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Chapter 2: Ferriday
Before we can hear the music, we need to know what led to it. "There's only been four of us," many have reported Jerry Lee boasting. "Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Jerry Lee Lewis. That's your only four fuckin' stylists that ever lived."
The youngest of that elite group of American music originals was born poor on Sunday, September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, a medium-size city in the east center of the state, near the Mississippi border. The larger Louisiana city Alexandria was more than an hour's drive away; the nearest community of any size was Natchez, just across the great Mississippi River. United with Mississippi by its dependence on the river, Ferriday had more in common with Mississippi boroughs than Louisiana ones, both musically and economically. It is no accident that Jerry Lee always considered Mississippi, which is all that separates Ferriday from Memphis, as much his home state as Louisiana.
Jerry Lee was the second son born into the stormy marriage of Elmo and Mary Ethel ("Mamie") Lewis. Elmo, Jr., was closing in on his sixth birthday when his little brother showed up a bit prematurely. Those with a penchant for the romantic are welcome to suggest that Jerry Lee, born feet first, just could not wait to get into this world and start rocking. Throughout his personal and professional life, he always worked on his own schedule.
Elmo, Sr., was already rocking. A cotton farmer, he had been the victim of two horrible punches, knocked to his knees by poor harvests and then to the dry ground by the Great Depression. One of his few means of escape was his collection of Jimmie Rodgers 78-r.p.m. records; through his father Jerry Lee became a dedicated fan of the Singing Brakeman. Another one of the former bootlegger's diversions was selling homemade whiskey without giving the government its share of his proceeds. This had already landed him in prison at least once before Jerry Lee was born.
Music and booze were no more than temporary diversions. The Lewises were poor, saved from outright homelessness only by the shotgun home lent to them by one of Elmo's relations. They lived without indoor plumbing or electricity--the record player was a windup model. Elmo and Mamie endured frequent rows. Mamie's anger at their economic predicament and her husband's inability to rescue them from their insolvency vented itself frequently and Elmo would usually back off or take off. Those looking for the origin of the many battles Elmo and Mamie fought over Jerry Lee's destiny have only to consider their son's name. Elmo insisted that he had named the child after two relatives while Mamie stresses that she had named him either after different relatives or after one of her favorite silent-movie stars. In these ways--dire economic circumstances and a passive husband stumbling along the margins of the law--the circumstances of Jerry Lee's first few years were similar to those of another kid, eight months his senior, who was growing up in northern Mississippi: Elvis Presley. Grafted onto this situation was something Elmo and Mamie whispered about, something called "It," that had infected members of Elmo's family.
Some photographs of Jerry Lee from this period have survived, and they all reveal an aspect of the Killer's look that has also lasted, his sneer. Much has been written about the lecherousness of Jerry Lee's smirks, but such provocativeness on his part definitely began in a presexual period. In his early years of hardship, long before he had a hint of what he was going to do with his life, Jerry Lee sported a natural sneer, one far more friendly than the one many have subsequently divined.
They did have music, and Mamie loved to hear her two Elmos sing tunes by their favorite Mississippian, Jimmie Rodgers. Rodgers's career was brief: he recorded professionally for the first time in 1927 and was dead of tuberculosis within six years. However, what his first producer called a mix of "nigger blues and old-time fiddle music," coupled with the expressive, malleable yodeling that was his trademark, made the former railroad man an instant star.
Rodgers's influence was diverse, immediate, and profound on the second generation of country-and-western stars. Bob Wills expanded upon his ideas about merging white rural music with New Orleans-style jazz. Tex Ritter and Gene Autry transformed his wild, romanticized tales of a brakeman's life (with titles like "Train Whistle Blues," "In the Jailhouse Now," and "My Rough and Rowdy Ways") into less adventurous, more romanticized tales of a cowboy's life. Woody Guthrie took up his mantle as a plainspoken rambler.
