|Jerry Lee Lewis|
Lewis publicity photo, circa 1950s
September 29, 1935 |
Ferriday, Louisiana, U.S.
Jerry Lee Lewis (born September 29, 1935) is an American singer-songwriter, musician, and pianist, often known by his nickname, The Killer. He has been described as "rock & roll's first great wild man."
A pioneer of rock and roll and rockabilly music, Lewis made his first recordings in 1956 at Sun Records in Memphis. "Crazy Arms" sold 300,000 copies in the South, but it was his 1957 hit "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" that shot Lewis to fame worldwide. He followed this with "Great Balls of Fire", "Breathless" and "High School Confidential". However, Lewis's rock and roll career faltered in the wake of his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin.
He had minimal success in the charts following the scandal, and his popularity quickly eroded. His live performance fees plummeted from $10,000 per night to $250. In the meantime he was determined to gain back some of his popularity. In the early 1960s, he did not have much chart success, with few exceptions, such as a remake of Ray Charles's "What'd I Say". His live performances at this time were increasingly wild and energetic. His 1964 live album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is regarded by music journalists and fans as one of the wildest and greatest live rock albums ever. In 1968 Lewis made a transition into country music and had hits with songs such as "Another Place, Another Time". This reignited his career, and throughout the late 1960s and 1970s he regularly topped the country-western charts; throughout his seven-decade career, Lewis has had 30 songs reach the top 10 on the "Billboard Country and Western Chart". His No. 1 country hits included "To Make Love Sweeter for You", "There Must Be More to Love Than This", "Would You Take Another Chance on Me", and "Me and Bobby McGee".
Lewis's successes continued throughout the decade and he embraced his rock and roll past with songs such as a cover of the Big Bopper's "Chantilly Lace" and Mack Vickery's "Rockin' My Life Away". In the 21st century Lewis continues to tour around the world and still releases new albums. His album Last Man Standing is his best selling to date, with over a million copies sold worldwide. This was followed by Mean Old Man, which has received some of the best sales of Lewis's career.
Lewis has a dozen gold records in both rock and country. He won several Grammy awards, including a Lifetime Achievement Award. 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. He was also a member of the inaugural class inducted into the Memphis Music Hall of Fame. In 1989, his life was chronicled in the movie Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid. In 2003, Rolling Stone listed his box set All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology number 242 on their list of "500 Greatest Albums of All Time". In 2004, they ranked him number 24 on their list of the 100 Greatest Artists of All Time. Lewis is the last surviving member of Sun Records' Million Dollar Quartet and the Class of '55 album, which also included Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Elvis Presley.
Lewis was born in 1935 to the poor farming family of Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday, Concordia Parish, in eastern Louisiana. In his youth, he began playing piano with two of his cousins, Mickey Gilley (later a popular country music singer) and Jimmy Swaggart (later a popular television evangelist). His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. Lewis was influenced by a piano-playing older cousin, Carl McVoy (who later recorded with Bill Black's Combo), the radio, and the sounds from Haney's Big House, a black juke joint across the tracks. On the live album By Request, More of the Greatest Live Show on Earth, Lewis is heard naming Moon Mullican as an artist who inspired him.
He was also influenced by the Great American Songbook and popular country singers like Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Williams in particular struck a chord with Lewis, who told biographer Rick Bragg in 2014, "I felt something when I listened to that man. I felt something different."[this quote needs a citation]
His mother enrolled him in Southwest Bible Institute, in Waxahachie, Texas, so that he would be exclusively singing evangelical songs. But Lewis daringly played a boogie-woogie rendition of "My God Is Real" at a church assembly, which ended his association with the school the same night. Pearry Green, then president of the student body, related how during a talent show, Lewis played some "worldly" music. The next morning, the dean of the school called Lewis and Green into his office to expel them. Lewis said that Green should not be expelled because "he didn't know what I was going to do."
