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Jerry Lee Lewis

The wildest star among the first wave of rock & rollers -- not for nothing was he nicknamed "The Killer" -- Jerry Lee Lewis defied the odds and outlived all of his peers, a fate he seemed determined to outrun for a good portion of his long career. He came on like a supernova in the late 1950s, scoring three successive Top Ten singles that crystallized the ferocious excitement of rock & roll. The very titles of "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On," "Great Balls of Fire," and "Breathless" teased their feral, dangerous nature, a fire that Lewis brought out in his live performances where he kicked out his piano stand and performed on top of his instrument. Lewis' fall was as sudden as his rise. Just as he was poised to snatch the crown from Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee fell to earth when the press discovered he'd married his 13-year-old cousin. The scandal altered the trajectory of Lewis' career, pushing him off the pop charts and into honky tonks, places where he could reveal his true gift as a stylist: he made every song, whether it was country, blues, pop, gospel, or rock & roll, sound as if it belonged to him alone. After a few years in the wilderness, a period where he made such exceptional rock & roll as his 1964 live LP Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, Lewis spun this talent into country gold, landing his first country hit in 1968 and then spending the next 13 years regularly reaching the Billboard Country Top Ten. Despite this success, Jerry Lee often returned to rock & roll, first with the 1973 album Southern Roots, then again in 1989, when he recorded the soundtrack to his biopic Great Balls of Fire! He wound up closing out his recording career in the 21st century with a trio of lively records laden with superstar guests who illustrated his long and lasting influence on popular music. Jerry Lee Lewis was the son of Elmo and Mamie Lewis, born on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana. At the age of nine, he learned piano, playing alongside his cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, who would respectively achieve fame as a country singer and a televangelist. Elmo, a poor farmer who bootlegged on the side, recognized that his son had talent, so he took out a mortgage on the farm to pay for a piano. Jerry Lee absorbed all kinds of music, listening to the radio, learning some licks from his cousin Carl McVoy and hanging out at Haney's Big House, a nightclub owned by his uncle Lee Calhoun. At the age of 14, he performed in public for the first time, singing "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" with a band at a local Ford dealership. Inspired by the appearance -- and the money he took home in tips -- he devoted himself to music, playing clubs in Natchez, Mississippi and appearing on the Shreveport radio station KWKH. His mother attempted to steer him in the direction of the church, enrolling him at the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas. When he played his first church assembly, he gave "My God Is Real" a boogie rhythm, a decision that led to his expulsion. Hunkering down in Ferriday, Jerry Lee Lewis became a fixture in local clubs, establishing a second home in Natchez by his late teens. He cut a demo at Cosimo Matassa's J&M Studio in 1952 but it went nowhere. He attempted to join a touring revue of the Louisiana Hayride but was turned down. He headed to Nashville in 1955, finding no interest from any of the city's labels. Finally, he went to Memphis with the hopes of finagling an audition at Sun Records. Sam Phillips, the label's founder, wasn't there but producer Jack Clement decided to record Lewis anyway. When Phillips heard the results, he recognized that Jerry Lee had the potential to follow in the footsteps of Elvis Presley, who'd recently left Sun for RCA. He signed Lewis immediately. Sun issued "Crazy Arms," a rollicking version of a recent Ray Price hit, at the end of 1956. There wasn't much interest in the record, but Phillips kept recording Lewis anyway. Presley showed up at the conclusion of one of those sessions, as did fellow Sun recording artists Carl Perkins and -- briefly -- Johnny Cash. The four ran through a set of blues and gospel standards; the impromptu collaboration was later dubbed "the Million Dollar Quartet," inspiring a Broadway play of the same name in 2010. Lewis had his breakthrough with "Whole Lot of Shakin' Goin' On," a boisterous boogie released in April 1957. "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going' On" rocketed to number three and number one country and R&B, propelled up the charts by Lewis' fiery performance on The Steve Allen Show where he showed off some of his stage tricks. "Great Balls of Fire," a rollicking number written by Otis Blackwell, cemented Lewis' stardom when it climbed to number two pop and topped both the country and R&B charts after its November 1958 release. "Breathless," another high-octane single released early in 1958, was on its way into the pop, country, and R&B Top Tens when the bottom fell out of Lewis' career. While touring Britain, reporters noticed that Lewis was accompanied by Myra Gale Brown, who was not only his 13-year-old wife, but his cousin. The scandal spread through the U.K. and over into the U.S., stalling the momentum of his next single, "High School Confidential," which only went