The Final Wild Son: Jerry Lee Lewis 1935-2022
Even by the exaggerated standards of rock ‘n’ roll, Jerry Lee Lewis was a man who lived dangerously and left chaos in his wake, and in ways that were not always funny. His nickname since his teens was “Killer,” and it implied an aggression that seemed to come to him naturally. In 1958, Jerry Lee’s career took a nosedive when, after a handful of hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” it was discovered his wife was only thirteen years old; adding insult to injury, the former Myra Gale Brown was his third bride, and Lewis hadn’t finished divorcing the second when he and Myra exchanged vows. His appetite for liquor and pills was the stuff of legend, and he had little patience for members of his band or crew who didn’t want to raise Hell with him. In September 1976, Lewis was playing with his gun when he shot his bass player, Norman Owens, twice in the chest while aiming at a Coke bottle. Two months later, Jerry Lee was arrested outside Graceland in Memphis, Tennessee when he drunkenly drove into the gate, staggered from the car with a pistol in his hand, and demanded to see Elvis Presley immediately. He nearly died in 1981 from a severe stomach condition brought on by years of alcohol and drug abuse. In 1983, his fifth wife, Shawn Michelle Lewis, died under mysterious circumstances just 77 days after they were wed; a 1984 investigative piece in Rolling Stone stopped short of saying she died as the result of foul play, while giving readers every reason to suppose it. And there were countless stories of Jerry Lee missing gigs or blowing recording sessions while on a bender, heckling his own audience, or appearing on stage, playing a dismissive twenty minutes, and then walking off as the promoters were left to placate an angry crowd. More than once, Jerry Lee would proudly state the obvious: “I’m a mean son of a bitch.”
So why did anyone bother to pay attention to this man who, by all accounts, was as poor a role model as rock ‘n’ roll has offered us? Simple – the man was a genius. There were very few figures in the first era of rock ‘n’ roll (or ever) whose music was more powerful and engrossing than that of Jerry Lee Lewis. To hear Lewis in his prime was to hear a man push barrelhouse piano to the point of glorious madness, performing with a mania that was held in check only by the supreme confidence of the man at the keyboard. Lewis’s signature hits of the 1950s – “Great Balls of Fire,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” “Breathless,” “High School Confidential” – were shot through with an intensity that few of his peers could match, and like his fellow piano man Little Richard, the music he made refused to sound quaint with the passage of time, sounding as feral in the 21st Century as the day it was cut. Along with his outstanding rock ‘n’ roll sides, in the late 1960s Jerry Lee experienced a career revival on the country charts, and while his C&W hits are less readily remembered, the best of them rank with the finest hard country of the era. Lewis could summon an abject loneliness and heartbreak in songs like “Another Place, Another Time, “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made A Loser Out Of Me,” and “She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left Of Me)” that spoke of a man who knew more than a little about the punishing morning that follows a night of sin. And when Jerry Lee chose to get rowdy, he hadn’t lost the touch – his live shows were a crazy mashup of country, rock, boogie, blues, old standards, and anything else that popped into his mind. Jerry Lee was fond of saying, “There have been many great performers, but only four great stylists – Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, and Jerry Lee Lewis.” His talent was enough to make the arrogance of that statement seem almost reasonable.
Jerry Lee was in no way blind to his failings. He was raised in the Assembly of God Church, a Pentacostal denomination that was strict even by Fundamentalist standards, and he never lost his faith even though he realized at an early age he was constitutionally incapable of living by its strictures. He was just a boy when he first heard boogie woogie and rhythm and blues pouring out of roadhouses in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana, and the call of the night sank its hooks into him early. He attended a bible college in Waxahachie, Texas with an eye towards becoming a preacher, but he discovered wine, women, and song were readily available in nearby Dallas, and when he played a version of “My God is Real” at a Sunday chapel meeting clearly informed by the sinful roadhouse sounds he loved, he was expelled and sent back home. Even as he became one of the first great exponents of rock ‘n’ roll, he was certain the music he played was blasphemous, and wasn’t afraid to say so. His recording career began at Sun Records, the Memphis-based label that was the crucible for rockabilly, introducing Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Billy Lee Riley, Roy Orbison, and many more to the world. There is a remarkable audio artifact from the night in 1957 when Jerry Lee recorded “Great Balls of Fire” at the Sun Studios. He suddenly had second thoughts about the tune – he believed the fire of the title was a corrupt parody of the fiery imagery of the Pentecost, and he argued with producer and label founder Sam Phillips about the propriety of cutting the song.