Rodgers is often designated the Father of Country Music, although the elements of his style that have frequently been dismissed, such as his nasal voice and his idiosyncratic timing, are the ingredients that earned him his title. His commercial ascendancy and the success of his contemporaries, such as the Carter Family and dozen of front-porch string bands, showed that this new form of music he was inventing would have much more to do with direct, unencumbered expression than it would with the tightly arranged big bands then at the height of their popularity. Also, one did not need thirty instruments to replicate this music, and the Elmos were content to sit on the floor and harmonize with Rodgers and his primitive guitar accompaniment.
The Lewises also had church. For whites in the mostly rural South, informal evangelical sects were the rule, the rock that united families and communities. Religion, especially the more visceral variety, is frequently a refuge for those who have been mistreated in this life. Flannery O'Connor, a southern Catholic with a keen eye for the nuances of her Protestant neighbors, once said in a lecture, "While the South is hardly Christ-centered, it is most certainly Christ-haunted." This observation, albeit somewhat flippant, alertly describes the predicament of families like the Lewises. Their everyday problems were too pressing and unavoidable for them to devote their time to much other than survival, but it was belief in something beyond this world that made it possible for them to get through day after day of drudgery and fear. At Mamie's command, the Lewises were churchgoers, first to the local Baptist church and later to the Assemblies of God hall. What little leisure time she enjoyed went in that direction.
In his youngest years Jerry Lee was brought to a makeshift church, more a tent than a solid building, that had been founded by traveling preachers representing the Assemblies of God, one of the more popular Pentecostal sects. Pentecostalism was a culture based on separation from worldliness, and the Assemblies of God was more activist in its methods of disassociation than most. Not only did the Assemblies of God believe in the standard Pentecostal movement's emphasis on ecstasy through glossolalia (speaking in tongues) and the purity of women through enforced plainness and rigid social morés, but it also insisted that even believers had to be repeatedly prodded along the road to salvation. It was a sect for people who wanted to be saved every day. The uninhibited Assemblies of God services were more than a little scary to the young Jerry Lee. People danced excitedly, in ways he had never seen his parents respond to his father's Jimmie Rodgers records, and people spoke in words and ways he could not comprehend. But Jerry Lee enjoyed the Assemblies of God rituals for another reason: there was music. His uncle Willie Leon Swaggart and his aunt Minnie Bell Swaggart, who had inducted the Lewises into the Assemblies of God, brought their fiddle and guitar to the proceedings and by all accounts kicked up as much dirt with their accompaniment as did the dancers and glossolaliacs. Jerry Lee and his cousin Jimmy Lee Swaggart listened to Jimmy Lee's parents play, and they were both moved by what they heard and saw. They got to sing along. They were poor but they felt like part of a community, part of a big family.
One member of the Lewis family who did not attend many of these services was Elmo, Sr., who had been arrested once again for liquor-law violations and was residing in a New Orleans federal prison. While her husband was away, Mamie held sway over Jerry Lee and impressed upon her son that his father was not worth his time. (The Elvis parallel is clear.) Jerry Lee saw his father only once during Elmo's nearly year-long incarceration, and those circumstances were tragic. On a Saturday afternoon in early August 1938, Elmo, Jr., eight years old, was killed by a drunk driver. His father was allowed to attend the funeral, which took place on land owned by a relative, in handcuffs. The inscription on his dead son's stone read: Budded on Earth to Bloom in Heaven.
Elmo returned from prison a few months later to learn that he might as well have stayed in New Orleans. His family, particularly the Calhouns and the Swaggarts, had supported Mamie and Jerry Lee adequately while he was away, and absence had not made Mamie's heart grow fonder. Elmo did what his wife told him to do and complained about it elsewhere. Jerry Lee envied his father's rough and rowdy affairs from afar, but he was and would remain his mother's son. Jerry Lee was now singing along with Elmo's Jimmie Rodgers records, not singing along with Elmo.
