Sunday, January 25, 2015


The Jerry Lee Lewis '59 Panhead, a gift from the factory
At Mecum's Kissimmee auction yesterday, Jerry Lee Lewis' 1959 Harley-Davidson FL 'Panhead' which he's owned for 55 years, and was a gift from the Harley-Davidson factory, sold for a remarkable $385k, including fees.  This places his Harley at lucky #13 on my 'Top 20' list of the World's Most Expensive Motorcycles; wholly appropos.   I was asked to interview 'the Killer' and provide text for the auction, which is below:

"Rock n’ Roll legend Jerry Lee Lewis has an outsize reputation as a larger-than-life character living with scant regard for public opinion. Regardless of debauched tales and extreme behavior, this electrifying showman not only climbs onto pianos, but also motorcycles…which should come as no surprise at all. In the 1950s, he seemed the most‘at risk’ performer of all, pioneering a new musical style with an aggressive, almost wild stage presence, as well as the original “sex, drugs, n’ rock n roll” lifestyle…yet he remains alive today, still performing on occasion, and still with a clutch of Harley-Davidsons in his stable.
The Panhead on delivery in 1959 from Ralph Murray of Harley Davidson Sales in Birmingham, Alabama
 Lewis bought his first motorcycle – well, a Cushman scooter – at 16 back in 1951, when he “wasn’t big enough for a real bike”, using money he earned working on his father’s farm. But ‘farm work’, and the Cushman, wouldn’t last long; his first hit record from the historic Sun Studios dropped in 1956, ‘Crazy Arms’, which sold 300,000 copies, mostly in the South. The next year, ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ spread like a grassfire across the globe, and as a gift to himself, Lewis purchased a brand-new, blue 1957 Harley-Davidson FLH ‘Panhead’, with the big 74” motor. “It was a fine motorcycle, and I rode it all over the place. When I put out my first record is when I bought that bike.” 
Jerry Lee with his third (of 7!) wife (and cousin, Myra Gale Brown, aged 13) in 1957, with his first Panhead, also a '57 model
Jerry Lee Lewis was at the peak of his early career in 1958, having already sold millions of records, and established himself in the Rock ‘n Roll firmament alongside Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Gene Vincent, and Little Richard. The Harley-Davidson factory, always savvy with ‘product placement’, gifted a pair of new 1959 FLH Panheads to Lewis and Elvis Presley. Jerry Lee got his first, which irked The King; “Harley-Davidson asked if I’d like to have a new bike, and they brought it down to Memphis and gave it to me at my house. Elvis got the second one, and there was a bit of personal talk about this – he couldn’t understand why he got the second one, so I asked if he wanted to trade! That was just a joke.”
Good times, when girl fans tore the clothes off his back...
Lewis really enjoyed this ’59 Panhead, “It’s a fine motorcycle, no comparison to my ’57 Panhead - the motor on that one wasn’t quite as nice. This motor is just as good as the day it was given to me.” Asked why he’s selling a precious piece of personal history he’s owned for 55 years, Lewis becomes pensive. “There was a time I wouldn’t take a zillion dollars for it, but now it’s just sitting there. You can crank that motorcycle up and she purrs like a kitten – but you have to kickstart it you know. I could probably sit on it alright today, but I wouldn’t take a chance. I’m 79 years old. This bike is like a child to me, but I’ve decided it’s time to let it go.”
 Jerry Lee Lewis’ loss is a memorabilia collector’s enormous gain, as few celebrity motorcycles have such an indelible association with a notorious and legendary owner. ‘The Killer’s ’59 Panhead, looking fresh as the day the factory gave it to him, still in his ownership after 55 years; it doesn’t get any better than that, and likely there will never be another classic Harley for sale with such solid gold provenance. If that doesn’t leave you ‘Breathless, Honey’, it’s time to check your pulse."

In the 'now it can be told' file, Lewis admitted a big reason he was selling the Panhead was to prevent a family feud after he dies, with many heirs clutching at whatever fortune he's retained after half a century.  He still has one bike, a Sportster, which he's revved up on stage in the past, and now sits in his Florida restaurant.

Here's a video of the auction sale:

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Anonymous said...

[Regarding the photo of Jerry Lee Lewis with Myra on what JLL claimed was his '57 HD - pd'o]. He married Myra in Dec '57 so the '58 models were already on the road. 57 & 58 use round plastic emblems on the tank. This bike has the 55-56 emblems.
Something else. Supposely this bike [the 1959 just sold - pd'o] was a gift from Harley. Now why would Harley give him a free bike? After he married his cousin, his career went down hill fast. Black listed on the radio, dropped from the Dick Clark shows and ended up playing honky tonk dives for peanuts. So during the late 50's and early 60's he was a has been. Not the typical guy to get a free bike from Harley. I just dug out my 1958-59 Harley Enthusiast mags. Surely if Harley had given bikes to Jerry and Elvis if would be played up big - free advertising. So what did I find. Dec 58 edition on page 4 is the same pic of him taking delivery of the 59. It is on a page titled "New HD Owners". His is one of eight pics stuffed on this page. Not treated as important. It mentions he is taking delivery of his new bike from Ralph Murray of HD of Birmingham, AL. No mention of gift or anything else. Also don't see anything on Elvis. During this time period Elvis was in the Military stationed in Germany. So his story about he got his gift bike before Elvis seems to be a bit of a fairy tale. I see a lot of these celebrity bikes, cars, etc have this imaginary truth built into their stories. Still, a nice old Panhead. Cheers, Don

The Vintagent said...

Hi Don,
you've done my homework! I do have that photo from The Enthusiast (published above w/out its text), which does mention taking delivery of the bike but not as a gift. Possibly the dealer gave him the bike - who knows?
I reckon that story doesn't really affect the value of a bike owned for 55 years by a rock legend....

Tod Rafferty said...

Jerry Lee has told a lot of fairy tales, but he and Chuck Berry were the first two kings of rock 'n roll.
(Saw Lewis live in '59, hardly a has been.) Anyway, if the Pan is a '59, the new owner may want to check the crank. Word is that they were all recalled that year.
Uncle Tod

Mattias E said...

Hi. Thank you very much for that Magazine information! Can you Scan that page with Jerry Lee? I should really really appreciate it. Does anyone got the photo of the (The Panhead on delivery in 1959 from Ralph Murray of Harley Davidson Sales in Birmingham, Alabama) In better quality? Thanks for an excellent blog!