'Jerry hasn't bothered a piano in years'
By NICK JOHNSON
Published May 3, 2007
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.
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.
"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.
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?
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. The promoter, in this case Total Productions, will have to take responsibility for any damage.
Nick Johnson can be reached at email@example.com or 893-8361.
IF YOU GO
Tampa Bay Blues Fest
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.
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.
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.