Jerry Lee grew up during World War II in several homes, including his own and the somewhat more spacious one of his uncle Lee and aunt Stella Calhoun while Elmo and Mamie hit the road briefly in 1942, chasing weapons-manufacturing work. The Swaggarts also sought such jobs. By then the Assemblies of God tent had become a genuine wood building in which Jerry Lee and his favorite cousins, Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, beheld services that were made more spectacular by an assembly line of fire-breathing preachers.
Also by then Jerry Lee had noticed the Calhouns' spinet piano. There was an upright in the church that Jerry Lee, Jimmy Lee, and Mickey were all encouraged to explore, but it was the Calhouns' that Jerry Lee favored. His school work was consistently poor enough that Elmo felt the need to spank him over it; the Calhouns' piano was for Jerry Lee both an escape from these everyday traumas (it did for the eight-year-old what the Assemblies of God did for Mamie) and an alternate means of satisfying his parents.
Elmo and Mamie gave Jerry Lee a sister, Frankie Jean, shortly after his ninth birthday. Around the same time, Jerry Lee gave Elmo and Mamie a present of his own.
He had been battling the Calhouns' spinet for months, and by Christmas 1944 he had beaten his first recognizable song out of it, the nineteenth-century carol "Silent Night." For an untutored nine-year-old with minimal interest in schooling and nothing approaching leadership from his father, Jerry Lee's serendipitous discovery that he could listen to a song, reproduce it, and get the immediate approval of his entire family was revelatory. Mamie pronounced him a budding genius on the spot, and she instructed Elmo to use what little they had as collateral to get the child a piano. Elmo soon dragged a used Starck upright into their home.
The war ended, the flooding of the Mississippi River had a deleterious effect on the family harvest, and his grades fell to nearly straight F's, but Jerry Lee did not care because he had a piano. At first he played variations of "Silent Night" that became more raucous with each iteration. The Calhouns' house had a radio, so in addition to the Jimmie Rodgers tunes that were the staple at home, Jerry Lee's ears were opened to a broader array of sounds. Most important was a song called "Boogie Woogie," which he had heard in two versions, that of the Tommy Dorsey Orchestra, and the original version by Clarence ("Pinetop") Smith, who identified it as "Pinetop's Boogie Woogie." A delightful instrumental journey, "Boogie Woogie" was the first major hit record to feature the striking new piano style that gave the song its name. By the time Jerry Lee was ready to hear "Boogie Woogie," the form had apparently peaked. John Hammond's 1938 breakthrough concert at Carnegie Hall in New York City, "From Spirituals to Swing," had featured three boogie woogie pianists: Albert Ammons, Pete Johnson, and Meade Lux Lewis. By the mid-forties, most boogie-woogie piano players in large bands were often too overwhelmed by loud horn sections to make themselves felt.
Boogie-woogie sounded like noise to many of the jazz fans who first heard it, but more discerning listeners, among them the amazed young Jerry Lee, could tell that it was the most unruly, most inviting piano style they had ever heard. Boogie-woogie was propelled by eight-to-the-bar rhythms that could turn the pianist's right hand into an instant jukebox. Play the boogie-woogie, and people would move. Even if a pianist's right hand--the melody hand--was not particularly adept, the boogie-woogie beat would stomp out all objections. Jerry Lee played "Silent Night" boogie-woogie.
Jerry Lee's vacillation between the sacred and the profane has been an enduring part of his myth, but the fact remains that his early boogie-woogie workouts, an obvious affront to church piano patterns, met no objection from his God-fearing mother or, apparently, anyone else. Mamie encouraged his explorations. One preacher, a Brother Janeway, who passed through Ferriday's Assemblies of God church, was noted for a staccato piano style, sparked by a wandering left hand that many listeners felt could boogie them toward the Promised Land. Mamie never hid her desire that Jerry Lee's burgeoning talents be put in the service of Jesus, but at least in his first few years of piano playing, perhaps until as late as 1950, there is no evidence of her forcing Jerry Lee down one musical path or another. Perhaps she was simply grateful for evidence that her remaining son might develop into something more than his father.
