An iconic rocker receives a warm, admiring biography from a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist and author.
Lewis, born in 1935 (delivered by his father) and among the few remaining stars from the early days of rock ’n’ roll, cooperated eagerly—if not always accurately—with Bragg (The Most They Ever Had, 2011, etc.), now a professor (Writing/Univ. of Alabama). The author begins with Lewis’ earliest memory about the piano, the instrument he would ride into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and throughout this account of a most raucous life, the author returns to remind us of Lewis’ enormous gifts as a pianist and showman. He began playing at an early age and has not quit, arthritis and decay notwithstanding. Among his fans and friends were Elvis Presley (who coaxed Lewis into playing for hours on end) and other luminaries of the era, from Buddy Holly to Johnny Cash. Bragg gives us lots of family history (Mickey Gilley and evangelist Jimmy Swaggart are cousins) and offers a gripping account of Lewis’ early struggles in the music world, when he would sneak into bars to watch and listen, playing nameless places for endless hours, then finally getting a break at Sun Records and his two biggest hits, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” Bragg admirably charts Lewis’ yo-yo life: seven marriages (including one to a teenage first cousin), wealth and penury and wealth again, run-ins with the law (drunk and armed, he rammed his car into the gate at Elvis’ Graceland), and battles with substance abuse (Lewis claims not to have been as big a drinker as rumor insists). Throughout, Bragg displays his characteristic frisky prose. When Lewis played, he writes, “the girls bit their lips and went against their raisin’.”
From a skilled storyteller comes this entertaining, sympathetic story of a life flaring with fire, shuddering with shakin’.