Piano pumpers dealing with Jesus in recent books about Little Richard & Jerry Lee Lewis
It’s unsurprising that David Kirby‘s Little Richard: The Birth of Rock ‘n’ Roll and Joe Bonomo‘s Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost & Found were both released within weeks of each other back in November (and from the same publisher, Continuum). The similarities between the subjects are myriad, and each book references the other’s subject with regularity.
For those unable to make the obvious jump, Little Richard and Jerry Lee Lewis were contemporaries, and the boogie-woogie piano was the basis on which each based their rockin’ and rollin’. Both were also notable for their outrageous behavior – Little Richard’s flamboyancy, Lewis’ marrying his cousin, Little Richard writing songs with fairly salacious lyrics, Lewis doing the same – but more importantly, it seems that both vacillated between the sacred and the secular.
As Bonomo aptly sums up the whole trouble, “Rock & roll was the devil’s music,” creating this dichotomy that lay at the heart of Lewis’ music (as well as that of Little Richard) – “the twin pulls of Ferriday’s Assembly of God and Haney’s Big House, light and dark, ascended and damned.”
For Lewis and Little Richard, there’s no removing the sacred from the profane. Little Richard took a lot of his performance from artists like Esquerita, sure – but he also developed his chops performing in the church, and appearing with gospel superstars like “dynamic gospel pioneer Sister Rosetta Tharpe, from whom he learned more than one show-biz trick that he’d use later,” as Kirby states in his book.
This constant pull between the world of rock ‘n’ roll into which Little Richard and Lewis appeared, and the world of God into which they’d been born resulted in the repeated abandonment of rock for religion, which is unsurprising when viewed in retrospect. At the time, it must’ve been quite a shock to see someone like Jerry Lee suddenly playing in a Church of God assembly in Memphis, where he “earnestly performed 20 hardcore gospel songs in an hour.”
Both Kirby and Bonomo do a good job of portraying the struggle of their subjects with religion and booze, sex, and rock ‘n’ roll. As one reads, the story of the performer is laid out clearly, and one can see how their early church upbringing would later cause trouble when placed alongside the temptations of the flesh.
They’re not without issues, however. Kirby’s book suffers from self-importance, wherein much of the book is rather meta, being as much about Kirby’s relationship to the material being presented and his trials writing about it as it is about Little Richard himself. There’s a lot of dross to wade through to get at the heart of the matter. Bonomo’s book is a little more straightforward in its narrative, but bases the heart of the book around Lewis’ seminal live album, Live at the Star-Club Hamburg.
By doing this, Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found falls prey to what happens with all books that deal with an album: books that deal with the story of an album hit a brick wall when they deal with the album itself. The narrative stops dead for what is, essentially, a chapter-long album review, killing any momentum that has been generated up to that point.