Music was everywhere for Jerry Lee: in church, on the Calhouns' radio, and on the new records Elmo bought to augment his Jimmie Rodgers 78s. The pumping rhythms of Freddie Slack's "The House of Blue Lights" made it a favorite (young Jerry Lee was allowed to listen to a song with a title that hinted at a house of ill repute), as was a hammering version of the Cajun standard "Jolé Blon" by Aubrey "Moon" Mullican. (Moon's follow-up was called "Jolé Blon's Sister.") Mullican was using his piano to pull off some of the same fusions that Jimmie Rodgers had achieved on his guitar; but, although Rodgers was the greater artist, the younger Mullican was able to incorporate Rodgers's achievement into his mix.
Mullican was a country singer in the Texas style, which meant he raided jazz for rhythms to complement his country cadences. He was country and western with an emphasis on western. Mullican's attitude also made an impact on his young fan. He shouted his words and was far more interested in being heard than in being precise. Mullican once said, "You got to make those bottles bounce on the table," a notion Jerry Lee would remember when he entered the honky tonks of Natchez. Esteemed as a singer and pianist, Mullican was nonetheless best known in Louisiana as the leader of the band that accompanied Jimmie Davis, the future governor and author of "You Are My Sunshine," during his first campaign.
Jerry Lee tried to learn everything as quickly as possible. He heard blues records on a Natchez radio station after his home finally had electricity. But at that time the black music of the Delta was too foreign for him to assimilate, even if the country blues of Charley Patton and Robert Johnson had now been electrified and ostensibly made more accessible by several Memphis-based performers. He made tentative attempts at translating Jimmie Rodgers's guitar ideas onto piano chords, and he learned to yodel in Rodgers's blues-derived manner. He committed himself to drills of Al Jolson tunes, whose films he devoured, so he could better project his voice. Most important, he latched onto Gene Autry's "You're the Only Star (In My Blue Heaven)" as a means by which he could make country music swing in a new way. From the start he was looking to be a unique stylist. Eventually he was willing to play outside the house in front of people other than his family, and his performances of sacred songs were loose enough to be appreciated and close enough to the original to be permitted. In the summer of 1947, Mamie gave birth to Jerry Lee's second sister, Linda Gail.
Since school was no longer a priority for Jerry Lee, in his parents' mind as well as his own, his hours not practicing or praying were devoted to carousing with his cousins Jimmy Lee and Mickey. Jimmy Lee, still a teenager, had already pledged his life to the Lord, but he was nonetheless encouraged by Jerry Lee and Mickey to accompany them on their jaunts both in Ferriday and across the river. They sneaked into blues bars and heard venerated piano players like Sunnyland Slim and Memphis Slim; they also indulged in some petty theft. Not yet fourteen, Jerry Lee was already having it both ways: his mother delighted at his development as a church pianist and his cousins were thrilled to be hearing some juke blues, overturning garbage cans, and raising a bit of hell. Around this time, Jerry Lee's wild behavior, among other things, earned him the nickname "Killer."
The final element of Jerry Lee's musical education arrived one Saturday night, when he tuned to the syndicated "Louisiana Hayride" radio show and first heard Hank Williams. Williams was as much a trailblazer as Jimmie Rodgers, but he was an even greater writer and performer. The characters in his songs wavered incessantly, but his portrayals of them never did. Jerry Lee heard Williams put across songs like "I Saw the Light," an astonishing prodigal son parable; "Honky Tonkin'," a paean to hard living; and "Move It On Over," a hilarious tale of a honky-tonkin' husband who is literally in the doghouse. The breadth of these recordings was stunning to Jerry Lee. Here was someone who could sing about both sides of the line, sin and salvation, and make them sound like the same, real life. Jerry Lee has said that his favorite of the early Williams tunes he heard was "Lovesick Blues," which was not, tellingly, a Williams original; it originated in Tin Pan Alley. For Jerry Lee, it had everything: a steady beat that never got in the way of the singer, a resigned tale of fractured love that somehow worked with its spirited delivery, and a yodel more lonesome and blue than anything Jimmie Rodgers ever concocted. When Jerry Lee connected immediately to Williams's music, it was not only because he heard someone he liked, it was also because he heard someone he wanted to be.
