In 1976, Jerry Lee Lewis Was Arrested Drunk, Waving Gun At Graceland
Jerry Lee Lewis relaxing in his hotel suite in London, 25th April 1972. (Photo by Daily Mirror/Mirrorpix/Mirrorpix via Getty Images)
Outlaw, piano player, gun owner, belter of "Great Balls of Fire" and "Breathless," Jerry Lee Lewis was a complicated man. But even complicated, deeply strange pianists just want to see their friends. In the wee hours of November 23, 1976, Jerry Lee Lewis was booked on public drunkenness and carrying a loaded firearm outside of Elvis Presley’s gated home, Graceland. Rumors have persisted that the singer was there to assassinate Elvis, but Lewis claims that he was only there to see his friend and that he’d just had too much to drink. How did two members of the Sun Records million dollar quartet come to be at odds with one another? Were they even at odds? Maybe Jerry Lee Lewis ramming his car into the gates of Graceland with a loaded gun on his dashboard was all a misunderstanding. We’ve all been there, right?
Jerry and Elvis go way back
To understand why Jerry Lee Lewis would think it’s a good idea to smash up his friend’s gates with a Lincoln Continental in the middle of the night you need some context. Lewis first met Elvis at Sun Records in 1956, both of them were young musicians at the time and they easily bonded over their love of gospel music. When The King dropped into the studio during a Carl Perkins session on December 4 of that year he found Johnny Cash watching Perkins and Lewis. The four of them started singing spirituals together and the engineer left the tape running on the session. The outcome was Million Dollar Quartet, named as such because the four men (Cash, Elvis, Lewis, and Perkins) were the biggest acts on Sun Records. As their stars rose, this wholesome day in the studio would become a rarity.
First visit in the morning
Before his blackout drunk visit to Graceland, Lewis actually stopped by the kingdom of Elvis earlier in the morning. He pulled up to Elvis’ Memphis home around 9:30 in the morning in his Rolls Royce Silver Shadow with his new wife. He claims that Elvis called him and told him to come by in the morning, but when he arrived at the gates he was told that The King was asleep. After leaving Graceland Lewis and his wife sped off only to flip the car while driving around a corner. When police arrived Lewis passed a breathalyzer but he was clearly out of it. He was given a ticket for driving while intoxicated, reckless driving and driving without a license and sent on his way.
Elvis invited Lewis to hang at Graceland on the night of his arrest
Everything in this story was told through the fog of stars who were not only high on prescription medication, but so deep in the bottle that there was no drying up. Supposedly Jerry Lee Lewis showed up outside of Graceland waving a pistol and causing all sorts of a ruckus about wanting to see Elvis. The guard on duty that night didn’t know that Lewis was going to show up - and it was past midnight - so he didn’t let the crazed pianist in. According to Lewis he wouldn’t have come down if he hadn’t been summoned by The King himself. Lewis claims that he was drinking at his favorite watering hole, The Vapors, when Presley called him at the bar and told him to come down. Before he left the bartender gave him a loaded gun (who are these Memphis bartenders who are just handing out guns?) and a bottle of champagne.
The two stars shared an affinity for prescription medication
By the 1970s Elvis was in the middle of a full blown prescription medication addiction that led to the end of his life, and in order to get the insane amount of drugs that he was constantly taking Elvis had to have a doctor close to him at all times. Enter “Doctor Nick,” George Nichopoulos. He may have been an actual doctor but he was more of a hanger on. He overprescribed Presley so much that he sped up the singer’s death, and in 1981 he had his license suspended. But it wasn’t just Presley who was reaping the benefits of Dr. Nick’s loose hands. Jerry Lee Lewis was taking part in the doctor’s liberal prescrition policies. Even after Nichopoulous lost his license in the early ‘80s he was a mainstay in the Memphis music world; he even spent a brief period of time working as Lewis’ road manager, although that didn’t last long.
Dr. Nick’s willingness for overprescribing his “patients” feeds into Lewis’ claim from the night of his arrest in 1976 that he was at Graceland because Elvis invited him. According to the Memphis Mafia member who was on gate duty that night Elvis didn’t mention anything about Lewis to him, but if both of these stars were as high as kites thanks to the loose hand of Dr. Nick it’s not out of the question that Elvis would make a phone call to Lewis and then forget about it.
The real king of rock ’n roll
Lewis finally made it back to Graceland around 2:30 in the morning on November 23, and this time he was rip roaring drunk and on a tear. When he pulled up at the gates in his Lincoln Continental he tried to throw a bottle of champagne through the window, but the window was rolled up so the bottle exploded when it hit the glass, sending glass and bubbles everywhere. He poured himself out of his car and demanded to see Elvis. In some stories he waved a gun around in the air and screamed “Tell Elvis to get his ass out here so I can show him who the real King of rock ‘n’ roll is!” While other versions of the story simply have Lewis stumbling around, soaking wet asking to see The King.
Lewis was arrested but the charges were dropped
Clearly no one let Lewis into the mansion -- who would? He was a madman. Reportedly Elvis watched the whole thing go down from his closed-circuit television, and when the guards called the cops he requested that Lewis be taken away, something that hurt the pianist more than anything else. The charges against Lewis were dropped or at the very least reduced. It’s not clear if Lewis and Elvis spoke about the incident, as Elvis passed away in August 1977, months after his old pianist buddy tried to bust into the mansion in the middle of the night. Wild men like this are never going to be seen again.
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