Jerry Lee Lewis, rock’s original wild man, died. 87.
Sam Philips, who founded Sun Records and discovered Elvis, Howlin’ Wolf, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison, declared Lewis “the most gifted man I ever dealt with, black or white… one of the most talented human beings to walk God’s earth.” After marrying his 13-year-old cousin in 1958, months after his first hit song, his career crashed.
Jerry Lee Lewis, born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La., struggled between his Christian background and his drive to boogie. His mother, a Pentecostal pastor, opposed secular music, as did his cousin, evangelical preacher Jimmy Swaggart. When Lewis was eight years old, his father, who had been imprisoned for bootlegging, mortgaged the family farm to purchase him a piano. He lurked beneath tables in dark clubs until he was expelled.
Lewis characterised the music there in a 1987 documentary, I Am What I Am: “Blues and rock—something distinct. Loved blues. Real. I thought I was too.”
He learned himself to play using Black club boogie beats and Pentecostal church music. Religion affected more than music at a period when rock ‘n’ roll considered satanic.
Lewis was expelled from Southwest Bible Institute in Texas for playing boogie-woogie on the piano as a youngster.
Lewis joined Memphis icon Sam Philips’ Sun Records in late 1956, joining Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. He started as a sideman for Carl Perkins, but he played in a memorable December 1956 Sun Studios session. Lewis was part of the one-night “Million-Dollar Quartet” with Presley, Cash, and Perkins, which inspired a 2010 Tony-nominated Broadway musical.
“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” made Lewis famous at 25. Big Maybelle, a black Okeh Records performer, recorded it in 1955. (a side that was produced, notably, by a promising young man Quincy Jones). Lewis’ 1957 rockabilly rendition rocked the mainstream charts and put a piano at the centre of rock ‘n’ roll.
“All I did was put the machine on, and we cut ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On’ in one take,” Jack Clement told NPR in 2000. Lewis said he knew he had a hit if it came out in one take.
Lewis’ whiskey-fueled conversation with Sam Phillips, who thought Lewis might succeed in rock ‘n’ roll, was recorded.
Philips said, “Save souls!”
“How can Satan save souls?” Lewis said. “What? I’m devilish. I’d be Christian without.”
His biggest hit, “Great Balls Of Fire,” was recorded that session.
Lewis began touring with Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry, and “The Killer” became the finale. He suggestively worked the microphone while standing and pounding the keyboard.
When 22-year-old Lewis toured England in June 1958, British media enquired about the lovely young girl at his side, the admiration stopped. Lewis married 13-year-old Myra. The press discovered that “Mrs. Lewis” was his cousin and a child. Lewis’ third marriage occurred while he was legally married to his second wife.
Lewis returned to the U.S. after a few tour performances due to press and public criticism. He wasn’t publicly sorry. In Rick Bragg’s 2014 best-selling memoir Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Lewis states, “Myra and I were married for 10 years.” “She was fully matured and ready for plucking. I considered her 13 years old, yet she was a lady.” Lewis’ sister married at 12, supporting the traditional norm.
Myra Lewis subsequently claimed that her ex-husband assaulted her, but she now calls their marriage “ten fantastic, wonderful years.” Lewis had seven marriages.
In 1989, she told WHYY’s Fresh Air that her husband was a contradiction—a wild man onstage, boozing and womanising, who wouldn’t tolerate alcohol in his house. “”Because of his upbringing and instruction, Jerry sat in judgement of himself often,” she remarked. First, he shouldn’t play that music. He should have enjoyed his life.”
Lewis’ career collapsed after his 1958 England tour. Lewis went from charging thousands of euros per concert to performing in taverns and touring Europe with pickup musicians.
Myra told Fresh Air that Jerry’s albums were banned for five years. “A good concert date eluded him. Some radio stations refused him.”
“If anything, failure made him even more uninhibited,” The Guardian said in 2015. His marathon-all-night gigs were legendary. Lewis released “What’d I Say” in 1961 and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1963 while under contract to Sun. To avoid his Sun contract, Lewis produced a boogie-woogie rendition of “In the Mood,” the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s big-band standard, under the moniker “The Hawk.” Lewis’ style was instantly recognised.
Lewis’ Sun contract expired in the 1960s, and he was floundering professionally. He joined Smash to revive his career. It didn’t work, but his 1964 CD Live At The Star-Club Hamburg, recorded by Philips as part of a series of live recordings from the German venue, became legendary. Rolling Stone Magazine said, “It’s not an album, it’s a crime scene… with no survivors save The Killer.”
Even so, Lewis was keen to return to the U.S. spotlight, but his child-cousin-bride reputation and the British Invasion upending American pop appeared more implausible. He started recording country music in 1968 with Another Place, Another Time. Success. Lewis has 23 Top 10 country hits in less than a decade.
“Rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues singing [crap]” was his legendary Grand Ole Opry introduction. Not for his music or wild life, but because he nicknamed everyone “The Killer” because he couldn’t remember their names. Thus, his name.
Lewis’ personal life remained chaotic, traumatised, and filled with prescription medicines and alcohol. Rolling Stone released a lengthy, scathing story of his fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, drowning in 1982 before their divorce was formalised. Lewis’ third wife, Shawn Stephens, died of an overdose three months after their marriage, less than a year after Gunn’s death. “What appears evident is that, back then, he was so crippled by his addiction to prescription drugs, he became an untrustworthy witness to his own past,” the 2015 Guardian piece said, despite a grand jury acquitting him of Gunn’s murder. In 1962, his three-year-old son Steve Allen drowned in a pool, and in 1973, his eldest son Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. died in an automobile accident. He violated IRS and DEA laws. In 1976, a drunken Lewis drove his automobile through Graceland’s gates, wanting to meet Elvis with a pistol on the dashboard.
“Compared to Jerry Lee, most of us are amateur sinners,” argues author Rick Bragg. “He’s evangelistic sometimes.” Bragg believes Lewis sought to make amends in his old age and found salvation. He credited Hank Williams for bringing white working men off their knees to enjoy music.
“But Jerry Lee put ’em to dancing,” Bragg says. “He said the loveliest thing. How is that sinful?”
Lewis told NPR in 2010: “I gone up and down the road and done some rough living—and some hard rocking and some hard rolling.”
Lewis was one of the first performers inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Despite never winning a Grammy for his recordings, he received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005. He earned a Grammy in 1986 for a recording of interviews from The Class of ’55, an album that brought him together with Cash, Perkins, and Roy Orbison. Dennis Quaid played the young Killer in Great Balls Of Fire, a 1989 biography. By then, Lewis’ performance career was mostly over.
Lewis’ career began a third act in his latter two decades. Lewis revived his career in the mid-2000s with a series of duet albums with Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Kid Rock, and Gillian Welch.
Lewis understood the audience wanted “The Killer” of 1958, before his collapse. “People who come to see me want ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,'” he told The New York Times in 1996. “They’d shoot me if I didn’t do those tunes.”
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