Bob Dylan has recently been championing a pair Jerry Lee Lewis tracks on his Theme Time Radio Hour with infectious enthusiasm, ending one recent spin with the comment, "You know, if anybody ever asks me why I do this radio show, I could just play them that - Jerry Lee Lewis singing Shakespeare. That's what this show is all about."
In 1968 the inimitable producer/actor Jack Good (whose own life story is positively mind-blowing) embarked on one of his greatest passion projects, a musical version of Othello. He snagged one of the play's lines for the title "Catch My Soul": Perdition catch my soul, But I do love thee! and when I love thee not, Chaos is come again. He then wrote his own version of the play, penned a slew of songs that cleverly played on the dialogue and themes, and gathered his musician friends (being the former producer of Shindig! helped) for hopes of a Broadway production. That didn't work out, so he moved the show to a more rock-friendly environment - Los Angeles.
Rumor has it that Good was actually inspired to start working on Catch My Soul after seeing Lewis perform live in the late 50s. While casting for the play changed often during pre-production (at one point Othello was to be played by Rosey Greir) there was one role that was rock solid from the very beginning: Jerry Lee Lewis would be playing Othello's treacherous friend Iago.
"This Shakespeare was really somethin'. I wonder what he woulda thought about my records" - Jerry Lee Lewis
Reviewers and fans were generally impressed with Lewis' interpretation of the role - because he was basically playing himself. The writers at Moistworks summed up Jerry's presence in the show nicely in a post last year, saying that
Jerry Lee stole the show. He prowled the stage, speaking Shakespeare's poetry in perfect meter, but with no concern to conceal or even to temper his own Louisiana accent. The bright green-and-gold grand piano stood onstage throughout the play, and Jerry Lee not only sat at it to pump the songs that Ray Pohlman had written for him and for the seventeen-piece orchestra in the pit, but also to rake and hammer and tinkle in punctuation of his spoken lines, the most evil of Shakespeare's imaginings. (He fooled with the lines occasionally, as on two evenings, coming upon the corpse of Roderigo in Act V, he howled "Great balls of fire! My friend, Roderigo!")
The play closed after a short but successful run, and Good decided to try for something even bigger. In 1971 he managed to open a rejiggered version of the show in London. The music and design was considerably changed and Jerry Lee was no longer involved, but I couldn't find any details to explain the shift in direction. The new cast included fancy lad singer PJ Proby, American actor Lance LeGault (as a more serious Iago), and soul singer PP Arnold. Oh yeah, and Jack Good himself starred as Othello - in blackface.
In 1974, Good brought the production to the big screen, with The Prisoner's Patrick McGoohan directing. Released in some markets as "Santa Fe Satan", the film was pretty much considered to be a holy mess. The movie did feature Richie Havens, Delaney & Bonnie, and Billy Joe Royal singing the Bard's words, and in the only nod to Jerry Lee's original breakthrough performance, the great Tony Joe White played Cassio as "a wino from Baton Rouge, Louisiana", performing a new version of Jerry Lee/Iago's drinking song.
Back to Jerry Lee. The 60s were a hard time for Lewis, but Catch My Soul marked a return to form, and while starring in the play he had the comeback hit "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)". While I haven't seen any reference to him returning to the stage, this 1972 profile from the BBC series "24 Hours" mentions that he has grown a beard "for the title role in a play about Christ". This may have been Jerry yanking the BBC reporter's chain, but man, that would have been one amazing play.
Note: as I was working on this post, the Theme Time Radio Hour fan blog Dreamtime popped up with even more details. Check it out.
Also: I stole the title from a academic paper about the original Catch My Soul production by Robert Sawyer. It isn't available on line, but check out his delightful article on the link between Shakespeare and country music.