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spacer Jerry Lee Lewis, Nashville, Tennessee, 1982
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Jerry Lee Lewis, Nashville, Tennessee, 1982

I had always believed that Jerry Lee was the real deal, someone who had inalterably changed the course of American popular music in a way that many others, including his great rival Elvis, had not. Ironically, I got to meet him because a friend was engineering a session in Nashville where The Killer was to record – gasp! – a McDonald’s jingle, sung to the tune of “Great Balls of Fire,” with the sacrilegiously rewritten refrain, “Goodness gracious, Big Mac and Fries.” Only once was I on thin ice in our encounter, when I asked how he had felt about The King’s death. “Now Tom, I don’t want to sound disrespectful to the dead,” he said. Long pause, to great effect. “But fuck Elvis.” What annoyed The Killer was that The King had been given wide berth by the press when he was living with an underage Priscilla during his Army stint in Germany, whereas Jerry Lee had been widely condemned for marrying his cousin, who was the same age as Priscilla. When I pointed out that Elvis had not married his kin, Jerry Lee interrupted and said, “Stop right there. He was not married to her. I was married, because I was an honest, God-fearing man.” The supreme irony of the visit was listening to Cathy Altman, who had written the jingle for the Leo Burnett agency in Chicago, continually exhorting Jerry Lee not to proclaim, “Tell ‘em The Killer sent you,” as he vamped on piano at the end of the commercial. I asked why not; surely everyone knew this was how Jerry Lee spoke. Altman, who was born in 1958, the year after “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Great Balls of Fire” had sold a combined eleven million copies, told me the agency didn’t want people to know this was really Jerry Lee; they simply wanted the public to think that it sounded like him. “The client doesn't want this too identified with him. I mean, drinking, drugs, child abuse . . . “ she said in dead seriousness. One other note: try as I might, I could not get The Killer to look directly into the camera, as almost everyone else in my work has. “You’ll steal my soul,” he said.

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