to 21 pop. It'd be his last hit for years. Exiled from the mainstream, Lewis recorded hours of sessions for Sun, which proceeded to release a few singles while stockpiling the rest. A version of the Ray Charles hit "What'd I Say" brought him back to the charts for the first time in three years in 1961, but that was a fluke. He remained with Sun until 1963, when he moved to Smash Records. His first few years at the label were rough. He'd grind out a living in clubs across America and Europe -- he could give tremendous performances, as evidenced by Live at the Star Club, cut in the Hamburg club in 1964 with the Nashville Teens -- and he made records like Country Songs for City Folk and Soul My Way that didn't find an audience. After five years of drifting, Smash encouraged Jerry Lee to concentrate on country music. Lewis debuted his hardcore honky tonk sound early in 1968 with "Another Place, Another Time," a record that went to number four on Billboard's Country charts. By the end of the year, "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)" and "She Still Comes Around (To Love What's Left of Me)" went to number two, a feat trumped by "To Make Love Sweeter" at topping the charts. Four additional Top Ten Country singles -- "One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)," "Invitation to Your Party," "She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye," and "One Minute Past Eternity" -- arrived in 1969, establishing Jerry Lee Lewis as a country superstar. Jerry Lee remained in the Country Top Ten throughout the early '70s but the Killer couldn't resist dabbling in the great rock revival of the era. He played oldies bills and, in 1973, he released the rockin' Southern Roots album. As the '70s rolled on, the hits didn't shine as brightly. He still had the occasional smash, such as 1977's "Middle Age Crazy," but he usually peaked in the middle of the country charts. He moved to Elektra in 1979, releasing three albums in quick succession over the course of two years, records that brought him his last big country hits in 1980 and 1981: "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" and "Thirty Nine and Holding." Personal problems began to pile up for Lewis during the early '80s. Fueled by drugs and alcohol, his misdeeds grabbed headlines in the late 70s -- he shot his bassist Norman Owens in the chest, he harassed Elvis Presley at the gates of Graceland, he found himself in trouble with the IRS -- but his troubles compounded when he had two wives die in suspicious circumstances in 1982 and 1983. He delivered a pair of albums for MCA in the mid-'80s then slowly retreated into the oldies circuit, a transition accelerated in 1986 with the release of the Class of '55, a collaborative album between Lewis, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, and Roy Orbison. The next year, an accompanying spoken word recording called Interviews from the Class of '55 Recording Sessions earned Lewis his only competitive Grammy. Jerry Lee was also part of the first class inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, another sign that interest in Lewis had been simmering for a while. Nick Tosches published his acclaimed biography, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, in 1982, the same year Jerry Lee's ex-wife Myra published Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis. With the compact disc format on the rise, Lewis' Sun and Smash catalogs were reissued, all setting the stage for Great Balls of Fire!, a 1989 theatrical adaptation of Myra's book. Dennis Quaid played the Killer; Lewis sang on the soundtrack. After spending the first part of the '90s quietly -- he surfaced on the Dick Tracy soundtrack in 1990, singing "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" -- Lewis released Young Blood, an album produced by Andy Paley, in 1995. Over the next decade, he played the occasional concert, but he didn't return to something like active duty until after being honored with a Lifetime Achievement Award by the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences in 2005. A year later, he returned with Last Man Standing, a star-studded comeback album shepherded by millionaire Steve Bing; it featured Jimmy Page, Bruce Springsteen, Keith Richards, Merle Haggard and Neil Young. Lewis and Bing used the same cameo-heavy formula for Mean Old Man in 2009. Lewis opened a club on Memphis' Beale Street in 2013, then collaborated with author Rick Bragg on the authorized biography Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, whose 2014 publication coincided with the release of his Rock & Roll Time, the final major album he released in his lifetime. Lewis suffered a stroke in 2019 and couldn't play piano for a while. He regained enough strength within a year to cut an album's worth of gospel with producer T-Bone Burnett, a record that remained unreleased at the time of his death in 2022. Another gospel project, The Boys from Ferriday -- an album recorded with his cousin Jimmy Swaggart -- appeared early in 2022. Not long afterward, Ethan Coen unveiled his documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind at the Cannes Film Festival. That October, Lewis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Shortly after his induction, Lewis passed away on October 28, 2022, at his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi.
© Stephen Thomas Erlewine /TiVo

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