Jerry Lee Lewis | Last Man Standing
The gates opened onto a neat, quiet suburban community for retirees in Southaven, Mississippi, where, by all accounts, one house appeared like the others. Except here, Jerry Lee Lewis and his wife, Judith, live every day managing life as semi-retired seniors while navigating the later years of the singer’s legendary career.
For those whose only acquaintance with the singer is through a parent’s or grandparent’s personal memory, Lewis — known as “the Killer” — has lived through as many highs as lows, became legendary for both his songs and fists, but perhaps has proven that his roots shaped everything about him. Even through the hardest professional times of his life, he persevered with a relentless pursuit. From the late 1950s to the early 1960s, he wrote, recorded and performed at a feverish pace — even when his fans gave him less than warm welcomes. But he never, ever gave up the stage, and at times, reclaimed fame that rivaled even his contemporaries, Presley and Cash.
At nearly 82, Lewis rarely grants interviews but still occasionally travels and performs.
“Now, I decide when I feel like going out and playing,” he said. Judith commented that he can “still play the piano like 40 years ago, but it’s the travel that’s hard now for us.”
Two years ago, for his 80th birthday, the couple flew to England where Jerry Lee celebrated with many big names including Paul McCartney. “Guests were fighting over who would sit next to him,” she said.
Married in 2012, the couple just celebrated their fifth wedding anniversary in March. While much has been printed about Lewis’ infamous marriages and even Judith herself, the couple nonetheless shares common roots and growing-up years in Mississippi and Louisiana. Extremely close to his parents, Lewis grew up in a poverty steeped in religion and music. It’s a path they both knew.
“I think we’re just good for each other,” he said. While some years have been filled with glamour and travel, the pair is equally at home driving through Sonic or Chick-fil-A or settling in at the house for date night watching movies.
The couple likes to watch movies. “I like to watch the old westerns and shows like ‘Gunsmoke’,” he added.
While enjoying their young five grandchildren, the couple also enjoys their privacy and reminiscing about the past. Like anyone later in life, Jerry Lee cherishes those early memories that shaped his entire life.
“I had the greatest parents who would do anything for me,” he said. In fact, proof of his statement sits in the other room from the couple. “When I was eight, they mortgaged the house to buy my first piano which we still have in this house,” Lewis said.
The dark wooden upright sits quietly now in the corner with some keys yellowed or missing. It’s impossible to conceive of all the hours Lewis spent banging away as a young boy, developing his signature keyboard style that so captivated audiences.
The piano, like so many of his prized possessions, lived at his ranch in DeSoto County where Lewis spent 43 years. The couple moved from the ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi, to their new home, dubbed Shangri La by Judith, about a year ago in order to be closer to medical facilities.
Although it was a big move literally and figuratively, Lewis is still creating and influencing – just as he did in his youth. In late April 2013, he helped open Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café and Honky Tonk at the corner of Beale and Handy Circle in downtown Memphis. Another dream of his, the restaurant serves as a mix of museum, bar and music venue.
“It’s doing great and I helped design parts of it,” said Lewis.
Filled with memorabilia, the café also houses another piano the singer and his father brought to Memphis from his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, in the 1950s. Visitors can also see his 19 gold records, a 1980s two-seat Cadillac Eldorado, and a Harley Davidson.
Seated comfortably in their living room during our visit, the couple exchanges pleasantries with visible affection. As Li’l Jerry and Judith, a pair of miniature pinschers, play around the room and jump from one lap to another, it’s apparent his love of dogs hasn’t abated anymore than his love of the keyboard.
When asked about those who are still around, Lewis points to the likes of Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Tom Jones. The pair had recently returned from visiting Jones in California.
In his 2014 biography “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” author Rick Bragg recounts Lewis’ unbridled passions, both on and off stage, sharing personal stories from Lewis’ growing up years through his tragedies and triumphs to present day.
His son, Jerry Lee Lewis III, understands the depths of his father. “He felt so strongly and had strong values,” he said. “I’m so thankful for the opportunity to be part of rock’s first wild man, my dad.”
If nothing else is apparent, it’s that Jerry Lee Lewis banged away endlessly at life as hard as he did on the piano keys. Maybe it’s survival, maybe it’s just the need to fulfill a God-given talent which few could dispute. Whatever the opinions, his legend lives on, just as he still lives in DeSoto County.