Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock’n’roll legend who became one of the most infamous figures in popular music, has died aged 87, his publicist has said. After Elvis Presley came Jerry Lee Lewis, and what a follow-up he was! With Billboard hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “A Whole Lotta of Shakin’ Going On,” he picked up exactly where Presley had left off after his departure from Sun Records in Memphis.
Lewis was twenty-one years-old at that time and red hot—a country singer with enough ambition and chutzpah to walk into a studio unknown and immediately get himself an audition. It was a bold maneuver that, in the end, paid off for both parties.
The boy they banned
Lewis’ first score was a take on Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” which garnered him enough regional success to set him up on the path for the next one. As we all now know, it was the hit that would not only get the Ferriday, Louisiana boy banned but make him a world wonder.
Like Presley’s “Heartbreak Hotel,” his number two release after “That’s All Right,” Jerry Lee Lewis’s “Great Balls of Fire” would become the break out record in 1957 that throttled his name to fame.
One has to compare Lewis and Presley when it comes to music at that time as they were both rebel country boys from Memphis whose hips were notorious for making bad girls scream and good ones cry.
The two were similar in too many disturbing ways in the eyes of certain older members of the public. Both were too all-consumed by what American Christians called the devil’s music at that time: fiery, exciting, wild tunes! In the same way, Lewis and Elvis were themselves.
This was highly ironic, too, as they both loved growing up in the Southern Bible Belt and sang to gospel and church hymns in their respective Sunday choirs. Yet, perhaps that is where the desire to sin came from, according to the horrified evangelicals and church folks of good, god-fearing America.
Call me Killer
Jerry Lee Lewis would cut a path through the music world that left burning footprints in his wake. Writing and howling and kicking and shouting made him an onstage sensation for the young but was unheard of and unseemly to the adults.
Presley had already gotten their backs up, and then here comes another whipper snapper inciting the youthful innocents of America to all kinds of shenanigans. Needless to say, they were not having it.
The Killer, as he liked to be called at that time, didn’t seem to care though—or mind. Instead, he continued down the same damned path as his mentor Presley of whom he once evidently said in 1981 to the magazine Goldmine:
“There’s a difference between a phenomena and a stylist. I’m a stylist. Elvis was a phenomena, and don’t you forget it.”
His humbleness, along with that one untamable front lock of blond hair that women so loved, was, however, part of his great charm. Nevertheless, it was his irresistibility along with his smoothness, cocky confidence, and disarming music that later brought him down.
“Kiss me baby-mmmmm feels good”
Again like Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis’ love life would be one of great romance and even greater tragedy. Presley met his wife, Priscilla, whilst stationed in Germany. Lewis, however, met Myra Lewis Williams in Memphis when her father J.W. Brown decided to start a band with his cousin, Lewis. In 1956, Jerry Lee then moved in with the family.
Lewis was still only twenty-one and about to make it big at Sun Records with J.W. The proximity was more than familial between him and Myra, however, and, in 1957, when he was twenty-two and she was only thirteen, they got married. The scandal didn’t break until 1958, but it ruined that first year of blissful marriage and threw the public into a tizzy of fury.
In the south, nevertheless, it seemed it was a common habit. According to Myra herself, for example, when asked about it, she stated innocently enough “Oh no, not at all. Age doesn’t matter at all. You can marry at 10 if you can find a husband.”
Elvis had also met the equally lovely Mrs. Presley when she was only fourteen as well. Presley, however, had the fortitude to wait six more years until she came of age to tie the knot. Of course, she was not his first cousin—as was the case with Myra and Lewis even if once removed.
If only Lewis had once again followed in Elvis’ footsteps, for what some called his immoral passion certainly put his career on a cold back burner for quite some time.
“Another Place, Another Time”
Lewis turned to country when his success as a rocker went flat and had some mild success. Yet, like a broken record, he fell into years of alcohol and drug abuse as had Elvis.
Family tragedies like the car crash that killed his son and an “accidental” shooting of his bass player seemed to prove his former critics right. The devil had come for its due, and Jerry Lee Lewis seemed to be his next stop.
After many bouts of hospitalization and rehab, however, he somehow bounced, touring from the end of the ’70s to the late ’90s with different personalities, such as Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and continued playing until 2008.
His life work was also later recognized, and he received a Lifetime Achievement Award from the Record Academy to go in with his old collection Grammys. He got a star on Hollywood as well, and, today, much like Elvis, will be remembered not only for the good times but also the bad.