Jerry Lee Lewis Biography

29 September 1935, Ferriday, Louisiana, USA. The ‘Killer’ is the personification of 50s rock ‘n’ roll at its best. He is rowdy, raw, rebellious and uncompromising. The outrageous piano-pounder has a voice that exudes excitement and an aura of arrogance that becomes understandable after witnessing the seething hysteria and mass excitement at his concerts. As a southern boy, Lewis was brought up listening to many musical styles in a home where religion was as important as breathing. In 1950, he attended a fundamentalist bible school in Waxahachie, Texas, but was expelled. The clash between the secular and the religious would govern Lewis’ life and art for the remainder of his career. He first recorded on The Louisiana Hayride in 1954 and decided that Elvis Presley’s label, Sun Records, was where he wanted to be. His distinctive version of country star Ray Price’s ‘Crazy Arms’ was his Sun debut, but it was his second single, a revival of Roy Hall’s ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ in 1957 that propelled him to international fame. The record, which was initially banned as obscene, narrowly missed the top of the US chart, went on to hit number 1 on the R&B and country charts and introduced the fair-haired, one-man piano wrecker to a world ready for a good shaking up. He stole the show from many other stars in the film Jamboree in which he sang the classic ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, which became his biggest hit and topped the UK chart and made number 2 in the USA. He kept up the barrage of rowdy and unadulterated rock with the US/UK Top 10 single ‘Breathless’, which, like its predecessor, had been written by Otis Blackwell.

Problems started for the flamboyant ‘god of the glissando’ when he arrived in Britain for a tour in 1958, accompanied by his third wife, Myra, who was also his 13-year-old second cousin. The UK media stirred up a hornet’s nest and the tour had to be cancelled after only three concerts, even though the majority of the audience loved him. The furore followed Lewis home and support for him in his homeland also waned; he never returned to the Top 20 pop chart in the USA. His last big hit of the 50s was the title song from his film High School Confidential, which made the UK Top 20 in 1959 and number 21 in the USA. Despite a continued high standard of output, his records either only made the lower chart rungs or missed altogether. When his version of Ray Charles’ ‘What’d I Say’ hit the UK Top 10 in 1960 (US number 30) it looked like a record revival was on the way, but it was not to be. The fickle general public may have disowned the hard-living, hellraiser, but his hardcore fans remained loyal and his tours were sell-outs during the 60s. He joined Smash Records in 1963 and although the material he recorded with the company was generally unimaginative, there were some excellent live recordings, most notably The Greatest Live Show On Earth (1964).

In 1966, Lewis made an unexpected entry into rock music theatre when he was signed to play Iago in Jack Good’s Catch My Soul, inspired by Othello. After a decade playing rock ‘n’ roll, Lewis decided to concentrate on country material in 1968. He had often featured country songs in his repertoire, so his new policy did not represent an about-face. This changeover was an instant success - country fans welcomed back their prodigal son with open arms. Over the next 13 years Lewis was one of country’s top-selling artists and was a main attraction wherever he put on his ‘Greatest Show On Earth’. He first appeared at the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, playing an unprecedented 50-minute set. He topped the country chart with records such as ‘There Must Be More To Love Than This’ in 1970, ‘Would You Take Another Chance On Me?’ in 1971 and a revival of ‘Chantilly Lace’ a year later. The latter also returned him briefly to the transatlantic Top 40. However, he also kept the rock ‘n’ roll flag flying by playing revival shows around the world and by always including his old 50s hits in his stage shows. In fact, long-time fans have always been well catered for - numerous compilations of top-class out-takes and never previously issued tracks from the 50s have regularly been released over the last 20 years. On the personal front, his life has never been short of tragedies, often compounded by his alcohol and drug problems. His family has been equally prone to tragedy.

In November 1973, his 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Jnr., was killed in a road accident following a period of drug abuse and treatment for mental illness. Lewis’ own behaviour during the mid-70s was increasingly erratic. He accidentally shot his bass player in the chest - the musician survived and sued him. Late in 1976, Lewis was arrested for waving a gun outside Elvis Presley’s Gracelands home. Two years later, Lewis signed to Elektra Records for the appropriately titled Rockin’ My Life Away. Unfortunately, his association with the company ended with much-publicized lawsuits. In 1981, Lewis was hospitalized and allegedly close to death from a haemorrhaged ulcer. He survived that ordeal and was soon back on the road. In 1982, his fourth wife drowned in a swimming pool. The following year, his fifth wife was found dead at his home following a methadone overdose. The deaths brought fresh scandal to Lewis’ troubled life. Meanwhile, the IRS were challenging his earnings from the late 70s in another elongated dispute. A sixth marriage followed, along with more bleeding ulcers and a period in the Betty Ford Clinic for treatment for his pain-killer addiction.

Remarkably, Lewis’ body and spirit have remained intact, despite these harrowing experiences. During his career he has released dozens of albums, the most successful being The Session in 1973, his sole US Top 40 album, on which many pop names of the period backed him, including Peter Frampton and Rory Gallagher. Lewis was one of the first people inducted into the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986. In 1989, a biopic of his early career, Great Balls Of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid, brought him briefly back into the public eye. In 1990, a much-awaited UK tour had to be cancelled when Lewis and his sixth wife (who was not even born at the time of his fateful first tour) failed to appear. He moved to Dublin, Eire, to avoid the US tax man, but eventually returned to Memphis. In 1995, he jammed with Bruce Springsteen at the opening of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame building in Cleveland. Over a decade later, he completed a new studio album (Last Man Standing) with a star guest list including Jimmy Page, Rod Stewart, Neil Young and Bruce Springsteen.

Lewis’ cousin Mickey Gilley is an accomplished country artist, while another cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, has emerged as one of America’s premier television evangelists. Any understanding of the career of Jerry Lee Lewis is inextricably linked with the parallel rise and fall of Swaggart. They were both excellent piano players, but whereas Lewis devoted his energies to the ‘devil’s music’, Swaggart damned rock ‘n’ roll from the pulpit and played gospel music. Lewis has often described his career as a flight from God, with Swaggart cast in the role of his conscience and indefatigable redeemer. The relationship, however, was more complex than that, and the spirits of these two American institutions were latterly revealed as more complementary than antithetical. When Swaggart was discovered with a prostitute in a motel, the evangelist created a scandal that surpassed even his cousin’s series of dramas. Tragedy, scandal and, above all, rock ‘n’ roll have seldom played such an intrinsic role in one musician’s life.

Source: The Encyclopedia of Popular Music by Colin Larkin. Licensed from Muze.

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