With Williams's songs ringing in his ears even when he was not listening to them or replicating them on his Starck, Jerry Lee decided he was a songwriter, too. He never recorded the first song he wrote, a ragtime-style ditty he often sang with his cousin Mickey, called "Yo Yo":
Yo yo, I know
You're my little pet.
You must've come from heaven
'Cause you ain't stepped out yet.
With a string around my finger
I'm happy as can be
'Cause every time I throw you down
You come right back to me.
[JG note 2000: Er, I've since learned that this is an old song from the hills, not one Jerry Lee wrote. Oops.]
* * *
Elmo got a job working construction at the Angola Penitentiary, the same place he had served time a few years previously, and a reformatory known in town for the musical prowess of its mostly African-American residents. Jerry Lee spent much time shuttling between the family's new home closer to the prison and his beloved Ferriday. His relationships with his sisters took their cue from the way he saw Elmo and Mamie interact: he would bully Frankie Jean, and she would find out what mattered to him and damage it. The job in Angola did not last long, and the family moved back to Ferriday, this time to a house with electricity and indoor plumbing. Aside for a high-school football injury and his first attempts at romance, nothing happened to Jerry Lee in Angola.
In 1949 Ferriday got a Ford dealership, Babin-Paul Motors, and a hillbilly band performed at a November party hyping the new cars. In one of his few enterprising moments that did not involve moonshine, Elmo talked one of the proprietors into letting Jerry Lee take over the eighty-eights. Those at the event differ on what Jerry Lee played and sang. Some report it was the Bill Nettles's hit, "Hadacol Boogie," others insist it was Granville ("Stick") McGee's proto-R&B "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee"; but everyone agrees that after a few seconds of indecisiveness, Jerry Lee was tremendous, as evidenced by the nearly thirteen dollars he earned when a hat was passed. For the Lewises, that was big money. Jerry Lee knew what he was going to do with his life. Within a month, he dropped out of high school. No one argued.
Jerry Lee wanted to play clubs, and he was competent to do so, but the local authorities did not look kindly upon underage piano players in juke joints. Jerry Lee tried to find work elsewhere, traveling as far as New Orleans; but, as Elmo put it, his son didn't look any older in New Orleans than he did in Ferriday. He contented himself with flat-bed shows and talent contests, usually taking in ten dollars or so.
Mamie was pleased that her son was making something of a living as a musician, but she was still committed to the idea that his talents be used for their church. She was unable to fathom a way in which Jerry Lee could do both. Since she could not resolve the dilemma, she decided it was all Jerry Lee's fault. Mamie was proud that her son was talented, but the real reason she encouraged Jerry Lee's predilection for music was simple economics. Even with Elmo's somewhat better standing in the community, even with the help they still received from their families, they were far from safe or comfortable. They needed the money, even if Mamie feared that Jerry Lee's occupation would make his entrance into heaven questionable. When Jerry Lee came home from a gig, he knew what the pattern would be. Mamie would rail at him about how he was doing the devil's work by playing that boogie-woogie music. Then she would demand the money.
As the months passed, Jerry Lee returned home with more money in his pockets. Fifteen years old, he was finally allowed to work in a Natchez nightclub and he earned himself a twenty-minute Saturday-night slot on Natchez's WNAT, where he played Jimmie Rodgers songs, other countrified blues, and a smattering of gospel. His extracurricular adventures accelerated since he could drive, and Elmo made some noise himself by being accused of trying to kill his brother-in-law Lee Calhoun over a piece of land. These events, coupled with his fear that Mamie and Jimmy Lee might be right about whom he was serving during his evening adventures, led Jerry Lee to enroll in the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas.