“It says, ‘Make merry with the Joy of God, only,'” Jerry Lee declares, quoting scripture. “But when it comes to worldly music, rock and roll, anythin’ like that, you’re in the world, and you haven’t come from out of the world, and you’re still a sinner. And you’re a sinner. You’re a sinner unless you are saved and born again, and be made as a little child, and walk before God, and be holy.” Phillips attempts to take a more moderate position, saying, “Now look, Jerry, religious conviction doesn’t mean anything resembling extremism.” Jerry Lee, however, holds firm, and when Phillips suggests a rock ‘n’ roller can save souls, he bitterly rejects the notion, and shouts, “Man, I have the Devil in me! If I didn’t have, I’d be a Christian!” Needless to say, Phillips won the argument, at least to the point where Jerry Lee recorded the song that sold well over a million copies, but there are literally dozens of interviews with Lewis in which he bluntly declared he was certain he would go to Hell when he dies. As he once told Nick Tosches (who would later write the brilliant and startling Lewis biography Hellfire), “I’m draggin’ the audience to Hell with me. How am I gonna get them to Heaven with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’? You can’t serve two masters; you’ll hate one and love the other.”
As a side note, it’s worth mentioning that Jerry Lee’s cousin was Jimmy Swaggart, the evangelist who was born in the same year and went on to a massively successful career in television and radio. Jerry Lee clearly admired Jimmy, calling him “a powerhouse for God” and producing some of his gospel albums. It would be tempting to see them as The Good Cousin and The Wicked Cousin if it weren’t for the fact Swaggart would be caught in more than one sex scandal – the first in 1986 – when it was discovered he was a frequent client of prostitutes, one of whom bluntly described him by saying, “He was cheap, but he was very quick.” Another of Jerry Lee’s cousins was Mickey Gilley, the country star and nightclub owner who inherited some of the family’s talent without their more troublesome convictions and appetites, even as he presided over Gilley’s, the world’s largest honky tonk, in the 1970s and ’80s.
The only thing Jerry Lee believed in with the same certainty of his Damnation was his talent, and the record shows his confidence had a basis in fact. Another remarkable fly-on-the-wall recording from the Sun Studios came from December 1956, when Elvis Presley, now signed to RCA and the most successful new singer in the land, dropped by to say hi to Sam Phillips as Carl Perkins was in the midst of a recording session. Jerry Lee was sitting in on piano, months before he scored his first hit and enjoyed his own stardom. The three were soon swapping songs, mostly old gospel tunes that came from a shared childhood of singing in church, and engineer Jack Clement turned on the tape as it was happening. A picture was snapped during the session, with Johnny Cash there along with Elvis, Carl, and Jerry Lee. They became known as “The Million Dollar Quartet,” even though Cash is never audible on the tape, which circulated as a bootleg for years before it finally saw authorized release in 1990. Elvis’s effortless charisma and superb voice puts him at center stage, Perkins cheerfully offers support, singing harmony and joining in on guitar. Jerry Lee, of course, has no interest in being so polite. His vocals fly in circles around Elvis’s leads, his piano work is a subdued, churchy variation on his proudly pumping style, and it’s immediately obvious he was out to impress Elvis while at the same time proving to everyone he was the most talented man in the room. If the situation didn’t truly offer him the opportunity to vanquish Elvis, no one can deny he made an impression.
