Jerry Lee Lewis was born to a poor farm family in Ferriday, Louisiana in 1935. Broadcasts of the "Grand Ol' Opry" and "The Louisiana Hayride" were just a small portion of the music that influenced his career. Like Elvis Presley, Lewis was also influenced by the music of the church as well as some less-than-holy music he heard in Haney's Big House. This was a honky tonk bar catering to a black clientele that just happened to be owned by Jerry Lee's uncle, Lee Calhoun.
Lewis's parents, Elmo and Mamie Lewis, listened mostly to country and swing music that would also play a hand in developing their son's style. Luckily for Jerry Lee, his parents noticed that the boy had a flare for music when he began to play an aunt's piano at age 8. They subsequently purchased a used Stark Upright by taking a mortgage on their farm. Once the piano was acquired, Jerry Lee, along with his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, began taking piano lessons.
It soon became evident that Jerry Lee possessed a talent for piano playing. Upon the visit of an older cousin who also played piano, Carl McVoy, Jerry Lee was introduced to the technique of playing the boogie-woogie style that he often heard on the radio. By the time Jerry Lee Lewis was 14, he had proven himself to be quite apt at the piano and had even worked on designing his own style.
His technical method involved playing a solid boogie background on the lower keys with his left hand while his right hand was working on the high keys with a showiness that would become a signature of his style. This style, which is called Rockabilly, is a combination of honkytonk, country, blues, gospel, and boogie-woogie. During the 1950's, Rockabilly became a very popular style among Southern white singers.
Mamie Lewis did not wish for her son to enter show business and instead enrolled him in a Bible school in Waxahatchie, Texas. Despite his mother's good intentions, legend tells that Jerry Lee was expelled from the school for playing a rock and roll version of the hymn, "My God Is Real". Still, it was through the financing of his parents that Jerry Lee made his trip to Memphis in 1956 to try and market his talent to Sun Records. Lewis was only twenty-one at the time and had a record of mishap trailing behind him that included two failed marriages, his expulsion from the Bible school, an unsuccessful job as a sewing-machine salesman as well as rejection from several Nashville record companies and "The Louisiana Hayride".
Sam Phillips, the owner of Sun Records, was on vacation when Lewis arrived. However, Phillip's assistant concocted a band to play backup for Lewis that was made up of Roland Janes on guitar and J.M. Van Eaton on drums. This group would remain with Lewis throughout much of the seven years he recorded with Sun. Jerry Lee's first single was a remake of Ralph Mooney's song "Crazy Arms" that sold enough copies that Sam Phillips continued to record Lewis.
Once Jerry Lee began performing, he created the stage style and image that he would become legendary for. Because he was a piano player, he was supposedly bound to the stool. Jerry Lee, though, became famous for kicking the stool away so as to have more freedom of movement. Lewis was a wild performer, who shouted the lyrics to his songs while almost demolishing the piano with his hands and feet in a sustained boogie assault on the instrument. Once, angry over second billing at a concert to Chuck Berry, Lewis set his piano on fire at the end of his act, challenging Berry to "beat that." This, of course, began a long-standing tradition of the destruction of musical instruments on stage that was followed by many performers, including The Who and Jimi Hendrix.
With the song, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", that was released in 1957, Jerry Lee Lewis's career began to soar. Once the latter piece was performed on the Steve Allen Show, it gained the number one spot on the Country charts as well as in Rhythm and Blues. It was kept in the number two spot by Debbie Reynolds's long forgotten hit, "Tammy" on the pop chart.
Jerry Lee Lewis, known as the "Killer", a nickname from his youth, soon topped the charts with another single, "Great Balls of Fire", which also resulted in Jerry Lee getting a part in the rock and roll movie, "Jamboree". At this time, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins left Sun Records to move on to Columbia Records. Lewis had one more hit for Sun with "Breathless", which had a promotional connection to Dick Clark's "American Bandstand" show. In the summer of 1958, Lewis's twelve-day concert engagement at Paramount Theater in New York broke all attendance records.
Unfortunately, by the autumn of 1958, Lewis's career was virtually destroyed by his marriage to his thirteen-year old cousin (twice-removed), Myra Gale Brown. This apparent indiscretion was compounded by the fact that he and his second wife had not yet divorced. While on tour in England, the British press discovered the details of his marriage and attacked him mercilessly. With the tour canceled, Jerry Lee returned to the states to find that his records had been banned across the nation by radio stations.
The man who had once been paid $10,000 a night per booking now found that he could only make $250 a night if an establishment would even sign him. It took the "Killer" nearly 12 years to get back on his feet. He was taken on by Smash Records in the late 1960's and 1970's, but this time he recorded only country music.
Jerry Lee Lewis experienced much hardship throughout the 1960's and 1970's as well. His thirteen-year marriage with Myra was dissolved, his oldest son died in an auto accident and his young son drowned in 1962.
Lewis has been married a total of six times throughout his life. His fourth wife, Jaren Gunn Lewis drowned just shortly before their divorce settlement. Shawn Stephens Lewis, his fifth wife, was found dead only 77 days after their wedding, although no charges were ever brought against Jerry Lee.
With his family consisting of one daughter from his union with Myra, Jerry Lee Lewis is still alive and recording today. Sadly, his life has been troubled by addictions to painkillers and alcohol as well as disputes with the IRS.
In 1989, he experienced one more time in the spotlight when the film of his life, "Great Balls of Fire" was released starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis.
Despite his struggles, he was one of the first ten artists to inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. Lewis also produced an album in 1995 entitled "Young Blood" on the Sire Records label.
Page author: N.G.