After that incident, he went home and started playing at clubs in and around Ferriday and Natchez, Mississippi, becoming part of the burgeoning new rock and roll sound and cutting his first demo recording in 1954. He traveled to Nashville about 1955, where he played in clubs and attempted to build interest, but was turned down by the Grand Ole Opry, as he had been at the Louisiana Hayride country stage and radio show in Shreveport. Recording executives in Nashville suggested he switch to playing the guitar.
In November 1956, Lewis traveled to Memphis, Tennessee, to audition for Sun Records. Label owner Sam Phillips was in Florida, but producer and engineer Jack Clement recorded Lewis's rendition of Ray Price's "Crazy Arms" and his own composition "End of the Road". In December 1956, Lewis began recording prolifically, as a solo artist and as a session musician for other Sun artists, including Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. His distinctive piano playing can be heard on many tracks recorded at Sun in late 1956 and early 1957, including Carl Perkins's "Matchbox", "Your True Love", " and "Put Your Cat Clothes On" and Billy Lee Riley's "Flyin' Saucers Rock'n'Roll". Formerly, rockabilly had rarely featured piano, but it proved an influential addition, and rockabilly artists on other labels also started working with pianists.
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, have been 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", Pat Boone's "Don't Forbid Me" and Presley doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) on "Don't Be Cruel".
Lewis's own singles (on which he was billed as "Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano") advanced his career as a soloist during 1957, with hits such as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On", a Big Maybelle cover, and "Great Balls of Fire", his biggest hit, bringing him international fame, despite criticism for the songs' overtly sexual undertones, which prompted some radio stations to boycott them. In 2005, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. According to several first-hand sources, including Johnny Cash, Lewis, a devout Christian, was troubled by the sinful nature of his own material, which he believed was leading him and his audience to hell. This aspect of Lewis's character was depicted in Waylon Payne's portrayal of Lewis in the 2005 film Walk the Line, based on Cash's autobiographies.
As part of his stage act, Lewis pounded the keys with his heel, kicked the piano bench aside and played standing, raking his hands up and down the keyboard for dramatic effect, sat on the keyboard and even stood on top of the instrument. Lewis told the Pop Chronicles that kicking over the bench originally happened by accident, but when it got a favorable response, he kept it in the act. His first TV appearance, in which he demonstrated some of these moves, was on The Steve Allen Show on July 28, 1957, where he played "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On".
His dynamic performance style can be seen in films such as High School Confidential (he sang the title song from the back of a flatbed truck), and Jamboree. He has been called "rock & roll's first great wild man" and also "rock & roll's first great eclectic". Classical composer Michael Nyman has also cited Lewis's style as the progenitor of his own aesthetic.
Lewis's turbulent personal life was hidden from the public until a May 1958 British tour where Ray Berry, a news agency reporter at London's Heathrow Airport (the only journalist present), learned about Lewis's third wife, Myra Gale Brown. She was Lewis's first cousin once removed and 13 years old (even though Brown, Lewis, and his management all insisted that she was 15) - while Lewis was 22 years old. The publicity caused an uproar, and the tour was cancelled after only three concerts.
The scandal followed Lewis home to the United States; and, as a result, he was blacklisted from radio and 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 Sun Records boss released "The Return of Jerry Lee", a bogus "interview" spliced together by Jack Clement from excerpts of Lewis's songs that "answered" the interview questions, which made light of his marital and publicity problems. Only Alan Freed stayed true to Lewis, playing his records until Freed was removed from the air because of payola allegations.
Lewis was still under contract with Sun Records, and kept recording, regularly releasing singles. He had gone from $10,000 a night for concerts to $250 a night for engagements in beer joints and small clubs. At the time he had few friends whom he felt he could trust. It was only through Kay Martin, the president of Lewis's fan club, T. L. Meade (also known as Franz Douskey), an occasional Memphis musician and friend of Sam Phillips, and Gary Skala, that Lewis went back to record at Sun Records.[when?]
