Watch Linda Gail Lewis pound out rockabilly on the piano and you’ll understand why she couldn’t stay in the background forever. First known as the duet partner of her older brother Jerry Lee Lewis, and more recently as a member of Van Morrison’s band, Lewis has come into her own as the matriarch of a hot family band that is tearing up stages from Austin to Austria.
Lewis doesn’t remember hearing the term “rockabilly” when, at 10, she watched her brother skyrocket to fame with his Sun Records classics “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” “We just called it rock ’n’ roll,” she says. Today rockabilly evokes the sound made in the mid-1950s when young musicians from small southern towns combined blues, gospel, and hillbilly music into a combustible mixture marked by suggestive lyrics and audacious vocals. Those aggressive guitar leads and wild boogie piano runs changed American music forever, with Lewis and his Sun peers Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins leading the way.
Given the ferocity with which Linda Gail attacks the piano, one would assume that as a young girl in Ferriday, Louisiana, she was playing along with Jerry Lee and their cousins, future country star Mickey Gilley and preacher Jimmy Swaggart. That is not, however, how the story goes. Linda Gail did sing duets with Jerry Lee on some of the country hits that revived his career in the late ’60s. She also wrote and recorded some country hits of her own before taking time off to raise a family. When she eventually rejoined her brother on stage, she found, at age 40, that she needed to reinvent herself as a solo artist after Jerry Lee’s then-wife booted her from his band. Unhappy with the backing pianists she hired, Linda thought back to the one real piano lesson her brother had ever given her. “It was one night in Germany in the early ’70s and there was a nice piano backstage. He said, ‘If you learn this it will really help you to play boogie-woogie and rock ’n’ roll piano, but don’t ask me to show it to you again—you have to get it the first time.” And she did.
Linda Gail admits that there were skeptics who laughed at her, “but I kept on practicing,” she asserts. Her new chops nicely coincided with the rise of the rockabilly revival, and she quickly gained a strong following in Europe. Van Morrison engaged her for a recording and lengthy tour.
Lewis tried to steer daughter Annie Marie into nursing. “But she’s an entertainer just like me, so I had to accept it,” says Lewis. “When she started singing with me I told her ‘I wish you’d fall in love with a really great guitarist.” That’s exactly what happened when versatile axeman Danny B. Harvey, whose Headcat band also included Lemmy from Motorhead and Stray Cat Slim Jim, wed Annie Marie and joined the family band. “There’s something so special about performing and singing with family members,” says Linda Gail. “I feel like this is the best place I’ve ever been in since I started my career.”