Few figures in popular culture could claim the extraordinary list of descriptive phrases that have been attributed to Jerry Lee Lewis - genius, rocker, lunatic, bigamist, survivor - but no matter which label applied, the undeniable fact remained that Jerry Lee Lewis was above all else a pioneer of rock and roll. Lewis was a member of the Sun Records stable, which at one time included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and many others who helped to craft rock and roll into an American art form. Lewis' contribution, through incendiary tracks like "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire," was to preserve and even enhance the danger, the sex and the joy of the music through his ferocious vocals and piano playing. For a brief, conservative period, no performer could terrify and enthrall an audience at the same time like Lewis. As history often demonstrated, such a volatile personality had to reach a breaking point, and Lewis's came in 1958 with the announcement that he had married his 13-year-old cousin. Decades in the wilderness followed, with occasional returns to his previous brilliance. Surprisingly, Lewis was the last of the major Sun players to survive into the 21st century, where his presence - gnarled but still ornery - served as a reminder that while the excesses of fame had their downside, the potency of great rock and roll was one of the surest tickets to immortality.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, part of Concordia Parish in eastern Louisiana, on Sept. 2, 1935. He was the second son of Elmo and Mary Ethel Lewis, both of whom had different stories on the original of his name; Elmo insisted that he was named after two relatives, while Mamie reportedly drew inspiration from a beloved silent movie star. Whatever the case, there was no question that Lewis grew up in dire poverty. The family fortunes had been wiped out by the Great Depression and years of bad harvests. Bootlegging was his sole source of income and that occasionally landed him in jail. Their predicament was the source of constant verbal brawls between Lewis' parents, and to escape the din, young Jerry Lee sought refuge in music. His father was a diehard fan of pioneering country singer Jimmie Rodgers, and passed along his love for the performer to his son. Lewis' mother disapproved of such secular interests, and devoted much of her free time to the church. Initially, they attended a Baptist service, but were later introduced to the Assemblies of God, an evangelical Pentecostal sect, by Lewis' uncle, Willie Leon Swaggart, and his wife, Minnie Bell. There, Lewis and his cousins, future televangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, witnessed some of the most exuberant expressions of faith and devotion imaginable, including fits of ecstasy, speaking in tongues and more. Music was also a part of the ceremonies, and Lewis discovered that a passionate performance could have a near-hypnotic effect on its listeners.
The Lewises and Swaggarts moved frequently to follow the work provided by munitions manufacturing during the 1940s, and while living at the home of his uncle Lee Calhoun, Lewis discovered the piano. He was nine years old at the time, and he took to it like a drowning man takes to a life preserver. His family life was largely in shambles; his older brother, Elmo Jr., had died at the hands of a drunk driver when he was nine, and Elmo Sr. spent much of his time behind bars or in the arms of other women. Church was his mother's solace. But music, and specifically, the piano, became Lewis's salvation. After months of intense struggle with the instrument, he picked out his first song, "Silent Night." He was entirely self-taught, and from that point onwards, he was consumed by the desire to make music. Lewis devoured as much music as was available to him: jazz, country, Cajun rhythms, country blues, boogie woogie and gospel. From them, he developed a unique style, a striding piano rhythm with a nimble left hand and a punishing right that kept a martial beat. His vocal delivery was equally singular, with elements of the country croon, the Cajun drawl and the blues shout in one captivating voice. The final piece of the puzzle that would eventually become Jerry Lee Lewis was Hank Williams, whom he heard on the fabled "Louisiana Hayride" radio broadcasts. In Williams, Lewis found the crystallization of the disparate elements of his life: Williams could preach the word of the Lord in one song, then raise hell in another, without ever losing his authenticity or drive. Williams' songs of hard living and redemption became a major influence on Lewis's own material, which he began writing while still a teenager.
In 1949, Lewis made his performing debut at a new Ford dealership in Ferriday; his father talked the owner into allowing his son to serve as the day's entertainment. By all accounts, Lewis's performance was overwhelming, netting the then-princely sum of $13 from onlookers. He quickly dropped out of school to pursue his music career, and by the age of 15, he was performing on his own 20-minute radio program in nearby Natchez. His ascent was briefly interrupted when his mother and cousin Jimmy Lee insisted that he enroll in the Southwest Bible Institute as a last-ditch means of saving his soul, but his tenure there was short-lived. After introducing a few boogie-woogie licks into a rendition of "My God is Real," Lewis was sent packing. He returned to Ferriday and resumed a frantic pursuit of loud music, fast cars, alcohol and pretty girls that earned him the lasting moniker, "Killer." Despite his penchant for the wild side of life, Lewis was frequently wracked with guilt over his decision to make music his career. It ran diametrically opposite to everything that his mother and the Assemblies of God had taught him, and he would struggle mightily to reconcile the earthly and devout sides of his personality throughout his life. A famous rehearsal tape from Sun Studios featured a clearly anguished Lewis debating with producer Sam Phillips about whether playing rock and roll would consign him to Hell or not. But such philosophical debates were trumped by the fact that Lewis needed to make money. By the age of 20, he had already been married twice and sired two children. Music was his only viable option.