In 1960, Phillips opened a new state-of-the-art studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis, abandoning the old Union Avenue studio where Phillips had recorded B.B. King, Howlin' Wolf, Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Lewis, Johnny Cash and others, and also opened a studio in Nashville. It was at the latter studio that Lewis recorded his only major hit during this period, a rendition of Ray Charles's "What'd I Say" in 1961. In Europe, other updated versions of "Sweet Little Sixteen" (September 1962 UK) and "Good Golly Miss Molly" (March 1963) entered the hit parade. On popular EPs, "Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes", "I've Been Twistin'", "Money" and "Hello Josephine" also became turntable hits, especially in nascent discothques. Another recording of Lewis playing an instrumental boogie arrangement of the Glenn Miller Orchestra favorite "In the Mood" was issued on the Phillips International label under the pseudonym "The Hawk", but disc jockeys quickly figured out the distinctive piano style, and this gambit failed.
Lewis's Sun recording contract ended in 1963, and he joined Smash Records, where he made a number of rock recordings that did not further his career. The team at Smash (a division of Mercury Records) came up with "I'm on Fire", a song that they felt would be perfect for Lewis and, as Colin Escott writes in the sleeve to the retrospective A Half Century of Hits, "Mercury held the presses, thinking they had found Lewis's comeback hit, and it might have happened if the Beatles hadn't arrived in the America, changing radio playlists almost overnight. Mercury didn't really know what to do with Lewis after that." One of Smash's first decisions was to record a retread of his Sun hits, Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, which may have been inspired by the continuing enthusiasm European audiences had shown for Lewis's brand of rock and roll. However, none of Lewis's early Smash albums, including The Return of Rock, Memphis Beat, and Soul My Way, were commercial successes.
One major success during these lost years was the concert album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, recorded with the Nashville Teens in 1964, which is considered one of the greatest live rock-and-roll albums ever. In Joe Bonomo's book Lost and Found, producer Siggi Loch stated that the recording setup was uncomplicated, with microphones placed as close to the instruments as possible and a stereo mike placed in the audience to capture the ambience. The results were sonically astonishing, with Bonomo observing, "Detractors complain of the album's crashing noisiness, the lack of subtlety with which Jerry Lee revisits the songs, the fact that the piano is mixed too loudly, but what is certain is that Siggi Loch on this spring evening captured something brutally honest about the Killer, about the primal and timeless center of the very best rock & roll..." The album showcases Lewis's skills as a pianist and singer, honed by relentless touring. In a 5-out-of-5-stars review, Milo Miles wrote in Rolling Stone magazine that "Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is not an album, it's a crime scene: Jerry Lee Lewis slaughters his rivals in a thirteen-song set that feels like one long convulsion." Unfortunately, due to legal constraints, the album was not released in the United States.
Frustrated by Smash's inability to score a hit, Lewis was nearing the end of his contract when promotions manager Eddie Kilroy called him and pitched the idea of cutting a pure country record in Nashville. With nothing to lose, Lewis agreed to record the Jerry Chestnut song "Another Place, Another Time", which was released as a single on March 9, 1968, and, to everyone's amazement, shot up the country charts. At the time of the release, Lewis had been playing Iago in a rock and roll adaptation of Othello called Catch My Soul in Los Angeles but was soon rushed back to Nashville to record another batch of songs with producer Jerry Kennedy. What followed was a string of hits that no one could have ever predicted, although country music had remained a major part of Lewis's repertoire. As Colin Escott observes in the sleeve to the 1995 compilation Killer Country, the conversion to country music in 1968 "looked at the time like a radical shift, but it was neither as abrupt nor as unexpected as it seemed. Jerry had always recorded country music, and his country breakthrough 'Another Place, Another Time' had been preceded by many, many country records starting with his first, 'Crazy Arms', in 1956." The last time Lewis had a song on the country charts was with "Pen And Paper" in 1964, which had reached number 36, but "Another Place, Another Time" would go all the way to number 4 and remain on the charts for 17 weeks.
