A look back at some of Jerry Lee Lewis’s most famous songs – video
The rock and roll pioneer died, leaving behind a fast-paced career marked by both professional highs and emotional lows
Jerry Lee Lewis was scheduled to perform at the Roxy in Los Angeles in October 1973. The Roxy was a recently established club that drew a lot of rock artists as patrons almost once. Its co-owners included David Geffen, Neil Young’s manager Elliot Roberts, and renowned producer Lou Adler. Lewis was supposedly in the midst of another comeback. He had just finished recording an album called The Session in London with an all-star supporting band, including Rory Gallagher, Peter Frampton, and Kenney Jones of the Faces. The sessions had reportedly not gone very well. Lewis’ behavior was erratic and was supported by alcohol and amphetamines. Rory Gallagher remembered that if anything annoyed Lewis, he would grab for his sock, which was thought to contain a revolver. Nevertheless, the album achieved Lewis’s greatest US chart position in a decade because to the combined modern star power of his guests.
When John Lennon entered the Roxy that evening, Jerry Lee stopped playing and began berating Lennon from the stage, Gallagher recalled. “[He] started on about how the Beatles were shit and the Stones were shit and there ain’t nobody could play real rock’n’roll the way Jerry Lee could,” Gallagher said. If Lewis was happy about the attention given to him by a younger generation of musicians, he had a funny way of showing it Lennon, on the other hand, seemed completely unconcerned. He entered Lewis’s dressing area after the performance, kneeled at his feet, and kissed them before approaching “the real king of rock’n’roll” for an autograph.
It’s an event that reveals a little bit about Jerry Lee Lewis personally, but also a lot about the level of respect with which those who could recall the significance of his early singles held him. It’s difficult to conceive, 60 years later, what music as wild and unpolished as Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On or Great Balls of Fire could have sounded like to a young person in late 1950s Britain, not long after rationing had ended. Pop music was synonymous with Doris Day, Ronnie Hilton, and Winifred Atwell a year before. It was cozy light entertainment geared at grownups who had seen World War II and desired a calm existence. But now it meant that a man who appeared to be genuinely insane, who had reportedly earned the moniker “The Killer,” was kicking his stool away, pounding the keyboard with his heel, and leaping on top of the piano while playing music that was intense, visceral, sexual, and completely incomprehensible to anyone over the age of 20, the sound of a generation gap being torn open. However, you may get an idea from how young artists acted around Jerry Lee Lewis decades later. Elton John, who proudly acknowledged his debt to Lewis’s playing and his kind of theatrics, was reportedly noticeably nervous when he eventually entered Lewis’s presence backstage at a US festival in 2015; Lennon kissed his feet.
Jerry Lee Lewis at Wembley Stadium. Photograph: Chris Foster/REX/Shutterstock
It’s tempting to claim that the music he created between 1956 and 1957 at Sun Studios was so forceful and influential that it made Lewis seem inexplicably bulletproof. That is undoubtedly one reason for how he avoided several personal scandals that would have ended anybody else’s career. Hellfire, the masterful Lewis biography by Nick Tosches, was a novel where “havoc inevitably reigns: in-laws go crazy or become accident statistics, offspring die horrifying, mangled deaths, wives drown or suffer inexplicable fatal overdoses,” according to writer Nick Kent. While The Killer continues to rock, “record people are terrorized, audiences are verbally and physically assaulted, promoters go bankrupt, journalists are threatened with broken bottles.”
In his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, a juke bar called Haney’s Big House, dubbed “the evilest, baddest, lowest fighting- and -killingest place on Earth,” was where he spent his musical apprenticeship. It doesn’t matter what he discovered there. Although he occasionally admitted a fondness for Moon Mullican, the self-styled “King Of The Hillbilly Piano Players” who claimed his music could “make them goddam beer bottles bounce on the table,” Lewis was not one to identify his influences. Instead, his playing had a raw, black rhythm and blues sound. But if he believed he was going to pursue a similar career path as Mullican, he was disappointed. Lewis travelled to Nashville before landing at Sam Phillips’ Sun Studios, but he was turned down by every major country music venue, including the Grand Ole Opry and the Louisiana Hayride.