He had set his sights on a recording contract, and after several false starts, he made his way to Memphis to audition for Sun. Though impressed by his piano skills, Lewis did not bowl over the label's talent scout, "Cowboy" Jack Clement; he was sent packing with the charge to write a rock and roll number. In November of 1956, he recorded four demos for the label, including "Crazy Arms" b/w "End of the Road," which would be his first single. The record made no impact on the charts, so Lewis swallowed his pride and became a session man for the label. In December of 1956, he backed Carl Perkins on a run of recordings that were visited by labelmates Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley. Producer Phillips kept the tape rolling on the impromptu jam session, later dubbed "The Million Dollar Quartet," which saw Presley, Perkins and Lewis swapping verses on a number of songs.
Lewis finally struck paydirt with his second recording session for Sun in 1957. After recording a number of tunes, he tore into a cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," a raucous blues number covered in previous years by Big Maybelle, among others. Lewis added a propulsive boogie piano line, but more importantly, a palpable sense of raw sexuality in his ad-libbed lyrics ("All you gotta do is shake around just a little bit) and leering delivery. Sensing a hit, Sun pressed thousands of copies, and by July of that year, the record stood atop two different music charts and reached the No. 3 spot on another. Anti-rock organizations flew into a frenzy over its blatant lasciviousness, which only made young listeners buy more copies. And Lewis, who quickly hit the road in support of the record, gave both parties exactly what they expected: an all-out visual and musical assault on the senses. Backed only by stand-up bass and drums, Lewis attacked his piano with a ferocity that approached animal lust, pounding the keys with his fists and feet, waggling his tongue at his audience, and kicking back the bench to climb atop the piano itself and exhort the crowd to join him in the revelry. By September of 1957, he had added a second hit to his repertoire, "Great Balls of Fire," which followed a similar path of hedonistic delight as "Shakin'," and repeated the same triple-pronged success as its predecessor, only in less time. By the end of the year, Lewis seemed poised to take the same path to stardom as his former Sun labelmate, Elvis Presley. Only a misstep of epic proportions could unseat him.
Unfortunately, Lewis took that step. In December of 1957, he accompanied 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown, his first cousin once removed and the daughter of his bass player, J.W. Brown, to Mississippi. There, Myra, who had previously worked as babysitter for Lewis' children, married her 23-year-old cousin in a secret ceremony. Upon hearing the news, an understandably aghast Sam Phillips insisted that word not leak out about the nuptials, and forged ahead with Lewis' recording career. A cascade of hits poured out of Lewis's piano, including "Breathless," "High School Confidential" - which he also performed in the opening credits of the 1958 film of the same name, which featured Lewis in full cry on a flatbed truck - and "Real Wild Child." He toured incessantly behind his material, and made numerous television appearances, including an explosive turn on "American Bandstand" (ABC/USA, 1957-1989) that saw him performing his hits live instead of lip-synching to the records, as was the usual procedure for guests. Lewis's ego followed the same upward path as his singles; he refused to be second-billed to anyone, even a bonafide legend like Chuck Berry, whom he confronted backstage with a racial epithet after tearing through an earth-shattering set. He spent money with abandon, buying Cadillacs and homes for his family, and in general, behaved like a man who refused to believe that the bottom would ever drop out.
But it did, in December of 1958, during a British promotional tour for which Myra accompanied Lewis, against the advisement of all in his camp. Though Myra and Lewis insisted that she was 15, the British press soon found out the truth, which set off a worldwide scandal. Making matters worse was the fact that neither of Lewis' previous marriages had ever been annulled, which added charges of bigamy to his growing list of crimes. The tour was quickly cancelled after three disastrous shows, and Lewis was sent packing back to the United States. There, he believed, his popularity would carry him past the uproar. However, the negative press had reached the American shores as well, hobbling the ascent of "High School Confidential" and its follow-ups. Phillips attempted to staunch the bleeding by having Lewis and Myra marry in public, and charging Clement to release a novelty record called "The Return of Jerry Lee," which made light of his woes. Nothing worked, so Lewis, bewildered by the outpouring of venom from a public that had previously worshiped him, returned to Sun Studios to do what he did best: make more music.
