Jerry Lee Lewis Biography
Jerry Lee Lewis (born September 29, 1935) is an American rock and roll and country music singer, songwriter, and pianist. An early pioneer of rock and roll 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. His nickname is The Killer.
Lewis was born to the poor family of Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday, Louisiana, and began playing piano in his youth with his two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Lee Swaggart. Influenced by a piano-playing older cousin Carl McVoy, the radio, and the sounds from the black juke joint across the tracks, Haney's Big House, Lewis developed his own style mixing rhythm and blues, boogie woogie, gospel, and country music. Soon he was playing professionally.
His mother enrolled him in Southwestern Assemblies of God University, Waxahachie, Texas, secure in the knowledge that her son would now be exclusively singing his songs to the Lord. But legend has it that the he tore into 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 Jerry played some "worldly" music. The next morning the dean of the school called both Jerry and Pearry into his office to expel them both. Jerry then said that Pearry shouldn't be expelled because "he didn't know what I was going to do." Years later Pearry asked Jerry "Are you still playing the devil's music?" Jerry 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."
Leaving religious music behind, he became a part of the burgeoning new rock and roll sound, cutting his first record in 1954. Two years later, at Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee, producer and engineer Jack Clement discovered and recorded Lewis for the Sun label, while owner Sam Phillips was away on a trip to Florida. He became a session musician playing piano for Sun artists like Billy Lee Riley and Carl Perkins. During his time as a session player, he was a member of the impromptu jam session known as the Million Dollar Quartet featuring Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Lewis.
He married Jane Mitcham, his second wife, 23 days before his divorce from his first wife was final.
Lewis' turbulent personal life was hidden from the public until a 1958 British tour, when reporters learned about the twenty-three year old star's third wife, Myra Gale Brown, who also happened to be his thirteen-year-old first cousin once removed.
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 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 latter released "The Return of Jerry Lee," which mocked Lewis' marital and music problems. Only Alan Freed stayed true to Jerry Lee Lewis, playing his records until Freed was removed from the air because of his payola problems. Even though Jerry Lee Lewis was still under contract with Sun Records, he stopped recording. He had gone from $10,000 a night concerts to $100 dollar a night spots in beer joints and small clubs. He had few friends at the time he felt he could trust. It was only through Kay Martin, the president of Lewis' fan club, T. L. Meade,(aka Franz Douskey) a sometime Memphis musician and friend of Sam Phillips, and Gary Sklar, that Lewis went back to record at Sun Records. By this time 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, and Johnny Cash. It was at the new Madison Avenue studio that Lewis recorded his only hit during this period,which was a cover of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" in 1961.
His popularity recovered somewhat in Europe, especially in the UK and Germany during the mid-1960s. A live 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 that: "Live at the Star Club is extraordinary — the purest, hardest rock & roll ever committed to record. Compared to this, The Stooges sound constrained, hardcore punk seems neutered, and the Sex Pistols sound like wimps."
A comeback eluded him in the United States, however, at least within the rock and roll genre. Although Lewis was again making steady money touring, he didn't have much success in the charts. Producers coaxed Lewis into trying instrumental piano tunes issued under pseudonyms, recording songs without the piano, and even playing the harpsichord. In the late 1960s, Mercury Records producer Jerry Kennedy convinced Lewis to make a complete switch to country music. Lewis, who had always considered country one of the genres he blended into his trademark sound, obliged and "Another Place, Another Time" shot up the country charts in 1968. More country hits soon followed over the late 1960s and through the 1970s, many of them crossing over into the Hot 100 charts.
Although he was always a heavy drinker, he increasingly became plagued by alcohol and drug problems after Myra divorced him in 1970. Tragedy struck when Lewis' 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., was killed in a road accident in 1973. During the 1960s, his second son, Steve Allen Lewis, had drowned in a swimming pool accident. He also has a daughter, Phoebe Lewis, who is a singer and musician - and for a few years also has been her father's manager. Lewis' own erratic behaviour during the 1970s led to his being hospitalized after nearly dying from a bleeding ulcer. Again addicted to drugs, Lewis checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic.
While celebrating his 41st birthday in 1976, Lewis playfully pointed a gun at his bass player, Butch Owens, and thinking it was not loaded, pulled the trigger, shooting him in the chest. Owens miraculously survived. A few weeks later (November 23) Lewis was involved in another gun-related arrest at Elvis Presley's Graceland residence. Lewis had been invited by Presley, but security was unaware of the visit. When questioned about why he was at the front gate, Lewis displayed a gun and jokingly told the guard he had come to kill Presley.
In 1989, a major motion picture based on his early life in rock & roll, Great Balls of Fire, brought him back into the public eye, especially when he decided to re-record all his songs for the movie soundtrack. The film was based on the book by Lewis' ex-wife, Myra Gayle Lewis, and starred Dennis Quaid as Lewis, Winona Ryder as Myra, and Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart.
The very public downfall of his cousin, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, resulted in more adverse publicity to an already troubled family. Swaggart is also a piano player, as is another cousin, country music star Mickey Gilley. Lewis' sister, Linda Gail Lewis, is also a piano player, and has recorded with Van Morrison. The next year in 1990, Lewis made minor news when a new song he co-wrote called "It Was the Whiskey Talking, Not Me" was included in the soundtrack to the hit movie Dick Tracy. The song can even be heard in a scene from the movie in which it is playing on the radio.
Despite the personal problems, Lewis' musical talent is widely acknowledged. Nicknamed "The Killer" for his forceful voice and piano production on stage, he was described by fellow artist Roy Orbison as the best raw performer in the history of rock and roll music. In 1986, Lewis was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
That same year, he returned to Sun Studios in Memphis to team up with Orbison, Cash, and Perkins to create the album Class of '55. This was not the first time he had teamed up with Cash and Perkins at Sun. On December 4, 1956, 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. The three started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tapes running. He later telephoned Cash and brought him in to join the others. 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 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) singing "Don't Be Cruel."
Lewis has never stopped touring, and fans who have seen him perform say he can still deliver unique concerts that are unpredictable, exciting, and personal. In February of 2005, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy (which also grants the Grammy Awards.) On September 26th, 2006 a new album titled Last Man Standing was released, featuring many of rock and roll's elite as guest stars. It got rave reviews and shot into 4 Billboard charts, staying #1 Indie for 2 weeks. All reviewers agreed Jerry Lee dominated guest stars like Mick Jagger, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Little Richard, Willie Nelson, Keith Richards, etc. who were almost relegated to backing vocalists, often on their own songs. Jerry rocked up songs like Honky Tonk Woman, Travelin' Band and Pink Cadillac at manic speed, sung beautiful country ballads, blues, a patriotic song and even an Irish number. 21 tracks (plus bonus tracks available for downloading at some U.S. outlets) which demonstrated The Killer's amazing versatility. The U.S. album release led to many TV and radio spots in the States, plus videos and promo gigs. Jerry Lee, at 71, was riding high once again!
A younger Lewis, portrayed by Waylon Payne, was a character in the highly praised and Academy Award winning movie Walk the Line, a biopic of Johnny Cash.
The song, "Jesus Built My Hot Rod," by Ministry opens with the line, "Soon I discovered that this rock thing was true. Jerry Lee Lewis was the Devil. Jesus was an architect previous to his career as a prophet. All of a sudden I found myself in love with the world, so there was only one thing that I could do, was ding a ding dang my dang a long ling long."
A live cover of "Great Balls of Fire" is featured on the album "Stay Under The Stars" by singer-songwriter Teitur. The song is noticeably different from the original because of the added string-section, a slower tempo and a more dramatic approach.