But he blended well into the frenzied, reckless environment of Sun’s golden period. Sam Phillips, a blues enthusiast, began by mostly recording black singers but, after learning about Elvis Presley, began focusing more on musicians who blurred the lines between R&B, country, and hillbilly music. In response to Lewis’s mercurial unpredictability, Phillips simply kept the tapes rolling until something happened, which is how Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On was recorded. It was also at Sun that the stage-shy Lewis was urged by his label mates Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins to put on more of a show, advice he took to heart without hesitation. Lewis worked tirelessly, recording an incredible amount of music in a short period of time. In addition to his own recordings, he added piano to tracks by Perkins and Billy Lee Riley, changing the sound of rockabilly in the process. It only took one frantic appearance amid the comedians and variety acts on Steve Allen’s Sunday night TV show to turn Lewis into a national star. Lewis was never shy when it came to announcing his distinct talent, so it seemed as if he believed his time in the limelight may be fleeting. Rock ‘n’ roll, for example, was still seen as a fleeting trend. Then there was Johnny Cash’s idea, according to which Lewis, a devout Christian, suffered from the debilitating anxiety that his music was wicked and would condemn both him and his listeners to an eternity in hell.
In the end, it was something more banal—the British press’s 1958 revelation that he had wed his cousin Myra Gale Brown, at 13—that saved him. Even more startling was the truth. Lewis was also a bigamist; neither his divorce from his first wife, Dorothy Barton, nor his divorce from his second wife, Jane Mitchum, had been finalized when he married Brown or Mitchum. His career took a severe hit following the affair. “He went from making $100 a week to $100,000 a week and right back again,” said Adam Fields, producer of the 1989 Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, “and I don’t think he’s ever understood why.” Lewis had just one hit single in 1961, a cover of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say,” but his records were blacklisted and the fees he could charge for live performances were reduced.
Jerry Lee Lewis in 1968. Photograph: ITV/Rex/Shutterstock
At his lowest moment in 1964, a German producer recorded his performance at Hamburg’s Live at the Star Club, ironically one of the Beatles’ early hangouts, with the Nashville Teens as his backing band. It caught the startling sound of Lewis leaning against the wall in rough form. It’s a performance of almost imaginable fury, audibly hastened by something — whether wrath, bitterness, or drugs — as the accompanying musicians fight to keep up with him from the first note. The final product is without a doubt the best record Lewis has ever produced. Whatever you call it—the best rock ‘n’ roll album ever produced, the greatest live album ever recorded, or both—an it’s unbelievably exhilarating listen.
However, the fact that Live at the Star Club wasn’t even made available in the US didn’t assist his case at home. Instead, he focused on the country music that had always been a part of his repertoire, finding time to play Hank Williams’ Your Cheatin’ Heart even among the chaos of the Star Club performance. In contrast to the slickness trend of the late 1960s, his country records were hard and minimalist. They were also very popular; cleverly repackaged, even the country songs he’d recorded at Sun in the 1950s became belated blockbusters. He accepted an invitation to perform at the Grand Ole Opry and, obviously still hurt from the earlier rejection, gave an egregiously contemptuous performance, defying requests that he refrain from singing rock’n’roll songs, going 40 minutes over the allotted time, and introducing himself as “a rock’n’rolling, country and western, rhythm and blues singing motherfucker.” He was not contacted again.
Lewis alternated between country music and rock ‘n’ roll for the rest of his life, the latter often at the request of musicians at least a generation younger than himself. For example, on the smash 2006 album Last Man Standing, Lewis performed duets with an all-star cast that included Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, and Rod Stewart, a pattern that was continued on Mean Old Man. His private life continued to be just as terrifyingly unstable. He accidentally shot his bass player, Norman Owens, during his 41st birthday celebration in 1976. Later that year, he was detained outside Elvis Presley’s house Graceland after driving intoxicated through the gates and slamming into his vehicle, which had a loaded revolver on the dashboard. Health problems plagued him; in 1981, a burst stomach almost claimed his life. Although the claims were unfounded, a 1984 Rolling Stone article accused him of assaulting his fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, and of being somehow connected to the murder of his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens. Then there was the story of his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, a televangelist who was involved in prostitution-related sex scandals. Lewis provided this defense: “We all have our urges.”
Lewis’s career somehow continued; in fact, with his seventh wife, Judith Brown, he even appeared to achieve some stability at the end of his life, even if his capacity to startle interviewers remained unaffected. Despite his inconsistent album releases, he continued to be a great live attraction. Although he would have no doubt informed you that he was without equal even when the other members of the 50s rock’n’roll boom were still alive, he remained one of the few active ties to that era still doing shows as of 2019. In the late 1980s, he said, “There ain’t never been anyone as good as me.” There was never anyone like him, even though many musicians followed in his footsteps, either inspired by the amazing music he created in the 1950s, hypnotized by his stage presence, or taken in by the idea of the rock star as a terrifying, uncontrollable force of nature, a concept he more or less invented. He previously said, “I don’t have anything to prove to anybody.” I just like kicking asses.