Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the founding legends of rock and roll, died this week at age 87.
Back in the late 1970s and early 1980s I paid my way through law school bartending at the world-famous Palomino Club in North Hollywood, where I saw Jerry Lee perform often.
A Jerry Lee performance had nothing predictable about it except that it guaranteed a sellout crowd. Not long after I started there, Jerry Lee took the stage in a packed house for his first show. He banged out a few notes and then shoved the piano off the stage. The huge instrument smashed onto the floor below. As the astonished crowd watched, Jerry Lee yelled at a stunned Tommy Thomas, the owner of the club, "The next time I play your fuckin' club, Tommy, have a piano that's in tune." The audience cheered as Jerry Lee stalked off to his dressing room.
Tommy somehow managed to find another tuned piano in time for the second show. After that, every time Jerry Lee played, a piano tuner sat underneath the stage for every show and retuned the instrument before and after each performance.
Crowds who came to see Jerry Lee Lewis proved as rowdy as their idol. When he played one night on my night off, I came in to see his opening show of a three-night run. Tommy filled the old barn with customers well above legal capacity. By the time Jerry Lee went on, the whooping cowboys in the audience had been drinking for hours. Country star Tanya Tucker, seated in the front row, mounted Jerry Lee's piano and sang a couple of songs as the fiery pianist pounded on the keys. One excited cowboy climbed atop a table for a better view. An arm reached up from the crowd and jerked him backward. Soon tables overturned, fists and bottles flew, and a melee erupted. When one drunk tried to climb on the stage, Jerry Lee kicked him and sent him flying backward into the audience without missing a note on the piano. A hysterical waitress working her first night ran up to me in a panic.
"Do something!" she screamed.
"I am," I replied. "I'm watching Jerry Lee's show."
Rest in peace, Killer.
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