“I wasn’t expecting anything like this … I’d die for you … I will never forget this.”
That’s what a visibly moved Jerry Lee Lewis, 81, said onstage at Nashville’s Skyville Live on Thursday (Aug. 24) after performing the night’s finale of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.”
His comments were directed at the show’s all-star band that included guest performers Toby Keith, Kris Kristofferson, Waylon Payne, Chris Stapleton, George Strait and Lee Ann Womack. The one-night-only tribute concert was held at the webcast’s Berry Hill headquarters, which is an intimate performance space that’s small enough, it could fit inside a high school gymnasium.
Payne, son of Sammi Smith and Willie Nelson’s longtime guitarist Jody Payne, got his big break in Hollywood playing the Killer in the 2003 Johnny Cash biopic Walk the Line. Before the Skyville concert, Payne told CMT.com in a red carpet interview that he originally auditioned for the part of Waylon Jennings, but when he got the call back, he was offered the role of Lewis. Payne said he lied through his teeth when he told Walk the Line filmmakers that he could play piano.
“His story is so inspiring in that we’re both preachers,” Payne said of Lewis. “We’re tormented people because we sing country music, as well. It’s always been that pull between what does God want you to do, what do you want to do and what does the world want you to do. It’s just kind of a neat blend of Southern-ness that we share, and it inspires me.”
Payne kicked off the night with “Lewis Boogie.” Later in the show, he sang “Who Will the Next Fool Be” and “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes.”
Keith stood up and raised his red Solo cup to Strait’s performance of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Middle Age Crazy.” Before the show, Keith told press gathered on the red carpet that he was first introduced to Lewis’ music growing up listening to his grandmother’s records of “Crazy Arms” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” Keith and Lewis wouldn’t meet until years later at Willie Nelson’s Angels and Outlaws concert in Los Angeles.
“He was really nice to me the first time I met him because you know how outrageous he is,” Keith recalled. “And I didn’t know what to expect. There was a seat right next to him, I was going to go introduce myself to him and he goes, ‘Sit down here, Toby.’ I talked to him for an hour and a half.”
Keith’s portion of the show included “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee O’Dee,” “39 and Holding” and “Chantilly Lace.”
Womack thanked Lewis for his contributions to music and complimented his singing before delivering “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.”
Kristofferson was originally going to send a video message for the night, but instead he showed up to sit next to Lewis at his table and he delivered a hard country version of “Mean Old Man.”
The McCrary Sisters backed Stapleton on a haunting version of the gospel hymn “Where He Leads (I Can Hear My Savior Calling).”
The massive band included an all-star cast of session players including Lewis’ longtime bandleader Kenny Lovelace, Nelson’s harmonica player Mickey Raphael, drummer Fred Eltringham, three backup singers, a four-piece horn section, two guitarists and a bassist.
Before the show, Skyville creator Wally Wilson delivered a proclamation from Nashville Mayor Megan Barry declaring Aug. 24 Jerry Lee Lewis Day in the city. A street by the Skyville Live headquarters was renamed Jerry Lee Lewis Way in his honor.
Lewis was 21 when he first arrived at Sun Records in Memphis, Tennessee, to meet its owner Sam Phillips. To make the trip, Jerry Lee and his father Elmo Lewis sold all the eggs they had on the farm back home in Ferriday, Louisiana.
Phillips was out of town when Lewis first arrived at Sun, so he missed it when the then-unknown artist introduced himself to studio engineer Jack Clement as a musician who could play piano just like Chet Atkins plays guitar. Lewis, along with Cash, Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins, would later become known as the Million Dollar Quartet. His country career includes six No. 1 hits. Known around the world as rock’s first great wild man, the Rock & Roll Hall of Famer continues to work and tour today. His next show is Jerry’s Lee’s Birthday Bash on Sept. 29 in New York City.
Enjoy scenes from Thursday’s show: