Along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard and Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis stands as an American original- one of the original founding fathers of rock and roll. With his prodigious musicianship, manic stage antics and erratic, sometimes scandalous personal life, Jerry Lee was fodder for innumerable sensationalized stories in the press. And of course, there were some of those stories that were actually untrue.
But it was Jerry Lee Lewis’ open rebelliousness, his raw sexuality and unrepentant arrogance, which galvanized his image in the public’s perception, typifying the very change that American society itself was undergoing in the 1950’s. More so than James Dean, or even Elvis himself, Jerry Lee Lewis was seen by elder generations as a dangerously delinquent influence on the minds and psyches of innocent American youth. His fiery recklessness and abject sensuousness were idolized and emulated by adolescents everywhere; and feared by adults, as a diabolical threat to the ethical principles and moral fiber of the American way of life.
Overlooked in all of this, for many years at the beginning of his career, was the fact that Jerry Lee Lewis was a gifted pianist, a very effective vocalist and a clever interpreter of songs. His frenzied stage histrionics foreshadowed the likes of Elton John, and even Johnny Rotten and the punk movement. His singing style was widely imitated, most notably by the Big Bopper with “Chantilly Lace,” Conway Twitty, and even by Tony Sheridan, the British rock singer who gave the early Beatles a break when they were still playing in Hamburg bars. And, to this day, “The Killer” as he has long been known to friends and fans, remains a true legend, both in the rock and roll and the country music fields.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born on September 29th, 1935. He grew up on his parents’ farm in the small town of Ferriday, Louisiana, located about fifteen miles west of the Mississippi River and the city of Natchez, Mississippi. He was the second son of Elmo and Mamie Lewis. Elmo was a farmer, who sometimes displayed something of a wild streak; sentenced to time in jail on more than one occasion. His older brother, Elmo Jr., died when Jerry Lee was just two years old. His two sisters, Linda Gail and Frankie Jean Lewis, also showed musical talent (in fact Linda went on to forge a career of her own as a country music vocalist).
There was always music playing in the Lewis household. Elmo was a fan of the music of country legend Jimmie Rodgers. Mamie was very religious, a member of the Assembly Of God church, and fond of Southern gospel music. The family regularly tuned in to the “Louisiana Hayride” and “Grand Ol’ Opry” radio broadcasts. These were the sounds which surrounded Jerry Lee as he grew up and which influenced his own musical development later on.
It was at his uncle’s house, on records and the radio, where the youngster was first exposed to rhythm and blues music, as well as to the piano his uncle kept in the back room. There, at age eight, along with his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who were like brothers to him, Jerry Lee displayed early precocity on the piano.
His uncle, Lee Calhoun, also happened to own Haney’s Big House, a popular party spot for black plantation workers. Jerry Lee, along with his cousins Mickey and Jimmy Lee ( both pretty fair pianists themselves) would regularly sneak into the club. They would hide behind the bar, soaking up the blues and rhythm and blues music on the jukebox, on records by artists such as Muddy Waters, Big Maceo, Champion Jack Dupree, Ray Charles and Wynonie Harris, to which the patrons would often frenetically dance. Occasionally itinerant musicians would perform at the roadhouse, including eighteen year old Riley “B.B.” King, who regularly traveled the south in the mid ‘40s, sometimes playing as many as four gigs in a single day, during his tours.
Realizing that their son had real talent on the instrument, Jerry Lee’s parents decided to buy the boy a piano of his own. They managed to accomplish the feat by mortgaging the family farm (which they later lost), to purchase a Stark upright piano. “My mother and dad, “ he later said, “got me a piano and I loved it and I worked at it real hard, and they backed me all the way, all their lives.”
Playing and practicing constantly, by the time he reached adolescence, Jerry Lee had developed a distinctive style of his own; one which incorporated elements of country and gospel music, blues, and rhythm and blues, as well as boogie-woogie and rudiments of the embryonic form that was soon to become rock and roll.
In 1949 he made his first public appearance at a Ferriday Ford auto dealership. Stepping onto the stage, where a pick-up country band waited to back him, Jerry Lee proceeded to belt out a version of the Sticks McGhee song, “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-dee O-dee,” slamming the piano keys, while Elmo passed the hat around the audience, collecting thirteen dollars.
Jerry Lee learned other popular rhythm and blues songs by artists such as Piano Red, Johnny Temple and Kokomo Arnold, but his biggest influence at the time was Moon Mullican, who had several country hits in the ‘40s and ‘50s. Mullican’s music was steeped in the blues and boogie-woogie, as well as in traditional country music. Another huge influence, besides his childhood idols Al Jolson, Gene Autry and Jimmie Rodgers, was Hank Williams, whose droll, blues-tinged country songs seemed the height of sophistication to the impressionable teenager.
Later in 1949, Jerry Lee was given his own twenty-minute radio show on station WNAT in Natchez, Mississippi. He made very little money from the job, but it did lead to his first regular job, playing at the Hilltop Club in Natchez. However, Jerry Lee’s wildness was such a concern to his mother that in 1950 she sent him away to a bible school in Waxahachie, Texas. He was almost immediately expelled, for playing a boogie-woogie version of “My God Is Real” on the school piano.
During the summer of 1951, fifteen year old Jerry Lee visited New Orleans. There, on a wax disc given to him by a friend, he recorded two songs. Then, in February of 1952, he married for the first time, in what was purported to be a real “shotgun wedding.” In 1953, twenty three days before his divorce was final, he married for a second time. A year later he was a father to a son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr.
In 1954, Jerry Lee auditioned for Slim Whitman, obtaining a job playing piano on the “Louisiana Hayride.” He also made a trip to Nashville to test the waters there, though nothing came of the expedition. But the landscape of popular music was rapidly changing. Bill Haley had scored a hit with his rendition of Joe Turner’s r&b classic “Shake, Rattle And Roll.” His follow up hit, “Rock Around The Clock,” inaugurated the nascent rock and roll era. In Haley, Jerry Lee heard a familiar sound.
And after reading an article in Country Roundup magazine about Elvis Presley’s 1954 release, “That’s All Right Mama” on the Sun Records label and his subsequent signing with RCA records in 1955, Jerry Lee was prompted to plan a visit to Sam Phillips, the head of the Sun label, which was located in Memphis, Tennessee. In order to finance the trip north, he and his family gathered 33 dozen eggs and sold them to a Ferriday supermarket. In September of 1956, Jerry Lee traveled to Memphis to introduce himself to Sam Phillips.
However Phillips was on vacation when Jerry Lee arrived. But, undaunted, the persuasive twenty-one year old was able to convince producer Jack Clement to let him record a few demo songs in the Sun studio, in Phillips‘ absence. Clements was impressed by the cocky teenager. Two months later, Phillips called Jerry Lee, inviting him to record his first single, a bluesy version of country star Ray Price‘s “Crazy Arms.” The song quickly sold 100,000 copies, mostly in the south. Soon Jerry was gigging as a studio sideman, playing piano on sessions for the likes of Carl Perkins.
Early in 1957, Jerry Lee cut a rewritten version of Roy Hall’s rocking blues standard, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in a single take. He later claimed that he didn’t even know the tape machine was running at the time. Released in May of 1957 and initially banned as obscene, the song immediately shot up the charts, eventually reaching number one on the country and r&b charts and number two on pop charts. A month later, on June 28th, he appeared on “The Steve Allen Show” achieving the highest ratings which that show ever received. By October, Jerry Lee had sold over a million copies of “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Goin’ On.” The song eventually sold six million copies.
The follow-up single “Great Balls Of Fire,“ was written especially for Jerry by famous songwriter Otis Blackwell. It became an even bigger hit than ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,’’ topping the r&b, country and pop charts simultaneously, while selling five million copies, all tolled. Jerry Lee recorded the song with tacks applied to the piano hammers, creating a lively honky-tonk effect. His songs were so popular that Jerry Lee even topped Elvis in total record sales for 1957. But all that soon was to change.
On December 12th 1957, at age twenty-two, Jerry Lee secretly married for the third time; wedding his second cousin, thirteen-year old Myra Brown, the sister of his bass player, J.W. Brown. Though it was not an uncommon practice in the south for cousins to marry, it was considered somewhat unorthodox by much of the rest of the world. While there were no immediate repercussions in response to his marriage, the action would soon come to haunt him.
