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Preacher Jack gets it from on high

Boston rock legend and 66-year-old piano wrangler keeps hammering the keys
By TED DROZDOWSKI  |  July 2, 2008

HAVE MERCY! “When God gives his energy to me, I become like a five-year-old boy on stage.”

“I get my energy directly from Jesus,” says Preacher Jack Coughlin. Which implies that besides being a living Boston rock-and-roll legend, the 66-year-old piano wrangler is also the spiritual equivalent of the Energizer Bunny. At least, that’s how it seems on those nights when Preacher Jack hammers the keys for hours, switching among tunes by Hank Williams, Mahalia Jackson, Jerry Lee Lewis, Clara Ward, and Albert Ammons — a who’s who of musical sin and salvation — and launching into spontaneous, tommy-gun-paced sermons about various goods and evils. At times, it’s like watching a man breathe fire, and the source of the flame is definitely within.

“When God gives His energy to me,” Preacher Jack continues, “I become like a five-year-old boy on stage. I don’t care about my sunglasses or white shoes. All I want to do is pour my soul into the music and touch people with it. That’s my goal.”

The recent Pictures from Life’s Other Side (Cow Island) and the spate of shows he’s been playing lately (this Friday he’s at Church in the Fenway) make it seem that Jack’s just kept rolling along at the same relentless pace in pursuit of that goal since the late 1950s, when he played legendary Beantown DJ Arnie “Woo Woo” Ginsburg’s sock hops billed as “Boston’s Jerry Lee Lewis.” That’s at the same pace, maybe, as the locomotive rhythm of his speech, which turns conversations into fascinating, eccentric monologues that range from smoking to music history to Cecil B. DeMille.

But for most of the past half-decade, Preacher Jack’s pursuit of his goal stalled, and he was flummoxed in his effort to “bring the love of God to people so they won’t be killing themselves or shooting each other or bringing about horror.” It wasn’t because of booze. He cleared that hurdle years ago, along with a few psychological foibles. Besides, Jack relates, “I’ve always felt very close to God and always loved Jesus, even when I was drinking my Budweisers.” It was simply that his manager had left Boston, and until long-time fan Peter Levine stepped up to Jack’s pulpit last year . . . well, the Preacher’s never been adept at organizing his affairs. That meant nobody was on the phone jabbering at club owners for bookings, and also that Jack was sitting at home. Even if a gig came in, he couldn’t take it unless it was within walking distance of his Salem digs.

“I don’t drive,” he explains. “It’s a responsibility I’ve never wanted. I’m obsessive-compulsive, and I guess I’m a little childlike in that as an artist and an individual there are certain things that I simply will not do.”

But, thanks to Levine, Jack is now back at his mission, playing wild one-man shows that channel the howlin’ wind that ran through the souls of influences like Lewis and Williams as well as the calm waters that coursed through the hearts of Ward and Jackson. Both currents are caught in Pictures from Life’s Other Side, which collects 18 previously unreleased cuts from sessions in 1982 and 1996. Nonetheless, they’re a cohesive display of Preacher Jack sermonizing full-throttle. When he rocks the keys, it’s on classics like Fats Domino’s “Blueberry Hill” and “I’m in Love Again,” and Elvis’s “All Shook Up.” But some of the most affecting performances are the most reflective. There’s the slow, heart-tugging original instrumental “After Hours” — a sweet, sad blues. The hymns, too. His oaken, barroom-cured voice sounds as durable as the Appalachians, where the Carter Family’s “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” was written. And there’s his beloved Mahalia’s gospel cornerstone “In the Upper Room” as well as a good dose of his hero ol’ Hank: “You Win Again,” “Mind Your Own Business,” “I Could Never Be Ashamed of You.”

As Preacher Jack talks from Levine’s cellphone (they’re hanging out on the street in Salem), the conversation jumps hotly from his original boogie-woogie piano hero, Albert Ammons, to Jackson and Ward, and then to a biography of Lincoln, and to a collection of historic illustrations of Christ, and to the autobiography he’s been writing — apparently on his apartment’s wall. And to his mother, who’s 91 and sings in a choir in Santa Cruz.

Music, he says, is a gift he was first given by his parents, who took him to the church where he heard gospel and played the records that set him on his path. But it was an uncle who taught him something he reflects on when considering the joy he derives from his life as a performer. “He told me,” Preacher Jack explains, “that music is the art of the prophets.”

PREACHER JACK | Church, 69 Kilmarnock St, Boston | July 9 | 617.236.7600 or

  Topics: Music Features , Church , Jerry Lee Lewis , Mahalia Jackson ,  More more >
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