From Dean and Me, by Jerry Lewis (2005)
Back in July, as things were winding to a close with us, Dean turned down the lead in Warner Brothers’ movie version of “The Pajama Game.” We didn’t speak about it—we weren’t speaking about anything at the time. . . .
Regardless of the press, I was panicked: I felt incredibly alone and desperate. The fact that everyone around me seemed sure that I’d land on my feet made things worse. I didn’t know what the fuck I was going to do.
It’s hard to explain. Intellectually, I knew all the things I could do—knew where my talents and ambitions could take me. But in those mid-summer weeks in 1956, I was unable to put one foot in front of the other with any confidence. I was completely unnerved to be alone . . . .
“You need a rest,” Patti told me. “Let’s go to the desert.”
It sounded good to me. So we headed off to Vegas . . . for a little fun and sun at the Sands. For a blessed few days I pretended to be someone else—someone without a care in the world. We played blackjack, we went to shows, we lay in the sun. For four days I totally stopped thinking about my career. . . .
On Monday, August 6, I was packing to go back home, when the phone rang. It was Sid Luft, Judy Garland’s husband and manager.
“What’s up, Sid?” I asked.
“Jerry, Judy’s got a strep throat. She can’t sing. Is there any way you could go on for her tonight at the Frontier?”
“Hey, I’d love to, Sid, but I’m practically on a plane—“
Sid Luft was a real charmer: He could have sold Popsickles to Eskimos. “We’re in trouble, Jerry. You can postpone the flight. Come on, kid, for old times’ sake.”
And that’s how I found myself on stage at the Frontier Hotel, in front of a thousand people who were very much expecting someone else, wearing the one dark blue suit I’d brought with me. Judy was sitting in a chair at stage left, and once the audience laughed at my first remark—“I don’t look much like Judy, do I?”—my nerves settled and I found my groove. I did thirty-five or forty minutes of silly mischief, playing to her. . . . Inevitably, I felt myself running out of gas. So I turned to the conductor and said, “How does Judy get off? What’s her closer?”
“Rock-a-Bye,’” he said.
Thank you, God. You’ve given me what I needed. “Rock-a-Bye Your Baby with a Dixie Melody” was one of Al Jolson’s signature numbers, his showstopper, and my dad, who built his act around his Jolson impersonation, sang it all the time. I not only knew it by heart, but my key was close enough to Judy’s that when the conductor hit the downbeat, I was ready to go.
I had so much adrenaline pumping through me that I barely thought about the fact that I hadn’t sung on stage in twenty-five years . . . . when I was five years old. Now I was thirty. I got down on one knee, just the way Jolson had, just the way my dad had, and sang with no mugging, no funny business. When I was done, the place exploded. I walked off the stage knowing I could make it on my own. . . .
In September I recorded eight songs, and in November, “Jerry Lewis Just Sings,” along with a single of “Rock-a-Bye,” was in the stores.
I never expected what happened next: Both the album and the single hit the Billboard charts. The single rose as high as No. 10 and remained near the top for almost four months, eventually selling a million and a half copies. The album hit No. 3 on the LP charts.
Along with all the other hats I wore, I was now officially a singer.