Linda Gail Lewis: Hard Rockin' Woman

Linda Gail Lewis, mid-song, in front of a microphone.
Linda Gail Lewis

It’s 1950 and the tiny First Assembly Of God church in Ferriday, Louisiana, is filled to the brim with its 50-strong congregation.

The 15-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis is sat at the piano, tearing it up on the traditional hymn On The Jericho Road. His two cousins, Jimmy Swaggart, who’d later become a renowned US televangelist and Mickey Gilley, who’d find fame in 1974 as a country singer with Room Full Of Roses, are on their feet clapping and whooping. Jerry Lee’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis, just three years old at the time, is sat with her mouth opened wide: “This was my first musical education,” the 68-year-old singer tells The Blues Magazine down the phone from her Texan home today. “My mother, she was the song leader and she had the most amazing voice, but the whole family was musical. Every aunt, uncle, cousin sang and played an instrument and we’d all gather and you’d get so caught up in the spirit; there was no holding back, people were dancing, shouting, speaking in tongues, having fits, praising God out loud. There was such feeling and emotion, you couldn’t help but be stirred by it all. We rocked the gospel.”

Linda Gail Lewis is still out there rocking the gospel with the best of them in 2016. Her new album, Hard Rockin’ Woman, her 25th, contains a holy roller take on Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s This Train. The rest of the album is crackin’ too, Lewis ripping through rambunctious piano boogies including Jerry Lee’s Rockin’ My Life Away. Recorded live over three days in Lanark Studios, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, and produced by Quentin Jones, who was fresh from working with Robert Gordon and Charlie Gracie, it also features the renowned rockabilly guitarist and Lewis’ son-in-law, Danny B Harvey.

“My daughter [Anne Marie Lewis, who sings backing vocals on the album] was working with Danny, and he decided he was going to get a record deal for me,” Linda explains. “He called up his friend Quentin Jones at Lanark and he was interested, so Danny, my daughter and I drove the 16 hours to Lancaster to the studio, and we went in there, and we were working like our lives depended on it. We cut live on the floor, with very little overdubs to keep it real. I don’t think I’ve ever enjoyed a recording session so much. It was lot of fun.”

Music was in the family’s blood. I wanted to be an entertainer like Jerry, too.

There was little fun in Linda Gail Lewis’ early years. Born in 1947 to a mother who feared God and a father who had done time for making moonshine, she grew up in poverty in Black River, Louisiana. “Daddy was sharecropping by then, we had to live in a shack on the river. It was real awful, I didn’t like it at all. Momma tried to make the best of it, she’d get up early and make hot chocolate for us. My overriding memory of music from that time is of Jerry singing and playing the whole time. He started playing the juke joints when he was 15, and I guess music was in the family’s blood. I wanted to be an entertainer like Jerry, too.”

Aged five, she entered her first talent contest and won with her rendition of The Chordettes’ Mr Sandman; she won another singing Elvis Presley’s Poor Boy and another one with Que Sera, Sera – then when she was 10, everything changed.

“It was 1957 and Jerry hit big with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, and suddenly our lives were turned upside down.”

The song not only changed the Lewis family’s life, but the musical landscape too, when, after hitting the US Billboard pop No.3 and R&B and country No.1 spots, it fanfared the arrival of rock’n’roll.

“First off, Jerry got Momma a car, a Cadillac Fleetwood. Then he got us a brick house, with a big picture window and a little garden in Ridgecrest, and then he gave us money to buy clothes. Momma only had two dresses, one for church and one for home, so we went to Dorothy’s dress shop. We had $1,000, and we bought everything they had in our sizes. And then Jerry took us to the Howard Johnson Hotel, to go swimming in their swimming pool. I’d never been in one before, I’d only been swimming in the river, so to go into a clean, sparkling swimming pool, and then to go to diners and drink milkshakes and eat hamburgers, it was a dream come true.”

Linda knew she was never going to match her brother’s musical achievements, but on December 13, 1960, at just 13 years of age, she made her own recording debut, entering the fabled Sun Studio in Memphis; her first session never saw release, but her cover of Good Golly Miss Molly with her older sister Frankie Jean Lewis on shared vocals, plus Jerry on piano and Scotty Moore on rhythm guitar, captures a committed vocal performance.

A return to Sun with her brother in March 1963 yielded another set of songs including a duet on Seasons Of My Heart; her and her brother’s cover of the George Jones number, their version produced by Scotty Moore.

“Sam Phillips from Sun had a special talent,” she says. “And even though I was just a kid, he saw something in me, and wanted to nurture it. He had a gift for recognising talent and he gave real encouragement but you know, I was in there with my brother, and when I walked into a place with my brother, whether it was in the studio or on the stage, or walking down the street, he was the boss. I just worshiped him and I never realised anyone else was in the studio or on that stage, I was so locked in to what he thought. I just wanted to do what he wanted me to do.”

