Jerry Lee Lewis is an American singer-songwriter and pianist who was dubbed by his nickname “The Killer.” One of the pioneers of the 50s music and classic rock and roll scene, he shot to international fame with his first major hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” He scored other classic oldies music hits such as “Great Balls of Fire,” “Breathless” and “High School Confidential.” However, his career hit rock bottom following the news of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown (he was 22 at that time). Since after the scandal, Lewis had a hard time regaining chart success and his live performance fees began to decline. However, he was still determine to recover career-wise. In late 1960s he made transition into country music which led him to score several country hits, and this was instrumental to his eventual successful comeback. He still performs live and releases albums up to the present day.
Lewis was responsible for bringing piano as a popular element of rock and roll, and his influence is clearly undisputable. Up until his arrival, piano was rarely featured in a rock and roll song.
Early life and career
Early rock and roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana on September 29, 1935. He is the cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country music star Mickey Gilley; together these three cousins would play music when they were young.
Like many other white youngsters during his time, Lewis was heavily influenced by black music. He also listened to a lot of country music and gospel. Early in his youth he was interested in playing the piano and thus taught himself to play it when he was 10; his parents had mortgaged their farm just to buy him that instrument.
When he was proficient enough, Lewis felt he was ready to play in front of people. He staged his first live performance when he was 14, where he impressed the crowds who attended the opening of a car dealership in Ferriday. He later quit school in order to focus more on his singing career.
Meteoric rise to fame
In 1956 Lewis moved to Memphis, Tennessee, where he was first employed as a session musician at Sun Studios. Around the same time, he also relesased his first single, a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms.” It did well regionally, selling over 300,000 copies.
Lewis also had the opportunity to work and jam with other greats such as Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Elvis Presley.
When he released his own piano-driven version of Dave “Curlee” Williams’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” in 1957, it became a major hit. It went to #3 on the Billboard pop chart, and #1 on the country and R&B chart, and #8 on the UK chart. The hit made Lewis an overnight star.
By this time, Lewis had turned out to be an impossibly energetic live performer. He showed his onstage antics such as pounding the keys while standing on the piano, and even setting the piano ablaze on occasion. His wild energy and enthusiasm he displayed on stage knocked out his audience that he earned the nickname “The Killer.”
Later in 1957, Lewis scored with another hit “Great Balls of Fire,” which went to #2 on the Billboard pop chart, #1 on the Billboard country chart and UK singles chart, and #3 on the Billboard R&B singles chart. In March 1958, he scored another Top 10 hit once more with “Breathless” (#7 pop, #4 country, #3 R&B, #8 UK).
Lewis seemed to be on a roll. But behind the success and the adulation he was enjoying, he was already fostering a dark secret that would later expose to the public, and bring him down and his career.
Lewis, who had been already twice married, wed his cousin Myra Gale Brown in 1957. Their marriage license listed Brown as 20 years old, but in fact she was only 13; Lewis was 22 at the time of their wedding.
His marriage to his underage cousin was still kept under wraps until news of it finally broke in the UK, where Lewis was embarking on a tour in 1958. It created such an angry clamor among the British audiences that the tour was quickly canceled after just three concerts.
He had an even colder reception upon his return to the US. Radio stations refused to play his songs, and Lewis found a difficult time to score any live gigs. And if he did, he’d receive performance fees which were a far cry from his thousand-dollars-a-night earnings when he rose to stardom. His chart performances slid down since the scandal broke out, and his image was further depreciated. Even his stint at Smash Records did nothing to help his flagging career.
After the scandal, as a country artist, and return to rock and roll roots
Since after the controversy Lewis had been having a hard time resucitating his career, at first. Except for two Top 40 hits “High School Confidential” (1958) and “What’d I Say” (1963), he would be unable to score higher-charting hits like he did before. By this time, he was playing low-paying gigs at beer joints and local clubs. But he was still determined that one day, he would rise again from the lowest point in his life and career
In 1968, Lewis made a transition as a country singer, and it was this choice that turned out his career more favorably. One of his earliest songs, “She Still Comes Around,” became his first big country hit. Since then he established himself as a country artist, who churned out a dozen or so other Top 10 country smashes like “To Make Love Sweeter to You” and “Another Place, Anoteher Time.” He also recorded one gospel album in 1970 to connect to his Chrisitian roots (Lewis is a devout Christian).
Still, Lewis never completely abandoned rock and roll. Lewis released an album in 1973 titled The Session, which did well on the album charts. However, he was still struggling with some personal issues. In 1973, he was arrested for drunk driving in Memphis. Three years later, he was arrested again outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion for reportedly attempting to shoot the latter. In 1981 Lewis suffered a terrible ulcer that nearly cost his life.
Later life and career
Fortunately, the later years turned out to be good for the rock and roll legend. In 1986, Lewis became one of the first legends to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. His colorful and turbulent life was told in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire (starring actor Dennis Quaid), introducing Lewis to the new generation of music fans.
Lewis has outlived most of his peers, and he’s still active performing and recording. His 2006 album Last Man Standing, was well received. In that album he performed alongside other rock greats like the Rolling Stones’ Mick Jagger and Keith Richards as well as Kris Kristofferson and Willie Nelson. Kristofferson, who admires Lewis and his work, got to collaborate with Lewis again in the latter’s next album Mean Old Man in 2010. Eric Clapton, Sheryl Crow, and John Fogerty were among his guest performers in this album. In 2013 Lewis opened a new club in Memphis, and as of early 2016 he is still actively performing live.