Maybe he’s right.
Over the years, Jerry Lee Lewis has gained a reputation as a cantankerous old man. He’s known for railing against history for not giving him what he feels is his due. This can sometimes make him seem almost repugnant. But, you know what? He may be right.
That’s not to say that the real King of Rock & Roll has been living in Memphis all these years and we simply have not acknowledged it. Make no mistake; there are only a handful of men who can truly claim to have been early architects of rock & roll and the man they call the Killer is certainly one of them. But when a musician survives well into his 80s – as Lewis has – it’s easy to celebrate his long life with hyperbole. Again make no mistake; I love Jerry Lee Lewis and have always celebrated him for his white hot personality if for nothing else. Like the leather-jacketed menace of Gene Vincent, Jerry’s fiery personality more than aligns him with the rebellious rock & roll ethos. But let’s not be afraid to take an honest look at his bona fides.
Born of a poor family in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry discovered the piano around the same time his cousins did. It’s certainly a unique aspect of Jerry’s story that his cousins are Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley. Swaggart would become a popular if flawed evangelist and Gilley would wind up one of the biggest country stars of the late 1970’s-early ’80’s. All three were possessed of immense talent at the keyboard and all had a light-fingered lyrical style with strong left-hand bass notes. Jimmy was Jerry’s “partner in crime”1 and the two would fill their eyes and ears with pianists of many stripes; the low down, dirty, barrelhouse style of the black players who played in barrooms, the hillbilly, honky tonk variety and also the more sedate keyboards that accompanied hymns in church. They assimilated all these styles and forged them into a unique sound.
Jerry and Jimmy both had a very clear picture of the two roads one could travel in life. Growing up in the south at this time, a life spent as an itinerant preacher or founding a church was viable employment. And it may not always have come about as the result of a divine calling. Apparently, Jerry started attending seminary as a young man only because he was pushed into a corner; with no job, he claimed he would gladly go to bible school but, shucks, there’s no money for it. His family quickly stepped in and paid his tuition. I shouldn’t say this was the only reason he ended up at bible school. The life of a preacher was one that Jerry often thought of seriously. As he began to gain traction as a rock & roller, he would often claim that if the Lord would grant him one hit record, he would quit the life and become a preacher. This battle raged in Jerry Lee Lewis for most of his life.
After some time performing live around the south, Jerry headed to Memphis to visit Sun Records. Here he began a recording career that spanned nearly 60 years. When we are looking candidly at the contributions of Jerry Lee Lewis to popular music, we need to take a hard look at his seminal recordings – and we need to be honest about the fact that they number two. Granted, the sum total of his contributions are much more than these recordings or even his whole body of work but in terms of long-lasting, classic records, Lewis contributed but two to the lexicon.
On March 21, 1955, Big Maybelle was in the studio with a young producer name of Quincy Jones. The tune she laid down that day was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. Her version was one that went unnoticed by most everybody except Jerry Lee Lewis who would often play a racy and raucous version in concert. At his second recording session for Sun in February of 1957, Lewis recorded his version which he had altered greatly from the original. The single – his second – was released on April 15 and it soon raced up the charts, not stopping until it hit #3 on the Pop charts. It was #1 on the US Country charts, #1 US R&B and reached #13 in the UK. Not only was it a smash hit, but it is definitive rock & roll. Most listings of significant rock & roll records contain Jerry’s “Whole Lotta Shakin'”.
Lewis was able to pull off one of the most monumental one-two punches in the history of popular music when on November the 11th of that year he released “Great Balls of Fire”. The song shot out of the gate, selling one million copies in its first 10 days of release, making it one of the biggest-selling singles up to that time. The tune hit #2 US Pop and topped the Country, R&B and the UK listings. If 1956 was the year of Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis can certainly claim 1957 as his own. As the year ended, he was on top.
But could he keep it going? “Breathless” showed that maybe he could. The song was released in February of ’58 and reached the top ten of all the main charts. The Killer could not be stopped. Or so it seemed.
