Jerry Lee Lewis (born September 29, 1935) is an American rock and roll and country music singer and pianist. An early pioneer of rock and roll music, his career faltered after Lewis married his young cousin, and he afterwards made a transition to country music.
Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 and his pioneering contribution to the genre has been recognized by the Rockabilly Hall of Fame. In 2008 He was inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame. In 2004, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked him number 24 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. In 2003, they listed his box set All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology number 242 on their list of "500 greatest albums of all time".
Lewis was born to the poor family of Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday in Concordia Parish in eastern Louisiana, and began playing piano in his youth with two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. Influenced by a piano-playing older cousin Carl McVoy (who later recorded with Bill Black 's Combo), the radio, and the sounds from the black juke joint across the tracks, Haney's Big House, Lewis created his style from black artists who were unable to play to white audiences, mixing rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, gospel, and country music, as well as ideas from established "country boogie" pianists like recording artists Moon Mullican and Merrill Moore. Soon he was playing professionally.
His mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, so that her son would be exclusively singing his songs to the Lord. But Lewis daringly played a boogie woogie rendition of "My God Is Real" at a church assembly that sent him packing the same night. Pearry Green, then president of the student body, related how during a talent show Lewis played some "worldly" music. The next morning, the dean of the school called Lewis and Green into his office to expel them. Lewis said that Green shouldn't be expelled because "he didn't know what I was going to do." Years later Green asked Lewis: "Are you still playing the devil's music?" Lewis replied "Yes, I am. But you know it's strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don't."
After that incident, he went home and started playing at clubs in and around Ferriday and Natchez, Mississippi, becoming part of the burgeoning new rock and roll sound and cutting his first demo recording in 1954. He made a trip to Nashville circa 1955 where he played clubs and attempted to build interest, but was turned down by the Grand Ole Opry as he had been at the Louisiana Hayride country stage and radio show in Shreveport. Recording executives in Nashville suggested he switch to playing a guitar.
Lewis traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in November 1956, to audition for Sun Records. Label owner Sam Phillips was in Florida, but producer and engineer Jack Clement recorded Lewis's rendition of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" and his own composition "End of The Road". During December 1956, Lewis began recording prolifically, as a solo artist and as a session musician for such Sun artists as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. His distinctive piano can be heard on many tracks recorded at Sun during late 1956 and early 1957, including Carl Perkins' "Matchbox", "Your True Love", "You Can Do No Wrong", and "Put Your Cat Clothes On", and Billy Lee Riley's "Flyin' Saucers Rock'n'Roll". Formerly, rockabilly had rarely featured piano, but it proved an influential addition and rockabilly artists on other labels also started working with pianists.
On December 4, 1956, Elvis 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. Johnny Cash was also there watching Perkins. The four started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tape running. 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 Elvis Presley's "Don't Be Cruel" and "Paralyzed", 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) on "Don't Be Cruel".
Lewis's own singles (on which he was billed as "Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano") advanced his career as a soloist during 1957, with hits such as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire", his biggest hit, bringing him international fame, despite criticism for the songs' overtly sexual undertones which prompted some radio stations to boycott them. In 2005, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.
According to several first hand sources, including Johnny Cash, Lewis himself, who was devoutly Christian, was also troubled by the sinful nature of his own material, which he firmly believed was leading himself and his audience to hell. This aspect of Lewis's character was depicted in Waylon Payne's portrayal of Lewis in the 2005 film Walk the Line, based on Cash's autobiographies.
Lewis would often kick the piano bench aside and play standing, rake his hands up and down the keyboard for dramatic accent, sit on the keyboard and even stand on top of the instrument. His first TV appearance, in which he demonstrated some of these moves, was on The Steve Allen Show on July 28, 1957, where he played the song "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On". He is also reputed to have set a piano on fire at the end of a live performance, in protest at being billed below Chuck Berry.
His dynamic 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. He has been called "rock & roll's first great wild man" and also "rock & roll's first great eclectic." Classical composer Michael Nyman has also cited Lewis's style as the progenitor of his own aesthetic.
