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Look at Little Sister

Linda Gail rocks her way out of Jerry Lee’s shadow

Look at Little Sister

Photo by Todd Wolfson

Linda Gail Lewis has quietly (by rock-and-roll standards) built a musical identity for herself independent of the legacy of her big brother Jerry Lee.

She’s a country gal who’s got the boogie-woogie in her soul. From Ferriday, Louisiana, Linda Gail Lewis is the sister of rock-and-roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis. Twelve years younger than The Killer, Linda Gail, like her big brother, knows how to rock and roll. She can sing a heartrending country song, too. Wild! Wild! Wild!, Lewis’ 2018 collaboration with Chicago alt-country singer-songwriter Robbie Fulks, inspired a flood of enthusiastic reviews. She previously recorded two high-profile duet projects, a 1969 country album with Jerry Lee Lewis, Together, and a rootsy 2000 album with Van Morrison, You Win Again.

Based in Austin, Lewis has worked intently to sustain the solo career she didn’t begin in earnest until she was thirty-nine years old. In late 2018, for instance, she toured Norway and Sweden for seven weeks. “These are things that a seventy-one-year-old woman probably wouldn’t want to do unless she really loves what she does,” Lewis said. “And I do love it.”

Lewis’ passion for the stage began in 1957, the year Memphis’ Sun Records released her brother’s incendiary hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” All ten-year-old Linda Gail wanted to do was sing with Jerry Lee. Her wish came true at fourteen. Done with her first husband and high school, too, she joined her brother on the road. Their 1969 duet album yielded the Top Ten country hit “Don’t Let Me Cross Over.” Previously a hit for the husband-and-wife duo Carl and Pearl Butler in 1962, the song tells the story of would-be lovers who’re desperately trying to stay faithful to their respective spouses—an odd choice of material for a brother and sister to sing.

“Jerry and I couldn’t look at each other when we sang it,” Lewis remembered. “We’d start laughing every time. Later, when it got time for him to sing his verse on stage, he wasn’t enjoying it. He just decided he didn’t want to do it.” Lewis always deferred to her older brother, whether she understood his choices or not. “He is the greatest showman on Earth,” she said. “He always knows exactly what he’s doing and there’s always a reason for everything—but he doesn’t necessarily tell me or anybody else what that reason is.”

According to music critics, Linda Gail Lewis’s recent collaboration with Robbie Fulks, Wild! Wild! Wild!, lives up to its name. Courtesy of Bloodshot Records.

In 1969, Lewis also released her solo album debut, Two Sides of Linda Gail Lewis. “It wasn’t a big hit like the duets album, but it was good,” she said. Lewis stopped touring with her brother in 1976. She wanted to be home with her family but soon found she missed music terribly. “It was so painful to think about music that I had to just put it out of my mind,” she said. “If you want to do music and be onstage—and you’ve got to be a little bit crazy to want to—you will make huge sacrifices to do that. I make sacrifices all the time.” In 1986, after a decade out of music, Lewis rejoined her brother on the road. It didn’t last. Jerry Lee’s sixth wife didn’t want his little sister around, Lewis said. “I could have stayed, but you should never come between a man and his wife. I just went on down the road.”

Leaving her brother a second time turned out to be a good thing, Lewis said. “When a door closes, a window opens. Otherwise, I would never have developed my piano playing. I would never have worked as hard as I have. And there are so many songs that I wouldn’t have written. I am so grateful that my ex-sister-in-law didn’t want me around.” Lewis found more duet partners later, including Fulks. “Robbie reminds me of my brother in so many ways. He’s a genius at his instrument, acoustic guitar, and he’s a Hank Williams type of songwriter.”

Wild! Wild! Wild! includes “Hardluck, Louisiana.” Mostly written by Fulks, the song includes Lewis’ memories of the impoverished life she and her family lived when her father was a sharecropper. “When I’m singing that song and I close my eyes, I can see my parents and my brother and my sister, all there together,” she said. “And Robbie is there with us, too, because he captured that feeling in the song. Like the lyrics say, times were hard, but there were a lot of beautiful moments there in that shack as well.”

John Wirt writes about music, film, and other things. He’s the author of Huey “Piano” Smith and the Rocking Pneumonia Blues.