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". The production on his early country albums, such as Another Place, Another Time and She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye, was sparse, quite different from the slick "Nashville sound" that was predominant on country radio at the time, and also expressed a full commitment by Lewis to a country audience. The songs still featured Lewis's inimitable piano flourishes, but critics were most taken aback by the rock and roll pioneer's effortlessly soulful vocals, which possessed an emotional resonance on par with the most respected country singers of the time, such as George Jones and Merle Haggard. In his book Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, biographer Rick Bragg notes that the songs Lewis was recording "were of the kind they were starting to call 'hard country', not because it had a rock beat or crossed over into rock in a real way, but because it was more substantial than the cloying, overproduced mess out there on country radio".
In a remarkable turnaround, Lewis became the most bankable country star in the world. He was so hot in 1970 that his former Smash producer Shelby Singleton, who purchased Sun Records from Sam Phillips in July 1969, wasted no time in repackaging many of Lewis's old country recordings with such effectiveness that many fans assumed they were recent releases. One of his latter unreleased Sun recordings, "One Minute Past Eternity," was issued as a single and soared to number 2 on the country chart, following Lewis's recent Mercury hit "She Even Woke Me Up To Say Goodbye." Singleton would milk these unreleased recordings for years, following The Golden Cream of the Country with A Taste of Country later in 1970.
Lewis played the Grand Ole Opry for the first time on January 20, 1973. As Colin Escott writes in the liner notes to A Half Century of Hits, Lewis had always maintained ambivalent feelings towards Music City ever since he'd been turned away as an aspiring musician before his glory days at Sun Records: "It was 18 years since he had left Nashville broke and disheartened...Lewis was never truly accepted in Nashville. He didn't move there and didn't schmooze there. He didn't fit in with the family values crowd. Lewis family values weren't necessarily worse, but they were different." When Lewis finally took the stage, he broke just about every rule the Opry had. As recounted in a 2015 online Rolling Stone article by Beville Dunkerly, Lewis opened with his comeback single "Another Place, Another Time" and then announced to the audience, "Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock and rollin', country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin' motherfucker!" Ignoring his allotted time constraints - and, thus, commercial breaks - Lewis played for 40 minutes (the average Opry performance is two songs, for about eight maximum minutes of stage time) and invited Del Wood - the one member of the Opry who had been kind to him when he had been there as a teenager - out on stage to sing with him. He also blasted through "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On", "Workin' Man Blues", "Good Golly Miss Molly", and a host of others classics before leaving the stage to a thunderous standing ovation.
Lewis returned to the pop charts with "Me and Bobby McGee" in 1971 and "Chantilly Lace" in 1972, and this turn of events, coupled with a revitalized public interest in vintage rock and roll, inspired Mercury to fly Lewis to London in 1973 to record with a cadre of gifted British and Irish musicians, including Rory Gallagher, Kenney Jones, and Albert Lee. By all accounts the sessions were tense. The remake of Lewis's old Sun cut "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" would be the album's hit single, reaching number 20 on the Billboard country chart and peaking at number 41 on the pop chart. The Session would be Lewis's highest pop charting album since 1964's Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis, hitting number 37. It did far better on the country albums chart, rising to number 4. Later that same year, he went to Memphis and recorded Southern Roots: Back Home to Memphis, a soul-infused rock album produced by Huey Meaux. According to Rick Bragg's authorized 2014 biography, "the Killer" was in a foul mood when he showed up at Trans Maximus Studios in Memphis to record: "During these sessions, he insulted the producer, threatened to kill a photographer, and drank and medicated his way into but not out of a fog." During one exchange that can be heard on the 2013 reissue Southern Roots: The Original Sessions, Meaux asks Lewis, "Do you wanna try one?", meaning a take, to which Lewis replies "If you got enough fuckin' sense to cut it." Lewis was still pumping out country albums, although the hits were beginning to dry up. His last big hit with Mercury was "Middle Age Crazy," which made it to number 4 in 1977.