You see, Jerry Lee Lewis was a wild man. Everything you’ve heard about his energetic concert performances is true. He had been told that he wouldn’t catch on as a live performer – just sitting at a piano – but Jerry didn’t just sit there. He pounded the keys with his hands, with his elbows, with his boots and jumped on top of the instrument. He grabbed the mic and stalked up and down the stage goading the faithful to frenzy. This behaviour was borne out of not only a means by which to energize a crowd, it also came from Jerry’s personality. He was…crazy. Jerry played fast and loose. He cared little for rules, regulations and decorum. He cared even less for divorce court proceedings. He first married at 16 years old and left that wife for his second; a week after he married his second wife, his first wife’s “complaint for divorce” arrived in the mail1. Jerry avoided this business, hoping it would somehow work itself out. When his second ill-advised union floundered, he again left the annoying details of finalizing his divorce to others. Then he fell for the daughter of his bass player and cousin, J.W. Brown. Myra was 13 years old at the time and, yes, Jerry’s second cousin or first cousin once removed. They married on December 12, 1957 at 1:30pm. After three Top Ten hits on the charts, the next step was an overseas tour. Jerry’s next single was “High School Confidential”, released May 20, 1958. It came from the film of the same name, a movie in which Lewis had performed. Then on the 22nd – two days later – Lewis and his troupe travelled to England.
When Lewis arrived in the UK, there were reporters waiting. While English journalists took a condescending view of such performers, there was still a crowd of them congregated around the Killer asking questions and jotting down answers. One reporter couldn’t get near Jerry and was hovering on the fringes. He noticed two young girls, presumably of the Lewis entourage and asked who they were. Myra answered quietly “I’m Jerry’s wife”. Oh, really? Once it came out that Myra – Mrs. Lewis – was only 13 years old and Jerry’s cousin, there was an uproar. When the haphazard legalities surrounding Jerry’s first two marriages were investigated, it was discovered that Jerry and Myra had wed a full 5 months before Jerry’s divorce from his second wife became final. Because of the scandal, Lewis’ career was effectively over. Here is a rare instance in which one can pinpoint the juncture at which a performer’s career ended; for Jerry Lee Lewis, it was May 22, 1958. All the momentum he had built up came to an abrupt halt.
The bottom literally fell out. Afterwards, Jerry could not sell a record or fill an auditorium. More than that, agents simply would not book him for shows for fear of repercussions and lost revenue. Sun Records was ill-equipped to promote Jerry even if there had a been a market that would accept him. Through these darkest days, Jerry and Myra stayed together and welcomed a son into the world, Steve Allen Lewis, named after the man who had helped Jerry get started, booking him for a TV appearance. As if the career troubles were not enough, the Lewis’ had to contend with losing this son to drowning when he was three years old. Jerry and Myra – both traumatized – were sure that they had suffered the wrath of God.
Jerry was able to eventually rebound on a smaller scale. It happened in England, of all places. A short time after losing his son, Lewis toured the UK. The press seemed sympathetic towards Jerry and Myra when she joined him later. Loving a comeback story and gently probing for perspective on their tragedy resulted in the Lewis’ basking in a positive light. Never lacking in zeal, Jerry was still able to bring the house down in a live performance even if the number in attendance was small. As a mid-to-low level live act, Jerry recovered. But the record business was another story.
For all of Sun Records’ reputation and standing in the history of the music community, it may be true that Sam Phillips was simply not able to successfully sustain a performer’s career. When you think about Presley, Cash, Orbison and others, it is after leaving the label that they found stardom. Speaking of Presley, say what you like about Col. Tom Parker – as I often have – but Jerry Lee sure could have used a savvy manager at this time. Lewis lingered at Sun longer than any of the others and this may have hurt him. It seems the label couldn’t decide if Jerry was a rocker or a country singer and Lewis couldn’t score a hit with his erratic releases. Consider that Sun released only two LP’s of Jerry’s music in the 7 years he was at the label. The singles after “High School Confidential” were less-than-stellar. I count 19 singles released in a roughly five-year stretch. Fully 14 of them did not chart at all on the Pop listings. Only one – a 1961 cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” – reached the Top 40 (#30). In 1963, Jerry finally left Sun and signed with Mercury Records. The label planned a big push for Jerry – and then the Beatles changed the musical landscape.
Which leads us to our first checkpoint – 1968. Eleven years previous, Jerry Lee Lewis had set the music world on fire. Then his marriage, his label and the British Invasion conspired to consign him to the fringes. Like other rockers, his reputation was intact but this was not reflected in chart activity or record sales. Nor frankly was it reflected in quality of recording material. Mercury subsidiary Smash Records, Jerry’s home, had continued to promote Jerry across the spectrum as his singles and albums featured rock & roll, rockabilly, rhythm and blues, country, honky tonk, etc. He wasn’t getting any love on Top 40 stations and country radio was loathe to play anyone who was not purely country. Finally, Smash decided to send the Killer to the sticks.
