Brought To You By The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame
With only three Billboard Top 10 hits (Elvis had thirty-eight and Fats Domino eleven), he already had two failed marriages when at twenty-two he married his thirteen-year-old cousin in 1957. By mid-1958, his career seemed to be over. Yet in 1986, Jerry Lee Lewis was unanimously voted as the first artist inducted into the newly-opened Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. Others in that historic first class included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, James, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, and Little Richard.
Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, he grew up listening to the Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ole Opry broadcasts and gospel singing at the Assembly of God Church. To round out his musical education, he regularly sneaked into Haney’s Big House, a local juke joint that catered exclusively to blacks. It was there that he first heard and saw an 18-year-old B.B. King, Roy Milton, Bobby Bland and a young Ray Charles perform. “That place was full of colored folks,” Lewis said. “They’d picked cotton all day, they had a twenty-five-cent pint of wine in their back pocket, and they were gettin’ with it!” Jerry Lee, aka The Killer, was not the first of the ‘50s wild men (that distinction would have to go to Little Richard or Esquerita), but he was surely one of the wildest. Not only did he survive the scandal of marrying his teenage cousin, but over the years he stared down a whole laundry list of woes that would have destroyed lesser men. Those included the deaths of two other wives and two sons, four divorces, expulsion from seminary, the accidental shooting of his bass player, a gun-waving arrest outside Graceland, a heart attack, a losing battle with the IRS, drug addiction, and a near-fatal bout with a perforated stomach brought on by bleeding ulcers. In the end, The Killer weathered each of those withering blows with the characteristic defiance that has become his trademark.
A cousin, Carl McVoy, shared some boogie woogie styles he’d picked up in New York and in 1948 or ‘49, Jerry Lee, in his mid-teens, made his first public appearance, playing piano and singing Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee at the grand opening of a Ferriday Ford dealership. His father passed the hat and collected thirteen dollars for that first professional performance. That same year, he landed his own twenty-minute show on a Natchez radio station across the Mississippi River from Ferriday. A steady gig at the Hilltop Club in Natchez followed and by age fifteen, he was playing professionally for a traveling revival. In the summer of 1951, he cut his first demo record at Cosimo Matassa’s J&M Studio on North Rampart Street in New Orleans.
That same year, his mother, convinced he was on the fast track to hell, enrolled him in the Assembly of God’s Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahatchie, Texas. Less than three months later, Lewis was subsequently expelled for his boogie-woogie piano playing.
On February 21, 1952 he married for the first time to Dorothy Barton, a revival preacher’s daughter. He soon abandoned her, however, and a year-and-a-half later, on September 15, 1953, he married Jane Mitcham, twenty-three days before his divorce from Barton was final. On November 2, 1954, Jane gave birth to a son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. During this time he took a job playing at The Wagon Wheel across the river in Natchez and failed as a door-to-door sewing machine salesman. Actually, he was successful in selling the machines but he would collect only the initial payment while neglecting to set up a payment plan – or to forward the down payments to the company. He spent a couple of nights in jail after skipping out with the down payments.
He was turned down by Nashville recording studio executives (some of whom suggested he might have a shot if he learned guitar), and by the Louisiana Hayride. The Hayride audition for staff pianist was a crushing disappointment. Told by producer Horace Logan that the Hayride already had a piano player in Floyd Cramer, Lewis returned to Ferriday after cutting a demo record at the KWKH studios. Years later, after he became a star, he met Logan again. “You’re the sonofabitch who wouldn’t hire me for the Hayride,” Lewis said. “You’re the sonofabitch who didn’t tell me you sang,” Logan replied.
In 1956, he heard about a small company in Memphis that had recorded an unknown singer named Elvis Presley. With a glimmer of hope that Memphis might be his personal Mecca, he and his father sold 33 dozen eggs to finance the trip up U.S. 61. Upon arriving in Memphis they found that Sun Records owner Sam Phillips was vacationing in Florida. Undaunted, Jerry Lee prevailed upon producer Jack Clement to allow him to record some demo tapes for Phillips to hear on his return. The date was November 14, 1956.