Seasons Of My Heart, issued as the flip to Jerry Lee Lewis’ single Teenage Letter, didn’t place in the charts, but again spotlighted Linda’s potential.

“You know, Tom Jones just loves it,” she says. “I was singing with Van Morrison and Tom came to see us at a show in Los Angeles. Now Tom and Jerry, they are like brothers and we were at the party after the show, and Tom wanted me to sing that song with him. Well I got embarrassed and said to him, ‘Why it’s just the most awful record!’ He said, ‘Now, Linda, don’t you dare say that, Seasons Of My Heart is one of my favourite Sun singles!’ He scolded me good and then we did it together and it sounded beautiful. His voice is so good.”

Family connection: Linda Lee Lewis keeps up the rocking tradition.

Family connection: Linda Lee Lewis keeps up the rocking tradition.

By the time of the single’s release, she’d joined her brother on the road, learning her trade singing backing vocals and eventually sharing lead vocals on songs such as Don’t Let Me Cross Over, originally a US country No.1 for Carl and Pearl Butler in 1962.

It yielded the Lewis siblings a country Top 10 placing when issued in 1969 as the lead single from their duets album, Together, on the Smash label.

Recorded in Nashville’s Columbia Studios and produced by the Shreveport, Louisiana guitar and dobro player Jerry Kennedy, Together also includes fervid takes on Roll Over Beethoven, Jackson and Milwaukee (Here I Come), and premieres two Linda co-writes, Don’t Take It Out On Me, which she penned with Jerry’s guitarist Kenny Lovelace, and Secret Places, scribed with Lovelace and Jerry’s manager Cecil Harrelson. “I learned a real lot from Kenny Lovelace,” she says. “How to sing, how to write, how to stand on stage. He gave me a lot of confidence.”

Two Sides Of Linda Gail Lewis followed. Produced by Jerry Kennedy again, it places Linda in a country setting as she stamps her authority on a set of covers including Send Me The Pillow You Dream On, Hey Good Lookin’ and I Can’t Help It (If I’m Still In Love With You). There were no hits, but it still sounds good today.

Then in 1971, she signed to Mercury, her three-year tenure delivering her only solo hit, 1972’s Smile, Somebody Loves You, which made the US Top 40 and landed her an ASCAP award. That same year she joined her brother for The London Rock And Roll Show at Wembley Stadium; the bill also featured Bo Diddley, Little Richard and Chuck Berry. But it wasn’t enough to keep her motivated, and by the late 70s, she’d had enough. As her brother continued to find success in the world of country music, she left to raise her family.

“You know, by that time I thought I’d seen it all. I’d hung out with Elvis Presley, I had seen John Lennon worship at my brother’s feet… I mean, really, what more was there?”

Do you remember the first time you met Elvis?

She laughs: “Why of course, who wouldn’t? I was just a silly teenager. I flew in on Southern Airways, my sister-in-law picked me up at the airport and she said, ‘Hey, I’m going to take you by the Memphian Theater and introduce you to Elvis.’ He was playing there that night. He also used to hire the theatre out in the 60s to watch movies there with his friends. Anyway, she and my brother and Elvis had been riding Harley-Davidsons around Memphis all that morning. We went to the theatre and I looked across the lobby and I saw Elvis and when I did, I thought, ‘My Lord! He is 10 times better looking than he is in the movies, and he looked really good in the movies!’ He came over and shook hands with me, then as he was walking away, he turned around and looked at me and he was laughing and I suddenly realised that the whole time I’d been standing there with him, I’d had my mouth wide open and I hadn’t said a word.”

It didn’t stop Elvis inviting her to the Manhattan Club for his new year’s eve party, though. That night she sang Johnny B Goode with the Willie Mitchell house band.

“Years later when I was playing on Beale Street and I got to know Ronnie Tutt [Elvis’ drummer] real well, he’d been sitting with Elvis that night. Well I just had to ask him what Elvis had thought of my performance and he told me Elvis thought it was great.”

As for Lennon, the story goes that after a show at The Roxy in Los Angeles in 1973, the former Beatle came into Jerry Lee’s dressing room, got down on his knees and kissed Jerry’s feet.

“It’s totally true,” Linda says. “I’d been watching the show with Rod Stewart. I said to Rod to come back and meet Jerry, but he was like, ‘I’m not going backstage, Jerry says such bad things about me. I’m worried he’ll shoot me!’ Jerry and Rod were on the same label – Mercury – at the time and the label would go and tell Rod everything Jerry said about him in meetings: ‘You’re promoting that long-haired blankety-blank when you should be promoting me!’ Anyhow, I was sat in the dressing room with Jerry, John Lennon knocked on the door, Jerry said, ‘Come in’. He walked in, Jerry was sat on a chair with his legs crossed, his ankle on his knee. John got down on his knees and kissed the bottom of his shoes. I remember to this day what Jerry said to him: ‘That’s okay, killer,’ he said. ‘You don’t have to do that.’”