Jerry’s producers floated the idea of going to Nashville and recording a pure country album; not the clean, countrypolitan sound then popular but a “hard country” or honky tonk album. Listening to Jerry’s type of country through the years I have often thought that it had a unique sound and it now occurs to me that the term “honky tonk” expresses it perfectly. Another Place, Another Time was released in 1968 and the album reached #3 on the country charts. The title track and two others on the album were written by Jerry Chesnut, a writer known in Elvis World for penning songs for the King. Jerry’s version of the title track reached #4 on the country charts and also from the record “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” did even better, peaking at #2 Country. Jerry – the Honky Tonkin’ Killer, at least – was back.
From ’68 into 1970, Jerry scored 11 consecutive Top Ten Country songs, including two chart-toppers. During this run, 5 singles topped the Country charts in Canada. In ’71 and ’72, he returned to the top of the country charts with three consecutive singles including his takes on “Me and Bobby McGee” and “Chantilly Lace”. Eleven of his albums reached the Top Ten of the Country charts. As late as 1981, Jerry scored a Top Ten Country hit. After 10 fallow years, the Killer had attained the status he had always craved. But it wasn’t as a rockin’ and rollin’ dethroner of kings. It was as the mayor of Killer Country. This thirteen-year run featured 40 Top 40 Country hits, 21 Top Tens and 5 Number Ones.
Throughout the Seventies was born a certain persona for Jerry. After a run of successful country singles and albums, songwriters were more often submitting songs to him that celebrated this persona that was based on Jerry’s uncompromising, hard-living lifestyle. Problem was that it was descending into parody. Too many songs were being offered up that were tailor-made for Lewis’ “leather-worn persona”. One song was even written called “Think About It, Darlin'” because that was a phrase Jerry often used. Starting in the early 1970’s, there began a wave of nostalgia for all things Fifties and remaining artists from the era began to capitalize, Killer included. Eventually, Jerry left Mercury – and straight country – behind and began to pound the keys again in the service of rock & roll.
But as the 1980’s rolled in, Jerry entered that phase of a career that few can achieve; living legend. It finally no longer mattered where or if the records charted as that was no longer the point. Jerry had survived to continue making music. But just barely. It was well known that added to the Killer’s famous hair-trigger temper were now serial marriages and abuses of alcohol and prescription medication. Additionally, never having had a manager to look after him properly, the IRS became a regular nemesis of Jerry’s as the lifelong lack of any competent fiscal planning caught up to him.
In 1986, Jerry Lee was not surprisingly one of the inaugural inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. At the end of the evening’s festivities, Lewis began an unscheduled jam session and this was eventually incorporated into the event’s proceedings. Then in 1989, a film was made based on Myra Gale Brown’s memoir and called Great Balls of Fire!. I was thrilled when this came out as it was not only about my man, Jerry Lee, but it starred my man, Dennis Quaid. I went to the theatre three times to see it. The film’s qualities aside, what needs to be talked about and what isn’t talked about enough is the soundtrack.
Lewis was 53 at the time and his recording career was effectively over. Bleeding ulcers and stomach tears resulting from years of hard living, boozing and pill-popping had certainly taken a toll on the Killer’s health. How to explain then the crisp, ringing performances Lewis puts in on this record? Understanding that production plays a big part, Jerry’s pumping piano sounds pristine and clear as his fingers dance excitedly over the keys. “I’m on Fire”, “Wild One” and particularly “That Lucky Old Sun” are some of Jerry’s finest recordings. His duet with Quaid, “Crazy Arms”, is one of my absolute favourite songs. Inexplicably, this album is virtually impossible to find. I bought it on cassette at the time for bank and more recently found it on vinyl. Jerry Scheff plays bass with Jerry here. Music subscription services? Whatever; YouTube. Bam.
I saw Jerry Lee Lewis live at Lulu’s Roadhouse on April 26, 1997. The place was once home to the longest bar in the world and was known for the legends that performed there. I saw the Fabulous Thunderbirds, Mitch Ryder and Rare Earth there, as well. Jerry was late getting to the piano; he didn’t appear until about 11:30pm. He was surly from the get-go and when someone took his picture he protested. When the flashbulbs wouldn’t stop, he blew up and cut the show short. I think he sang about 5 songs and was on stage maybe 15 minutes.
Later came the inevitable duet album. The aptly named Last Man Standing came in 2006, released three days before Jerry’s 71st birthday. It’s a well executed, well performed record with partners that make sense. Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Eric Clapton and even Little Richard join Jerry. Highlights include Springsteen and his “Pink Cadillac” which is a great fit for Lewis, The Band’s “Twilight” which Jerry, with Robbie Robertson, makes his own, country-loving Keith Richards digs deep to unearth Jerry’s “That Kind of Fool” and Rod Stewart gets to sing “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous” with the man he covered in 1972. Jerry sounds gregarious but sometimes on these records the primary artist’s work is camouflaged by all the imported finery.