Lewis's turbulent personal life was hidden from the public until a May 1958 British tour where Ray Berry, a news agency reporter at London's Heathrow Airport (the only journalist present), learned about Lewis's third wife, Myra Gale Brown. She was Lewis's first cousin once removed and only 13 years old. (Brown, Lewis, and his management all insisted she was 15). Lewis was nearly 23 years old. The publicity caused an uproar and the tour was cancelled after only three concerts.
The scandal followed Lewis home to America, and as a result, he was blacklisted from radio and almost vanished from the music scene. Lewis felt betrayed by numerous people who had been his supporters. Dick Clark dropped him from his shows. Lewis even felt that Sam Phillips had sold him out when the Sun Records boss released "The Return of Jerry Lee", a bogus "interview" cut together by Jack Clement from excerpts of Lewis's songs, which made light of his marital and publicity problems. Only Alan Freed stayed true to Jerry Lee Lewis, playing his records until Freed was removed from the air because of payola allegations.
Jerry Lee Lewis was still under contract with Sun Records, and kept recording, regularly releasing singles. He had gone from $10,000 a night concerts to $250 a night spots in beer joints and small clubs. He had few friends at the time whom he felt he could trust. It was only through Kay Martin, the president of Lewis's fan club, T. L. Meade, (aka Franz Douskey) a sometime Memphis musician and friend of Sam Phillips, and Gary Skala, that Lewis went back to record at Sun Records.[when?]
By this time,[when?] Phillips had built a new state-of-the-art studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis, thus abandoning the old Union Avenue studio where Phillips had recorded B. B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, and also opened a studio in Nashville. It was at the latter studio that Lewis recorded his only major hit during this period, a rendition of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" in 1961. In Europe other updated versions of "Sweet Little Sixteen" (September 1962 UK) and "Good Golly Miss Molly" (March 1963) entered the Hit Parade. On popular EPs, "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes", "I've Been Twistin'", "Money" and "Hello Josephine" also became turntable hits, especially in nascent discothèques. Another recording of Lewis playing an instrumental boogie arrangement of the Glenn Miller Orchestra favorite "In the Mood", was issued on the Phillips International label under the pseudonym of "The Hawk," but disc jockeys quickly figured out the distinctive piano style, and this gambit failed.
Lewis's Sun recording contract ended in 1963 and he joined Smash Records, where he made a number of rock recordings that did not further his career.
His popularity recovered somewhat in Europe, especially in the UK and Germany, during the mid-1960s. A concert 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. Music critic Stephen Thomas Erlewine writes: "Live at the Star Club is extraordinary, the purest, hardest rock & roll ever committed to record."
Lewis has been married six times. His first marriage, to Dorothy Barton, lasted for 20 months, from February 1952 to October 1953 although there is some question that Lewis may have married Barton earlier than 1952. In a 1978 People magazine interview Lewis stated "I was 14 when I first got married. My wife was too old for me; she was 17." His second marriage to Jane Mitchum was of dubious validity because it occurred 23 days before his divorce from Barton was final. They were married for four years, from September 1953 to October 1957. They had two children. He then married Myra Gale Brown in December 1957. She was his first cousin once removed, and thirteen at the time of the marriage. This marriage caused a scandal which destroyed his career for a decade. They had two children and divorced in December 1970 after 13 years of marriage. His fourth marriage was to Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, and ended when she drowned in the swimming pool at their home. They were married for 12 years, from October 1971 to August 1983,[clarification needed]. His fifth wife was Shawn Stephens. This marriage ended with her death from a methadone overdose. They were married for three months, from June to August 1984. His sixth marriage was to Kerrie McCarver, with whom he had one child. This marriage lasted 20 years and ended in divorce in 2004.
Lewis has had four children. There have been two people who have claimed to be his children, but had no proof. In 1962, his son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool accident when he was three, and in 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., was killed at the age of 19 when he overturned the jeep he was driving. His current living children are a son, Jerry Lee Lewis III, and one daughter, Phoebe Allan Lewis.