Donald's Encyclopedia of Popular Music


LEWIS, Jerry Lee

(b 29 Sep. '35, Ferriday LA) Rockabilly/country singer, pianist; nicknamed 'the Killer' in school. Went to bible school at 15, was expelled; first married at 16. With his vocal style (manic yet precise, predictable yet improvised each time) and his 'pumping piano', replete with finger-stabbing boogie and pointless yet exciting glissandi, no one except Elvis Presley defined rock'n'roll more clearly, but like Presley before him he did not at first reveal his personality in the studio. He made an audition tape for Jack Clement at Sun Records in Memphis '56, was invited back by Sam Phillips; his first single covered Ray Price's country hit 'Crazy Arms' and did well regionally. On tour with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, Perkins recalled later, Lewis suffered shyness; they told him to 'make a fuss. So the next night he carried on, stood up, kicked the stool back, and a new Jerry Lee was born.' 'Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On', made at the end of his second session, was no. 1 in national country and R&B charts, no. 3 pop; 'Great Balls Of Fire', 'Breathless' and 'High School Confidential' (title song of his film) were all huge hits on all charts '57--8, also in UK. On an Alan Freed tour, according to writer John Grissim, he insist- ed on closing the show; when Chuck Berry also had a hit in the charts, Freed insisted that Lewis open, so he did a short blistering set and poured lighter fluid on the piano and set fire to it, saying 'I'd like to see any son of a bitch follow that!'

He married his third wife '58 without bothering to divorce the second: Myra was 13 or 14 years old and his second, third or fourth cousin, depending which source is consulted. He brought her along on a UK tour, where the press decided to apply its own standards to the American South; he was booed off the stage, the tour cancelled. His only top 40 pop hit '60s was a cover of Ray Charles's 'What'd I Say', no. 30 '61. He switched to Smash/ Mercury '64, touring hard and giving good value, but developing problems with alcohol and pills, his always-threatening persona contributing to an effective blacklisting: he could not get on TV or big tours and radio stations would not give his records the exposure they needed. In '68 he played Iago in a rock'n'roll version of Othello called Catch My Soul in LA. He switched to country songs and had twelve top five hits in that chart '68--71, incl. reissues of country songs from the Sun period; 'To Make Love Sweeter For You', 'There Must Be More To Love Than This', 'Would You Take Another Chance On Me' were no. 1, as was 'Chantilly Lace' '72; his cover of Kris Kristofferson's 'Me And Bobby McGee' crossed over to pop '72, his last top 40 entry in that chart. He always played a wide range of material on stage and came back to rock'n'roll '70s; The Session '73 made in London with Peter Frampton, Rory Gallagher, others incl. remakes of hits and 'Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee', a '49 R&B hit which he had played that year in his first public performance, sitting in with a C&W band in a Ford dealer's lot. Signed with Elektra '78; he was hospitalized mid-'82 with perforated ulcers and given a 50--50 chance of survival: before the end of the year he was back on the road. He appeared with his cousin Mickey Gilley '82 on the Grammy Awards TV show.

A gun nut like Presley, in '76 he shot his bass player in the chest; he once tried to drive through the gates at Presley's Graceland house, waving a pistol. It was the same Dr George Nichopoulos who dispensed too many pills to both Presley and Lewis. Both Lewis's sons were killed in accidents; the marriage to Myra lasted 13 years, but it wasn't easy (she published book Great Balls Of Fire '82). Of five ex-wives two are dead, the fourth found at the bottom of a swimming pool '82 as a divorce settlement was about to be made, the fifth of a drug overdose '83 after 77 days of marriage, after she had told her family she intended to leave him. He said to a Chicago audience in '86, 'Elvis? He's dead. We got rid of his ass.' Sun-Times critic Don McLeese said that Lewis's was the most exciting set in a revival weekend that incl. the Everly Bros and Fats Domino. More albums incl. Live At The Star Club Hamburg '64, I'm On Fire from the same period, Another Time, Another Place '68 (title song no. 2 C&W hit), Memphis Country '70, Best Of The Country Music Hall Of Fame Hits '81 in UK, all on various Polygram labels; Jerry Lee Lewis '79 (incl. 'Rockin' My Life Away') on Elektra; Monsters '83 and I Am What I Am '84 on MCA. There were compilations of Smash/Mercury material; the Sun tracks were on Sun, Rhino and Power in the USA; Million Dollar Quartet on RCA is an informal studio tape of Lewis, Cash and Perkins singing gospel songs (Presley had left), formerly widely bootlegged; Keep Your Hands Off It '87 on Zu-Zazz UK incl. unissued Sun tracks from '59--60; then Bear Family did the lot: Complete Sun Recordings on eight CDs, The Killer 1963- -68 on nine LPs and 1973--77 on eleven more; eleven-CD The Sun Years was on Charly UK. New album Young Blood '95 on Sire prod. by Andy Paley was described as stunning, the best comeback by a legend in many years.