party for Jerry on Saturday. Then Sunday, I went over to see Phoebe. She said to come over around 11. I get there and Jerry comes out and says ‘hey! Jerry Lee Lewis. Nice to meet you.” It was around midnight and he and I were just sitting across from each other eating popsicles.”
Cooke said he never asked Lewis about his music whenever he was at the ranch because he wanted to respect his home, but he did talk to him about his clothes and style back in the 50s.
“We talked about the leopard lapel jacket that he wore on the Dick Clark show,” Cooke said. “He got that jacket when he was on tour in Australia with Buddy Holly. So I always enjoyed talking to him about that. And he would tell me stories about how he got kicked out of Bible college for playing boogie woogie. It was really cool hearing those kinds of stories from him and not from some book about him.”
Cooke said Jerry Lee even came out to help them decorate the Christmas tree at the Ranch.
“I convinced Phoebe one year to put a Christmas tree up,” Cooke said. “She said “Oh we don’t do that anymore. My daddy gets depressed.” I was like, well, you live here too. Let’s do it. So we put a Christmas tree up and she liked it. So we did it again next year and (Jerry Lee’s longtime friend) Cecil Harrelson and his girlfriend came over. Jerry Lee took a shower and came out and participated. We sat there and watched “A Christmas Carol” and we listened to Bing Crosby’s Christmas album.”
Cooke said he and Phoebe were watching a movie one night when he heard what he thought was Jerry Lee calling for Phoebe down the hallway. It turned out that “the Killer” was actually singing in his sleep.
“I said, hey I think your dad is calling you,” Cooke said. “She told me, ‘oh that happens all the time.”
Cooke said Lewis really didn’t like listening to other people play his songs, but paid him a nice compliment last year after the “Rockin’ at the Ranch” show which Cooke played on to help raise money for upkeep on the home so public tours could continue.
“He watched the show and told (Ranch manager) Kelly Chelette, that he liked my playing,” Cooke said. “I was floating on air after that for quite a while because he approved of my piano playing. I thought that was awesome.”
Cooke said Lewis was nothing like the wild man he was often portrayed by in the media.
“He had a great sense of humor,” Cooke said. “He had a big heart. He loved animals. He was just a very caring guy. The stuff you read about him, I think it is overstated. That’s not to say that he didn’t have some bad times because of some chemical influence. I think he was wounded and was defensive and just took it out on other people. But I think he was actually a sweetheart of a guy.”
Gary Hardy, a native Memphian who now lives in Horn Lake, played in several Memphis bands at clubs around Brooks Road back in the 1970s. He said Jerry Lee would often stop by a club unannounced and join the band.
“I played piano and guitar and used to play 9 p.m. to 1 a.m. five days a week, and 2 p.m. to 6 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays,” Hardy said. “One night about 3 o’clock on Sunday morning, Jerry Lee walked in - I think it was the Inferno Club - and just started playing. That’s how I met him.”
Hardy said Lewis dropped in about a dozen more times. One night, he tried to stop Lewis from sitting down at his piano because the instrument was damaged.
“He was used to just walking in and sitting down and just playing,” Hardy said. “On this particular night I tried to stop him because he didn’t know that in-between gigs I had stood my piano up against the back of my International Travelall and dragged it down the street for a while. So it was in terrible shape. Terrible.”
Hardy said Lewis hit a few cords on the piano, shook the microphone a little, then turned to him and said “Killer, this is the worst piano I have ever played. I’m going to play guitar tonight.” So he took the guitar player’s guitar and started playing two or three of his hits. And by the way, he did a great job playing guitar. That was the most memorable day of the several dozen encounters I had with him.”
Hardy reopened Sun Studio in 1987 after it had been closed for 27 years and until recently headlined a Sun Records tribute show on Beale Street. He said Jerry Lee would drop by late at night from time to time like a lot of the other artists who recorded at the studio back in its 1950s heyday and just sit around and talk.
“Our conversations became close over the years without going ‘hey, how you doing?’ or anything,” Hardy said. “We just started talking.”