Lewis' career would remain in the doldrums throughout the remainder of the 1950s and early 1960s. His lack of success was certainly not due to a lack of material, as he accumulated nearly 50 sessions for Sun between 1958 and 1961. The scandal remained a millstone around his neck, sinking the majority of his releases before they ever had a chance to build steam on the charts. Rock and roll's transition from fad to legitimate musical endeavor also created a few bumps in the road for Lewis; like Presley, Chuck Berry and other forefathers, he was beset by A&R men who attempted to groom him into a more palatable, family-friendly artist. But to his credit, or detriment, Lewis remained doggedly single-minded, plugging away at song after song, believing each to be his next big hit. He finally landed one in 1961 with a cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say," which gave his career a brief but much-needed boost. He returned to steady touring and appearances on television, where his energy appeared unabated.
The revival proved short-lived. Subsequent follow-ups with Sun failed to produce a hit, and by 1963, Lewis and the label had parted ways. He was already in anguish over the 1962 drowning death of his son, Steve Allen Lewis, but the tumult coursing through his life did little to slow down his appetite for creating music. In 1963, he signed with Smash Records, a subsidiary of the Mercury label, and began generating albums for them. Little of substance came from this union, but the old Jerry Lee Lewis fire could be clearly heard on two live albums, Live at the Star-Club (1964) and The Greatest Live Show on Earth (1964). Both captured the intensity of Lewis on stage as he tore through his best known material as well as choice covers. Star-Club would later be regarded as one of the best live albums in rock and roll history.
In 1968, Lewis' main producer at Star, Jerry Kennedy, urged him to consider focusing his attention on country music. It was a viable option for many '50s-era rockers from the South like Lewis, as singers like Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and other Sun veterans had settled comfortably into the country fold after losing ground in the pop and rock markets. Lewis wisely agreed to the move, and found himself in the midst of a respectable string of hits that included a bonafide chart-topper, 1969's "To Make Love Sweeter for You," as well as the Top 10 hits "Another Place, Another Time," "What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)" and many more. Lewis also turned heads by playing Iago in a rock and roll version of Shakespeare's "Othello" called "Catch My Soul." By all accounts, Lewis's performance in the play was done with sincerity, and audiences flocked to see the curious union of the Bard of Avon and the Ferriday Fireball.
As Lewis entered the 1970s, the upturn of his commercial fortunes was in direct opposition to the misery of his personal life. His alcohol and drug consumption had grown steadily over time, and now hampered his ability to work consistently in the studio. His marriage to Myra unraveled in 1970, the same year his beloved and feared mother, Mamie, passed away. In private, he told confidantes that his mother's death was a direct result of his drug issues and his musical choices. In December of that year, he announced that he was renouncing his sinful ways and devoting his life to gospel music. But Mercury, which had picked up Lewis' contract after his spate of '60s hits, had little use for the material and refused to release them. He soon returned to middle-of-the-road country, scoring hits with a cover of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee," among others.
The remainder of the 1970s was a blur of botched recordings and personal disasters. He split from his fourth wife, Jaren Pate, and his son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. - whose battles with drugs echoed that of his father - died in a car crash. Lewis himself was missing session dates because of his substance issues, and was hospitalized on several occasions. In 1981, he nearly died as a result of bleeding ulcers. The nadir of this period was either an arrest in front of Graceland, where Lewis was calling for Presley while carrying a firearm, or the shooting of his bassist, Bob Owens, in what Lewis' handlers called an accident. His career was in dire starts as well. An attempt at bringing Lewis together with top London musicians, including Peter Frampton and Rory Gallagher, failed to gel, as did "Southern Roots," collaboration with infamous New Orleans producer Huey Meaux that was recorded under chaotic conditions. It crashed and burned upon release, alienating what few diehard fans Lewis had left. The sole high point of the late 1970s was the single "Middle Age Crazy," a weary acknowledgement that Lewis had somehow survived his wild youth, but arrived on the doorstop of his forties depleted of energy and hope. Perhaps sensing that Lewis's best years were now behind him, Mercury pulled the plug on his contract.
