Catch My Soul: That Time The Killer Jerry Lee Met Willy the Shake

Othello: Excellent wretch! Perdition catch my soul / But I do love thee! and when I love thee not / Chaos is come again.

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Ahmanson Theatre Press Release 1968
with Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago in “Catch My Soul”

A musical adaptation of Othello with the Killer himself, Jerry Lee Lewis, as Iago, Catch My Soul started out as not much more than a gleam in the eye of the aptly-named Jack Good. Actor, producer, journalist, manager, and most of all, rock-’n-roll impresario. Good was the man behind Shindig!, one of the first — and one of the best — of the rock-’n-roll television variety shows.

Jack Good had wanted to produce a rock-’n-roll version of Othello since he was an undergrad at Oxford in the Fifties. In 1958, Good had spotted rocker Jerry Lee Lewis stalking angrily through a hotel lobby and knew he had found his Iago. But it would take nearly another decade before Catch My Soul would go into production.

In 1965 Good was looking for new worlds to conquer. He recruited Ray Pohlman, Shindig’s! musical director, to start writing the score for Catch My Soul. With 19 songs in the can, Good starting casting around for his acting ensemble in late `66, signing Jerry Lee Lewis for the role of Iago in August.

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The Killer at work

One of rock’s early showmen, Jerry Lee had his first big hit in 1957 with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, followed by Great Balls of Fire. Jerry Lee picked up his nickname “The Killer” at around the same time for knocking his audiences dead with his wild boogie-woogie piano playing as well as on-stage antics that included — way pre-Jimi Hendrix — setting his piano on fire.

Jerry Lee and Jack already knew each other from The Killer’s Shindig! performances, and why Jerry would consider doing a rockin’ version of Shakespeare wasn’t a mystery. In the peaks and valleys that made up his musical career— and Jerry Lee had more than a few, including the fall-out from his marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958 —Jerry Lee was definitely down in a valley so low during the mid-Sixties.

But Catch My Soul turned out to more than just a paying gig that turned up at the right time. In Shakespeare’s Iago Jerry Lee found a kindred spirit, someone with as just as much blood in his eye and hellfire in his soul as Jerry Lee Lewis himself.

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It would take two years and a slew of cast and theater changes before Catch My Soul would be performed before an audience. During the interim the venue changed from Broadway to L.A. and the role of Othello changed hands from ex-linebacker Rosey Grier to an experienced actor, William Marshall, who had already appeared as Othello in several traditional performances of the play.

Marshall’s screen credits would later include the starring role in the blaxploitation film, “Blacula”and its sequel “Scream Blacula Scream.” He also appeared as Dr. Richard Daystrom in the original Star Trek television series and as the King of Cartoons on the 1980s television show, “Pee-wee’s Playhouse.” In contrast, the mind boggles at the idea of Rosey Grier — whose acting career highlight would be to co-star in The Thing With Two Heads — as Othello.

Rehearsals for Catch My Soul finally began on January 22 1968. At the first rehearsal, Jerry Lee surprised the rest of the cast as the only one there who already had all his lines memorized. “This Shakespeare is really somethin’,” he’d later tell a reporter, wondering aloud what Willy the Shake might have thought of The Killer’s music.

If the critics’ response to Lewis’ performance was any indication, the Bard of Avalon would probably have righteously dug the Man from Memphis. According to Nick Tosches book Hellfire, Jerry Lee stole the show on opening night and every night thereafter, wowing reviewers ranging from The Christian Science Monitor (“a Louisiana-born genius”) to The Toronto Daily Star (“genuinely diabolical as Iago”). After the first show, Sixties luminaries including Burt Bacharach, Andy Williams, Zsa Zsa Gabor, and Tom Jones all lined up in front of Jerry Lee’s dressing room, trying to get inside to congratulate The Killer.

Catch My Soul the play had a short but successful six-week run in Los Angeles, closing on April 13 1968. Jerry Lee revitalized his music career with a country hit, Another Place, Another Time, and then would head back down to Memphis and record What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me). What Made Milwaukee Famous broke into the Country charts in June and eventually hit the #2 slot, selling more than 170,000 copies by the end of the summer of `68.

And the rest, of course, is history.

Catch My Soul had less of a successful future, albeit nearly one as strange as Jerry Lee’s. The play moved to London in 1969 and toured the United Kingdom until 1972, with Jack Good himself appearing as Othello, in blackface no less, and with journeyman actor Lance LeGault as Iago.

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Catch My Soul was eventually adapted to film and directed by Patrick McGoohan, he of Secret Agent Man and The Prisoner fame. This would be McGoohan’s second involvement with a musical adaptation of Othello. Back in 1961, McGoohan performed in the film All Night Long, a jazz version of the play that included appearances by Dave Brubeck and Charlie Mingus.

Released in 1974, Catch My Soul the movie starred Richie Havens as Othello, Season Hubley as Desdemona, and Lance LeGault reprising his role of Iago.

Except for being produced by Jack Good and retaining a bit of Shakespeare’s original language, the movie had little resemblance to the play, or even to reality.

Influenced heavily by the hit rock operas Jesus Christ Superstar and Godspell!, Catch My Soul the movie was set in the American Southwest. Othello became a itinerant evangelist who wandered into Iago’s remote commune. Othello falls in love with beautiful Desdemona, infuriating Iago, who also loves her. Iago plots his revenge and tragedy predictably ensues.

In between the bouts of murder, madness and blood there are songs, some performed by Richie Havens, some by Tony Joe White, others by Delaney and Bonnie Bramlett, two singers who had something of side-career with showing up in weird movies of the `60s and `70s. None of the music from Catch My Soul the play made the transition to the movie, which was described by one reviewer as a “train wreck.”

When I first wrote and podcast about Catch My Soul a decade ago, I received over a half-dozen emails asking about the two songs Bob Dylan had played on his Theme Time Radio Hour show, Lust of the Blood and Let a Soldier Drink.

Dylan — or more accurately Theme Time’s musical director, Eddie Gorodetsky — took both cuts from The Killer’s Private Stash, a semi-bootleg out of Holland that also includes Lewis’ first known recording and an X-rated version of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.

IAGO: Some wine, ho!

[Sings]

And let me the canakin clink, clink;
And let me the canakin clink
A soldier’s a man;
A life’s but a span;
Why, then, let a soldier drink.
Some wine, boys!

CASSIO: ‘Fore God, an excellent song.

As far as I can determine, those two songs from the Catch My Soul rehearsal sessions are the only known circulating tracks in existence. But given their quality, maybe somewhere, maybe hidden away in some box or basement shelf, there’s more in the Killer’s Private Stash. Maybe there’s a complete recording of Jerry Lee Lewis as Iago in Catch My Soul… and maybe someday we’ll get to hear it.

Or maybe there’s even a videotape of Catch My Soul. According to a Jerry Lee fan forum, Graham Knight, a friend of Lewis’ who was at the L.A. run, has said that the Catch My Soul live show was piped into the performers’ dressing rooms so that they could hear their cue to go on stage. Knight also reported that there were TV cameras at the rehearsals, as well as video from a fixed balcony camera fed to a screen in each dressing room, leading to the possibility that there is a full recording of Catch My Soul.

We can only hope.

Written by

Corporate Storyteller. Tech enthusiast. Mini Cooper fanboy. One-time chronicler of Bob Dylan’s Theme Time Radio Hour. Husband of Peggy. Human of Lily Rose.

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