JERRY LEE LEWIS

"The Killer" has a reputation for having led a scandalous life, and while he made every effort to stay on the side of legality where his seven marriages were concerned, poor timing and bad luck seemed to come his way from an early age. Jerry Lee Lewis was a God-fearing southern boy who was once seduced by "the devil's music," a possession of sorts that has remained with him. His blazing-hot stage persona backs up this claim, while his personal life is clouded with a number of indiscretions and seemingly unavoidable tragedy.

Born in 1935 in the small town of Ferriday, Louisiana, near the Mississippi River, young Jerry Lee had an interest in music from the beginning. Piano was his instrument of choice, which made sense in church but would be out of sync with the wave of rock and rollers that came flooding into prominence a few years later. Initially he played hymns but seemed unable to resist embellishing them with a little boogie woogie key-pounding. He got married in 1952, when he was 16, to a young lady named Dorothy Barton. The following year they divorced and he married Jane Mitchum. This second marriage was a lasting one...that is, if you think of four years as a long stretch.

Once Jerry Lee and wife number two had settled in, with a child on the way, he began performing country songs in clubs around Ferriday and across the river in Natchez, Mississippi. A trip to Nashville, Tennessee resulted in rejection from record labels as well as the Grand Ole Opry. Unimpressed by his somewhat unrefined piano pounding, it was even suggested he take up guitar to be more in keeping with the country pickers of the day. Traveling to Memphis in late 1956, he met with a more open-minded attitude. Sun Records owner Sam Phillips and staff producer Jack Clement were looking to work new angles; piano players had been a mainstay of rhythm and blues for some time, and Phillips was well acquainted with some of them, having produced a number of R&B hits right there in the intimate studios at 706 Union Avenue. Under Clement's supervision, guitarist Roland Janes and drummer J.M. Van Eaton supplied backup on what turned out to be the start of a longstanding partnership. Lewis recorded "Crazy Arms," a Charles Seals-Ralph Mooney song that had already been a huge hit for Ray Price, having spent the entire summer of '56 at the top of the C&W charts. It's unsure why they chose a song so closely connected to one of the top country stars of the day. Not surprisingly, it didn't sell.

Phillips began using Lewis regularly for session work and during the early months of 1957 he backed up several Sun acts including Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The misstep of trying to cover Ray Price's hit was taken as a positive sign, prompting Lewis, Phillips and the Sun staff to rethink the direction the young singer's music should take. He had felt restricted by the confines of gospel and straight country music, accelerating the tempo and intensity of his playing whenever possible, banging on the keys and giving in to a natural inclination towards altering a song's lyrics just enough to give it a mild sexual innuendo. With the next single he went beyond any measure of mildness; all of his inner demons were unleashed on the world as country boy Jerry Lee became rocker Jerry Lee, and the still-young rock movement felt its wildest burst of manic energy thus far.

Okeh Records shouter Big Maybelle recorded "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" in 1955, but her impressively assertive rendition of the Dave Williams song wasn't a hit, despite a track record of three top ten R&B smashes. Jerry Lee adjusted the lyrics a bit, giving the song that extra jolt of suggestiveness. He increased the "let's shock the parents" quotient with an untamed stage presentation already developed at some of his live shows: he would often push the piano stool aside or even stand on top of it, pounding the keys with wild abandon while his hair, purposely long in front, fell over his face, an image quite shocking to 1957 audiences, or least those older than 19. The slightly retitled "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" was a chartbuster, going top ten pop in September. Embraced by the normally more restrained country crowd, it hit number one C&W and also topped the R&B charts, making him one of only a handful of white singers to achieve the feat during the '50s.

Lewis had no difficulty coming up with an encore to his entry into the world of rock and roll. "Great Balls of Fire," written by Otis Blackwell (using the name Hammer Blackwell), who'd already made a mark on the music biz composing some of former Sun act Elvis Presley's biggest hits, arrived blazing hot, as hinted at by its title, in late '57. This release marked a new label credit for the star whose name was now on everyone's lips: Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano appeared on all of the singer's Sun releases for the next four years. One minute and 50 seconds of feverish exhilaration ('You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain...'), Lewis perfomed the song in the movie Jamboree as the single rose quickly to the number two spot in January 1958 (behind "At the Hop" by Danny and the Juniors, the year's biggest hit) and repeated the earlier single's country chart trick by simultaneously landing at number one. "The Killer," a casual nickname since his teenage years, seemed appropriate in adulthood and has become part of his legend throughout the years.

