Jerry Lee Lewis: Whole lot of playin’ going on

Jerry Lee Lewis sinks into a regal looking leather chair backstage at the House of Blues. The 74-year-old rock ‘n’ roll pioneer has just completed an impressive hourlong set at a private party for an associate of country star Tim McGraw. He’s sharply dressed in a white vest embossed with floral curlicues, over a simple black shirt tucked into black denim jeans.

But the most striking thing about his physical presence might be his skin: Few of even the hardest-living rock or country musicians have been through as much as the man also known as the Killer. Yet his face is youthful, smooth -- not the battle-scarred war zone of wrinkles likeKeith Richards and Merle Haggard wear.

And there are those fingers: elegant, long and graceful, and still fully capable of tickling, tapping or pounding the ivory keys of the instrument with which he is synonymous.

“You can’t beat a piana,” he drawls.

Indeed, he displays such respect for the instrument that it’s hard to believe he ever actually torched one -- though legend, of course, holds that he did precisely that, a good decade before Jimi Hendrix tried the same trick with a guitar. It was that act that helped earn the Louisiana native another nickname, the “Ferriday Fireball.”

“I like to play guitar too,” he says in an almost confessional tone. “I play my guitar just about as good as anybody plays guitar. Yeah! I can play some heavy blues, and some good rock ‘n’ roll on guitar . . . But I don’t want to do that, because then I’m gonna be obligated to do it. I know [fans] expect to hear a piana . . . They’re not going to allow the other Jerry Lee.”

Sun discovery

It’s difficult to imagine anyone -- fans included -- being able to box in Jerry Lee. His signature hits “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” were explosive songs full of unbridled lust that left adults of the sedate 1950s convinced that the devil himself had arrived in the world to claim their teenage children.

While Jerry Lee might have mellowed with age, he is, as acknowledged by the title of his 2006 album, “Last Man Standing -- the Duets,” the only surviving icon of a singular generation. Among the artists Sam Phillips discovered and first recorded at Sun Records in the 1950s -- including Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins -- Lewis, the biggest hellion of them all and the one Phillips once described as “on balance, probably the most talented human being I ever had the opportunity to work with,” has outlived every one.

“Last Man Standing” is chock full of superstar duets with the likes of Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, George Jones, Willie Nelson, Neil Young, B.B. King, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton and a slew of others, which helped it sell nearly 200,000 copies.

Many of those guests are back, with new names added to the list, for another set that Steve Bing and his Santa Monica-based Shangri-La Music label plan to issue early next year (a five-song sampler EP was made available online last month).

A third album is set to follow about nine months later.

But it’s not strictly about big names paying their respects. Among the raw tracks Bing is working up with the album’s co-producer, veteran drummer-to-the-rock-gods Jim Keltner, is one featuring “the other Jerry Lee,” with Lewis accompanying himself on guitar on a freewheeling, country blues rendition of Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues.”

Naturally, he remakes the lyrics to fit his own outsized personality: “I shot a boy in Memphis / Didn’t want to watch him die,” adding a sardonic little “heh-heh” after his revamp.

And there’s Lewis at the piano, singing the gospel song “Peace in the Valley”: “The bear will be gentle and the wolf will be tame / The lion shall lie down with the lamb . . . [and] I’ll be changed from this creature that I am.”

Lewis is more lamb than lion these days, although he flashed a bit of the old bite at the recent 25th anniversary Rock and Roll Hall of Fame concerts at New York’s Madison Square Garden. After a laudatory introduction by Tom Hanks, Lewis kicked over his piano stool to start the second night’s show, delighting the crowd.

The country side

One surprise amid the 43 songs he’s put down with Bing and Keltner is his take on Kris Kristofferson’s “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” which Cash turned into a No. 1 country hit in 1970. “I never heard John’s record,” Lewis says, and it’s easy to believe him after listening to the 100% Jerry Lee version that streamed from the monitors recently at a Hollywood recording studio.

A lot of the songs he’s recorded for Shangri-La have been on his set list for decades. Others, like the Rolling Stones’ “Sweet Virginia,” he would learn after a few listens in the car on the way to sessions.

“He’s the quickest study I ever worked with,” said producer Jerry Kennedy, who oversaw hundreds of Lewis’ country recordings in the 1960s and ‘70s after his rock ‘n’ roll fame flamed out.

“He’d get to town an hour and a half or two hours before we would start recording, he’d listen to the new song five, six, seven or eight times, and then he knew it,” Kennedy said by phone from his Nashville home. “I think he uses a song likes a script: He crawls inside it and does his thing like an actor . . . He never did anything the same way twice -- that’s what was wild.”

During playback of Lewis’ rendition of “Sunday Mornin’ Comin’ Down,” Kristofferson was in the control room. He shook his head while wearing an expression of amazement and pride.

“God almighty,” he said. “If I ever thought back in the day I’d be hearing this . . . I’d think somebody brought me back from heaven to hear that.”

The “Last Man Standing” project was intent on reviving Lewis the rocker; this time around, the focus is on the country facet of his music. That’s where he resurrected his career in the late 1960s, after he had become a pariah for marrying his 13-year-old cousin Myra. Virtually overnight, he went from commanding $10,000 a night to out-of-the-way gigs that paid $25.

The wild ups and downs of his life from that point on have been well-documented: six wives, four of whom he divorced, the other two died; two sons lost in separate accidents; his own addiction to drugs and alcohol, which led to bleeding ulcers that nearly killed him in 1985. And of course, the renaissance he’s experienced in the last few years.

“When I moved in back in 1999-2000, he was not the same person,” said his daughter, Phoebe, from his marriage to Myra, who also has served as his manager for nearly the past decade. “He was depressed, he was in a bad marriage. It took us some time, but with his commitment and my commitment, and putting together a good team of people, we turned it around. It’s like he started over again.”

Added producer Kennedy, who last worked with Lewis 35 years ago: “He deserves any good things that can happen. What a great talent.”

Busy touring

Lewis wasn’t on hand to take in any of the kudos directly. While many of those working on the new album were hunkered down in Hollywood, Lewis was in Linz, Austria, in the middle of a month-long European tour.

At this stage of Lewis’ career, touring isn’t about milking a fabled name for nostalgia value on the oldies circuit, but facilitating his ability to continue performing while he’s both able and inspired to play.

When he’s not, Phoebe’s happy to head home to Nesbit, Miss., where Jerry Lee relaxes in front of a TV watching “Gunsmoke” reruns or old Gene Autry westerns. (“Anybody who doesn’t like Gene Autry,” he says with a sneer, “is a weirdo.”) Sometimes, he entertains himself and his daughter with songs he loves, including pop standards “Autumn Leaves” and “Stardust.”

There’d been talk of him traveling to Los Angeles the night after the Vegas party for another show, but he and Phoebe decided to scrap it so they could get home a day early and rest up for the European tour.

“That one was gonna pay $40,000,” he says with a nod that seems to carry with it the memory of those $25 nights of yore -- and even a glint of pride that it’s one he can now afford to pass up. “That’s a lot of money, Killer.”