Jerry Lee and Elmo returned to Ferriday but Jerry Lee was back in the studio within the month to record Crazy Arms and End of the Road. Ray Price had done well with Crazy Arms but Phillips nevertheless decided to test Jerry Lee’s version and it sold 300,000 copies. Thus encouraged, Phillips brought his new prodigy back into the studio first to back Carl Perkins on his recording of Your True Love and Matchbox and as a member of Billy Riley’s group The Little Green Men. He also played on Riley’s recordings of Red Hot and Flying Saucer Rock & Roll.
Phillips sent Lewis on tour to support Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. Cash and Perkins were responsible to a great degree for his stage development. Hearing Lewis complain that unlike guitar players who could move around, he was too restricted sitting at the piano, Perkins asked him if he could play standing up. “I can play layin’ down,” Lewis replied. “Then do it,” Perkins said. After that, Lewis would invariably kick the piano stool backward at some point in his set and play while standing.
Finally, it was time to turn Jerry Lee loose to see what he could do with rock & roll, still considered to be in its formative stages. Backed by his uncle J.W. Brown on bass, Janes on guitar, and J.M. Van Eaton on drums, Lewis cut a song he had learned earlier in Nashville from a man named Roy Hall. The group needed only one take to record Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On despite the fact that Jerry Lee had to cover for running out of lyrics only a minute into the song. When he couldn’t remember the original version, he simply backed the band down and talked over the music in a routine he’d worked up on club dates. He then stormed back for the blistering finish to the song. To this day, Jerry Lee insists he didn’t know the tape machine was running when he recorded the song.
Phillips was hesitant to release the song because he felt it was too suggestive. If the buying public agreed with him, they still liked it well enough for it to soar to the number 1 position on both the country and R&B charts and the number 3 position on the Billboard Hot 100 in September 1957. The song received a major boost on July 28 when Lewis was featured on the Steve Allen Show. A repeat performance on Allen’s show the following week eclipsed The Ed Sullivan Show in the ratings for the first time ever. Taking advantage of his three minutes of precious national exposure, Lewis put on a performance described by author Colin Escott in his book Good Rockin’ Tonight as “demonic.” At the top of the last chorus to Shakin’, Lewis abruptly stood up and kicked the piano stool back across the stage in a maneuver that he’d learned on the road. Television viewers at home saw the stool come flying back the opposite direction as Allen, standing off-camera, grabbed it and sent it sailing back past an oblivious Lewis.
Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On was originally banned for broadcast by BMI (Broadcast Music, Inc.) but Judd Phillips successfully petitioned BMI to lift the ban and from that point, the only one who could stop Jerry Lee Lewis was Jerry Lee. He even shattered Frank Sinatra’s attendance records during a twelve-day engagement at New York City’s Paramount Theater.
He released three more rock & roll classics (Great Balls Of Fire, Breathless, and High School Confidential) in 1957, a year that would see him outsell Elvis. Great Balls Of Fire was basically a duet between Lewis and Van Eaton with Phillips’s slapback echo serving as a third instrument. The song was recorded with thumbtacks stuck into the piano hammers to give the clicking sound heard on the record. Lewis opened the song’s piano solo with four glissandi (raking his fingers down the white keys of the piano) and then banged away at the same note for six hectic bars as Janes and Van Eaton kept the beat. Great Balls Of Fire climbed to numbers 2 and 3 on the pop and R&B charts, respectively, and was Lewis’s all-time best-selling record. Suddenly he was viewed as a legitimate threat to Elvis. He followed Great Balls Of Fire with Breathless, which continued his incredible momentum by climbing to number 7 on the Billboard Hot 100 and number 3 on the R&B charts in March 1958.