In 1979, Lewis switched to Elektra and produced the critically acclaimed Jerry Lee Lewis, although sales were disappointing. In 1986, Lewis was one of the inaugural inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. Although looking frail after several hospitalizations due to stomach problems, Lewis was responsible for beginning an unplanned jam at the end of the evening, which was immediately incorporated into the event. That year, he returned to Sun Studio in Memphis to team up with Orbison, Cash, and Perkins along with longtime admirers like John Fogerty to create the album Class of '55, a sort of followup to the Million Dollar Quartet session, though in the eyes of many critics and fans, lacking the spirit of the old days at Sun. 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's ex-wife, Myra Gale Lewis, and starred Dennis Quaid as Lewis, Winona Ryder as Myra, and Alec Baldwin as Jimmy Swaggart. The movie focuses on Lewis's early career and his relationship with Myra, and ends with the scandal of the late 1950s. A year later, in 1990, Lewis made minor news when a new song he co-wrote called "It Was the Whiskey Talkin' (Not Me)" was included in the soundtrack to the hit movie Dick Tracy. The song is also heard in the movie, playing on a radio. The public downfall of his cousin, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, resulted in more adverse publicity to a troubled family. Swaggart is also a piano player, as is another cousin, country music star Mickey Gilley. All three listened to the same music in their youth, and frequented Haney's Big House, the Ferriday club that featured black blues acts. Lewis and Swaggart have had a complex relationship over the years.
In 1998, he toured Europe with Chuck Berry and Little Richard. On February 12, 2005, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by The Recording Academy (which also grants the Grammy Awards). On September 26, 2006, a new album titled Last Man Standing was released, featuring many of rock and roll's elite as guest stars. Receiving positive reviews, the album charted in four different Billboard charts, including a two-week stay at number one on the Indie charts. A DVD entitled Last Man Standing Live, featuring concert footage with many guest artists, was released in March 2007, and the CD achieved Lewis's 10th official gold disk for selling over half-a-million copies in the US alone. 'Last Man Standing' is Lewis's biggest selling album of all time. It features contributions from Little Richard, Mick Jagger, Willie Nelson, Jimmy Page, Keith Richards and Rod Stewart, among others. Lewis now lives on a ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi, with his family. In May 2013, Lewis opened a new club on Beale Street in Memphis. As of summer 2018, Lewis is still actively performing in concert.
Along with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison, Lewis received a Grammy in the spoken-word category for the very rare album of interviews released with some early copies of the Class of '55 album in 1986. The original Sun cut of "Great Balls of Fire" was elected to the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998, and Lewis's Sun recording of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" received this honor in 1999. Only recordings which are at least 25 years old and have left a lasting impression can receive this honor. On February 12, 2005, Lewis received the Recording Academy's Lifetime Achievement Award the day before the Recording Academy's main Grammy Awards ceremony, which he also attended.
In June 1989, Lewis was honored for his contribution to the recording industry with a star along Hollywood Boulevard on the Hollywood Walk of Fame . Between 1957 and 2006, the date of Last Man Standings release, 47 singles and 22 albums (The Session counted as 2 albums) made the Top Twenty Pop, Jukebox, Rock, Indie and/or Country charts in the US or the UK. Fourteen[clarification needed] reached the number-1 position. He has had ten official gold discs, the latest being for the 2006 album Last Man Standing, plus unofficial ones issued by his record company Mercury for albums which sold over a quarter of a million copies. His 2006 duets CD Last Man Standing has sold over half a million worldwide, his biggest selling album ever. Lewis is also among the Top 50 all-time Billboard Country artists. It is also rumored that the soundtrack album to the movie Great Balls of Fire has now sold over a million copies. On October 10, 2007, Lewis received the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's American Music Masters Award. His newest album, Mean Old Man, was released in September 2010 and reached No. 30 on the Billboard 200 album chart. On November 5, 2007, the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, honored Lewis with six days of conferences, interviews, a DVD premiere and film clips, dedicated to him and entitled The Life And Music of Jerry Lee Lewis. On November 10, the week culminated with a tribute concert compered by Kris Kristofferson. Lewis was present to accept the American Music Masters Award and closed his own tribute show with a rendition of "Somewhere Over the Rainbow" On February 10, 2008, he appeared with John Fogerty and Little Richard on the 50th Grammy Awards Show, performing "Great Balls of Fire" in a medley with "Good Golly Miss Molly". On June 4, 2008, Lewis was inducted into The Louisiana Music Hall of Fame and appeared on A Capitol Fourth and performed the finale's final act with a medley of "Roll Over Beethoven", "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On" and "Great Balls of Fire." In October 2008, as part of a very successful European tour, Lewis returned to the UK, almost exactly 50 years after his ill-fated first tour. He appeared at two London shows: a special private show at the 100 Club on October 25 and at the London Forum on October 28 with Wanda Jackson and his sister, Linda Gail Lewis. 2009 marked the sixtieth year since Lewis's first public performance when he performed "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" at a car dealership on November 19, 1949, in Ferriday, Louisiana.. In August 2009, in advance of his new album, a single entitled "Mean old man" was released for download. It was written by Kris Kristofferson. An EP featuring this song and four more was also released on November 11. On October 29, 2009, Lewis opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden in New York.
