Who Was Jerry Lee Lewis?
Jerry Lee Lewis began playing the piano at age 9, copying the styles of preachers and Black musicians. He signed with Sun Records and became a rockabilly star. In 1958, Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin causing a record boycott but Lewis continued performing and made a comeback. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Lewis was born on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, a small community where his musical talents became apparent early on. He taught himself to play piano and sang in church growing up. On the radio, Lewis listened to such shows as Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Al Jolson were some of his early influences.
When he was 10 years old, Lewis got a piano of his very own. His father mortgaged the family farm to buy the instrument. He gave his first public performance at the age of 14. Lewis wowed the crowd gathered for the opening of a local car dealership with his piano prowess. With little formal education, he gave up on school around this time to focus on music. Lewis did, however, briefly attend a Bible college in Texas.
Songs: 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On' and 'Great Balls of Fire'
Lewis eventually ended up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he found work as a studio musician for Sun Studios. In 1956, he recorded his first single, a cover of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms," which did well locally. Lewis also worked on some recording sessions with Carl Perkins. While working at Sun, he and Perkins jammed with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. This session by the "Million Dollar Quartet" was recorded at the time, but it was not released until much later.
In 1957, Lewis became a star with his unique piano-driven sound. "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" became a hit on the pop, country and R&B charts. By this time, Lewis had also developed some of his famous stage antics, such as playing standing up and even lighting the occasional piano on fire. He had such energy and enthusiasm in his performances that he earned the nickname "The Killer" for the way he knocked out his audiences.
Lewis appeared to be on a roll. His next single, "Great Balls of Fire," proved to be another big hit in December 1957. The following March, Lewis struck again with "Breathless," which made it into the Top 10 of the pop charts. Behind the scenes, however, some of Lewis's life choices would soon put a damper on his career.
Lewis already had two brief marriages under his belt when he decided to marry his cousin Myra Gale Brown in 1957. On their marriage license, Brown stated she was 20 years old, but she was really only 13 at the time. News of his underage bride broke as Lewis started a tour of the United Kingdom in 1958, creating such an outcry that the tour was quickly canceled. Even when Lewis returned to the States, he found that he got a less-than-warm welcome home. Radio stations refused to play his songs, and Lewis had a hard time lining up any live performances.
Still, Lewis managed to score one more hit with "High School Confidential" in 1958 before his career took a nosedive. He performed the song in the film of the same name starring Mamie Van Doren and Russ Tamblyn.
In the 1960s, Lewis returned to the music of his youth. He found a new career as a country artist, scoring a hit with 1968's "Another Place, Another Time." Lewis recorded several country albums over the next few years, including 1970's Olde Tyme Country Music and 1975's Boogie Woogie Country Man.
Lewis never left the rock world completely. In 1973, he did well on the album charts with The Session. He revisited some of his older songs as well as the works of Chuck Berry and John Fogerty on this popular recording. In his personal life, however, Lewis seemed to be struggling. He was arrested for driving while intoxicated in Memphis in 1973, and a bleeding ulcer almost cost him his life in 1981.
The rest of the 1980s turned out much better for the music legend. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, becoming one of the first performers to receive this honor. A new generation of music listeners got introduced to Lewis through the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire. Lewis was played by actor Dennis Quaid.
'Last Man Standing' and 'Mean Old Man'
Lewis continued to record new music and perform into his later years. For 2006's Last Man Standing, Lewis sang numerous rock, blues and country classics with help from famous admirers, including Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy. Collaborator Kristofferson described Lewis as "one of the few who can do rock 'n' roll, country or soul, and every song is authentic."
Lewis spent much of his time at his ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi. His daughter, Phoebe Lewis, worked as his manager and produced some of his albums. Phoebe is from his third marriage to Myra Gale Brown. Lewis married his seventh wife, Judith Brown, who was once married to his cousin Rusty, in 2012.
Lewis died on October 28, 2022. He was 87.
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