He did not last long. His attention span snapped quickly, and the institute's faculty did not take well to his sneaking out to bars or inserting boogie-woogie riffs into songs like "My God is Real" during services. After three months, he was expelled and returned to Ferriday.
At the time, Jerry Lee was nonchalant about being booted from the institute, but being expelled from such a school must have touched him deeply. Mamie's screams that he was doing evil by playing secular music rattled in his brain, and he knew that his inability to satisfy his teachers in Waxahachie indicated that he was cut from a different cloth. Jerry Lee has bounced back and forth between hard-edged rock and roll and polite spirituals more times than Little Richard and Prince combined. Mamie never resolved the paradox, and she never gave her son the tools to do so. Waxahachie came and went quickly for Jerry Lee, but it stayed with him.
By this time, Jerry Lee was a married man, at least on paper. Sixteen years old, he had married a preacher's daughter one year his senior named Dorothy Barton. On his February 1952 marriage license, he listed his occupation as farmer. Barton's romance with Jerry Lee had proceeded despite her parents' protest. They detested Jerry Lee, which was reason enough for them to try to break it off, but a more sensible reason for separating Jerry Lee and Dorothy was that they were both innocent kids who had no clue what marriage was about.
As Jerry Lee remembered more than three decades later, "On my wedding night with Dorothy, we just sat up for hours, didn't want to shut the lights and go to bed. I said, 'Do you wanna?' and she said, 'I don't know, do you?' So I said, 'Well, this is what we got married for, ain't it?' Boy, afterwards, I didn't know where the blood was comin' from, you know, if it was from her or me. I wiped myself off and saw it wasn't me and called old man Calhoun and said, 'Somethin's wrong with Dorothy, she's bleedin' to death.' Man, they didn't teach us nothin'."
To please Mamie and Dorothy's father, Jerry Lee preached for a time, but that did not take any better than the marriage. Those present swear that his sermons were as vivid and intense as the piano solos he played when he slipped into Ferriday and Natchez clubs late at night, but it was the excitement of the jukes and the relative ease with which he could make a living there that settled the question. He had also picked up some work as a drummer in Paul Whitehead's band at the Wagon Wheel in Natchez, which catered to both country and blues crowds. He was able to play piano when Whitehead moved to accordion or trumpet. Thirty-seven years later, Jerry Lee's onstage repertoire was cluttered with many of the same songs he played with the Whitehead group: "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-o-Dee" (a cleaned-up version of "Drinkin' Wine Motherfucker"), Hank Thompson's "The Wild Side of Life," Ernest Tubb's "Slippin' Around," and Johnny Temple's "Big Legged Woman." It was with Whitehead's band that Jerry Lee learned the worth of, and excitement that could be generated by, the hardest-edged, bluesiest of country sounds. Around the same time he heard a local bluesman named John Littlejohn play a song that sounded interesting, called "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On."
* * *
By the end of 1954, Jerry Lee's second marriage was in trouble. He had ended his first marriage unilaterally, without bothering to get any approval from the state of Louisiana, or from Dorothy, an oversight that would one day cause him much grief. Jane Mitcham, wife number two, met Jerry Lee at church, made a living selling sewing machines, and gave birth to Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., in November. Jerry Lee did not spend much time with Jane or his son; he was either out playing or in listening to the radio. Church was no longer part of his weekly routine.
The music he heard on the country stations was perceptibly more uptempo than it had been six years earlier, when he started listening seriously. A boogie-woogie pianist named Merrill Moore was playing hard, fast versions of Freddie Slack tunes, and a journeyman country singer named Bill Haley was softening Joe Turner's "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" into something that seemed different. Haley's "Shake, Rattle, and Roll" wasn't country. It certainly wasn't blues, and it wasn't slick enough to be pop. Jerry Lee filed the genre-busting idea.