Lewis drifted through the 1980s, showing occasional signs of inspiration. 1978's Jerry Lee Lewis featured his last hit of the decade, a sprightly Sun-styled number called "Rocking My Life Away," and an elegiac take on "Over the Rainbow" that many felt was his best work in decades. The album was a hit, but it was soon forgotten in a dust cloud of overwrought follow-up sessions and albums. Labels like Elektra and MCA would pick him up for a while, generate a few records, then realize that Lewis was simply too erratic to produce consistent material. On stage, he continued to show flashes of greatness, but for every performance that signaled a return to prominence, there were flat, lifeless concerts that suggested Lewis was simply counting the minutes until his curtain closer. Occasionally, they felt like schizophrenic monologues between the disparate elements of Lewis' personality, with raunchy takes on "Big Legged Woman" followed by a terse self-scolding, or a lengthy diatribe on the ills of drink coming before a romp through "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee." Off stage, life was no better. The Internal Revenue Service claimed nearly all of his possessions in 1978 over failure to pay back taxes, and Lewis' drug consumption ran unabated, thanks in no small part to the supervision of Dr. George Nichopolous, the infamous "Dr. Nick" who oversaw Elvis Presley's own prodigious appetite for prescription pills.
In 1986, he re-teamed with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison on Class of '55, a tribute to Elvis Presley that featured Lewis on a somewhat predatory cover of "Sixteen Candles." By this point, Lewis's catalog was, like many established artists whose work had been lumped into the radio subgenre of "oldies," a staple of movie soundtracks, commercials and sporting events. Children reveled in the carefree abandon of "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," blissfully unaware that their grandparents had considered it to be a sign of complete cultural collapse. Lewis had become, in a word, respectable. It seemed high time for a serious re-examination of his career and its impact on American culture. Unfortunately, what fans got was "Great Balls of Fire" (1989). A shallow, by-the-numbers biopic based on Myra Gale Brown's autobiography of the same name, the Jim McBride film captured the explosive quality of Lewis' music and performances, largely because Lewis himself re-recorded his greatest hits for the soundtrack. But the film, which starred Dennis Quaid in a buffoonish turn as Lewis and Winona Ryder as Brown, focused on the cruder aspects of the singer's personality without delving into his complex and often tortured psyche. Lewis himself immediately distanced himself from the project, citing it as exaggerated and spiteful.
To the surprise of many, Lewis remained active and visible for the next three decades. He was among the freshman class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and began working on new music, most notably the song "It Was the Whiskey Talking, Not Me," which turned up on the soundtrack for Warren Beatty's "Dick Tracy" (1990). Five years later, Young Blood, his first album of new material in over a half decade, was released to modest acclaim. Fin-de-siècle accolades began to pour in, including a Lifetime Achievement award from The Recording Academy, but as the Killer eased into his sixth and seventh decades, there was an apparent need to chase the dream one more time. In 2006, he released Last Man Standing, an impressive collection of duets with established music stars ranging from Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger to Eric Clapton and George Jones. The disc was the highest-selling album of Lewis's career, achieving gold status, and topping several charts for an impressive stint. Two years later, he returned to England for the 50th anniversary of the tour that sunk his career in the 1950s. And in 2009, the 60th anniversary of his live debut as a performer, he released Mean Old Man, another album of duets, while capping the year by opening the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden. Even in his older years, Lewis still managed to make heads turn for his shocking romantic entanglements. On March 9, 2012, the rock-n-roll icon married Judith Brown, the ex-wife of Lewis' second cousin, Rusty Brown. Incidentally, Rusty was also the brother of Lewis' third wife Myra Gale Brown.
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Made his performance debut at a Ford dealership in Ferriday, LA
Recorded four demos for Sun Studios, including "Crazy Arms" and "End of the Road"
Backed Carl Perkins on a run of recordings that were visited by labelmates Johnny Cash and Elvis Presley; producer Sam Phillips kept the tape rolling on the impromptu jam session, later dubbed "The Million Dollar Quartet"
Recorded his first hit, a cover of "Whole Lotta Shakin¿ Goin¿ On"
Released breakthrough single "Great Balls of Fire"
Took a career misstep after secretly marrying Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin once removed who was ten years his junior; scandal broke the following year
Made his "American Bandstand" (ABC) debut
Performed the title song to the crime drama "High School Confidential"; appeared in film
Returned to the charts with a cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say"
Released the live albums Live at the Star Club, Hamburg and The Greatest Live Show on Earth
Turned to the country music genre and released the hit "To Make Love Sweeter for You"
Recorded a cover of Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace," which went to No. 1 on the Hot Country SIngles chart and landed in the top 50 on the U.S. pop charts
Inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; Lewis was an inaugural inductee along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and Ray Charles
Recorded Class of '55 along with Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, and Carl Perkins; album considered a follow-up to "The Million Dollar Quartet" session
Portrayed by Dennis Quaid in the biographical drama "Great Balls of Fire!"; Lewis re-recorded his classic hits for the film's soundtrack
Received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award
Released the album Last Man Standing; featured duets with Bruce Springsteen, Little Richard, and Willie Nelson, among others
Opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York, NY