Jerry Lee Lewis (born September 29, 1935) is an American rock and roll and country music singer and pianist. An early pioneer of rock and roll music, his career faltered after Lewis married his young cousin, and I made a transition to country music afterwards.
Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2008 he was inducted into the hit Parade Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him number 24 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2003, they listed his box set All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology number 242 on their list of “500 greatest albums of all time”.
Jerry Lee Lewis Drive in Ferriday
Lewis was born to the poor family of Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday in Concordia Parish in eastern Louisiana, and began playing piano in his youth with two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him on piano. Influenced by a piano-playing older cousin Carl McVoy (who later recorded with Bill black’s combo), the radio, and the sounds from the black juke joint across the tracks, Haney’s Big House, Lewis created his style from black artists who were unable to play to white audiences, mixing rhythm and blues, Boogie-Woogie, gospel, and country music, as well as ideas from established “country boogie” pianists like recording artists Moon Mullican and Merrill Moore. Soon he was playing professionally.
His mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, so that her are would be exclusively singing his songs to the Lord. But Lewis daringly played to boogie woogie rendition of “My God Is Real” at a church assembly that sent him packing the same night. Pearry Green, then president of the student body, related how during a talent show Lewis played some “worldly” music. The next morning, the dean of the school called Lewis and Green into his office to expel them. Lewis said that Green shouldn ain’t be expelled because “I didn’t know what I was going to do.” Years later Green Lewis asked: “Are you still playing the devil’s music?” Lewis replied “Yes, I am.” But you know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. “The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t.”
After that incident, I went home and started playing at clubs in and around Ferriday and Natchez, Mississippi, becoming part of the burgeoning new rock and roll sound and cutting his first demo recording in 1954. I made a trip to Nashville circa 1955 where I played clubs and made to build interest, but was turned down by the Grand Ole Opry as I had been at the Louisiana Hayride country stage and radio show in Shreveport. Recording in Nashville Executive suggested I switch to playing to guitar.
Lewis traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in November 1956, to audition for Sun Records. Label owner Sam Phillips was in Florida, but producer and engineer Jack Clement recorded Lewis’s rendition of Ray price’s “Crazy Arms” and his own composition “End of The Road”. During December 1956, Lewis began prolifically, only artist and as a session musician for such Sun as recording artists as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. His distinctive piano can be heard on many tracks recorded at Sun during late 1956 and early 1957, including Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox”, “Your True Love”, “You Can Do No Wrong”, and “Put Your Cat Clothes On”, and Billy Lee Riley’s “Flyin” Saucers rock’n ‘ Roll “. Formerly, rockabilly had rarely featured piano, but it proved an influential rockabilly artists on other labels also started working with pianists and addition.
On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Lewis backing him on piano. Johnny Cash was also there watching Perkins. The four started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tape running. These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived, and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also include Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Paralyzed”, Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me” and Presley doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) on “Don’t Be Cruel”.
Lewis’s own singles (on which he was billed as “Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano”) advanced his career as a soloist during 1957, with hits such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire”, his biggest hit, bringing him international fame, despite criticism for the songs’ overtly sexual undertones which prompted some radio stations to boycott them. In 2005, “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On'” was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.
According to several first hand sources, including Johnny Cash, Lewis himself, who was devoutly Christian, was also troubled by the sinful nature of his own material, which I firmly believed was leading himself and his audience to hell. This aspect of Lewis’s character was depicted in Waylon Payne’s portrayal of Lewis in the 2005 film Walk the Line, based on cash’s autobiographies.
Lewis would often kick the piano bench aside and play standing, rake his hands up and down the keyboard for dramatic accent, sit on the keyboard and even stand on top of the instrument. His first TV appearance, in which I have demonstrated some of these moves, was on The Steve Allen Show on July 28, 1957, where I played the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ goin’ On”. He is also leading to have set a piano on fire at the end of a live performance, in protest at being billed below Chuck Berry.
His dynamic performance style can be seen in films such as High School Confidential (I sang the title song from the back of to flatbed truck), and Jamboree. I’ve been called “rock & roll’s first great wild man” and also “rock & roll’s first great eclectic.”Classical composer Michael Nyman has also cited Lewis’s style as the parent of his own aesthetic.
Lewis’s turbulent personal life was hidden from the public until May 1958 British tour where Ray Berry, a news agency reporter at London’s Heathrow Airport (the only journalist present), learned about Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown. She was Lewis’s first cousin once removed and only 13 years old. (Brown, Lewis, and his management all insisted she was 15). Lewis was nearly 23 years old. The publicity caused an uproar and the tour was cancelled after only three concerts.
The scandal followed Lewis home to America, and as a result, he was blacklisted from radio and almost vanished from the music scene. Lewis felt betrayed by numerous people who had been his supporters. Dick Clark dropped him from his shows. Lewis even felt that Sam Phillips had sold him out when the Sun Records boss released “The Return of Jerry Lee”, to bogus “interview” cut together by Jack Clement from excerpts of Lewis’s songs, which made light of his marital and publicity problems. Only Alan Freed stayed true to Jerry Lee Lewis, playing his records until Freed was removed from the air because of payola allegations.
