In 2019, Jerry Lee Lewis granted Vintage Rock a rare interview that took in his early influences, Sun Records, family, religion, The Beatles, self-belief and – of course – rock’n’roll…

When Vintage Rock caught up with Jerry Lee Lewis in 2019 it marked the end of a prolific two-decade run for the iconic rock’n’roller. This latter-life purple patch included critically-acclaimed studio albums and one last hurrah on these shores at his sell-out show at the London Palladium in 2015 in celebration of his 80th birthday – just shy of 60 years since he’d first crossed Sun Studios’ threshold to try his luck.

Jerry Lee was incredibly active in the last two decades of his life. Vintage Rock was a huge fan of 2006’s Last Man Standing, an album of duets that found him back in the charts. It was a set buoyed by the likes of Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and – Jerry Lee’s personal favourite – a sparkling cover of What Made Milwaukee Famous with Rod Stewart.

And, what’s more, it was his highest-charting US album to date, making No.26. His 2010 LP, Mean Old Man, attracted yet more star turns (and also made the US Top 40), while 2014’s Rock’n’Roll Time, was an intimate affair with the big names instead supporting on guitar and backing vocals (only Jerry Lee could push Keith Richards, Robbie Robertson, Neil Young and Nils Lofgren to the back of the stage).

The album was well-received thanks to some wonderfully breezy covers ranging from Bob Dylan and Johnny Cash to Kris Kristofferson and Lynyrd Skynyrd. In 2013, he opened his own joint on Beale Street in Memphis – Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk – where he brought in the new year from behind his piano to a sell-out crowd.

Towards the end of his life, while the ferocity had subsided and the pianos were decidedly safer than in previous decades, the wild man of rock’n’roll was still at large behind those bright blue eyes. And with such an incredible musical legacy, the Ferriday Fireball is sure to be forever ablaze…

Was there a eureka moment when you knew that you wanted to be a musician?

About the time I started noticing life, I knew that I was meant to play.

Your father mortgaged your family’s house to buy a piano. He must have seriously believed in you. What was your home life like as a child?

Yes, he did! Still have it, too. It was the greatest time of my life. Having mama and daddy around, my sisters. There wasn’t anything better than all of us together listening to the Grand Ole Opry. Man, that was big time to us. That was about all there was to listen to. That and The Louisiana Hayride out of Shreveport.

Stick McGhee’s song Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee was the first tune that you sang live as a teenager, and you opened with it at your 80th birthday London Palladium show in 2015. You must have a real affinity with that one in particular…

Got to be one of my all-time favourite songs. I learned it at my cousin Maudine’s house. We would play that record over and over and over. Finally, I learned it and changed it to how I liked it.

What other favourites did you play in those very early days?

Hadacol Boogie [written by Bill Nettles And His Dixie Blue Boys]. Heck, you had to call it something! Love that song!

What are your abiding memories of going to Haney’s Big House and the other Natchez juke joints as a kid?

Trying to take in as much as I could before we would get caught and thrown out, mostly [laughs]. They’re memories I wouldn’t trade for the world…

What records did you listen to back then?

Anything that we could get our hands on. I loved listening to blues records, country and rock’n’roll – they weren’t calling it that then, though – and I loved to listen to rhythm and blues music.

How did you feel that first day you turned up at Sun Studio?

Nothing could stop me. I was going to be heard and get recorded. I knew, if I got to Sun, it would happen.

Which of the Sun artists did you feel the biggest affinity with?

Well, now… I don’t know. I loved them. That was my family. I spent a lot of time touring with Johnny and Carl, tearing up those old back roads. Elvis was a friend, too… no matter what people think. There was rivalry between all of us. We all wanted to be better and be at the top.

What are your memories of meeting Sam Phillips?

When I finally got to meet Sam I knew that was it. I had already heard of him before I came up to Memphis and knew that man could take me where I wanted to go. Genius. Pure genius. When he heard a hit record and said it was a hit, you knew it was going to be. We did a lot of hard work together. Hours of takes and sessions. Sam was a very precise man. I learned a lot from him. We got along very well. He still owes me a lot of money, hah!

What was it like to suddenly be an international star?

Couldn’t have felt better. I got what I always wanted. People hearing my records.

Why do you think you were considered such a rebel?

’Cause I never hid anything I did. I did what I wanted, how I wanted, and when I wanted – and my fans respected me for that.

And you took that rebellious streak onstage for your famous Star-Club show in Hamburg…

Couldn’t forget it! They didn’t ask me to record it and I’m still waiting on them! It was a great show though. We played our hearts out that night.

The Beatles cut their teeth at the Star-Club. Is it true that John Lennon kissed your feet when you met him? Were you a fan of the Beatles?

Yeah, he did. John was a good boy. Had a lot of talent and a lot of good left to do. Well, they’re all good boys. I miss George… loved having Ringo on Last Man Standing, and it was great to see Paul at the Rock Hall.

How do you feel about the controversies that you’ve encountered in your life?

You know, you rethink things you’ve done and you try to live your life with no regrets. That’s what I’ve done. Would I have done some things different? Maybe. I just pushed through it. Kept my family and my faith close.

Talking about faith… you’ve previously said you worry about whether you’re going to heaven or hell. How important is religion to you?

Faith and family. It’s the most important. If you don’t have faith you ain’t got nothin’. I’m only as blessed as I am because I keep the Lord in my heart. You have to keep your faith that the Lord will always be with you when you go through trials and tribulations.

What do you think you would have done had your music career not taken off?

Kept playing my music. I knew it would happen. I don’t think I ever would have stopped… had I stopped when things got rough, then I wouldn’t be where I am now.

You always had an affinity with country music, so how did you feel about having to switch to country from rock’n’roll?

Well you know, I don’t feel like I ever switched. I kept playing my music how I wanted at the shows. I had always played some country even before I was recording it. When I went to record songs like She Even Woke Me Up or Middle Age Crazy I knew I could put my style on it. Then it was mine.

How did it feel when Another Place, Another Time started going up the charts?

Heck, they told me it was going to be a hit, I cut it, and it was. I think the music speaks for itself on that one.

Do you remember if there was a moment you really thought, “I’m back”?

I didn’t go anywhere! I never stopped playing. There was nowhere to go! Me and my music can’t hide. God gave me this talent and I’ll keep rockin’ ’til I can’t.

Tell us about the tape that you gave the astronauts to listen to on the Apollo 14 mission in 1971.

Man, that was something. I think Jerry Kennedy set that up with the men over at NASA. I remember meeting Stuart Roosa, one of the astronauts, I think he helped get us involved. I went and recorded that tape for them!

What are your memories of that infamous Opry show in 1973?

First off, it was a pleasure to do it. I grew up with the Opry. It was great to be there. Everyone tells you I skipped all the breaks, heck, I didn’t know about them! No one told me I had to stop for commercials. So I just went out and played my show, without stopping, 56 minutes of me playing. I think they wanted to get me off, but they couldn’t have. Pretty sure I saw Ernest Tubb [whose radio show followed the Opry] arguing with someone trying to figure out who was going to come take me off but no one was going to come get me.

Which track do you wish you could have written or recorded?

You know, I get asked that a lot. For the most part, anything I wanted to write I did. If I wanted to record it, I did that, too!

Were you never tempted to write a few more of your own?

The thing is, I’ve written plenty of songs. Some have been covered, and some I’ve never put down. Heck maybe one day I’ll let ’em out.

Can you sum up your life thus far in a single sentence?

I can do that in three words. Rock and roll.