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Linda Gail Lewis - Interview

  by Lisa Torem

published: 5 / 10 / 2022

Linda Gail Lewis - Interview


Rockabilly queen Linda Gail Lewis talks to Lisa Torem about the remastered ‘Early Sides: 1963-1973’ and studio work with Van Morrison, Robbie Fulks and Jerry Lee Lewis.

Linda Gail Lewis instills a sizzling degree of passion into every song she sings and every story she tells. As the younger sister of Jerry Lee Lewis, she had opportunities to sing duets at 14-years-old and benefit from the Lewis family’s humble, but musically supportive environment. The road to her current success has been circuitous and, at times, challenging but Linda Gail’s resilience, infectious sense of humour and endless talent has enabled her to weather any storm. In this interview with Pennyblackmusic, this rockabilly queen and pioneer discusses her family background “in the land of green and New Orleans,” as the lyric in her original song, ‘Louisiana', states, her continued growth as a ‘live, on-the-floor’ recording artist, studio projects with Van Morrison, and American songwriter Robbie Fulks (‘Wild, Wild Wild’) and with her daughter Annie Marie and son-in-law, multi-instrumentalist Danny P. Harvey, who painstakingly remastered ‘Early Sides: 1963-1973,’ a chronological venture through breathtaking vaults. PB: I saw you, Jerry Lee, and Annie Marie at BB King’s Blues Club in New York in 2017 for a Jerry Lee Lewis 82nd Birthday Bash. I know you make it a point to greet your fans, and you were kind enough to sign my ‘Killer’ t-shirt. I’m excited to catch up with you now. LGL: I’m happy you saw the show. That gig was so much fun. PB: There is a lot of talent in the Lewis gene pool. Your cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley, your daughter Annie Marie, your guitar playing father, and, of course, Jerry Lee. LGL: We lost Mickey back in May, but Jimmy’s still going strong. He and Jerry Lee just did a gospel album together about two months ago. It’s sad that Mickey passed away before they did their gospel album which had been planned for a long time. PB: I am so sorry for your loss. You and your siblings were raised in Ferriday, Louisiana. Remarkably, even though money was tight, your family managed to buy a piano. LGL: My daddy was a sharecropper. We really didn’t have any money. It was only like once a year you’d get your share; a very small share. You would get your share from the crops. Anybody that was a sharecropper back then, you were just really poor. My daddy worked as a carpenter and, of course, we lived in Ferriday, back when I was a very small child, or if I was even born then. And Jerry was probably five or eight-years-old; he was a very small child when he walked up to a piano at my Aunt Eva’s house and started playing it and my daddy had to find a way to get that piano for him. And he bought it from my Aunt Eva. Then, he started farming again and we moved into that sharecropper’s shack in a place called Black River, Louisiana PB: Was that the piano on which you learned to play? LGL: I didn’t learn to play the piano until I got to be much older. Jerry taught me chords and stuff, and when I was a teenager and in my early twenties, I was a songwriter. I would write songs and I would know the chords to play on the piano. And one time when we were in Finland in 1987, I wanted to do an Olivia Newton John song, ‘Let Me Be There’ and Kenny Lovelace said, ‘We don’t know it, but if you can just sit at the piano and play the chords, we can follow.’ So, I played just the chords on ‘Let Me Be There.’ To play rock ‘n’ roll and boogie woogie piano, I had to learn that in 1988 when I had to leave my brother’s show and start my own career and I found that I needed to be able to play, and I had to remember things that Jerry had shown me back in the years that I travelled with him. When I was in my twenties and we were in Germany, he showed me some things on the piano and he said, "If you ever want to play boogie woogie and rock n’ roll, you do this," and I call it a Jerry Lee Lewis invention because, you know, Bach wrote inventions for his students. I’ve had other piano players that learned those inventions from me, used it, and it really worked, so, I started playing piano professionally at forty when I started my solo career in Memphis. PB: Did you face any significant issues being a female musician at that time? LGL: I don’t think it’s ever easy, you know, in the music business when you’re a woman. I was beautiful. I didn’t know it then, but