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It’s a Killer comeback

Times Staff Writer

Hi, how ya doin’, killer?” Jerry Lee Lewis asks guests backstage at a casino showroom near San Bernardino where the famed “wild man” of rock ‘n’ roll will go onstage in 20 minutes.

Well, maybe it’s time to forget that wild man part. After nearly a half-century on the road, Lewis looks like a rock ‘n’ roller approaching the end of the trail.

At 69, his face puffy and jowly, Lewis moves so slowly backstage that you wouldn’t want him near a treadmill without paramedics in the building. Watching him slumped in a chair, it’s hard to imagine him being able to do anything more onstage than accept an award. Then again, people have counted Lewis out for decades -- only to see him bounce back, from delicate stomach operations and career-threatening scandals.

And sure enough, this night at the San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino, Lewis not only makes it to the piano but comes alive once his fingers hit the keys, pumping out that distinctive Lewis groove that is part honky-tonk, part boogie-woogie, part juke joint and all magic.

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“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain!” he shouts at the beginning of “Great Balls of Fire,” one of the lustful tunes that made anxious parents in the ‘50s thankful for the less-threatening Elvis Presley.

It’s “oldies” night at San Manuel (Lewis was followed onstage by Little Richard and Chuck Berry), and many of the 2,000 cheering old-timers dance in the aisles the way kids did on “American Bandstand” during rock’s first decade.

No one in the audience is more excited than a silver-haired man in a Rolling Stones “Tumbling Dice” T-shirt and jeans who has been going to Lewis shows since he was a teenager in the ‘70s. After school, he’d rush over to the old Palomino Club in North Hollywood early enough to nab the spot closest to the stage.

That fan, Steve Bing, no longer has to wait in line to be close to his rock hero. He’s the guiding force behind an album that should catapult Lewis back into the national spotlight -- much as record producer Rick Rubin revived Johnny Cash’s career in the ‘90s and record producer-musician Jack White rekindled interest in Loretta Lynn in 2004.

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The difference is that Bing, 40, isn’t a record producer. He’s a film producer and heir to a real estate fortune who helped finance “The Polar Express” and has donated to political, environmental and child-development causes. The normally press-shy Bing, who attracted considerable attention in a paternity suit involving Elizabeth Hurley, has spent more than $1 million on Lewis’ comeback collection.

Bing’s close friend guitarist Jimmy Rip oversaw the production of the album, which is expected to be released by Columbia Records this fall or early next year. It features guest turns by a battery of Lewis fans, including Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Neil Young, Don Henley, Eric Clapton, Willie Nelson and Ringo Starr.

As Lewis finishes his set, Bing smiles as he sees the standing ovation.

Not one to hang around after a show, Lewis heads straight for the limo to go back to the hotel, pausing only when asked what the album and the renewed activity mean to him.

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“What does it mean? It means everything,” he says firmly. “When you have people like this working with you and Keith Richards and George Jones wanting to record with you, it’s wonderful.

“There was a point when you wondered if anyone cared anymore, you know what I mean? But you see they do, and it makes you feel good. You’d have to be a fool not to.”

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The man in red pajamas

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Lewis had pretty much disappeared by the time Bing and Rip started looking for him in 2000. They had long dreamed about working with him and felt they could combine business with pleasure by having him record a couple of songs for possible use in a Bing film.

“I was on the Internet, making phone calls, but we couldn’t find a manager or agent,” Rip, 49, says. “What I discovered was he had basically retired to his bed. He couldn’t stand the way his life had turned out.

“When I first met him, I asked how much he played every day, and I couldn’t believe it when he said he never played except at a show. I mean, here’s an absolute genius musician and he doesn’t play most days.”

Rip and Bing finally caught him and booked a session for July 2002 in Memphis, near Lewis’ home, to record the two tracks.

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Rip was nervous. He had heard all kinds of crazy stories about Lewis in the studio. There was talk of him shooting his bass player in the leg. And tales of Lewis not liking to record with headphones and that he’d sometimes be so moody he’d leave after playing one note, or not show up at all.

They called the session for 8 p.m., and Lewis, to Rip’s delight, came shuffling through the door at 8:01, wearing red pajamas and flip-flops and smoking his pipe.

One of the songs they recorded that night was Led Zeppelin’s “Rock and Roll,” the ode to ‘50s rock.

When Rip and Bing heard Lewis sing the famous opening line, they got chills. In a way, the line seemed to be Lewis’ own story: “It’s been a long time since I rock and rolled ... Been a long lonely ... time.”

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They decided that night to record an entire album.

The job now finished, Rip, a seasoned guitarist and songwriter who has toured and recorded with Mick Jagger, talked for nearly an hour during the ride from Los Angeles to the casino about putting the album project together, but he ended up at times just marveling at Lewis’ music.

