BWW Interview: Taylor Gray as Jerry Lee Lewis in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET on Tour

BWW Interview: Taylor Gray as Jerry Lee Lewis in MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET on Tour

In a recording studio in Memphis, Tennessee on a chilly December evening, four musicians came together for a visit and an impromptu jam session. That jam session at the famed Sun Record Studios would go down in history because the four musicians have become known as some of the greatest musicians in history. The four were Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. The evening was recorded by Sam Philips of Sun Record Studios and it was an evening that will never be forgotten for those in attendance. Currently on tour, the MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET relives that evening and includes many songs that have become so memorable for so many. As the show makes a stop in San Antonio at the Tobin Center, BWW caught up with Taylor Gray who portrays Jerry Lee Lewis to get his perspective on playing Jerry Lee Lewis and how performing in the show has impacted his life.

Tell us a little about yourself and how you got interested in performing.

I took piano lessons in the first grade through high school. I was a Billy Joel player. I really got into his music around 8th-9th grade and started learning a lot of his stuff. I knew I always wanted to be a performer. I went to school for musical theater in Buffalo. I moved to the city after I graduated and my second professional job ever was the non-equity tour of MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET so that's when I really started to buckle down and do the research on Jerry Lee. How he did his playing, why he did certain things like why he moved his leg, why he stuck it out. Who were his musical inspirations? I've been doing this show on and off for the last 2 ½ years.

How did you get some of his nuances down? Did you watch a lot of footage of him playing? Did you read about him to understand him more?

I didn't know a lot of Jerry Lee Lewis - I know the song, "Great Balls of Fire." I didn't really know too much about his playing style. My director on the last tour gave us all reading materials to look into. I read about Sun Records - Sam Philips and Jerry Lee but what I did was I didn't read anything past the day that the show takes place because that was stuff I did not need to know from an acting perspective. I learned about his home life. He played by ear, he played in churches, but, he really grew up around the honkytonk bars areas and started listening to Gospel. That's how his style came to him but his piano style didn't go over well in his hometown area because it was considered the devil's music. He got kicked out of Bible School because of that. He played a piano rockish - a boogie-woogie version of a hymn and it got him kicked out of school. I also learned that the reason he stuck his leg out was because he'd broken his leg as a kid and was in a full leg cast. In order to sit down on the piano bench, he had to stick out his leg and when he got out of the cast, he kept it because it was different. No one else was doing that. I also learned that some of his musical influences were in fact Elvis Presley and Hank Williams. You could hear that a little bit in his yodels up higher when he's going into his higher registers and when he goes down lower - that's a little bit of Elvis. I learned various things like that. I learned that he was very much a wild kid. He got married twice. He got married to his second wife while he was still married to his first. Let's put it this way - the only way you could have sex was if you were married and he was a teenage guy. He was all up for that. But, as for his piano style, it was primarily boogie-woogie in the left hand and crazy on the right. You watch videos of his live performances and you pick up little tricks of his and think, maybe I can put that here or maybe I can save this for the end. You try to show off all the tricks while not giving it all away at the same time. In the show, you try to work out the balance, try to get the familiar.

Do you find it difficult to go back and play the piano "normally" when you've been playing like Jerry Lee Lewis?

When I was on the last tour, I was an understudy in that tour so I was backstage on the piano and I had completely forgotten maybe fifty percent of the songs I had already memorized in my head because I had been playing nothing but that show for the past four months. That was a bit of a whirlwind for me so now I try to play at least one song that isn't part of the show just to get it back. But, there are certain things and habits I've taken up in terms of style bringing it back there. Considering he was one of the first rock pianists, it would totally make sense because I would imagine artists like Elton John and Barry Manilow or even Billy Joel would pick up on a couple of things from him. I would say it's a good thing but it's also something that you need to say, "This was back here, but I also like this stuff." So, keeping the separation.

We also know that Jerry Lee Lewis had a lot of energy on and off stage which can be very physically draining for the actor portraying him. How do you keep your stamina up for eight shows a week and the entire tour?

I always joke that I don't do anything the rest of the day and I save it all for the show. But, honestly, I try to get as much sleep as I can. I stretch before every show, I warm up my hands to make sure they're in top shape. I have some preventative measures for my fingers to make sure that nothing cracks or breaks. You want to make sure you're at the top of your game.

What advice do you have for anyone who is thinking about getting into the business?

I would say a couple of things. One would be to learn as much about theater and music as you possibly can. Don't just stick to one particular show that you want to be part of. Look at the history of it then look at all the different genres and different composers and different Broadway stars that have come out over the years. Also, look at popular musical artists because there are a lot of jukebox musicals out there like MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET and MAMMA MIA. Look at the artists and see what songs will work for you in the audition sense but also if you want to do a cabaret or performance. What songs can work with you? Also, I would say just keep going. If you feel like you really can't do anything else, just keep doing it.

MILLION DOLLAR QUARTET plays for one night only at the Tobin Center for the Performing Arts. Get your tickets here at their website.

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From This Author Kathy Strain

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