You didn’t think I was gonna let one of the greats pass away and not do a post, did you?
“Jerry Lee began to show that in this new emerging genre called rock ‘n’ roll, not everybody was going to stand there with a guitar.” – Robert Gordon
You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain
Too much love can drive a girl insane
You broke my will oh but what a thrill
Goodness gracious great balls of fire
Wikipedia: “Jerry Lee Lewis (September 29, 1935 – October 28, 2022) was an American singer, songwriter, and pianist. Nicknamed “The Killer,” he was described as “rock & roll’s first great wild man” and was billed early on as Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping Piano. When he passed away, he had had seven wives and six children.
Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee taught himself to play piano and sang in church growing up. Recall that there WAS no rock ‘n roll and Lewis listened to radio shows like the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Al Jolson were some of his early influences. His cousin was Jimmy Swaggart, another piano player turned disgraced evangelist.
“When he was 10, Lewis’ father mortgaged the family farm to buy Jerry Lee his first piano. He gave his first public performance at 14, wowing the crowd gathered for the opening of a local car dealership with his piano prowess. With little formal education, he basically gave up on school around this time to focus on his music.”
In November 1956 he moved in with a cousin, J. W. Brown, in Memphis. They started a band together, with Jerry as singer. They sold a copy of their first song, “Crazy Arms,” to Sam Phillips, president of Sun Records. Phillips had become famous because of his discovery of Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. Phillips liked the song, and Jerry Lee began to establish his name in Memphis in late 1956.
“Crazy Arms” has got that old barrelhouse piano thing goin’ on. Amazing to think he was doing this stuff right around the time Elvis was doing his thing;
Jerry Lee started recording as a solo artist and as a session musician for other Sun artists. He played piano for both Carl Perkins (“Matchbox”) and Johnny Cash. That’s him playing on Billy Lee Riley’s “Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll.” (I think the Stray Cats spent some time listening to this cut).
You’ve doubtless seen the picture of the so-called Million Dollar Quartet:
Wikipedia: “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 then started an impromptu jam session and Phillips left the tape running.
These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, were released on CD as Million Dollar Quartet. Tracks also include Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Paralyzed”, Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man”, and Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me.”
If you’ve never heard Big Maybelle’s version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” well it sure is a treat and, well, gives it a whole new meaning. It swings rather than rocks. Jerry rocked it up in the way only the Killer can: “I knew it was a hit when I cut it. Sam Phillips thought it was gonna be too risqué, it couldn’t make it. If that’s risqué, well, I’m sorry.”
In that same year (1957), Jerry Lee released “Great Balls of Fire.” Interestingly, he also appeared performing the tune in a long-forgotten movie called Jamboree which also featured Fats Domino and Carl Perkins. Rolling Stone calls it the 96th greatest song of all time:
Jerry Lee was riding high. And so, as these things sometimes go, he fucked it all up. Already married twice, a reporter found out about Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown.
She was “Lewis’s first cousin once removed and was 13 years old when they married—though Lewis, who was 22 years old at the time, claimed she was actually 15. The publicity caused an uproar, and the tour was canceled after only three concerts.” (We live in a different time but I think that marrying your 13-year-old cousin is still somewhat of a taboo – ME).
Myra’s parents forgave Jerry Lee. His fans did not. “In England, fans stormed the stage — but this time to express their disgust. The marriage was front-page news around the world. His career was in shambles.
He had just signed a five-year contract with Sun Records, and he did continue to record songs until 1963. During the last years of the contract, however, he made very few rock songs. Most of his compositions were ballads, possibly due to his depression at the direction his career had taken.”
Here’s a couple of pre-meltdown songs, “Breathless” and then “High School Confidential”:
Jerry Lee wound up on Smash records in 1963 just in time for the Beatles to show up and render everything before them totally obsolete. (Ironically, it was music they loved.) Further irony – Jerry Lee recorded a great live album in 1964 at the Star Club in Hamburg, one of the Fab Four’s frequent hangouts.
Jerry Lee, like Elvis, was in the wilderness for most of the Sixties. But again, like The King, he had a resurgence in the late 60s. Elvis was still very much a rocker/balladeer while Jerry Lee went the country route.
“Between 1968 and 1977, Lewis had 17 Top 10 hit singles on the Billboard country chart, including four chart-toppers. Hits include “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me)”, “To Make Love Sweeter For You”, “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left of Me)”, “Since I Met You Baby”, “Once More With Feeling”, “One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)”, and “Sometimes A Memory Ain’t Enough.”
By 1970, Lewis had become the most bankable country star in the world. He played the Grand Ole Opry but never really felt totally accepted in the world of Nashville.
From here on in it’s kind of hit or miss. The hit tunes dried up in the late 70s. He went over to England and played with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, a biopic called Great Balls of Fire (with Dennis Quaid) was made and in 1986 he was one of the first rock and rollers inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In 1986, an album called Class of ’55: Memphis Rock & Roll Homecoming, a collaborative studio album by Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Roy Orbison, and Johnny Cash was released. This is a John Fogerty-written song. It really doesn’t sound like rockabilly but it’s pretty catchy. Plus Marty Stuart, Sam Phillips, June Carter Cash, Fogerty, Dave Edmunds, The Judds, and Rick Nelson all sing backup. How could I resist?
Even in his later years, Jerry Lee still did a few shows. Reportedly, his last gig was playing a private gig for Dallas Cowboys owner Jerry Jones. He died at 87 years old on October 28, 2022.
Note – Jerry Lee’s mugshot from that time he showed up at Graceland drunk, waving a pistol.