The pinnacle of Jerry Lee’s early career came in the summer of 1958 with a triumphant twelve-day engagement at the Paramount Theater in New York City, where he broke all attendance records. In addition, his third single “Breathless” (also written by Otis Blackwell), was quickly climbing up the charts, headed toward number one, after selling half a million copies. A fourth single, “High School Confidential,” showed similar chart potential, reaching Number 21 in the charts, shortly after its release.
Then, in the fall of 1958, while on tour in the United Kingdom (something even Elvis had never done), a royal furor broke out in the British press. Traveling with Sam Phillips, his sister Frankie Jean, Myra and her younger brother Jud, Jerry Lee’s marriage to his thirteen year old second cousin was exposed by the conservative British press- who attacked the couple with such ruthless antagonism, that the tour had to be cancelled after only three unruly concerts. The reaction at home was no less hostile. “High School Confidential” abruptly fell from the charts, as sales rapidly declined. The MGM film of the same name, in which Jerry Lee had a role, fared no better.
He was blacklisted on radio and television. But Jerry Lee stood up to the his critics, stubbornly refusing to back away from the choices he had made. He immediately began touring the country, playing a full calendar of one-night stands. He complained, “From $10,000 a night to $250 is a hell of a disappointment.”
But his indefatigable spirit and ultimate confidence in his own abilities carried him through the dark times. Jerry Lee Lewis never lost his smug swagger. In February1959, his second son, Steve Allen Lewis (named for the TV host who gave Jerry Lee his first big break) was born.
But his fortunes remained in a tailspin. He did have a few minor hits in the late ‘50s & early ‘60s, but they weren’t enough to revive his stalled career. Finally, in 1961, his rock and roll remake of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” propelled Jerry Lee back onto the pop charts. All mysteriously forgiven, he returned to the UK in 1962 for a successful comeback tour. But, for the most part, Jerry Lee Lewis’ days as a rock and roller were over. He left Sun Records in 1963, signing with Smash Records, where he recorded a couple of sensational live albums.
Eventually Jerry Lee migrated to country music (where his roots had really been all along), releasing a string of over thirty hits that stretched from the late ‘60s to the early ‘80s. However, Jerry Lee never lost sight of his rock and roll fans either. He always played his most popular rock hits at all his concerts, pleasing diehard fans in both camps.
Still, once again, Jerry Lee’s volatile personal life often overshadowed his professional success. First, Mamie died in 1971. Then, his beloved son, nineteen year old Jerry Lee Jr., who played the drums in his father’s band, died in a 1973 car accident. His other son Steve Allen had died at age three in a 1962 drowning mishap. Then in 1976 he accidentally shot his bassist in the chest. The musician survived, but sued Jerry Lee. Later that same year, The Killer was arrested for waving a gun around outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion home. In 1979 Elmo died. In 1981 Jerry Lee nearly died from a hemorrhaged ulcer. He overcame that misfortune, and was soon back out on the road.
In 1982 his estranged fourth wife drowned, under suspicious circumstances. Jerry Lee’s fifth wife was found dead in their home of a methadone overdose, eleven weeks after their wedding, under extremely mysterious circumstances. In 1984 he remarried for a sixth time, with his wife giving birth to a son, Jerry Lee Lewis III.
In 1986, Jerry Lee Lewis was among the first ten inductees into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame. That same year, Jerry Lee, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison reconvened in the old Sun studios to record an album together. In 1989 Dennis Quaid starred in the watered-down bio-pic Great Balls Of Fire. Though the screenplay paled in comparison to the real events, interest was again aroused in Jerry Lee’s early rock and roll phase. In 1995 he jammed with Bruce Springsteen at the opening of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame building in Cleveland, Ohio.
Tragedy, scandal and great music will always be associated with the notorious Jerry Lee Lewis. But it is the music for which he is a star. It is the music for which he will always be remembered. His indisputable contributions to country and rock and roll are the magnificent stuff of legends. As always, his words stand as the last on the subject. “When they look back on me I want ’em to remember me not for all my wives, although I’ve had a few… I want ’em to remember me simply for my music.”