Clash of the Titans
By Matt Hanks
AUGUST 11, 1997: In the fall of 1977, just a few weeks after Elvis Presley's passing, Jerry Lee Lewis spoke the unspeakable to a Nashville reporter. "I was glad [when Presley died]. Just another one out of the way. I mean, Elvis this, Elvis that. All we hear is Elvis. What the shit did Elvis do except take dope that I couldn't get ahold of?"
Lewis and Presley's public rivalry stretches back to the very inception of their careers. Hell, it stretches back to the very inception of Man. In the biblical epic that is rock-and-roll, they are Cain and Abel.
Possessed of undeniable talents, Presley and Lewis used them in diametrically different ways. In doing so they created one of rock-and-roll's fundamental paradigms; the struggle between good and evil made flesh in two young crackers from the country. But the eerily identical upbringing that Jerry Lee and Elvis shared (they were both born dirt-poor in the deep South in 1935; they were both sons to domineering moms and ex-con dads; they both developed a love for black music at an early age) would inextricably bind them together. Like every great rock-and-roll rivalry that came after them -- from the Rolling Stones and the Beatles to Prince and Michael Jackson -- they seemed to stand face-to-face, and heel-to-heel all at once.
According to Harold Loyd -- first cousin to Elvis Presley on his mother's side, and the presiding guard on duty at Presley's Graceland mansion -- in the early hours of November 22, 1976, he was greeted by an unexpected visitor. Jerry Lee Lewis, accompanied by his wife, pulled up to the mansion's front gate in his new Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow. He asked Loyd if he could see Elvis, but was told that the King was asleep. Lewis politely thanked Loyd and drove away without incident.
Later that morning, at 9:30 a.m., Lewis flipped his Rolls while rounding the corner at Peterson Lake and Powell Road in Collierville. The police report on the incident stated that the Breathalyzer test yielded negligible results, but that Lewis was obviously tanked on something and that he was charged with driving while intoxicated, reckless driving, and driving without a license.
After the infraction, says his sister Linda Gail, Lewis most likely repaired to his home to rest. Less than 12 hours later, he was holding court at the Vapors, one of his favorite Memphis nightspots. For reasons that are still debated, Lewis decided to leave the Vapors -- alone -- at about 2:30 a.m. At precisely 2:50 a.m., almost 24 hours later to the minute, he again pulled up to Graceland, this time in a new Lincoln Continental. The car wasn't the only thing that had changed from the night before. Lewis' manner on the 23rd was markedly different. He was armed, angry, and obviously inebriated -- a dangerous combination for a man mere mortals call "Killer."
"He was outta his mind, man," recalls Loyd. "He was screamin', hollerin', and cussin'. `Get on the goddamn phone. I know you got an intercom system. Call up there and tell Elvis I wanna visit with him. Who the hell does he think he is? Tell him the Killer's here to see him."
Loyd panicked. "I just put my hands up in the air and said, `Okay, okay, Jerry, just take it easy.'"
Loyd retreated to the guard booth and picked up the house phone. One of "the boys" answered and Loyd apprised him of the situation. Loyd was advised to call the cops, and wasted no time in doing so. Moments later Presley himself rang down to the guard booth.
Loyd recalls their conversation precisely. "Elvis was on the line and he said, `Wh-wh-what' -- see, he used to stutter a lot when he got upset -- `Wh-wh-what the hell's goin' on down there, Harold?'
"I said, `Well, Jerry Lee Lewis is sittin' in his car down here outside the gate, wavin' a derringer pistol and raisin' hell.'
"Elvis said, `Wh-wh-what's that goddamn guy want?'
"[I said] `He's demanding to come up and see Elvis.' See, I had some girls [in the guard booth] just come in from England and they were eavesdroppin'. I had to disguise who I was talkin' to for their benefit, otherwise they would have started screamin' [affects high, shrill voice] `Elvis, Elvis!'
"Anyway, [Presley] said, `He-he wants to talk to who?'
"I said, `Elvis.'
"He caught on then and said, `Oh, I-I-I don't wanna talk to that crazy sonofabitch. Hell no, I don't wanna talk to him. I'll come down there and kill him! You call the cops, Harold.'
"I told him I already did and he said, `Good. When they get there tell 'em to lock his butt up and throw the goddamn key away. Okay? Thank you, Harold.'"