And why not?

Lewis was part of the inaugural, 10-member Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction class, along with the likes of Elvis Presley and Chuck Berry. And he had an ego to match his talent. His only regret as a performer, he once said, is that he can’t sit in the audience every night and watch himself onstage.

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From the same kind of working-class Southern background as Presley, Lewis hit with such impact in 1957 that his single “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” soared high onto the pop, country and R&B; charts. In the next 18 months, the Ferriday, La., native sold 25 million records.

But his career nose-dived after it was learned during a British tour in 1959 that Lewis had married his 13-year-old cousin. Radio stations stopped playing his records, and lucrative club bookings vanished. It took nearly a decade and a switch to country music to reestablish him as a record seller.

His life has also been plagued by tragedy. One of his sons drowned in a swimming pool in the ‘60s and another was killed in a car crash in 1973. He has also been married and divorced more times than he can count on one hand, battled alcohol and drugs and income tax issues.

Through it all, he has had an angel on his shoulder.

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Backstage at a Longview, Texas, ballroom in 1981, I saw Lewis in one of his first performances after he spent two months in intensive care following two stomach operations. Things seemed so grave that musicians stopped by the hospital to pay their last respects.

So how was Lewis taking care of himself in Longview? Minutes after his show, he was sitting in an office drinking whiskey straight from the bottle.

Lewis scoffed when asked about it.

“The doctors told me I should have been dead long ago. They said, ‘You’ve got to be a miracle, boy. I don’t know how you’re still living, much less able to go back to work.’ Well, if I couldn’t go back to work, I might as well be dead.

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“This is my life -- being onstage, playing the piano, giving the people a show. I may have trouble getting my weight back and my breath back and my women back, but I never lost my music. No, sir, the Killer ain’t through yet.”

Almost a quarter-century later, Lewis is roaring through the hits at San Manuel, reflecting the spirit if not always the vigor of the early days, and Rip can’t help but smile as he plays guitar onstage with his hero.

“The last four years have been great. In the early sessions, he was out of the building as soon as the sessions were over,” Rip says. “Toward the end, though, he would be the last one out of the room, laughing, cracking jokes. He was having such a ball. The last thing we did was in L.A. with Ringo Starr, and they remembered walking together in Liverpool in the ‘60s.”

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Songs fit his history

Backstage after Lewis’ set, Bing and Rip congratulate Lewis and give the latest copy of the new album to his daughter Phoebe, 41, so Jerry Lee can listen to it at the hotel.

Rather than just redo the old hits, the pair worked with Lewis and the guest artists on coming up with imaginative selections. In one of the most inspired, Little Richard -- whose trademark “oohs” were copied by Paul McCartney on “I Saw Her Standing There” -- supplies the “oohs” himself in Lewis’ version of the Beatles hit.

Other tracks range from high-octane rock (Fogerty’s “Travelin’ Band”) to pure barroom country (Jagger’s “Evening Gown”). Many seem to reflect Lewis’ colorful history so well that they could have been written for him.

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In fact, the album’s most moving moment is when Lewis duets with Kris Kristofferson on the latter’s “The Pilgrim, Chapter 33.”

Kristofferson, whose other hits include “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Help Me Make It Through the Night,” wrote “The Pilgrim” in the early ‘70s as a tribute to many of the great but troubled country stars he admired in Nashville -- including Johnny Cash, Waylon Jennings and Lewis:

Once he had a future full of money, love and dreams,

Which he spent like they was goin’ out of style.

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And he keeps right on a-changin’ for the better or the worse

Searching for a shrine he’s never found.

Never knowin’ if believin’ is a blessin’ or a curse

Or if the goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.

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It’s far more complex a lyric than Lewis usually sings, and he resisted it when Bing and Rip suggested he record it, but he ended up injecting it with the touch of personal testimony that made Janis Joplin’s “Me and Bobby McGee” so memorable.

He even adds his own postscript to the song:

The goin’ up was worth the comin’ down.

About Lewis’ own ups and down, Phoebe says:

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“No doubt about it, his spirit will always be wild-ass crazy. He listens to his heart and he follows it. That makes him hard to be around at times, but as an adult, I respect it. I see him different than when I was a teenager. I was so worried about him that I moved back in with him about five years ago. He was in bad shape, very depressed, very poor diet, problems with his marriage.

“A lot of people have come around over the years saying they wanted to help him get him back on top, so we didn’t know what to make when Steve and Jimmy showed up. They told us they wanted to help make his music come to life again, and you know what? They’ve done just that.”

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Hilburn, pop music critic of The Times, can be reached at Calendar.letters@ latimes.com

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