In 1986, Linda began touring with her brother again. One jam session in 1986 at New Orleans’ Storyville stands out in her memory: “There was Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis and Ray Charles all sat at their pianos. I was singing backing and I remember turning round mid-show and there they were, the three of them just doing their thing. I learned a lot being on stage with them that night, about being professional and about giving your all.”

The next year, after a falling out with her sister-in-law, she went out on her own, serving her apprenticeship on Memphis’ Beale Street. “It really wasn’t easy at all. Everyone said I was too old, I was too fat, it was a real battle – but I knew I was good and I was prepared to fight.”

Like her brother, a combined natural ability and feel for boogie-woogie piano made her an instant live draw, and a guest spot with Memphis producer, pianist and singer Jim Dickinson at a showcase for French label New Rose landed her a record contract.

1990’s International Affair, recorded at Doug Easley’s Easley Recording in Memphis and produced by Maury O’Rourk, captured Linda on 10 songs; intuitive covers of Bob Dylan’s Clean Cut Kid, Dave Edmunds’ A1 On The Jukebox and Nick Lowe’s They Call It Rock proved she meant business. “I really was serious. Back when I’d been recording the Two Sides Of Linda Gail Lewis, I’d taken it all for granted. I still lived with my mother, my brother looked after us all really well, I had gorgeous clothes, rode around in a brand-new Cadillac… It was fun, but I didn’t throw heart and soul into it. Now I did and Maury really helped me find my feet. He was a big Jerry Lee Lewis fan. He’d seen us singing Roll Over Beethoven together at the Lone Star Café in New York, he said it was one of the greatest performances he’d ever seen. He helped me choose what to sing, he got together some great musicians like Jim Spake on sax, James Eddie Campbell on lap steel and dobro, Ray Gann on bass. It really worked.”

A 1999 tour with Shakin’ Stevens made waves too. “Shakin’ Stevens fans famously don’t like his opening act, and on the first night of the show, the two front rows of the venue were empty, then on the second night, a lot of the seats were full and by the third night, everyone was in their seats watching me, and when we did Real Gone Lover together, we brought the house down. People were on their feet and we were feeding off each other’s energy, really rockin’ out. It was magic.”

As was 2000’s You Win Again, recorded with Van Morrison at The Wool Hall, Bath. A UK Top 40 hit, it’s part tribute to Jerry Lee (Morrison is a huge fan, of course) as the pair tear it up on readings of You Win Again, Let’s Talk About Us, Crazy Arms and Why Don’t You Love Me? – songs associated with Jerry, but here very much re-staged as Morrison and Linda’s own.

The pair first met at The Kings Hotel in Newport, South Wales. “We went for dinner, we talked about Jerry, Van then invited me for a jam,” says Linda. “We jammed in the hotel, then he asked if I was free on Tuesday to record. I asked what we were going to record, he said, ‘The songs we just rehearsed.’ Well, I thought that had been just a jam! He called Walter Samuel, his engineer, and we went to the studio. Walter took me to one side – you’d have thought someone had died, he was so serious. He told me how the session would be difficult because Van likes to cut live to the floor, so I thought ‘good Lord’! But also, what the heck, he’ll probably just put the recordings on the shelf next to his sessions with Carl Perkins.

“So we recorded most of the album that day, but at this time I didn’t know it was going to be an album. I go back home, then two days later, I get another call. Van wants me to fly back, do some more songs. But still it was only when we did a gig together in Poole, we do Crazy Arms and Old Black Joe, the audience are going wild, he picks up the mic: ‘Linda and I are releasing an album together, it’s called You Win Again.’ That was the first time I heard it was actually going to be issued.”

After a year on the road together touring the record, communication broke down and Linda left. But she says: “I was a 10 times better piano player after being with Van for a year. If I had the chance to do it all over again, I would.”

Linda hasn’t stopped for breath since, averaging an album a year for the past 16 years, and playing live both on her own and opening for her brother. “One of the last shows we did together, Elton John turned up with a load of Jerry Lee albums for my brother to sign,” she says. “I was so busy waiting to meet Elton backstage, I almost missed my line check.”

Has having Jerry Lee Lewis as your brother ever been a hindrance?

“It opens a lot of doors, but of course then once I’m in, I’ve got to be really good because I’m Jerry Lee Lewis’ sister. They expect me to really be able to perform and you know what, because I can, it’s really never been a problem at all.” To paraphrase her album title: she really is a hard-rockin’ woman.

Hard Rockin’ Woman is out now on Lanark.