A! Magazine for the Arts

Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago in Jack Good's "Catch My Soul."

Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago in Jack Good's "Catch My Soul."

ETSU Professor Reveals Rarely Seen Side of Jerry Lee Lewis

April 23, 2007

JOHNSON CITY - Famed rocker Jerry Lee Lewis is back in the news. He was a headliner at the New Orleans Jazz Fest this spring, along with such stars as Harry Connick Jr., Rod Stewart and Norah Jones, demonstrating that the nation's largest and most famous jazz festival has recovered from Hurricane Katrina.

Last fall, Lewis released a new album, "Last Man Standing," featuring duets with music icons from several genres, including Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson and B.B. King.

At 71, Lewis is still going strong. His career captured the imagination of Dr. Robert Sawyer, associate professor and graduate student coordinator in the Department of English at East Tennessee State University, who researched a lesser known Lewis accomplishment -- as a Shakespearean actor.

In 1968, Lewis, best known for his recordings of "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On," portrayed Iago in Jack Good's "Catch My Soul," an updated version of the Bard's epic tragedy, "Othello." The production brought out the Hollywood elite of the day, including Tom Jones, the Righteous Brothers, ZsaZsa Gabor and Sammy Davis Jr. on opening night.

Sawyer found nuances within the production, with its emphasis on racial themes and jealousy, that resonated from the time of Shakespeare, although go-go boots replaced period costumes. His analysis provides historical context and a thorough investigation of the principal participants in the version of the play performed nearly 40 years ago.

The essay resulting from Sawyer's investigation will be published in The Upstart Crow, a Shakespeare journal based at Clemson University, and he will be presenting his work in April to the Kingsport Alliance for Continued Learning at the ETSU at Kingsport campus.

Sawyer's research focuses on the ways in which Shakespeare has been appropriated by later artists. He is co-editor of Shakespeare and Appropriation" (Routledge Press) and author of "Victorian Appropriations of Shakespeare" (Farleigh Dickinson Press).

For further information, contact Sawyer at (423) 439- 6670 or via sawyer@etsu.edu.