Like Elvis, Jerry Lee skyrocketed to fame from Memphis in the 1950s, a rock and roll pioneer produced by Sam Phillips at Sun Records. While Elvis’ continued success ultimately tamed him, Jerry Lee’s personal life—excessive, outrageous, and individual—diverted him from fame and fortune, and left him raw, combative and established as an enduring musical icon.
He was born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, a foul smelling hamlet downwind from the paper mill in Natchez, Mississippi. Tragedy first hit Jerry Lee’s life when he was just three: His older brother Elmo Jr., already displaying a strong musical talent at nine, was killed by a drunk driver. Around that same time, the Assembly of God Church opened in Ferriday, and Elmo Lewis Sr. was drawn there, not just for consolation but for the way their services captured the spirit through rapturous music, expressed by fits in the aisles, by speaking in tongues, by shaking your nerves and rattling your brains.
The surviving son, Jerry Lee was raised to be adulated. His parents risked their house to buy him an upright piano when he was 10. His mother, reveling in his sight, would run to his side, lift his arm and call everyone close: “Look at the hairs!” she’d say to the assembled, and then to the golden-haired boy, “Jerry, every hair on your arm is perfect.” To which he would respond, “It certainly is.”
His parents played hillbilly records, his church rocked like a wild party. Since hearing Hank Williams broadcast on The Louisiana Hayride in 1948, he’d been a committed fan. And he would regularly sneak into Haney’s Big House in Ferriday, a juke joint for black fieldhands, usually with cousins Mickey Gilley (who became a country music star), and Jimmy Swaggart (who became a famous, later notorious, television evangelist preacher).
By the time Jerry Lee graduated from high school, he was twice married and a father. With his wife and child cared for by his parents, Jerry Lee went to Waxahatchie, Texas for Bible College. His lifelong struggle between the sacred and the profane was expressed there early when his church rendition of “My God is Real” so outraged the congregation that he was expelled.
He sold vacuum cleaners and sewing machines, he played drums and piano with a local band, he auditioned in Shreveport, and tried his luck in Nashville. But when the Lewis family heard Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Elvis Presley, they knew that Memphis was his medium. To finance the trip to meet Sam Phillips, Jerry Lee’s father sold eggs—33 dozen—along the 350 miles north.
In late 1956, working with Sun producer and songwriter Jack Clement, Jerry Lee cut a rocked out version of the country music hit “Crazy Arms.” But it was the next Sun record—and the B-side at that— that really hit, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On.” His hair-raising piano-pounding performance on the nationally-popular Steve Allen Show made him a star. The song went from a regional hit to #1 on the country charts and #2 pop.
Quickly, Sam Phillips and Jerry Lee followed with “Great Balls of Fire,” an achievement of apocalyptic imagery, lascivious delivery and unbridled energy. The dialogue between Phillips and Jerry Lee in the moments before recording the song, surreptitiously recorded and surfacing later, revealed Lewis’s unshakable knowledge that rock and roll—the music he couldn’t stop himself from playing—was an instrument of the devil. The hits “Breathless” and the forward-looking “High School Confidential” followed. Jerry Lee, 22, was a rock on a roll, and it carried him and his new bride Myra across the ocean to tour.
British journalists learned that Myra was Jerry Lee’s first cousin once removed, and was just thirteen years old. The backlash was stunning. Record sales plummeted, the tour was cancelled, and he returned to America. Soon he was playing small clubs and beer joints for $250 a night, a far cry from the international success he’d known only months before.
The career may have been broken, but not the man, nor his spirit. He continued to record with Phillips for Sun until 1963, and the following year, indomitable, he released Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, a show so exciting that it remains on many Best of All Time album lists.
In 1967, Jerry Lee turned to country music, the sounds he’d been playing when he arrived at Sun. On the Mercury label, he made classic honky tonk comfortable in the modern era with “Another Place, Another Time,” and began a string of country hits—more than several of which crossed over to pop—that ran all the way through the 1970s and included “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous,” “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me), “She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye,” “Middle Age Crazy” and “Thirty-Nine and Holding.”
He’s had seven marriages, four divorces (two wives’ accidental deaths occurring weeks before divorce proceedings ended the legal disentanglements). These marriages produced six children and two grievous losses: Steve Allen Lewis, 3 years old, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., at nineteen, died in a 1973 car accident.
Early in the decade, his former teen-bride, to whom he stayed married for 13 years, wrote a book about their lives together, Great Balls of Fire. It was made into a feature film in 1989. By then, he’d been inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, and soon received a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award. But “The Killer,” as he calls everyone and as everyone knows him, has not slowed. He released Last Man Standing in 2006, featuring duets with Keith Richards, George Jones and Kid Rock. On 2010’s Mean Old Man, he was joined by Mavis Staples, Gillian Welch and the guitarist Slash.
Through it all, Jerry Lee’s hands pound out a fury. Sometimes they barely seem to rise off the piano, and other times he’s all asses and elbows. The piano is an extension of his own being, and he commands it. He can strike the keys with the seeming randomness of a child—and he makes beautiful music. He’s been known to stomp the instrument with the heels of his boots, to hammer it with his fists, to place his butt squarely on the ivories—and always the piano sounds perfect.