Jerry Lee Lewis was born on September the 29th, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana. His nickname is ‘The Killer’, and for a very good reason. But before we get to that, let’s begin by looking at his early years.
Lewis was born into the poor family of Elmo and Mamie Lewis, and began playing the piano from a young age along with his two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart; who also both went on to become famous – the former as a country and pop singer, and the latter as a TV evangelist. His parents had to mortgage their farm just to buy a piano, which just goes to show the support that they gave. Speaking about his parents Lewis was quoted as saying,
“My mother and dad got me a piano and I loved it and worked at it real hard, and they backed me all the way. All their lives… they were great people.”
He was enrolled into the Southwest Bible Institute in Texas by his mother so he could sing evangelical songs, but Lewis preferred to play boogie woogie which got him thrown out. It was called ‘the devils music’ back then, but little did everyone realise how popular boogie woogie and rock ‘n’ roll was to become. But nothing was to stop Lewis playing the music he loved, and he returned to his home town in Louisiana to play the local bars and clubs.
In 1956 Lewis went to an audition for Sun Records in Tennessee, and recorded a version of Ray Price’s ‘Crazy Arms’ as well as his own composition ‘End of the Road’. Lewis continued to record many tracks and also worked as a session musician for the likes of Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
It was also in December of that year when Elvis Presley decided to pay a social visit to see Sam Phillips at Sun Records, and Perkins happened to be recording whilst Lewis was backing. Amazingly, Johnny Cash was also there watching Perkins. The four then started an impromptu jamming session, and Phillips decided to leave the tape recording. These recordings were later found and have since been released on CD under the title ‘Million Dollar Quartet’.
A lot of people talk about famous collaborations over the years, and this one tends to get missed quite often. I can only imagine it’s because it wasn’t really a planned get together as such, and wasn’t performed in front of a live audience or on television; but none the less, I feel it’s one of the best collaborations ever recorded. If I could go back to any place and time, I would seriously consider beaming myself into that recording studio to watch that!
Lewis then went on to recording classics such as ‘Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On’, but it was ‘Great Balls of Fire’ that went on to be his biggest hit, providing him with international fame. The song originally received criticism for its sexual undertones, and some radio stations banned the song from being aired. Lewis at times also found his own music difficult, as he was a devout Christian.
‘The Killer’ has reportedly done and said many things, including this about Elvis after he died,
“I’m glad. Just another one outta the way. What the sh*t did Elvis do except take dope I couldn’t get a-hold of?”
You may also have heard about the incident whereby Lewis set the piano on fire and continued to play, which was at Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show in 1958. He was apparently mad at the show for allowing Chuck Berry to top the bill and close the night out, instead of him. So he set fire to the piano before Berry was to go on, and said ‘beat that’ as he walked off. However, this may not be true and Lewis when asked about setting the piano on fire said this,
“I never set fire to a piano. I’d like to have got away with it, though…”
You certainly wouldn’t put it past him!
In 1976 Lewis was reportedly arrested after he showed up drunk outside the gates of Graceland at 3am, waving a gun around demanding to see Elvis. He also accidentally shot his bass player in the chest, whilst celebrating his 41st birthday. Fortunately the bass player survived.
However, the most controversial part of his life was when he married Myra Gale Brown, who is his cousin. And to make things even worse, she was only 13 at the time. Lewis had managed to keep his private life away from the media, until he landed in the UK and a reporter happened to ask him how old she was. He lied at the time and said she was 15 (not sure how that makes it better?), and everything then came out in the open. This of course destroyed his career at the time, and the scandal also followed him back home to the US. He was subsequently blacklisted from radio and practically disappeared from the music scene.
A few years later he regained popularity when he turned to country music, and following the major motion picture ‘Great Balls of Fire’, he was thrust back into the public eye. He still tours and plays to this day, however it’s been said that a lot of his gigs he turns up quite drunk. A friend of mine recently went to watch him and confirmed this as well.
So is he a mad man or a genius? I would say both. He was clearly a very unstable individual who wreaked havoc wherever he went, making headlines all over the world for various different reasons. But his music still lives on to this day, and although it’s hard to shake his past away from my thoughts, I still find myself playing and imitating his music. He created a new ‘pumping piano’ style, and his energetic performances contributed to the music we hear today.
Many other Lewis traits included hitting high notes repeatedly, and raking his fingers down the piano, as well as kicking his stool away – which he apparently said was an accident, and he decided to keep it in his act because the crowd loved it.
One of my favourite Lewis moves was when he would use his foot to play the notes at the top of the piano. Most people would say he used his foot because he was crazy (or great performer if you will), and you wouldn’t expect anything else. I agree lol, but I also have a theory that he decided to use his foot because he usually positioned the mic stand to his right, which didn’t make it easy for him to reach around and play the high notes (would usually move it out of the way for the high notes). So maybe one day he thought it would be easier to carry on playing with both hands down the bottom and use his foot for the top. It makes sense if you think about it! He can play using both hands, can use his foot for the solos, and can still keep singing. Might as well use all your limbs if you know how!!
Personally, I won’t be going to see him anytime soon. Apart from the fact that I’ve heard many times how drunk he tends to be at his gigs these days, I’ve also seen a lot of recent videos and he’s just not anywhere near as good anymore. All performers decline as they get older for obvious reasons, but you would still go and see them and it wouldn’t matter. But for me, the only reason for going to see Lewis is to watch his energy on stage and to see him go crazy on the piano – and he can’t do that anymore.
His arrogance used to play a huge part in his stage presence as well, but to me he now just looks like a grumpy old man who thinks he can still kill it. Having said that, he will forever remain one of the biggest influences in music, and will be immortalised in the rock ‘n’ roll hall of fame – and rightly so! He was my idol when I was growing up learning the piano, and I will always be grateful for performers like him. There is only a handful per lifetime, and we have to keep playing his music to remind us of how great music was back in the sixties!