Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis showed
an early, natural talent for the piano. His parents were
poor but took out a loan to buy a third-hand upright
piano for him. Sharing piano lessons with his cousins
Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart, the ten-year old
Lewis is said to have shown remarkable aptitude for the
instrument. A visit from piano-playing older cousin Carl
McVoy revealed the methods for the boogie-woogie styles
he was hearing on the radio and across the tracks at
Haney's Big House, which was owned by his uncle, Lee
Calhoun, and catered exclusively to blacks. Lewis mixed
boogie-woogie with gospel and country and developed his
own style. He combined genres in the way he syncopated
his rhythms on the piano: his left hand generally played
boogie while his right played the high keys with
flamboyant elaboration and show. By all family accounts,
by the time Lewis was 14, he was "as good as he was ever
going to get."
Like Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis was raised singing the Christian gospel music of integrated southern Pentecostal churches. In 1950 he attended Southwestern Bible Institute in Texas but was expelled for misconduct, including playing rock and roll versions of hymns in church.
Leaving religious music behind, he became a part of the burgeoning new rock and roll sound, cutting his first record in 1954. Two years later, at Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, producer and engineer Jack Clement discovered and recorded Lewis for the Sun label, while owner Sam Phillips was away on a trip to Florida. As a result, Lewis joined Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash as stars who began their recording careers at Sun Studios around this same time.
Jerry Lee Lewis' first recording at Sun studios was his own distinct version of the country ballad "Crazy Arms". In 1957, his piano and the pure rock and roll sound of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" propelled him to international fame. "Great Balls of Fire" soon followed, and would become his biggest hit. Watching and listening to Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis said if he could play the piano like that, he'd quit singing. Lewis' early billing was Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano.
Lewis' performances were dynamic. He kicked the piano bench out of the way to play standing (a stunt later adopted by admirer Elton John), raked his hands up and down the keyboard for dramatic accent, and even sat down on it. His frenetic performance style can be seen in films such as "High School Confidential" (he sang the title song from the back of a flatbed truck), and "Jamboree".
Jerry Lee Lewis' turbulent personal life was hidden from the public until a 1958 British tour, when reporters learned about the twenty-three year old star's third wife, Myra Gale Brown, who also happened to be his 13-year old second cousin. Lewis didn't consider this odd, as marrying distant cousins was acceptable in the South at the time, and his sister had been married at fourteen. The publicity, however, caused an uproar, and the tour was cancelled after only three concerts.
The scandal followed Lewis home to America, and as a result he almost vanished from the music scene. His only hit during this period was a cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" in 1961. His popularity recovered somewhat in Europe, especially in the UK and Germany during the mid 1960s. A live album, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (1964), recorded with The Nashville Teens, is widely considered one of the greatest live rock and roll albums ever. A comeback eluded him in the USA, however. In 1968, Lewis began focusing on country and western music, achieving several No. 1 and Top 10 country hits. Although he toured and played many sold-out concerts, he never regained the heights of success he had prior to the 1958 scandal, although he had a major international hit with "Chantilly Lace" in 1972.
Plagued by alcohol and drug problems after Myra divorced him in 1970, tragedy struck when Lewis' 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., was killed in a road accident in 1973. During the 1960s, his second son, Steve Allen Lewis, had drowned in a swimming pool accident. Lewis' own erratic behavior during the 1970s led to his being hospitalized after nearly dying from a bleeding ulcer. His fourth wife drowned in a swimming pool under suspicious circumstances. Little more than a year later, his fifth wife was found dead at his home from a methadone overdose. Again addicted to drugs, Lewis checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic.
While celebrating his 41st birthday in 1976, Jerry Lee Lewis playfully pointed a gun at his bass player, Butch Owens, and thinking it was not loaded, pulled the trigger, shooting him in the chest. Owens miraculously survived. A few weeks later (November 23) he was involved in another gun-related arrest at Elvis Presley's Graceland residence. Lewis had been invited by Presley, but security was unaware of the visit. When questioned about why he was at the front gate, Lewis displayed a gun and jokingly told the guard he had come to kill Presley.
In 1989, a major motion picture based on his early life in rock & roll, Great Balls of Fire, brought him back into the public eye. The film was based on the book by Lewis' first ex-wife, and starred Dennis Quaid as Lewis, Winona Ryder as Myra, and Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart.
The very public downfall of his cousin, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, resulted in more adverse publicity to an already troubled family. Swaggart is also a piano player, as is another cousin, country music star Mickey Gilley. Lewis' sister, Linda Gail Lewis, is also a piano player, and has recorded with Van Morrison.
Despite the personal problems, Lewis' musical talent is widely acknowledged. Nicknamed The Killer for his forceful voice and piano production on stage, he was described by fellow artist Roy Orbison as the best raw performer in the history of rock and roll music. In 1986, Jerry Lee Lewis was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That same year, he returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Orbison, Cash, and Perkins to create the album Class of '55. This was not the first time he had teamed up with Cash and Perkins at Sun. On December 4, 1956, Presley dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Lewis backing him on piano. The three started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tapes running. He later telephoned Cash and brought him in to join the others. These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived, and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also include Chuck Berry's "Brown Eyed Handsome Man", Pat Boone's "Don't Forbid Me" and Presley doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) singing "Don't Be Cruel."
Lewis has never stopped touring, and fans who have seen him perform say he can still deliver unique concerts that are unpredictable, exciting, and personal. In February of 2005, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy (which also grants the Grammy Awards.) At the presentation, it was announced that a new album would be made with a line-up including Eric Clapton, B. B. King, Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger and Keith Richards. The album, entitled The Pilgrim, is set for March 2006.
- "Crazy Arms"
- "It'll Be Me"
- "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (July 1957, reached #3 on U.S. Billboard magazine charts)
- "Great Balls of Fire" (December 1957, reached #2 on U.S. Billboard charts)
- "Breathless" (March 1958, reached #7 on U.S. Billboard charts)
- "High School Confidential" (June 1958, reached #21 on U.S. Billboard charts)
- "What'd I Say" (April 1961, reached #30 on U.S. Billboard charts)
- "Another Place, Another Time"
- "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me)"
- "Me and Bobby McGee" (January 1972, reached #40 on U.S. Billboard charts)
- "Chantilly Lace"