Hardy saw Lewis for the last time in 2019 at the unveiling of the Mississippi County Music Trail marker at the Lewis Ranch.
“He wasn’t particularly generous as a musician,” Hardy said. “But he didn’t have to be. He was Jerry Lee.”
Landon Lane, a Memphis-based rockabilly musician who played piano at the Jerry Lee Lewis Cafe & Honky Tonk on Beale Street for six years, said he used to pretend he was playing the piano like Jerry Lee when he was three or four years old.
“My father used to play his music all the time when I was little,” Lane said. “I would listen to the music and then mimic it on the table.”
Lane said he learned how to play the piano when he was 26 years old and four years later was playing on stage professionally just like his rock n’ roll idol. Today, he has his own band, Landon Lane & the Ivories, and keeps Lewis’s music alive at shows at clubs like Lafayette’s Music Room and other venues across the Mid-South and even overseas.
“I love the style and the feel of that kind of music,” Lane said. “I like to keep it going.”
Lane said he received the best compliment ever from “the Killer” himself.
“He told me he liked the way I sing “You Win Again,”” Lane said. “To my face! Ray Gann, who was Jerry’s bass player and worked with me at the club, said ‘man, he just complimented you. That’s something else. Most people don’t get that from him.’”
Brandon Cunning who runs Meteor Tours which takes visitors to historic music sites around Memphis and was the front man of “The Stunning Cunning Band,” said Jerry Lee Lewis IS rock ’n’ roll.
“Jerry was an original,” Cunning said. “He did things his way and the way he wanted to.”
Cunning said he remembers watching the movie “Great Balls of Fire” and then going out and buying a keyboard so he could learn to play like Jerry Lee Lewis.
“He definitely has influenced me to play the piano,” Cunning said. “I don’t know anybody who sits down at a piano - unless they are classically trained or jazz trained - who doesn’t want to play like Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Cunning said audiences today still get excited and sing along and dance whenever the band plays “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”
“Those are the songs that even if you are having a slow night, it fires up the crowd,” Cunning said. “There is something about those songs that people love to hear. And as a musician, it is fun playing them.”
Brad Birkedahl, who plays Wednesday nights at Blues City Cafe on Beale Street, said Jerry Lee Lewis’s music is timeless.
“You will still hear his music being played 100 years from now,” Birkedahl said. “We do “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” every night and we play some of this other songs like “End of the Road.” And everybody sings along when they hear “goodness gracious! Great Balls of Fire.”
Birkedahl, like the others, also grew up listening to his parents playing Jerry Lee Lewis records and developed a deep appreciation for his music, along with his label mates Elvis, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins.
“My parents graduated in 1959 from high school and had all of the records,” Birkedahl said. “That’s how I got into all of this. And actually, the first songs I heard from Jerry Lee were his country songs. My dad had those records. People forget that yeah, Jerry Lee Lewis was a rock ’n’ roller,’ but he was a great country music singer too.”
Birkedahl saw the movie “Great Balls of Fire” in the theater and later had it on a VHS tape. That movie inspired a desire in him to one day move to Memphis.
“I saw the movie and loved it,” Birkedahl said. “I thought the music was great and that Memphis was kinda neat. Now I live here and have been to Sun Studio many times to work over the years.”
Birkedahl never met Jerry Lee, but he got to “work” with him in a roundabout sort of way. He portrayed Elvis’s guitarist Scotty Moore in the Johnny Cash biopic “Walk the Line” and Jerry Lee’s guitar player - even though he is blurred out.
“So I guess in a weird way, I kinda worked with him. But not really,” Birkedahl said.
Cooke said Jerry Lee Lewis’s ultimate legacy will be that he brought smiles to the faces of millions of music fans and inspired others to become musicians.
“I hope he knows how much happiness he brought to the world by being himself,” Cooke said. “I don’t know what my days would be like if I didn’t get to sit down and play piano because I get so much enjoyment out of that.”