The next single, "Breathless," covered the same ground as the previous two and went top ten in April. While on a tour of England a month later, the news broke that Lewis had married for the third time, to a 13-year-old named Myra Gale Brown...his cousin, no less! Digging further into the details, reporters discovered the marriage had taken place the previous December, before Jerry Lee had even bothered to divorce his second wife (he and Myra later had another wedding ceremony to make sure their age-inappropriate union was a legal one). The story spread quickly, the tour was canceled, and he returned to the States to face an outraged media. This one morally questionable act, considered deplorable by the public in general, has been cited many times as the reason Lewis's career took a downturn, but the public in fact has always been quick to forget and move on; it seems more likely that the nature of the music business simply took its toll on his career. "High School Confidential," songwriter Ron Hargrave's title track for a sensationalistic film starring Russ Tamblyn playing a teenage drug dealer (it also starred Jan Sterling, Mamie Van Doren and Michael Landon in an early film appearance) was a hit in the summer of '58, suggesting few were really all that shook up about the marriage scandal.

Jerry Lee Lewis

Nevertheless, hits were harder to come by after that. "Lewis Boogie" was a solid rocking follow-up but fell flat in airplay and sales. Jerry Lee was unhappy with the decision Sam Phillips made to put a novelty "break-in" track (in the style of Buchanan and Goodman's popular "Flying Saucer" series) on the record's B side; titled "The Return of Jerry Lee," it was concocted by Jack Clement and Louis Pittman (credited on the label to George and Louis) using excerpts of Lewis songs as answers to a reporter's questions, such as, "Where did you meet your charming wife?" Answer: 'Boppin' at the high school hop!' Feeling betrayed even by those he trusted, Jerry Lee managed to bounce back with a two-sided mid-chart hit, "Break-Up" and "I'll Make it All Up to You," both tunes written by up-and-coming Sun star Charlie Rich. His career in a sort of free fall, he continued performing, though larger venues of the previous year had been replaced by the seedy types of nightclubs he'd frequented in days gone by.

"I'll Sail My Ship Alone," a remake of a major 1950 hit by one of Jerry Lee's favorites, Moon Mullican, was his only record to make the charts in 1959. There was a two-year drought as single after rockin' single failed to garner sales or radio play. He put out one 45 under the alias The Hawk, a version of Glenn Miller's 1939 milestone (and, more recently, a hit by Ernie Fields), "In the Mood," done up as a boogie style piano instrumental and released on Sun subsidiary Phillips International. Then, "What'd I Say," a remake of the 1959 Ray Charles smash, finally returned Lewis to the top 40 in the spring of '61.

In April 1962, Jerry Lee's life was stricken with tragedy. His three-year-old son, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in the family's swimming pool. Alcohol and drugs became a more prominent part of Lewis's daily routine at that point, while he continued putting his stamp on benchmark rock and roll tunes, perhaps in an attempt to rekindle his own not-so-distant glory days. A remake of Chuck Berry's "Sweet Little Sixteen" scraped the charts in September '62, his last noticeable single on the Sun label. At the end of his contract with Sun in 1963, he signed with the Smash record label. "I'm on Fire" had all the swagger and energy of earlier efforts for Sun but spent just one week on the charts in April 1964, right at the time British acts were gaining control of the U.S. music scene. A live recording of the Tommy Tucker hit "High Heel Sneakers" crept in for one week in November before Lewis seemingly disappeared.

Having signed a five year contract with Smash, he was dangerously close to being dropped by the label when "Another Place Another Time," written by Jerry Chestnut, crashed the country charts in the spring of 1968, going top ten and giving him a new lease on life as a country crooner. Glenn Sutton's "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)" mirrored his own struggles and was a hit that summer. More hits appeared with infamously countrified titles: "She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left of Me)" and "To Make Love Sweeter For You," his first number one country hit in eleven years, with three more chart-toppers to come. His younger sister, 21 year old Linda Gail Lewis, began touring with Jerry Lee around this time; as a duo they went top ten on the country charts in 1969 with "Don't Let Me Cross Over" (originally a hit for husband-and-wife act Carl Butler and Pearl in '63).

Jerry Lee and Myra divorced in 1970 (suddenly single at 26, she had already spent half her life in wedlock) and within a year he took the plunge for the fourth time, to Jaren Gunn. He revived some of the great early rock songs, including "Chantilly Lace" (the 1958 Big Bopper classic) in '72 and "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee O'Dee" ("Stick" McGhee's trailblazing 1949 R&B hit) in '73, scoring on the country and pop charts in the process, on the way to extending his run of country smashes well into the 1980s.

But success came at a devastating price. Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., his son from marriage number two, died in an auto accident in 1973. In a strange instance of events repeating themselves, Jaren drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 while she and Jerry Lee were in the process of divorcing. He married Shawn Stevens in 1983 and her death of a drug overdose came less than three months later. Jerry Lee's health wasn't so great either due to consistent drinking and drug consumption; he survived at least two operations and a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic. Kerrie McCarver, his sixth wife, seemed to be "the one"; the longest-lasting of his marriages, it ended in 2005 after 21 years. But he wasn't finished yet...number seven eventually came along. What a life the legend has led! Future hair-raising chapters in the story of Jerry Lee Lewis are certainly still to come.

- Michael Jack Kirby

NOTABLE SINGLES:





MORE ARTISTS

Great Balls of Fire The Great Ball of Fire Jerry Lee Lewis High School Confidential