When assessing Jerry’s standing in the rock & roll pantheon, keep in mind we are messing with definitions and we’re foolishly attaching a subjective title to artists of the past. Simply speaking, “The King of Rock & Roll” is a title that applies to Elvis Presley, full stop. However, I have conjectured that perhaps Little Richard deserves a look and could in fact be considered the most significant rock & roll artist. But what of Jerry? Lewis himself as long claimed rights to the title and his persona has regularly been promoted in this vein. Indeed, Jerry Lee Lewis has spent his life almost obsessed with staking claims and with comparisons to Presley and often making his grumpy assertion that he himself did it better, has done it better and continues to do it better. But it’s a performer’s complete body of work that needs to be assessed. So, let’s.
While Elvis Presley holds the appellation, you could easily argue that he soon abandoned the consistent plying of rock music and followed his muse where it would take him; into country music and into a more easy listening sound. Little Richard boasts a list of recordings in the 1950’s that easily eclipses Jerry’s but Richard could not maintain a recording career of any stripe through the Seventies. What of the Killer?
Two – two – recordings from the ’50’s that were huge. Grant it, they are recordings the size of which cannot be overstated. They are seminal rock & roll recordings, definitions of the era. But there’s only two. Danny and the Juniors can boast two such recordings. The Diamonds, as well. Then there was the successful, years-long detour into country music. But the thing I will point to in Jerry’s favour is his persistent revisiting of classic rock & roll on his later albums. 1965’s The Return of Rock contains three Chuck Berry covers. He included “Don’t Be Cruel” and “I’m Walkin'” on The Killer Rocks On in 1972 and “Blueberry Hill”, “Shake, Rattle and Roll”, “Blue Suede Shoes” and “Lucille” feature on albums released through the middle of the Seventies. So, does this mean that, because Jerry Lee Lewis continued to record pure rock & roll for almost 30 years that we should consider him the greatest artist in the genre’s history?
Where Jerry may get major points is in the fact that he has lived the rock & roll rebel lifestyle. But is that enough? I hate to think that living foolishly and recklessly can elevate you to being the king of anything. And I suppose the other thing that may make Jerry Lee Lewis a poster boy for all that rock & roll means is his having chosen it over a life spent as a preacher of the Gospel. The whole “highway to hell” ideology of rock music has a sort of base appeal for many listeners. This battle between the two paths is perhaps the most significant part of the Jerry Lee Lewis story.
Jerry Lee grew up in the southern United States in a “religious” atmosphere. Unfortunately, this “religion” had much to do with judgement and with the proclamation that those who do not live an at least outwardly Christian life were going to spend eternity suffering damnation. It had little to do with peace and comfort and living in the light of the knowledge that your sins have been forgiven. On the contrary, human beings spouted rules that left many swamped in fear and overly concerned with the following of rules and regular church attendance. Piety as opposed to living in freedom and sharing the love of Jesus Christ with others.
Sadly, Jerry and Myra both were caught up in religious rules and an Old Testament outlook, one that told them both that God had taken their baby, Stevie, away to punish them. Myra went so far as to proclaim that she wore lipstick like Jezebel and that was why her son was dead1. Jerry for his part was sure that singing rock & roll in nightclubs had flung his son into that swimming pool. Jerry believed that you had to be sinless and because he couldn’t be he was going to hell. Conversely, he felt that if he gave up singing in honky tonks and took to preaching, he would go to Heaven. Omitting what he may feel in his heart or decide in his mind, he seems to have thought that it simply came down to vocation. Rock & rollers burn; preachers walk streets of gold. Here’s where I believe poor Jerry suffered with the loss of his son and indeed suffered throughout his whole life. He’s famous for many things, Jerry Lee. One of which is this conundrum he often talked about. I want to quit singing the devil’s music and do the work of the Lord; but heck, I just cain’t. I believe there was always more options for Jerry Lee Lewis, ones that he didn’t believe were there. Christianity – as opposed to religion – is available to everyone and it is something that exists in your heart. It has nothing to do with what you do for a living.
Elvis Presley is Elvis Presley. Little Richard’s recordings from the 1950’s wipe the floor with everyone, giving even EP a run for his money. And Jerry Lee Lewis – the last surviving member of the inaugural inductees to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame – has earned, I think, his place in this trio of giants. While his pure rock & roll output during the golden age was sadly truncated, his lifelong devotion to the idiom and his ball of fire persona make him a legitimate member of this triumvirate.
- Lewis, Myra Gale and Murray Silver. Great Balls of Fire!: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis. (1982)