Jerry Lee Lewis was still under contract with Sun Records, and kept recording, regularly releasing singles. I had gone from $10,000 a night concerts to $250 a night spots in beer joints and small clubs. I had few friends at the time whom I felt I could trust. It was only through Kay Martin, the president of Lewis’s fan club, T. l. Meade (aka Franz Douskey) Vien Memphis musician and friend of Sam Phillips, and Gary Skala, that Lewis went back to record at Sun Records.
By this time, Phillips had built a new state-of-the-art studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis, thus abandoning the old Union Avenue studio where Phillips had recorded B.b. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, and also opened studio in Nashville. It was at the latter that Lewis studio recorded his only major hit during this period to rendition of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in 1961. In Europe other updated versions of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (September 1962 UK) and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (March 1963) entered the hit Parade. Popular On EPs, “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes”, “I ‘ sees Been Twistin'”, “Money” and “Hello Josephine” also became turntable hits, especially in nascent discothèques. Another recording of Lewis playing an instrumental arrangement of the Glenn Miller Orchestra boogie favorite “in the Mood”, was issued on the Phillips International label under the pseudonym of “The Hawk,” but disc jockeys quickly figured out the distinctive piano style, and this gambit failed.
Lewis’s Sun recording contract ended in 1963 and I joined Smash Records, where I have made a number of rock recordings that did not further his career.
His popularity recovered somewhat in Europe, especially in the UK and Germany, during the mid-1960s. To concert album, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (1964), recorded with The Nashville Teens, is widely considered one of the greatest live rock and roll albums ever. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes: “Live at the Star Club is extraordinary, the purest, hardest rock & roll ever committed to record.”
Lewis has been married six times. His first marriage, to Dorothy Barton, lasted for 20 months, from February 1952 to October 1953 although there is some question that Lewis may have married Barton earlier than 1952. In a 1978 People magazine interview Lewis stated “I was 14 when I first got married.” My wife was too old for me; “she was 17.” His second marriage to Jane Mitchum was of dubious validity because it occurred 23 days before his divorce from Barton was final. They were married for four years, from September 1953 to October 1957. They had two children. I then married Myra Gale Brown in December 1957. She was his first cousin once removed, and thirteen at the time of the marriage. This marriage caused scandal which destroyed his career for a decade. They had two children and divorced in December 1970 after 13 years of marriage. His second marriage was to Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, and ended when she drowned in the swimming pool at their home. They were married for 12 years, from October 1971 to August 1983. His fifth wife was Shawn Stephens. This marriage ended with her death from a methadone overdose. They were married for three months, from June to August 1984. His sixth marriage was to Kerrie McCarver, with whom I have had one child. This marriage lasted 20 years and ended in divorce in 2004.
Lewis has had four children. There have been two people who have claimed to be his children, but had no proof. In 1962, his are Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool accident when he was three, and in 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., was killed at the age of 19 when I have overturned the jeep he was driving. His current living children are are, Jerry Lee Lewis III, and one daughter, Phoebe Allan Lewis.
In the 1960s, Lewis’s attempts at a comeback as a rock and roll performer had stalled during four years with Smash Records until I began recording country ballads.
I had already recorded to country-oriented album for the label Country Songs for City Folks. In 1968, his single “Another Place, Another Time” became Top 10 success and led to a string of Top Ten singles including the 1968 number-one single country “To Make Love Sweeter For You” that Lewis brought renewed stardom among country music fans, much like that which ex-rockabilly Conway Twitty began to cultivate during that same time. His shift to country reflected the fact that I had grown up listening to the Grand Ole Opry. Lewis’s country hits during this period include “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of me)”, “She Still Comes Around (To Love what’s Left of me)”, “She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye”, “Once More With Feeling”, “There Must Be More to Love Than This”, “Touching Home,” “Would You Take Another Chance on me”, “me & Bobby McGee”, “Think About It, Darlin'”, “Sometimes a Memory Ain ain’t Enough”, and “Tell Tale Signs”. Lewis’s singles and albums were issued on Mercury records instead of Smash from 1970 on. Lewis’s renewed popularity encouraged Sun International Inc. to issue previously unpublished recordings dating from 1963 including “Invitation to Your Party”, “One Minute Past Eternity”, “I Can’t I seem to To Say Goodbye” and “Waiting For A Train” on singles that also did well on the country music charts in 1969/70. Lewis’s successes continued throughout the decade and I eventually began to re-emphasize his rock and roll past with hits like his 1972 revival of The Big Bopper’s rock classic “Chantilly Lace” “Drinkin” Wine and dee – or dee Spo “as well as looking at middle age with the 1977″Middle Age Crazy”. In 1979, I signed with Elektra Records and had his last major country hit with 1981’s “Thirty-Nine and holding.” I spent a very brief period with MCA Records in 1983 but left the label due to unspecified differences.
