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Linda Gail Lewis resurrects career with help of Van the Man

By Ken Burke, December 2000

She's the younger sister of one of music's greatest performers ever, Jerry Lee Lewis. She's also first cousins with Urban Cowboy-era hitmaker Mickey Gilley, and disgraced televangelist Jimmy Swaggert. After decades of lingering in the familial shadows, Linda Gail Lewis is finally achieving a measure of fame as a solo artist and with her latest singing partner, Van Morrison.

Born in Ferriday, La., the 53-year old Lewis has lived a life every bit as tumultuous as her piano-pumping brother's. She has toured the world repeatedly; married eight times, nearly died from drug overdoses and has fought the perpetual soul-rending battle of Family-versus-Career. Along the way, she's made a lot of music, some good, some jaw-droppingly bad.

Lewis' recording debut came as Jerry Lee's duet partner at Sun Records in 1963 where her defiantly off-key vocals turned their rendition of George Jones' classic "Seasons Of My Heart" into one of the worst records ever made.

"I've gotten a lot of criticism for the vocals I did early on," recalls Linda Gail Lewis in a telephone interview from England. "Y'see, no one worked with me or helped me, and that wasn't necessarily the type of song that I should've been singing at that time. I hate to say it was a mistake to do it because it is a part of history and something I remember in a fond way, but I wish I could've sung that song a little bit better."

Lest we forget, the Killer's fall from grace was triggered by the 1958 "scandal" surrounding his bigamous marriage to 13-year old second cousin Myra Gale Brown. As a result, the teenaged Linda Gail played all the tank towns and dives that Jerry Lee suffered through on his long-road back to the top.

Besides providing valuable experience and a chance to sharpen her vocal chops, the near-constant touring resulted in a unique opportunity -- a steady gig with the road company of ABC-TV's mid-'60's teenfest Shindig, touring with the likes of Gerry & the Pacemakers.

"Oh it was great," remembers Lewis. "Jack Good (Shindig's producer) actually asked for me. My brother didn't have to give them the hard-sell and say 'Would you please have my sister on too.'"

Unfortunately, the resultant ABC-Paramount single, "Small Red Diary," sank into obscurity.

When Jerry Lee mounted his late '60's comeback via country music, Linda Gail rode his coattails right into the Top-10 with a version of Carl and Pearl Butler's "Don't Let Me Cross Over." A rousing remake of Chuck Berry's "Roll Over Beethoven," still a staple of her act, followed it onto the lower chart regions. The 1969 LP "Together" featured their rowdy duet style on a variety of country standards and rockers.

It led to "The Two Sides Of Linda Gail Lewis," a hard sung, poor-selling country album.

In addition to composing material for her brother's top-selling Smash and Mercury discs, Lewis also garnered an ASCAP award for her song "Smile, Somebody Loves You," her only solo Top 40 country song.

She was growing artistically but her label never seemed to notice. "Nobody was really serious about my career," proclaims Lewis. "(Mercury producer) Jerry Kennedy never believed in me as an artist."

Ms. Lewis' years with her brother are entertainingly chronicled in the 1998 autobiography she wrote with Les Pendleton, "The Devil, Me, and Jerry Lee" (Longstreet Press). Rife with tales of sex, drugs and religious hypocrisy, the book showcases Lewis' genuine voice and attitude; which is by turns, catty, philosophic, salacious and irresistibly funny.

Characterizing herself as a "spoiled little bitch," Lewis revealed sordid details of her eight marriages and dealings with estranged children, few of whom portray her in a positive light.

However, her memories of Jerry Lee provided the most memorable recollections.

Yes, according to Linda Gail, Jerry Lee was strung out, callously fired his bass player after accidentally shooting him, experienced violent mood swings and went through women like Kleenex.

However, at book's end, she poignantly portrays her brother as an aging rocker suffering the whims and financial machinations of his current wife, the threatened removal of his only surviving son being the whip that keeps him in line.

Brother Jerry's lifestyle nearly killed her, yet Lewis clearly remains in awe of his amazing talent and views him as a truly heroic figure. She'll tell anyone who's interested how through sheer force of talent, her elder sibling lifted their family from hand-to-mouth poverty to a life of relative economic ease.

Between 1977 and 1986, Lewis was out of show-biz. Upon reemergence, she briefly toured with Jerry Lee before belatedly going solo at age 39. Realizing that her brother's piano was an important facet of her public identity, Lewis taught herself to pound the keys in his style. "I can play the piano better than Mickey and Jimmy," assesses Linda Gail. "But I can't touch Jerry Lee's work."

Now a top attraction in the European countries where her brother is still revered, Lewis has worked in near obscurity in America. A strong reflection of this international dichotomy is her 1999 solo album on Sire, which has yet to be released stateside.

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