To everyone, with the possible exception of Warren Smith, Lewis could do no wrong. Smith, who reached number 72 with So Long I’m Gone for Sun in 1957 and who also recorded Rock and Roll Ruby, seemed always to be on the cusp of a breakthrough. His fate was sealed, however, when Sam Phillips threw all his limited financial resources behind the promotion of Lewis, creating tensions between the two singers. Resentment only intensified when Lewis, who started out on the road with the others at the bottom of the bill, started moving up in the pecking order.
Smith, with a sizable sense of self in his own right, felt a monstrous ego had been unleashed in the person of the cocky and brash Lewis. Lewis certainly didn’t help matters when, at every diner and café where the tour stopped to eat, he would play his own songs on the jukeboxes. It proved too much for Smith who retaliated by going into record stores in every town they played, buying up all of Lewis’s records, and deliberately and ceremoniously smashing them to bits right in front of incredulous customers and store employees.
Lewis took a back seat to no one and when he was forced to, he could make the winner pay. Once, when Alan Freed decided to close a show with Chuck Berry instead of Lewis, legend has it that the Ferriday Flash poured lighter fluid over his piano at the end of his set, ignited it, and snarled to Berry as he came offstage, “Follow that.” Lewis, true to character, refuses to deny or confirm the story which over the years has grown to mythical proportions. “Someone would have to be crazy to set a piano on fire,” he said. “Of course, that was so long ago and the story’s been told so many times, I sometimes wonder if I really did it.”
Even as Breathless was making its way toward the top of the charts, trouble was on the horizon and within months his career would be in tatters. His performance fee plummeted from $10,000 per night to $250 – when he could even find a booking at that price. He started down his personal road to rock & roll purgatory via Hernando, Mississippi on December 12, 1957. That’s where he took Myra Gale Brown, daughter of his bass playing uncle, J.W. Brown and Lewis’s thirteen-year-old second cousin twice removed, to be married. He was twenty-two when he embarked on his third marriage. It mattered little that she claimed on her marriage license application to be twenty. Nor did it matter that it was common in the South to marry distant kin at a young age.
The scandal broke just as Lewis was embarking on a tour of Europe. The British press, upon learning Myra’s true age, pounced on the singer who appeared baffled at all the hoopla. Lewis had fibbed, telling reporters she was a mature fifteen, as if that would assuage the British tabloids’ outrage. Myra didn’t help when she said it wasn’t too young to marry back home and that “You can marry at ten if you can find a husband.” An enraged press demanded Lewis’s deportation and promoters had no choice but to cancel the tour. The newlyweds returned to the U.S. only to find that the scandal had beaten them home. Adding to the embarrassment was the fact that his newest song, which would fall short of the Top 10 charts at number 21, was appropriately – perhaps inappropriately – titled High School Confidential. Lewis, unsophisticated and clearly ill-prepared to deal with hostile reporters, lamented, “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?”
With radio station deejays now refusing to play his records, Lewis said, “I looked around one day and there was a Bobby Darrin, a Bobby Vee, a Bobby Vinton, a Bobby Rydell, a Bobby here and a Bobby there, but no Jerry Lee.” It took him a dozen years, a change in music, a new record label, and a sympathetic producer to get him back on top, though he did reach number 30 with a cover of Ray Charles’s What’d I Say for Sun in 1961. In 1963, Lewis signed with Mercury subsidiary Smash Records and switched to country music. Producer Jerry Kennedy, a fellow Louisianan, negotiated an uneasy truce with country deejays and slowly he made his way back.
His first big hit as a country artist was Another Place, Another Time, which climbed to number 2 on the country charts. In December 1963, he reached number 1 on the country charts with To Make Love Sweeter for You. Then in 1971 and 1972, he did something that even Hank William never did. Back to back records had both sides to go to number 1 – two records, four number 1 hits. The first record was Would You Take Another Chance On Me, backed by a remake of Kris Kristofferson’s Me and Bobby McGee in 1971. He followed that in 1972 with a cover of the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace, and Think about It Darlin’, both of which again went number 1.
