Courtesy Sam Phillips Family Archives

The Killer

If Elvis is the king of rock and roll, then Jerry Lee Lewis is the dark prince.

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.”

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1958
Jerry Lee Lewis in 1958
Special Collection, University of Memphis Libraries

The influences that would explode into rock and roll swirled around Jerry Lee like weather fronts forming a tornado.

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.

Breaking Through

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.

Listen Now:

Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On

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.

Photo: Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library and Information Center


The heady rise came to a screeching halt just after the plane’s wheels touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport.

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.

Jerry Lee Lewis' Mercury Records promotional photo

Turning Around

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.”

Photo: Memphis and Shelby County Room, Memphis Public Library and Information Center

Excess & Loss

His personal life has been laced with the epic excess that makes his music so extraordinary.

Listen Now:

Wild One

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.

By the 1980s, Lewis was an iconic figure.

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.

“He’s a man of a great, contrite heart who’s just maybe messed himself up from time to time,” Sam Phillips once mused. “He is one of this century’s great, great talents. But he feels a lonesomeness in his talent, extreme lonesomeness, for somebody to be strong around him.”

What Others are Saying

  1. I have followed Jerry through the years with his music and I love all of his music.
    It is sad for the way things went for him.No one isn’t perfect we have all made mistakes.I have I’m not proud of the way I made some bad choices that I’m not proud of.But I hope the good one above can forgive me.
    Jerry I still love you,Your one of the greatest you and your music.I do wish for one thing I could see you playing your music anywhere befor I die.Love you sure I’m not the first are the last.I’m 61maybe I’ll still get to see you befor I do go.Love you I’m not a old fat woman yet still ful of life.Just and old country girl.I always said you can take me out of the country, but you can’t take the country out of me.Love you Jerry Lee.Carolyn Miller always remember you everyday of my life.this is my first time ever had said any of this.some is full of it

    Carolyn Miller
  2. Got to see Jerry in person in 2010 at harrahs I have always loved his music play it every day love you Jerry lee

    Donna Hager
  3. Today marks 57 years since the day I met you, when you debuted on national television on the Steve Allen Show. I made it my business to reach you, and I did… the afternoon BEFORE the show. When Steve introduced you on TV, I was the once cheering. After you performed WLOSGO, the WORLD was cheering…. as well they should. You are one of the finest men I have ever had the infinite pleasure to meet. God bless you…. today and always.
    Your friend, love always,
    Kay Martin

    Kay Martin
  4. Jerry Lee always gave great value on his Sun 45rpm singles, two great songs, usually in contrasting styles. ‘Whole lotta shakin” sounds as fresh today as it did on the day it first exploded onto the airwaves!
    As John Lennon once said, no record since has ever been able to better it for sheer excitement, and I think John was right!

    Brian O'Connell
  5. It is good you mentioned Jerry Lee’s Country phase from ’68 up to the early 80’s.JLL notched up a barrel load of hits on the Country charts
    but is sometimes conveniently overlooked.
    As an artist he is up there with all the Country greats. Admit Jerry Lee Lewis to the Country Music Hall Of Fame while he can still smell the flowers!

    Simon Ford
  6. Jerry Lee Lewis first class all round.

    Ian Holton
  7. Jery is one of the originals when the rockn roll started in early fifthies. He have something that other rockers never had. He was powerful,and with the devil in his left hand he gave so much to the music history

    Petter Wessel Bakke
  8. In England we cannot believe that this immortal artist who has influenced so many isn’t a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame. Wake up America!

    Malcolm Temple
  9. Jerry in my eyes you are the greater the cheapest we had co-starred in Bethune in France but little health problem is only postponed
    God bless Jerry lee

    Dj Boule
  10. One of the greatest artist and contributor of his music genre. The man has been an International Ambassador for American Country music his entire career. It’s about time he gets recognized for it. So glad to see him spotlighted here. Thank you M.M.H.O.F. from all of his fans.

    Marla Rivera, Jerry Lee Lewis International Fanclub
  11. Jerry’s in a lot of Halls of Fame, but needs to be inducted into the Country Hall in Nashville. Memphis has always been his headquarters, but country is in his heart. Those Nashville pickers have to give tribute to the dozens of hits that sold millions, pure country and those with country on the flip sides, starting with his very first record (“Crazy Arms”). Simon Ford is right and so is Ian Holton.

    Kay Martin
  12. I enjoyed your movie Great balls of fire . I go to a church of christ, our minister, named caleb, could pass for Dennis Quaid, the actor who played the great part of Jerry Lee Lewis. I love the song, Crazy Arms. .. I want to get a full size tape deck to place that song on as a memory of the movie. Dennis Bennaman.

    Dennis Bennaman
  13. Thanks for the marvelous posting! I seriously enjoyed reading it, you happen to be a great author.I will be sure to bookmark your blog and will often come back from now on. I want to encourage that you continue your great posts, have a nice holiday weekend!

    Cheap Hi-Lite

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