by Basil McJagger
Jerry Lee Lewis is on the short list of men who created rock 'n' roll. He's a legend’s legend, and second only to the great Johnnie Johnson when it comes to people who have shaped my piano-playing style. His nickname, “The Killer,” iss somehing he named himself as a teenager. Whether it's a true description of the man depends on whose story you believe. Rock pioneer Little Richard is another of my all-time-favorite musicians. I've been a big fan of both musicians' work since I was in elementary school. So I was ecstatic when I heard both of them would be on a double bill at the Bluff’s Run dog track in Council Bluffs, Iowa. This was in 1996.
My girlfriend and I made the trip up to Omaha and had a delicious supper at McKenna’s Blues Booze and BBQ before heading over to Bluff’s Run. Both shows were wonderful. I was so pleased to see both Jerry Lee and Little Richard. I had decided that I wanted to hang around outside the stage door and try to meet both of them and get photos and autographs. So we stood around by the back door for about 90 minutes (though it felt like forever). The security guard at the door wouldn't let us in, but did confirm that neither act had left the venue.
Little Richard was the first to leave. He was surrounded by an entourage. The people surrounding him shined flashlights on me to mess up my photo. Fortunately, the shots came out just fine. Unfortunately, Richard just looked forward the entire time and did not acknowledge us. When he was in earshot I said, “Can I please just shake your hand?” to no avail. He got in a car, took off, and that was that.
A little later, some of Jerry Lee’s band guys came out. I recognized one to be his longtime guitarist/fiddle man, Kenneth Lovelace. Kenneth asked the security guard if “those folks” were waiting to meet Jerry Lee — we were the only people out there. The guard told him we’d been there almost two hours at that point. Lovelace went back inside the building, and when he returned, Jerry Lee was with him.
Jerry Lee invited us into the building. He was shorter than I had imagined (of course!) and quite intoxicated. He was kind of wobbling around as he spoke with us. He told us that there was a ton of catering left, and that we should help ourselves, which we did. I posed for a few photos with him, then I gave him a tape of the band I was playing in at the time — a blues outfit called The Randies.
I handed the tape to him and told him that I did all the piano and organ work on it. He took a second look at it and said, “You played all the piano on this tape?” I responded “Yes sir.” And he put his hand on my shoulder and said “Well alright then, Killer.”
“Killer.” He had said it to me. He actually called me “Killer.” It’s very common for Jerry Lee to refer to himself as “Killer,” and also fairly common for him to call other people “Killer.” But he was referring to me. I was completely honored. It was like being blessed by the Pope.
I drove back home to Lincoln on cloud nine that night. I carried with me a belly full of little finger sandwiches, a couple of new autographs and some ruined photos. (For some reason, the photos with the Killer didn't turn out.) But most importantly, I carried with me the confidence of someone who, in an offhand remark, had gained approval from one his idols.
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Basil McJagger was born in Omaha, grew up in Lincoln, and graduated from the University of Nebraska. He is a retired public school music teacher, and owns the Allegro School of Music in Buda, Texas. As a pianist/Hammond organist, Basil continues to play music full-time. He and his wife Gina Lee have twins and live near Austin.