Other country hits included Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee in 1973 (number 20), Boogie Woogie Country Man in 1975, Middle Age Crazy in 1977 (number 4), Rockin’ My Life Away and I Wish I Was 18 Again in 1979 (both reaching number 18), Thirty-Nine and Holdin’ in 1981 (number 4), and I’d Do It All Again in 1982 (number 52).
In 1973, he and the Crazy Cajun, producer Huey Meaux, entered a Memphis studio with a plan to reverse the recent trend of over-producing Lewis songs. Backed by Steve Cropper, Carl Perkins, fellow Louisianan Tony Joe White, and the Memphis Horns, Lewis’s voice and personality were allowed to dominate on Southern Roots. The twelve-song compilation included such classics as When a Man Loves a Woman, Blueberry Hill, Big Blue Diamonds, Hold On I’m Coming, and Cry.
Two years later, Lewis was in Nashville with producer Jerry Kennedy. Backed by Pete Drake, Charlie McCoy, Tommy Allsup, the Jordanaires, and others, Lewis’s piano is more subdued on songs like Jesus Is on the Mainline, I Can Still Hear the Music in the Restroom, and Red Hot Memories (Ice Cold Beer), but not, of course, on the album’s title cut, Boogie Woogie Country Man. The Southern Roots album reached the Top 10, while Boogie Woogie Country Man made the Top 20 and earned Lewis a Country Music Association award for Instrumentalist of the Year.
Now firmly established as a country singer, the hits started coming in regular succession but if his career was revived, his personal life was falling apart just as his career had a few years earlier. In 1962, his three-year-old son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in the family swimming pool and in 1973, another son, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., nineteen, was killed in an automobile accident. His mother died in 1970 and that same year, Myra Gale divorced him after thirteen years of marriage. The following year, his father died. Wife number 4, Jaren Pate, also drowned in the family pool after she and Jerry Lee had separated. Wife five, Shawn Michelle Stevens, died of an accidental methadone overdose only weeks after she married Jerry Lee and he is now divorced from wife number 6.
On April 1, 1976, he appeared for an engagement at the Old South Jamboree in Walker, Louisiana, about ten miles east of Baton Rouge. He showed, but didn’t play. Instead, he verbally abused the audience, telling them he would play when he was good and ready and if they didn’t like it, “them doors swing both ways.” Then he passed out. James Hodges, the show’s promoter, promptly filed suit against Lewis in federal court and on February 21, 1980, the singer was ordered to pay $8,220 in damages.
Later in 1976, while celebrating his 41st birthday, he playfully pointed what he thought was an unloaded pistol at his bass player, Butch Owens, and pulled the trigger, shooting Owens in the chest. Miraculously, Owens survived. A few weeks later, on November 23, 1976, he was invited to Graceland by Elvis, who neglected to inform his security detail. When Lewis showed up, he was barred from entering and when asked why he was there, he pulled out a pistol and joked that he was there “to kill Elvis.”
In 1979, the IRS claimed that Lewis owed four million dollars in back taxes. All his assets were seized, including his cars, motorcycles, guns, jewelry, electronic equipment, rare coins, and the Stark upright piano his parents had bought him when he was six years old. Even with that, the IRS continued to harass him, so he moved to Ireland during the 1990s until the tax dispute was finally resolved.
In 1981, he was hospitalized with less than a fifty percent chance of survival from a two-inch perforation in his stomach brought on by a bleeding ulcer. The Killer survived but then, admitting that he was addicted to drugs, he wisely checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic.
Among all the lows, however, there were occasional highs. In 1986, he reunited with other former Sun recording artists Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison in the old Sun studios in Memphis to record Class of ’55 (Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming). Though it received less than complimentary reviews, several wonderful tracks were laid down for the recording, which quickly climbed to number15 on the album charts and won a Grammy. “It was like a family reunion,” Lewis said. “I enjoyed every second of being in that great old studio with a great bunch of guys. Roy was one of the nicest and most talented people I’ve ever met. He didn’t even know how much talent he had. I sure miss him.” Lewis is the only surviving member of that historic session.