looking back I could see that I was really beautiful then. I had people at record companies that wanted me to, you know, sleep with them and stuff, and I wouldn’t do that because I was a romantic. I couldn’t do anything like that unless I was in love with somebody. To have some of those opportunities, you would have to do that in the olden days. Maybe it’s different today, I don’t know, but at the age of 75… (Laughs). PB: It wasn’t that long ago that female instrumentalists were seriously challenged. LG: Nobody thought that I would be able to develop my style playing the piano, and remember the things my brother taught me. I have a friend in Memphis, Jason D. Williams, who's’ a great piano player, And I knew him back then when I was starting my solo career. He said,"‘Linda, you’re never going to be able to play. Don’t try." That’s what he thought. A lot of people thought that. But I just thought, that I could because my momma always told me, if you want to do something within reason; obviously you can’t be a brain surgeon or a scientist, but if there is anything in music that you really want to do, you do have talent and you can do it. And I remember her telling me that. And my brother always encouraged me, That’s why he showed me those piano licks when I was in my twenties. He felt I could learn and he showed me these things on the piano that could help me. And, thank God, I was able to remember it when I was forty. I’ve been fortunate to stand on stage and listen to my brother for so many years. He’s my favourite piano player, my favourite singer, my favourite entertainer, favourite everything, so I was so fortunate; I was on the road with my brother for about a year or so, and by the time I got kicked out of the band, my then-sister-in-law, the lady that Jerry was married to, wanted to be on that show. She wanted to open for my brother. She started doing that as soon as I left. It was unpleasant, and it was just not a good situation so I’m just going to get out on my own. Everybody said, "Oh my goodness. That’s going to be really hard." The record company people are harder on women in this respect too. Because when they looked at me, and I said, "Can you give me a record deal,? Can you do this or that?’ All of them said the same thing: "You’re too old and you’re overweight." And I don’t think a guy… (laughs). PB: I’m glad you set them straight. You did a song, ‘Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes’ as a duet with Jerry Lee, which appears on this new collection, and you also recorded duets with Robbie Fulks for ‘Wild! Wild! Wild!' I’ve seen you live and on video, and you pour yourself so deeply into the music when you sing alone, but does working on a duet change the game? Because you always have to be aware of that other person, the pacing, the vocal blending. It almost seems like you have to divide yourself in half. LGL: I’ve never thought about it that way. You know, I love my brother so much. When I had a chance to sing with him back in the day, I was good at it. I’m good at doing duets. I did duets with Van Morrison, who, for a lot of people, would be very difficult to sing with. Of course, singing with Robbie was like singing with my brother or with a close friend. We had a blast. But when we did a love song, I said, the only way we can do this is if we don’t look at each other because we’ll laugh. That’s what happens with me and Jerry, when we did our duets, not on ‘Baby, You’ve Got What It Takes’, but on ‘Don’t Let Me Crossover’. Every time we got into that song, we’d just break up laughing. So, I said, the only way this would work; because we’d run out of time in the studio. I said, "Robbie, you just stand over there, darling, and don’t you look this way. And we’ll just forget that we’re doing it together." I just love doing duets. It’s a joy for me. But it’s sad because I was just getting ready to do an album with Mickey Gilley, my cousin, and he passed away, but that’s one of the things that I enjoy most. Of course, I do duets with my daughter, Annie Marie, and that’s fun, too. PB: Annie has a gorgeous voice. LGL: She is the most beautiful singer and I love it when she does jazz. Check out ‘Americana Songbook’ with Danny B. Harvey. She does old jazz songs and I love the way she does them. It’s a wonderful experience for me, every time I get a chance to sing or perform with somebody else; it’s something I enjoy a lot, so I never thought about having to split myself in two, but maybe that’s not a bad idea. PB: You selected a number of songs written by Hank Williams, like ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)'. LGL: It’s a Louisiana party song and I’m from northern Louisiana but I know how they are down south. Nobody likes to party like the Cajuns. They have a blast, and it was so close to Ferriday. The first time I went to promote my book in Lafayette, Louisiana, and I drove there, and it only took about an hour-and-a half. I thought, ‘This was this close to me? These people that did this stuff? How in the world did I miss out on that?’ It was so close but it was like a different world when you went to northern Louisiana. PB: What has been the process for selecting songs to record in the studio or, as in the case with this new album, selecting the ones to master? LGL: I was really fortunate back in the day when my brother and I chose songs. It’s hard to remember, but I do remember that my ex-husband, Kenny Lovelace, suggested ‘Don’t Let Me Crossover.’ Sometimes people would suggest songs, and sometimes we would come up with them, but I know, I’m a Brook Benton fan, and maybe that’s where ‘Baby. You’ve Got What It Takes’ comes from because he had a hit with it with Dinah Washington, a fantastic record, and then, of course, Van wanted to do songs that my brother had done on ‘You Win Again'. We were doing the Jerry Lee version of most of the songs, using that as a guide, like, the politically incorrect ‘Old Black Joe',’ and ‘You Win Again’ and ‘Crazy Arms’ and ‘Jambalaya (On The Bayou)' My brother had done those songs. And then Van had to come up with other songs because we didn’t have enough songs, and the Johnny Kidd and the Pirates’ ‘Shakin’ All Over.’ With Robbie, it was so easy because he wrote most of the songs, a few he didn’t, but most of the songs on that album, I’m pretty sure. Robbie’s such a great songwriter. I’m a big fan. On ‘Hard Luck Louisiana;, I wrote part of it and got writer’s credit, as well because there were a few things in the song that he wanted me to contribute. I know I wrote the lines about the "old, grey shack" and "momma and daddy" working so hard’ and something like that, stuff that I had put into the song. That’s a beautiful song but I had a little trouble learning how to sing that song because it would make me so emotional that it would be hard for me to sing it. I kept remembering momma making chicken dinner on a Sunday and Jerry being there, and my sister Frankie Jean, who passed away, and. of course, both of my parents are gone. I would get so emotional that I really didn’t do a good job on the vocal like Robbie wanted me to, so I had a little trouble singing it. But the song, ‘Louisiana’ is a song I wrote about my home state. PB: When you do set out to write a song, what puts you in the mood? LGL: I’m not like a real songwriter, like my Swedish friend, Eva Eastwood or Hank Williams or Robbie Fulks,. They can just decide, okay, I’m going to write three or four songs. and just go ahead and write them. The only way that I’m ever able to write is when I’m inspired. Now, I have often contributed to songs with my two ex-husbands: Cecil Harrison and Kenny Lovelace. If somebody has a song, I can jump in there and write it with them, but I can’t come up with an idea for a song to save my life; somebody would have to shoot me (laughs). One time, Willie Nelson and I were on an airplane. They said to him, "If you’re such a great songwriter, write a song right now." And he did, he wrote one. And Robbie Fulks, if he gets a little pissed off at the audience, or the place where we’re playing… when we toured together for about one or two years, Robbie, just on the spur of the moment would write a song which would insult everyone in there, and he would come up with it at that moment, just start singing a song and writing it at the same time. How in the world can you do that? It’s just amazing to me. I fall short when it comes to that songwriting thing. Well, I’m really proud of my pandemic song, ‘Oh, Pandemic,’ but it’s so threatening as time goes by. Nobody wants to hear that song anymore. I had to stop doing it onstage. You can hear a pin drop when I start singing and everybody is like, no, we don’t want to hear this. My son-in-law, Danny P. Harvey, made a really cool video. It’s got footage from the Spanish flu and there were things that I didn’t even know from that period; people were wearing masks and things back then. He found all these photographs from when the original virus came out. Then, of course, we have this one now that keeps evolving, turning into a be this and a be that. PB: Your son-in-law, Danny P. Harvey, is multi-talented. He remastered the new album. LGL: He’s a genius. You put him behind the board in the studio; I am so amazed at everything that he can do. He did that song that Mickey Gilley and I did with Ann-Margret which I’m really proud of. It’s Ann-Margret and Mickey Gilly singing ‘Splish Splash’ and I’m playing the piano. Danny’s a great guitar player and he plays piano as well. I said, "You’re too good on the piano. Don’t play anywhere here around me. I’m not going to have competition from my own family" (laughs), but yeah, he’s got so much talent. We’re getting ready to start our tour together and we’ll be promoting our next album. PB: How did Danny become part of your extended family?’ LGL: Annie Marie was in-between boyfriends and I said, "Baby, could you just fall in love with someone that could be a big help to us? That could play guitar or be a record producer? Songwriter? And you know what? Danny does all of that. He remastered old singles that I did back in the day in the 1960s and 1970s. I had so much fun listening to those old recordings. I feel like I’m a better singer now but I had to change my mind on some of those songs; I don’t know if I could sing them right good or not. I really was shocked at how good that album turned out. I sound so young on ‘C.C. Rider'. I heard that, and said, "Oh, Lord," I was about thirteen.’ PB: There is so much history to unpack on this album. What a backlog of singers C.C. Rider claims: Ma Rainey, Mitch Ryder, The Animals. Your version featured saxophone. LGL: I did that song because I love that song. ‘Jim Dandy’ is on that album and I’m a La Verne Baker fan so that’s why I did that, and I did ‘Louisiana’ because I wrote it and then that song, ‘Before The Snow Flies’. where Jerry played acoustic guitar, now that’s a song that makes me emotional because It reminds me of how we grew up in Black River. PB: There is much contrast, not only party songs, but touching ballads like, ‘I Should Have Not Fallen In Love With You’ and ‘My Heart Was The Last One To Know', LGL: Kris Kristofferson wrote that and we could never figure out why it wasn’t a big hit. But I think it’s too complicated, it’s not simple enough. Kris gave me an exclusive on that song which was so nice of him to do. Talk about a great songwriter; there’s another one. PB: You wrote, ‘The Devil, Me and Jerry Lee' in 1998. What was that experience like?’ LGL: It was really depressing; remembering things. I gave interviews and then this really crazy guy wrote the book. About 20 percent of that book, he just added it himself in his own voice. He would say things that I would never say. He just took the liberty of doing that. And then, I didn’t realize it. I’m just a country girl. I don’t know a lot. And I didn’t realize that you have to have this thing called creative control or your publisher can just say no to you when you want to change anything. So, that’s what happened. I wanted to change some things and they said no. A lot of it is what I said, of course, but not all of it. That guy just filled in things that he wanted to, and I didn’t realize it would be that way. I thought, he would do the interviews and write down what I said. It didn’t work that way. Someday, if I ever get the energy to do it, I’ll write another book. There’s a lot more to talk about now. PB: You’re so right. You’re working on a song for a tribute album for The Cramps? LGL: I am so excited about that. I went yesterday and did my vocal on the song that I’m doing and I was a punk rocker yesterday. It was great. I had a blast. PB: That’s great news. Can you tell us anymore? LGL: Danny has forbid me to talk about the song, or do the song live which I wanted to start doing right away, I said, "Look at this. I can really rock on this thing. Listen, you can’t do this. It would be like giving somebody a gift and letting them open it and then taking it and rewrapping it and giving it back to them again because the album’s not coming out again until 2023.’ PB: How did that project evolve? LGL: I have the best record company in the world. They have all kinds of music and all kinds of artists and the owner actually likes what I do and I’m so fortunate and so blessed that he’s doing stuff for me. This is the first time in my career, and I am in my seventies, I now have someone who owns a record company who gets me. He let me play piano with Ann-Margret and Mickey Gilley and he let me play piano and do some backing vocals with Mitch Ryder. That was the first thing I did for him, to be on The Cramps’ tribute album. PB: You have accomplished so much, but Is there anything left on your bucket list? LGL: Well, I hope I’m not going to be kicking the bucket too soon, but I’ll be seventy-five on the 18th of July, and I’ll be three-quarters of a century old. My friend in Sweden said, "That will be a real special birthday. You’ll be three quarters-of-a century old," and I said, "Please don’t mention the word century when you’re talking about my birthday. Please." (Laughs.) Of course, I love anytime I can do anything with my brother. That is wonderful, and I hope, someday, that Robbie and I can do some more songs together. I really had a blast working with him. I had almost too much fun. I love working with my daughter and my son-in-law. We’ve got a tour coming up to promote our album that is coming up, ‘Family Jewels' it’s called, and that was recorded live in France and that will be out in September. We’re taking off in the middle of August and we’re going to San Antonio, Houston, New Orleans, up through Mississippi, up to Georgia and North Carolina and Maryland and then we do Long island, New York, Philadelphia and Cleveland, Ohio. I am so excited. I can’t wait to get on the road and do those gigs. We’ll end up doing a gig in Memphis when we’re coming back down. But first, we’ll be in a place called Southgate Revival House. It’s a great place where I played with Robbie. I think that’s in Lexington, Kentucky and then we’re going right on down to Memphis to play at the Rock ‘n’ Roll Café right by Graceland. Then, we come back down to Austin and on the last night of the tour, we’ll be at Antone’s in Austin. PB: Antone’s has been going strong for forty-years, and was the second home of the late Stevie Ray Vaughan. What a thrill! Do you live in Austin? LGL: My husband and I wanted a quieter place to live, so we live in Kimberly, Texas. We’re only about 45-minutes to Austin. So, we’re close enough that we can do what we want there, but we’re far enough away that we have some peace and quiet. PB: What super power would you like to have? LGL: Oh, wow, I’d love to be Wonder Woman and just kick the ass of all the people that have made me angry. To my friend, Ray Thompson, I said, ‘I’m talking about kicking the ass of my agent there and his agent too."He said, "You can’t do that because you’re a Christian," and I said, "Yes, I can. Right after I do it, I’m going to ask Jesus to forgive me." Now, Ray is an atheist. So, I said, "You have no one to forgive you. I don’t know what you’re going to do." The movie, ‘Wonder Woman’. came out a few years ago. My brother was watching it when we did the BB King gig, which was sweet, and I’d seen a little bit of it with him. PB: Final question: Do you have any sound advice for new artists? LGL: If you’re not willing to work really, really hard, unless you have somebody that’s going to give you a big break, you’re going to have to work your way up to it. You have to make sure you don’t mind working really hard. I had worked extremely hard to get where I am. I am not a huge superstar or anything but I’m really proud of the career I have in my seventies, and wouldn’t just have it if my ex-sister-in-law hadn’t kicked me out of my brother’s band, and I’m so grateful to her because I love my career and I love my life. Like I said to my other daughter, Mary Jane, and my niece, Phoebe - we were having a conversation, the three of us, and they said, "What advice would you give us"’ Because they were both singers. I said, "You’re going to have to work really hard." They said, "Like you do?" I said, "Yes, exactly like I do." And both of them said, "Oh, I don’t want to do that." I have to say I’ve enjoyed all the work that I’ve done, even though it’s been physically hard for me, especially being an older woman. I don’t regret any of it. I started out when I was forty. And don’t let people discourage you. Most people told me I was fat and old. I wouldn’t have let them discourage me. I’ll show you. And you got to be tough. Sorry, but you do. And if you’re a woman, maybe sometimes they’ll say you’re a bitch, but you know that’s just the way it is. Of course, if you’re a guy, nobody’s going to say anything about you being tough. But if you’re a woman, and you’re tough, they’re going to maybe say things like that about you. You just got to be able to take it all in stride and keep rocking. That’s what I did. PB: Thank you.

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Linda Gail Lewis - Interview

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