He promptly forgot it when he got another one, a better one. Some little label had a new singer who didn't just sound different; he sounded outright weird. Oddballs, singers like Howlin' Wolf and B.B. King, only got onto the blues stations, not the country or pop channels where quiet conformity ruled. "Da da-da dee dee-dee dee, Dee-dee dee-dee dee," Jerry Lee heard Elvis sing. There was hardly anything other than Elvis's voice on "That's All Right," just a couple of guitars. Even more than the Bill Haley performance, which was much lighter, "That's All Right" did not sound like it belonged anywhere. It moved, though, and Jerry Lee learned that the company in Memphis that put it out was called Sun.
The confidence Jerry Lee gained from performing in Ferriday and Natchez clubs, combined with his hope that the introduction of these strange sounds to the radio might mean there was room for someone like him, led him to Shreveport on a trip funded by his aunt Stella Calhoun. He auditioned for the "Louisiana Hayride" package tour, the program through which he had first heard his idol, Hank Williams. Jerry Lee auditioned for Slim Whitman, a country star with severe pop leanings. Whitman brought Jerry Lee to the KWKH studios, where the nervous kid recorded two songs directly to acetate. It was only the second time Jerry Lee had been recorded. In the summer of 1951, he had shown up at a make-your-own-record booth in New Orleans and cut a pair of tunes, Lefty Frizzell's "Don't Stay Away ('Til Love Grows Cold)" and an original instrumental that never earned a name. That time the only audience was Jerry Lee and his buddy Cecil Harrelson. AT KWKH far more was at stake.
For the first number, Jerry Lee chose "I Need You Now," then a chart-topping pop hit for Eddie Fisher. The song was nothing special, just a come-back-to-me lyric pasted on standard chord changes, but Jerry Lee's solo performance, kicked off by a boogie-woogie figure he swiped from a Moon Mullican single, strips the song to its barest essentials and makes it real. His voice is higher than his first officially released performance two years later, but what is most remarkable about the track is that he is already "the Killer" in style and demeanor. One myth about Jerry Lee (a similar one exists for Elvis) is that he entered the Sun Recording Service as a tabula rasa for Sam Phillips and Jack Clement to shape, but even a cursory listen to "I Need You Now" indicates that Jerry Lee arrived at 706 Union Avenue close to being fully formed musically.
The second tune, Hank Snow's "I Don't Hurt Anymore," was even sturdier. Everything about the performance was more thought out, probably because the Snow tune had been out four months longer than "I Need You Now" and Jerry Lee had had more time to assimilate its nuances. The singing was more assured; he played with the phrasing and bent the melody to his wishes. He stomped into the solo, which set the pattern for a lifetime of piano breaks. There was nothing economical about the solo. Jerry Lee tried to cram in as much as the song would stand. He climaxed "I Don't Hurt Anymore" the same way capped "I Need You Now," in a persuasive upper-register cry. Although they were never released, these performances meant a great deal to Jerry Lee for a long time. As recently as the mid-seventies, he played the acetates for virtually anyone who visited him. However, they did not mean anything to Slim Whitman, who is reported to have said, "Don't call me, I'll call you."
Far from discouraged, for he knew he was great, Jerry Lee next assaulted the capital of country music, Nashville, a town he later memorialized as "hillbilly heaven." He found some work there but soon returned to Ferriday because he was broke. Legend states that conservative C&W icon Chet Atkins himself dismissed Jerry Lee and told him to learn how to play the guitar. Atkins says he does not remember such a suggestion, although Jerry Lee did subsequently study the six-string. Whoever turned him down and for whatever reason, Jerry Lee landed back at the Wagon Wheel.
He tired of Natchez clubs quickly and hammered out a tentative reconciliation with Jane. Through 1955, Jerry Lee heard more and more Elvis Presley records on the radio and decided that Elvis's record company, Sun, might be more open to a wild child like him than the buttoned-up Nashville major labels. Through the fall, Jerry Lee and Elmo worked Elmo's hens hard, pulled a record number of eggs out of them, and used the money they made from selling more than thirty dozen to finance a trip to Memphis to show this Sam Phillips how great Jerry Lee was.