Jerry Lee Lewis’ younger sister, Linda Gail, doesn’t mind standing in her brother’s shadow. She figures she’s got plenty of good company in the category of people who aspire to play like Jerry Lee. But this talented artist also has so much to offer in her own right. She plays authentic boogie-woogie with great feel and imagination, she’s a superb country singer, and the bottom line is, this music is in her blood.
In more than four decades as a performer, Linda Gail has sung with Jerry Lee all over the world and has appeared on more than two dozen albums, including her own solo recordings, and duet albums with her brother (Together, 1969), Van Morrison (You Win Again, 2000) and most recently Bloodshot Records Americana artist Robbie Fulks.
Fulks wrote most of the songs and produced Wild! Wild! Wild!, which highlights the copious talents of both headliners as musicians and vocalists. Linda Gail was kind enough to share a few musical memories with Keyboard, as well as some of her new music.
Before we talk about the new album, I have to ask about your early days in music. Did your brother teach you to play? Were you self-taught?
I didn’t have to teach myself because I had my brother to teach me and I learned a lot just watching him. One time in Germany, he showed me something he came up with on the spur of the moment; it was like a Bach invention—like Bach wrote for his students—but this was for rock ’n’ roll and boogie-woogie piano.
My brother just came up with this off the top of his head. We had a dressing room with a piano in it, and he said, “Do this: If you start out slowly and then gradually pick up the tempo, it will really help you to play rock ’n’ roll and boogie-woogie piano.”
Well, at that time, I wasn’t really interested in playing rock ’n’ roll and boogie-woogie piano. I was just a country singer and I sang a little bit of rock ‘n’ roll with my brother. That was in the ’70s and we were traveling together.
But I remembered what he showed me, and that was an important tool for me to have when I started to play rock ’n’ roll. When I started my solo career I was nearly 40, but I found that it was going to be necessary for me to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” myself because people wanted to hear those songs, but the other piano players I had in my band would not or could not get the feel right. So I said, “Well, I‘m going to have to do this myself.”
I worked really hard on it. It was three months before I sounded pretty good. Through the years, I got better, and I’m still learning.
Other musicians can take inspiration from the fact that you could learn piano at that stage of life and get so great at it.
I highly recommend it. If you are that age, then your life is changing and sometimes your children are getting older and leaving home, and of course your body is changing if you’re a woman. I never had a chance to think about it much at the time, because I was on the road, traveling and doing something I love and starting a whole new career.
Since you brought up children, what was it like for you being a traveling musician and being a parent?
That part was very hard.It will damage your relationship with your children if you don’t have enough time to spend with them, and I think a lot of artists suffer in this way. I actually “retired” in 1977 and was at home with my two younger children until 1986 when I went back on the road.
What encouraged you to go back to music after those years at home?
I missed it so much that I had to try to put it out of my mind because it was so painful. Finally, the guy I was married to at that time encouraged me to do it, and I gradually got the idea that I could do it again. It’s just like my brother now. He’s 82 years old, and if he takes very much time off, he starts to miss playing.
How did this new album happen with Robbie Fulks?
I met Robbie when he was in Sweden on tour. I was there, because my daughter was engaged to a Swedish guy at that time. We went to see Robbie and I could not believe how great he is. You cannot appreciate Robbie until you see him live. I mean, you canappreciate him because his songwriting is out of this world. I love that song he wrote that I did called “Till Death.” It’s absolutely hilarious. But he is a great live performer.
Did you talk about working together right away?
Our agent, who is also a producer on some of my albums, said, “We should ask Robbie to sing with you.” So, Robbie sang on three or four of my albums and we got to be friends. But you know it wasn’t always the best of circumstances when we were recording.
When we were making my gospel album (Southern Gospel, 2016), Robbie said to me, “I’d like to hear what you sound like in a good studio with a good piano doing some really good songs.” He said “I’m going to get you over there to Chicago and we’re going to go in the studio together.” I was so excited, and when he started sending me songs, I got even more excited.
I think you also suggested one of the songs on the album, correct?
Yes, that’s “On the Jericho Road.” Robbie said, “Linda, let’s do a gospel song. What Gospel song would you like to do?” I sent him several ideas, and one was the Jerry Lee Lewis version of “On the Jericho Road.” That’s one of my favorite songs that my brother has ever done. Robbie listened to it and said, “I love that piano solo.”
I said, “I’m not playing the piano solo on that song because my brother is a genius and I am not. But you know what? I have a genius guitar player. That would be you. You play the solo.”
Is that something you do a lot—compare your talent to your brother’s?
You know what? You cannot stand on a stage with Jerry Lee Lewis for 15 years plus and not be intimidated. No way. I probably am never going to be 100 percent secure when it comes to my instrument because of my brother, because I love him so much and I admire the way he plays so much, and he is so great. To me, there’s no one else in the world as great as he is, so it doesn’t bother me that I’m in that category as well. To me, it’s me and millions of other people.
What was it like working with Robbie when you got into the studio?
I came to Chicago to Alex’s studio [Hi-Style Recording, owned by engineer, producer and drummer Alex Hall]. I will never forget that day. The musicians were so great, it seemed like it took about 10 minutes to cut a song. We got there about 10 in the morning. We cut three songs. In the late afternoon we had lunch, and that night we did a gig at The Hideout.
That was a good day!
That was a great day! And then the next place we worked was Arlyn Studios in Austin. Robbie and Alex came down and we had all these great players: my son-in-law Danny B Harvey and Redd Volkaert on electric guitar, Kevin Smith on bass, Tommy Detamore [pedal steel], and on the last song [“Hardluck Louisiana”] we had Hank Singer on fiddle.
Did the band play live together in the room?
Live on the floor. That’s what we did! My husband [Eddie Braddock, former promotions director] used to work for Al Bell at Stax. Mr. Bell used to say there’s something spiritual that happens when you have all the musicians and the singer playing and singing live in the studio.
What were the pianos in those two studios?
That piano in Chicago was just like the piano that they have at Sun records that my brother played [a 1950s Wurlitzer spinet]. At Arlyn, they have three grand pianos to choose from, and I picked out a Schimmel 7-foot grand piano and I loved playing that piano. [Editor’s Note: The Schimmel piano at Arlyn Studios was selected for the studio when it opened in 1984 by pianist Bobbie Nelson, who is also Willie Nelson’s sister and bandmate.]
What does it mean to you, to make this music now.
Well it’s the music that I love and I find that people of all ages still want to hear it. I’m just going to keep doing it as long as I can. Somebody asked me, “When are you planning to retire?” I said, “When I can no longer do this or when I die. If I just keel over, they can say, ‘Well she’s retired now.’”
Do you have any career advice for young piano players who hope to have a career as long as yours?
I say, just say hang in there, and don’t let the guitar players push you out!