George Strait, Toby Keith & More Honor Jerry Lee Lewis at Skyville Live
If Toby Keith had his way, Jerry Lee Lewis would be a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, and judging by the turnout Thursday night (Aug. 24) honoring the Killer, he’s not alone. Keith, George Strait, Chris Stapleton, Lee Ann Womack, Waylon Payne, the McCrary Sisters and Kris Kristofferson celebrated Lewis’ legendary career before a standing room only audience at Skyville Live, the Nashville-based, Emmy-award winning online music series.
“He’s in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. He ought to be in the Country Music Hall of Fame,” Keith proclaimed as the crowd cheered.
Keith became a fan of the Killer at an early age. “My grandmother had ‘Crazy Arms,’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin,'' ‘What’d I Say,’” Keith shared earlier in the evening before taking the stage. “By the time he started coming on the radio with new stuff that I was hearing, it was country. He probably had more hits in country than he does rock. Usually when people come over from the other genres, they might get lucky once or twice, but they don’t have a bunch of hits. He had a whole country career, a Hall of Fame country career.”
His six-decade legacy in country and rock music was celebrated during the hour-long show, which live streamed on AOL, Rated Red and Yahoo Music. The show kicked off with Waylon Payne pounding the piano and delivering the “Lewis Boogie.” “He’s a staple in rock and roll,” Payne told Billboard before the show. “There’s not just one king of rock and roll. There are several and he’s one of them. Those gentlemen put their blood, sweat and tears into creating rock and roll. If it wasn't for them, there wouldn't be any. I enjoy the opportunity to be able to honor my buddy. He’s a very appreciative man, a very grateful man, a very kind man.”
Payne portrayed Lewis in Walk the Line, the 2005 film that depicted the turbulent life of Johnny Cash and June Carter. “I didn’t want him to shoot me. I heard he wanted to shoot that Quaid fellow,” Payne says, referring to Dennis Quaid’s performance in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire.
After Payne’s spirited show opener, Strait took the stage to perform “Great Balls of Fire” followed by “Middle Age Crazy,” a poignant look at aging penned by Sonny Throckmorton. “Jerry Lee, it was an honor doing those two songs for you. I really appreciate you inviting me tonight,” Strait said, before introducing Keith with a grin and telling the crowd, “He’s from Oklahoma, but let’s not hold that against him.”
Keith performed a high energy rendition of “Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” and then launched into “Thirty Nine and Holding” and finished his set with “Chantilly Lace.”
Before the show, Keith spoke to reporters and recalled meeting the Killer at a show in Los Angeles many years ago. “He was really nice to me the first time I met him. You know how outrageous he is so I didn’t know what to expect,” he said with a smile. “I talked to him for an hour and a half. He was so cool. There were about 60 acts at this Willie Nelson thing. I think it was called Angels and Outlaws. It was Bob Dylan, Paul Simon, Ray Charles, Eric Clapton, 60 bad boys. Willie invited me to do a song. Haggard was there."
“Jerry Lee closed the show. He was walking out the back door and Willie said, ‘Grab him. He’s trying to leave and we gotta do “On the Road Again” as a group sing.’ I ran over and said, ‘Willie wants you to come back and do the encore.’ And he said, ‘That was the effing encore!’ and left,” Keith recalls with a laugh.
Womack followed Keith’s performance and shared Lewis’ “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” and “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye.” Kristofferson, who had been seated near Lewis in the audience, took the stage and delivered a charismatic performance of “Mean Old Man” with Mickey Raphael wailing on the harmonica that drew a standing ovation.
Next up, Payne took the stage to sing “Who Will the Next Fool Be,” punctuated by a great guitar solo from Kenny Greenberg, and followed with “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes,” which earned a standing ovation. Stapleton and the McCrary Sisters delivered a soulful version of the gospel classic “Where He Leads Me I Will Follow,” which brought the crowd to its feet.
As the evening drew to a close, Lewis rose from his seat in the audience to take his place behind the piano. As he led the all-star cast in “Whole Lotta Shakin,’” the icon seemed much younger than his 81 years. He thoroughly enjoyed the evening, telling the crowd, “That was some of the best music I ever heard in my life.”
It was a night that was a long time in the making. “We started about two years ago,” Skyville Live creator Wally Wilson told Billboard. “My agent, Blake McDaniel at CAA, and I started cooking on this idea. At first we were going to do something at Bridgestone [Arena], but it didn't seem right. It didn't seem intimate enough, and we looked at doing something at the Fox Theater in Atlanta and the MGM Theater in Las Vegas. And it didn't seem very Jerry Lee like, so I finally said, ‘Let’s bring him home and bring everybody to Jerry Lee.’ Then George Strait said he wanted to do it, and here we went.”
Wilson says they wanted to give Lewis’ Music City supporters a chance to honor his legacy. “We decided to make it more Nashville friendly,” he says. “At first we were going to put Green Day on it and make it real rock, but we thought Jerry Lee Lewis needs to be honored by Nashville.”
In addition to the musical tribute, Lewis was also honored by Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and Berry Hill Mayor Beth Sartain, who proclaimed Aug. 24 Jerry Lee Lewis Day. Lewis was also honored with the street in front of the venue being renamed for the day in his honor. Westwood Drive was changed to “Jerry Lee Lewis Lane,” and Inverness Avenue to “Skyville Live Drive.” For one night, the tiny streets became the intersection of country and rock and roll history.