He once discovered a rack of Jerry Lee Lewis cassette tapes in a convenience store. Calling attention to a row of eight-track tapes of his songs, he said to the clerk, “Those are counterfeits.”
“I wouldn’t know about that,” the clerk replied, unaware of who Lewis was.
“I’m telling you, those are counterfeits,” Lewis insisted. “Look at the labels, they’re plain white with black lettering and the picture of me is real poor quality, not professional at all.”
Again the clerk professed his innocence – and ignorance. “I wouldn’t know. There’s a man who comes around every week and stocks the rack. That’s all I know.”
Without another word, Lewis grabbed the rack, walked outside and placed it on the parking lot, doused the tapes, and rack with gasoline, and struck a match to it.
The astonished clerk, who had followed him outside, screamed, “What am I gonna tell the man when he comes to check his rack?”
Lewis turned slowly to the clerk. “Tell him,” he said, “The Killer was here.”
In 1989, his life was chronicled in the movie Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid. In 1990 he wrote It Was the Whiskey Talking, Not Me and the song was included in the soundtrack of the movie Dick Tracy.
In March of 2002, Lewis was scheduled to be inducted in the Delta Music Museum in his hometown of Ferriday but a misunderstanding resulted in Lewis standing up Louisiana Secretary of State Fox McKeithen at the awards presentation. McKeithen had promised to pick Lewis up in a Cessna jet for his flight from Memphis. The pilot, however, had already placed his Cessna in storage so he took a different jet. Lewis balked when he saw that a different plane had been sent and his agent said that Jerry Lee was at the airport and dressed in suit and tie that morning “and looked really good.”
In 2005, The National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, aka The Recording Academy, bestowed its Lifetime Achievement Award on Lewis at the forty-seventh Grammy Awards. The academy described him as “rock & roll’s first great wild man … He created his own unique brand of music by ignoring musical boundaries and (by) merging blues, gospel, country and rock. His work has transcended fads and fashions and is considered one of the best collections of American music in existence.”
Kris Kristofferson, who called Lewis “a natural resource who is inclined to self-destruct,” said he loved what Lewis did with his composition of Me and Bobby McGee. “He was late for the recording session,” Kristofferson said. “They had all these session musicians lined up and in Nashville, if they don’t have three songs on tape in three hours, someone’s gonna lose their job. In walks Jerry Lee and Jerry Kennedy, the producer, says, ‘How are we gonna do it, Killer?’ Jerry Lee says, ‘Like this.’ He sat down at the piano and he just destroyed it. It was a wonderful version. He hated Janis Joplin’s version and he told me he cut his version of it ‘to show that woman how it should be done.’” Joplin, for her part, once said Lewis and Kristofferson were the only two men who could drink her under the table.
Tom Jones said, “When Jerry Lee came to England, rock & roll was just beginning and we were amazed by his talent, his great piano playing, and his showmanship. I was a big fan but the press got over the top and vicious on this child bride incident. He didn’t think he was doing anything wrong, and he wasn’t.”
By the time the dust had finally settled (if indeed, it has) The Killer had racked up a dozen gold records in both rock and country, won several Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award; was the first unanimous inductee into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, the hall’s inaugural year; was nominated for induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame, and had two of his songs elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame. Great Balls Of Fire was chosen in 1998 and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On in 1999. The Rock & Roll Hall of Fame also included both songs among the 500 Songs that Shaped Rock & Roll.
“When they look back on me,” Lewis said, “I want ‘em to remember me not for all my wives, although I’ve had a few, and certainly not for any mansions or high livin’ money I made and spent. I want ‘em to remember me simply for my music.”
On June 4, 2008, at The Lewis Ranch, Jerry Lee Lewis was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall Of Fame.
On October 28, 2002, we said goodbye to Jerry Lee Lewis … he may be gone, but he’ll never be forgotten.
Be sure to visit Jerry Lee Lewis’ website at www.jerryleelewis.com