And even when fate was treating Jerry Lee with contempt, his music didn’t lose its power. Jerry Lee and Myra Gale had been married for five months when, during his first tour of the United Kingdom in 1958, the press learned the girl accompanying the American rocker was his wife, and that she wasn’t 15, as they’d initially been told, but 13. Not unreasonably, the British press were outraged, and the scandal ended his tour after only a few days, with Jerry Lee utterly unapologetic about the situation. His American career crashed as quickly as his stardom in England, and for the better part of ten years, he played anywhere someone would pay him for a gig, going from $10,000 to $250 a night, grimly determined that a comeback awaited him. A listen to the records he made during his years in obscurity shows he was singing and playing with the same strength he possessed during the height of his fame, and Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg – a recording of a 1964 nightclub date in Germany – is one of the wildest and most intense live albums you’ll ever hear, with Jerry Lee pounding the keys with unholy ferocity and howling like a horny wolf, while his backing band (British rockers the Nashville Teens) struggle to keep up with the madman who has taken them on the ride of their lives. If you had to pick just one album to define what Jerry Lee could do when he felt he had to prove himself, it’s the one to choose; it has won a well-deserved reputation as one of the greatest of all rock ‘n’ roll live albums. (Live at the Star-Club, Hamburg didn’t receive an American release at the time, and is currently available in the United States as part of the three-disc set The Killer Live [1964-1970], along with three other live albums documenting Jerry Lee’s command of the audience.)
By the mid-1980s, Jerry Lee had experienced enough brushes with death, financial calamities, IRS repossessions, legal problems, and similar potential career-ending disasters without checking out that it seemed like someone ought to make a movie about the guy, and 1989’s Great Balls of Fire was an A-list production that seemingly honored the great man’s importance in the history of music. Unfortunately, it wasn’t especially good, and Dennis Quaid’s performance as Jerry Lee was cartoonish in its overwrought theatrics, but the consolation prize was the music – Jerry Lee had re-recorded all his hits for the soundtrack, and he sounded like he’d barely aged a day since he cut “Crazy Arms” in 1955.
In 1995, Sire Records signed Jerry Lee, and Andy Paley produced his latest comeback album, Young Blood, which lacked focus and featured too many shifts of backing musicians, though the star of the show still sounded game. Jerry Lee’s last great comeback as a recording artist came when Steve Bing, a successful film producer, businessman, and philanthropist, made it his business to remind the world his favorite musician still had the goods. He helped Jerry Lee through some financial hard times, and helped produce the 2006 album Last Man Standing. The sessions saw Jerry Lee performing alongside a number of top shelf guest stars, from Bruce Springsteen and Mick Jagger to George Jones and Willie Nelson, but the album belonged to Jerry Lee, and his performances, still muscular and inspired, were remarkable, and hard to imagine they could be the work of a 71-year-old man. Two more albums in the same vein followed – 2010’s Mean Old Man and 2014’s Rock & Roll Time – and they confirmed Last Man Standing was no fluke, that Jerry Lee was still an artist who demanded respect.
Time seemed to finally catch up with Jerry Lee in his last years; he grew frail, quit touring, and was rarely seen in public. On October 16, 2022, he was finally inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame; it was said his prickly reputation in Nashville and an infamous 1973 Grand Ol’ Opry performance in which he played far past his allotted time, threw lots of rock ‘n’ roll songs into his set, and dropped an F Bomb mid-show kept him from being honored sooner. Jerry Lee was too ill to attend, and a photo was circulated of Kris Kristofferson presenting him with the award at his home. A smiling Kristofferson stood next to Jerry Lee’s bed, as the Killer, looking more like a wraith than a man, looked at him in sleepy disbelief. It was said that Jerry Lee asked Kristofferson if he brought him the pint he’d asked for; it was probably a joke, but from a man who regularly drained fifths in one sitting in the 1970s, who could say for sure? Just twelve days later, Jerry Lee Lewis finally passed on, with many mourning the passing of one of the last true pioneers of rock ‘n’ roll in the 1950s, as others dutifully cited his various misdeeds. If there was ever an example of an artist whose life and music reminded us that sometimes one must separate the artist from the art, it was Jerry Lee Lewis. His body of work is rich and rewarding enough that the compromise seems worthwhile.