In 1989, a major motion picture based on his early life in rock and roll, Great Balls of Fire!, brought him back into the public eye, especially when I decided to re-record all his songs for the movie soundtrack. The film was based on the book by Lewis’s ex-wife, Myra Gale Lewis, standup and Dennis Quaid as Lewis, Winona Ryder as Myra, and Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart. The movie focuses on Lewis’s early career and his relationship with Myra, and ends with the scandal of the late 1950s. A year later, in 1990, Lewis made minor news when a new song I co-wrote called “It Was the Whiskey Talking, Not Me” was included in the soundtrack to the hit movie Dick Tracy. The song is also heard in the movie, playing on a radio.
The public downfall of his cousin, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, resulted in more adverse publicity to a troubled family. Swaggart is also piano player, as is another cousin, country music star Mickey Gilley. All three listened to the same music in their youth, and frequented Haney’s Big House, the Ferriday club that featured black blues acts. Lewis and Swaggart have had a complex relationship over the years.
Lewis’s sister, Linda Gail Lewis has recorded with Jerry Lee, toured with his stage show for in time and more recently recorded with Van Morrison.
“The Killer” to nickname I ‘ s had since childhood, is known for his forceful voice and piano production on stage. He was described by Roy Orbison as the best raw performer in the history of rock and roll music.
In 1986, Lewis was one of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. That year, I returned to Sun Studio in Memphis to team up with Orbison, Cash, Perkins and along with longtime admirers like John Fogerty to create the album Class of ‘ 55, to sort of followup to the “Million Dollar Quartet” session, though in the eyes of many critics and fans, lacking the spirit of the old days at Sun.
In 1998 I toured Europe with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. On February 12, 2005, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Recording Academy (which also grants the Grammy Awards). On September 26, 2006, a new album titled Last Man Standing was released, featuring many of rock and roll’s elite as guest stars. Receiving positive reviews, the album charted in four different Billboard charts, including two week stay at number one on the Indie charts.
A DVD entitled Last Man Standing Live, featuring concert footage with many guest artists, was released in March 2007, and the CD achieved Jerry’s 10th official gold disk for selling over half-a-million copies in the US alone. Last Man Standing is Lewis’s biggest selling album of all time. It features contributions from Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart, among others.
On November 5, 2007, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Case Western University in Cleveland, Ohio honored Jerry Lee Lewis with six days of conferences, interviews, a DVD premier and film clips, dedicated to him entitled The Life And Music of Jerry Lee Lewis. He is the first living artist to be so honored. On November 10, the week culminated with a tribute concert compered by Kris Kristofferson. Lewis was present to accept the American Music Masters Award and closed his own tribute show with a rendition of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow”.
On February 10, 2008, he appeared with John Fogerty and Little Richard on the 50th Grammy Awards Show, performing “Great Balls of Fire” in a medley with “Good Golly Miss Molly”.
Lewis now lives on a ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi with his family.
On June 4, 2008, Jerry Lee Lewis was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame.
On July 4, 2008, Jerry Lee appeared on A Capitol Fourth and performed the finale’s final act with a medley of “Roll Over Beethoven”, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” and “Great Balls of Fire”.
In October 2008 as part of a very successful European tour, Jerry Lee Lewis returned to the UK, almost exactly 50 years after his ill-fated first tour. He appeared at two London shows: a special private show at the 100 Club on October 25 and at the London Forum on October 28 with Wanda Jackson and his sister, Linda Gail Lewis.
2010 will see a new CD album and DVD release. 2009 marks the sixtieth year since Jerry Lee’s first public performance when he performed ““Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee” at a car dealership on November 19, 1949 in Ferriday Louisiana.
In August 2009, in advance of his new album, a single entitled “Mean Old Man” was released for download. It was written by Kris Kristofferson. An EP featuring this song and four more was also released on amazon.com on November 11.
On October 29, 2009, Lewis opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Main article: Jerry Lee Lewis discography
Hits and awards
Between 1957 and 2006, the date of his latest release “Last Man Standing”, 47 singles plus 22 albums (The Session counted as 2 albums) made the Top Twenty Pop, Jukebox, Rock, Indie and/or Country charts in USA or UK. Fourteen reached the number 1 position. He’s had ten official gold disks, the latest being for the 2006 album ‘Last Man Standing’, plus unofficial ones issued by his record company Mercury for albums which sold over a quarter of a million copies. His 2006 duets CD Last Man Standing has sold over half a million worldwide, his biggest selling album ever. Jerry Lee Lewis is also among the Top 50 all-time Billboard Country artists. It is also rumored that the soundtrack album to the movie, Great Balls Of Fire, has now sold over a million copies. The original Sun cut of “Great Balls of Fire” was elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and Jerry’s Sun recording of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” received this honor in 1999. Only recordings which are at least 25 years old and have left a lasting impression can receive this honor. Along with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, Jerry received a Grammy in the spoken word category for the very rare album of interviews released with some early copies of The Class of 55 album in 1986. On February 12, 2005, Jerry received the Recording Academy’s Lifetime Achievement Award the day before the Recording Academy’s main Grammy Awards ceremony, which he also attended, picture below. On October 10, 2007, Jerry received the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame’s American Music Masters Award.