Officer Billy J. Kirkpatrick was the first to arrive on the scene. Though Lewis was still seated in his car, Kirkpatrick knew he was armed and approached with caution. Kirkpatrick ordered him out of the car, but Lewis would not comply.
"[Kirkpatrick] had to pull him outta the car," remembers Loyd. "He told him to keep his hands on the steering wheel where he could see 'em. Jerry said he just wanted to see Elvis, but Kirkpatrick told him to shut up. Now Jerry, he had tried to hide his pistol by puttin' it in between his knee and the door. But when Kirkpatrick opened the door, the damn gun fell out onto the floorboard [laughs]. Kirkpatrick picked up the gun, and it was cocked and loaded."
The police report states that on closer inspection, Kirkpatrick noticed that the front passenger window of Lewis' car was smashed in. This accounts for the deep gash on the bridge of Lewis' nose, obvious from his mugshot. According to Kirkpatrick's report, the injury was sustained "from broken glass resulting from attempting to jettison an empty champagne bottle thru [sic] the closed window of his '76 Lincoln."
Kirkpatrick and four other officers took Lewis away immediately. But Loyd would receive another visitor before night's end. He explains, "When the wrecker came down and towed Jerry's car away [at approximately 4 a.m.] they hadn't much more than gotten outta sight when another car comes flyin' up the driveway and two guys got out. I recognized one of 'em as Jerry's dad.
"He was laughin', sayin', `Ha, ha, ha, ain't this some crap, man? I just got word that they've taken my son to jail. This guy with me here, he just got me outta the Hernando jail. I just got out, and Jerry done gone ahead.'"
Sure enough, Elmo Lewis -- age 78, no less -- was arrested at 7:30 p.m. on the 21st for speeding and driving while intoxicated. He spent two nights in jail, and failed to make his court appearance scheduled for the morning of 23rd. Like father, like son, indeed.
Linda Gail Lewis is Jerry Lee's youngest sibling, and she's served as his closest family confidant her whole life. Her interpretation of November 23rd reads quite a bit differently.
"Jerry Lee admitted to me that he had been partyin' and drinkin' and that he was a little bit out of it," she recalls, "but he swore his intentions were good. He's very misunderstood, you see. It's a shame really."
By Linda Gail's account, it was Presley who wanted to see Jerry Lee. He was depressed and called over to the Vapors hoping that Jerry Lee would come to Graceland and keep him company. She insists that Loyd never even informed Presley of Jerry Lee's arrival, and that Jerry Lee grew belligerent only because he feared for what Presley might do if he didn't see him.
"I believe, really and truly, that the people who were associated with Elvis at that time were trying to manipulate him. He was supporting all of them financially, and it was in their best interest to keep him isolated."
Linda Gail continues, "Jerry really had no motive to lie. Why would he leave a place where he was havin' a perfectly good time to go down to Elvis' house and make a scene? It just doesn't make any sense. He had his whole entourage with him, and a couple of girlfriends, and they were havin' a great time. There was no reason for him to go down there other than that he was concerned for his friend."
Linda Gail's voice takes on a halcyon quality when she remembers Elvis and Jerry Lee's friendship. She speaks of their mutual respect for one another, and tells stories of them riding motorcycles together and even going on double dates.
"Those two guys really did love each other," she says. "I do believe my brother just wanted to check on Elvis. He went there to cheer him up and kinda bond with him again. I guess everybody over at Graceland didn't want the two of them to get together because Jerry was really havin' one big party at the time. If him and Elvis had started runnin' the roads together, can you imagine what that would have been like? It probably would have been more than Memphis could have stood."
I called Lewis' production company hoping to get an account of that infamous November evening from the Killer himself. I didn't get very far. "We don't need all that bullshit from y'all," barked an anonymous voice at the end of the line. "That's in the past. If you wanna write something, write something positive, okay? Thank you much." Click.
Even with the benefit of 20 years' hindsight, it seems Lewis' yes-men still don't get it. The cardinal rule of rock-and-roll mythology -- a mythology that Lewis, perhaps more than anyone else, helped create -- is that there's no such thing as bad publicity. In fact, there's no good or bad at all. Just gods and mortals. Life and death. Jerry Lee Lewis and Elvis Aaron Presley.
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