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Pianos fear him

By NICK JOHNSON
Published May 2, 2007


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photo
[AP photo]
Jerry Lee Lewis plays a piano with his boot at Farm Aid in Camden, N.J., in September. He will headline Sunday's lineup at the Tampa Bay Blues Festival, with a rented grand piano finally found.

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ST. PETERSBURG

The name Jerry Lee Lewis can conjure up at least two images:

The aging music legend crooning duets with Nora Jones and Kidd Rock on his recent album Last Man Standing.

Or the stool-kicking, boots-on-the-keyboard, flaming-piano performer of classics like Great Balls of Fire.

The latter image has made some local vendors reluctant to lease him a piano.

Lewis will be in town this weekend for the Tampa Bay Blues Festival in Vinoy Park. He will wrap up performances on Sunday.

Rob Matson, who runs Total Productions, the company responsible for the audio equipment and instrument rentals for the event, needed to find Lewis a grand piano.

"Grand pianos I usually don't stock, because they're just too expensive to only rent once a year, " Matson said. So he set out to find a piano for Lewis by contacting his usual suppliers in Orlando and Miami, but was surprised by what he heard.

"My usual vendors that I call basically declined, " Matson said. "He can be rough on them. He used to light them on fire and throw water on them."

"When you deal with Insane Clown Posse, you know what you're up against. When you deal with GWAR, you know what you're up against, " Matson said, but he wasn't expecting to have a problem with Lewis.

Most bands can't afford to ship all their own equipment from venue to venue, especially when a show is not part of a tour. Instead they will arrive with minimal equipment and have the backline provider supply the instruments, especially something big like a grand piano.

Matson said that some acts are known for being destructive or hard on equipment, but Lewis is getting up there in age. He said he was surprised that the reputation was still intact.

He declined to name the suppliers that turned Lewis down, but they aren't the only ones in the business that feel that way.

Paul Homb owns and runs Keyboard Specialties, a company that restores and supplies antique B-3 organs. He is supplying Matson with instruments for some of the artists at the Blues Festival, but not Jerry Lee Lewis.

"He kicks the stool, bangs on the piano, walks on it. He's tough on it, " Homb said. He no longer rents pianos but recalls a bad experience years ago when he rented one to Little Richard.

"We got this beautiful 9-foot Baldwin, antique, gorgeous thing, and Little Richard got up and walked on the keys ... I couldn't believe it!"

Dwayne Royer of Music Gallery supplies concert pianos to the Florida Orchestra and Clearwater Jazz Holiday. He was not contacted about renting a piano for Lewis - and was glad about it.

"We wouldn't have rented to him anyway because that reputation he has is correct, " Royer said.

He once had a bad experience when the Captain and Tennille were rough on one of his pianos.

"I almost went up on stage and stopped it, " he said.

With the price of a grand piano ranging from $20, 000 to $100, 000, its easy to see why some renters would be hesitant to loan one to a performer with a reputation like Lewis'.

Lewis' manager, Steven Green, said he had never heard of anyone having this problem.

"Is there somebody in a time warp that doesn't know that he's 71 years old?"

Green said that he hadn't done the shenanigans for years, and that he had never heard anyone complain about his performances.

"He used to light it on fire, but it was his own piano, " Green said. "I don't think that I've ever heard, ever, that he's done anything but play piano."

Kenny Lovelace, who has been Lewis' band leader and guitar player since 1967, had some insight into where the practice came from.

"The reason he used to do that is when they tried to give him a bad piano, " Lovelace said. The honkytonks and bars they used to play throughout the South would often bring out an old piano on its last legs. In protest, Lewis would play rough on them, but has long since stopped doing that type of thing.

"He used to get on top of pianos. That was in his act, but he don't do that anymore, " Lovelace said of Lewis, whose signature Great Balls of Fire was released 50 years ago. "He says, 'I don't want to get up on top of pianos anymore. I might not be able to get down.' "

Lovelace said that if he still encounters people who are hesitant about Lewis' using their piano, "I tell them Jerry hasn't bothered a piano in years."

With the reputation that seems to be as lasting as his career, who does want to rent Jerry Lee Lewis a piano?

Andrew Winton.

Winton, the owner of Winton Piano Corp., was the man who finally agreed to rent to Lewis. He said playing rough, kicking the stool, and even walking on the piano were all part of the business.

"I'm not worried about it. He can pound on it all he wants, " Winton said.

He was surprised that anyone would refuse to rent to Lewis, especially because the promoter, in this case Total Productions, would have to take responsibility for any damage.

"There isn't much that I can't fix mechanically, as long as he doesn't set it on fire or throw water on it."

As requested, he supplied Matson with a Yamaha C-7 grand piano for Lewis. Its preowned and worth about $16, 000.

Nick Johnson can be reached at nickjohnson@sptimes.com or 893-8361.

If you go

Tampa Bay Blues Fest

FRIDAY

Debbie Davies Band, 12:30 p.m.; Michael Burks, 2:30 p.m.; Sugar Ray and the Bluetones, 4:30 p.m.; Dave Mason, 6:30 p.m.; and George Thorogood and the Destroyers, 8:30 p.m.

SATURDAY

EG Kight, 11 a.m.; Watermelon Slim, 12:30 p.m.; Eric Lindell, 2:30 p.m.; Lil' Ed and the Blues Imperials, 4:30 p.m.; Koko Taylor and Her Blues Machine, 6:30 p.m.; and Dickey Betts and Great Southern, 8:30 p.m.

SUNDAY

Walker Smith Group, 1 p.m.; Nora Jean Bruso, 2:30 p.m.; Guitar Shorty, 4:30 p.m.; Percy Sledge, 6:30 p.m.; and Jerry Lee Lewis, 8:30 p.m.

[Last modified May 1, 2007, 20:10:12]


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