Though not yet a star in her own right, Linda Gail Lewis has proven she has what it takes to hold her own alongside two of the most talented and notoriously difficult figures in popular music. Barely in her teens when she surfaced in the early 1960s, she first accompanied her older brother, Jerry Lee Lewis. Four decades later, Lewis has given her career new momentum by forming a musical partnership with Van Morrison.
She has recorded on her own, but Lewis built her reputation primarily through her association with her brother. She opened shows and sang backing vocals for “The Killer” on tours throughout most of the ’60s and ’70s, and the siblings recorded an album of duets, Together, released in 1969, that produced the Top 10 country single “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.”
In 1987, after a long layoff, Lewis, at age 40, picked up the threads of her career. Stepping out of Jerry Lee’s shadow, she dusted off piano-boogie skills she learned from him and set out as a solo artist, performing in Memphis and touring nationally and internationally. She found audiences in Europe especially receptive to her Lewis-family brand of rock ’n’ roll and country. The demand for her talents has become so great overseas that Lewis now has a second home in Wales, where she spends more time than she does at her U.S. home in Big Sandy, Tenn.
Lewis’ 1991 album, International Affair, issued in France by New Rose, created excitement among European rockabilly fans and her cult following in the U.S. Village Voice music critic Robert Christgau named the import a “pick hit” in one of his monthly “consumer guides.” Lewis, he wrote, registered “more twang per syllable than prime Duane Eddy, belting and screeching like a flat-out hillbilly… She’s Jerry Lee’s sister, wildass before anything else.”
Two years ago, Lewis published a rambunctious autobiography, The Devil, Me and Jerry Lee, in which she revealed that she has been married eight times and had a life every bit as colorful as her brother and her famous cousins, TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley.
But nothing has raised her profile more than Lewis’ recent studio and concert collaborations with Irish singer/songwriter Morrison, the incendiary, blue-eyed-soul singer behind pop classics such as “Brown-Eyed Girl,” “Moondance” and “Gloria.”
Lewis shares billing with Morrison on You Win Again, an album of duets released in October and taking its title from a Hank Williams song. A prolific, sometimes anguished songwriter, Morrison has written his share of haunting and deeply personal epics, but You Win Again is a buoyant collection of covers at the other extreme from his dark, 1968 masterpiece, Astral Weeks.
Morrison contributes one original, “No Way Pedro.” The rest of the set is a high-spirited frolic through a baker’s dozen of ’50s classics by the likes of Williams (covered three times), bluesman John Lee Hooker (with whom Morrison also has collaborated), rock ’n’ roll guitar slinger Bo Diddley and, perhaps predictably, Jerry Lee Lewis.
“Van has been wanting to do some stuff with my brother for a long time,” says Lewis during a phone interview from her home overseas. “Van has loved my brother’s music since he was a boy. They are friends, but Jerry Lee is not real big on going into the studio these days. Van heard what I was doing and he thought ’Well, this is the real thing. I like this.’ He felt we could do something good together, but neither one of us knew it was going to turn out the way it did.”
Lewis first crossed paths with Morrison in 1993 at a Jerry Lee Lewis convention at the King’s Hotel in Newport in South Wales. Earlier this year they shared dinner and a conversation about music, discovering they liked the same kinds of songs. Morrison heard Lewis perform during a sound check before one of her concerts. A week later, Lewis caught Morrison’s show in Cardiff, Wales, and they got together for an after-hours jam session.
“I didn’t realize I was going to be singing with him,” she explains. “He did a couple of blues songs and I played piano for him. We’d been talking about one of my brother’s songs we both loved called ’Let’s Talk About Us.’ It was written by Otis Blackwell, who wrote ’Great Balls of Fire,’ but it really wasn’t well-known. Van asked if I knew the words, so I wrote them down for him and he asked me to sing it with him.”
Lewis breaks out laughing. “Suddenly I was rehearsing duets with Van Morrison,” she recalls. “Van kept calling out songs for us to try. It was real informal. Our two voices together were wonderful. I had no problem phrasing with him. It was great, and we were having such a good time. Then we sat down to have tea, and Van picked up his cell phone and said to me, ’Well, are you available next Tuesday?’ He called his studio and booked it.
“I was just flabbergasted,” Lewis continues. “Still puzzled, I said, ’Are we going to record these songs?’ He said, ’Well, yeah,’ as if to say, ’Are you crazy … don’t you know?’ I didn’t think anything would come of the recordings, but I knew I was going to have fun and enjoy my day in the studio with this legend.”
They cut nine songs together before Lewis returned to Tennessee, not expecting to hear any more about the project. When she went back to Europe three weeks later, Morrison invited her to his studio for tea and told her he might release their duets as his next album.
“He had another album ready to go, but he said he liked our album better,” Lewis explains. “He told me that if we could come up with some more songs, and if our act worked together live, then he would release the album. I was really floored. That is when I became nervous, because I knew I had a shot at something great.”
By the time Lewis rejoined Morrison in the studio, any anxiety she felt about the scope of what they were trying to do had disappeared.
“I really couldn’t be that nervous with the next bunch of songs that we did,” she says. “We did [Bo Diddley’s] ’Cadillac,’ [Hank Williams’] ’Why Don’t You Love Me’ — those songs were so easy for me to sing with him, and they were so much fun to sing with him.”
In fact, the recording sessions turned out to be as informal as the circumstances that led to them. The spontaneous performances were cut live and very quickly in the studio, with little or no rehearsal.
“It’s unbelievable that things like that can happen today,” Lewis says. “Van is doing something for music. It’s natural and it’s real, as opposed to something that is overdubbed to death and pieced together.”
Lewis points out that her famous brother works in a similar style.
“They both cut their sessions live on the floor and don’t do a lot of overdubs,” she says. “Neither one of those guys plays with a set list. They go on stage and they call out the songs.
“Well, Van calls them out,” Lewis adds with a laugh. “He’s a little more cooperative than my brother. Jerry Lee just starts playing and you have to figure out the key and song. They both do spontaneous music. They play for the audience and they figure out the audience as they go along.”
“Van the Man” — as Morrison is known to legions of rock fans — has parted ways with his regular band for now in favor of working with Lewis’ Welsh backup band, the Red Hot Pokers, with whom the duo recorded You Win Again. They have performed across Europe, and Lewis hopes American tour dates are in the offing. She is working on Morrison’s next album of original songs, playing piano and singing some backup on the project. She also hopes to record a set of Morrison originals under her own name, with him producing, but he has yet to commit.
In the meantime, Lewis is thankful for the career boost provided by her alliance with the Belfast Cowboy, as Morrison also is known. She enjoys her return to the spotlight and feels grateful that Morrison has shared his talent with her.
“This is a big opportunity, for me to be singing with Van,” she acknowledges. “I’m 53 years old, but I’m still learning, and he’s taught me one helluva lot. I put him right up there with my brother. They’re both geniuses.”