Lewis has been married seven times: His first marriage, to Dorothy Barton, lasted for 20 months, from February 1952 to October 1953. His second marriage, to Jane Mitchum, was of dubious validity because it occurred 23 days before his divorce from Barton was final. It lasted for four years, from September 1953 to October 1957. The couple had two children: Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. (1954-1973) and Ronnie Guy Lewis (b. 1956). His third marriage, to Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin once removed (his first cousin's daughter), lasted for 13 years, from December 1957 to December 1970 (although the couple went through a second marriage ceremony because his divorce from Jane Mitchum was not complete before the first ceremony took place). They had two children together: Steve Allen Lewis (1959-1962) and Phoebe Allen Lewis (b. 1963). His fourth marriage, to Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, lasted from October 1971 to June 8, 1982, and they had a daughter, Lori Lee Lewis (b. 1972). Pate drowned in a swimming pool at the home of a friend with whom she was staying, several weeks before divorce proceedings could be finalized. His fifth marriage, to Shawn Stephens, lasted 77 days, from June to August 1983, ending with her death. Journalist Richard Ben Cramer alleged that Lewis abused her and may have been responsible for her death, but the allegations have never been verified. His sixth marriage, to Kerrie McCarver, lasted 21 years, from April 1984 to June 2005. They have one child: Jerry Lee Lewis III (b. 1987). His seventh marriage, to Judith Brown, began March 9, 2012. Lewis has had six children during his marriages. In 1962, his son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool accident when he was three, and in 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr. died at the age of 19 when he overturned the Jeep he was driving.
In 1993 Lewis moved to Ireland with his family in what was suggested (but denied) to be a move to avoid issues with the Internal Revenue Service. He lived in a rented house in Westminster Road, Foxrock, Dublin, and during his time there was sued by the German company Neue Constantin Film Production GmbH for failure to appear at a concert in Munich in 1993. Lewis returned to the US in 1997 after his tax issues had been resolved by Irish promoter Kieran Cavanagh.
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In 1976, Lewis was arrested outside Elvis Presley's Graceland home for allegedly intending to shoot him. Lewis had already nearly killed his bass player, Butch Owens, on September 29 (Lewis's 41st birthday) when a .357 Magnum accidentally went off in his hand. In Rick Bragg's 2014 authorized biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Lewis explains that the reclusive Presley had been trying to reach him and finally did on November 23, imploring him to "come out to the house." Lewis replied that he would if he had time but that he was busy trying to get his father, Elmo, out of jail in Tunica, for driving under the influence. Later that night, Lewis was at a Memphis nightclub called Vapors drinking champagne when he was given a gun. "Charles Feron, he owned Vapors, he give it to me," Lewis explained to Bragg. "A .38 derringer. Me, pretty well drunk, with that derringer - it ain't somethin' 'strange'." Lewis suddenly remembered that Elvis wanted to see him and, climbing aboard his new Lincoln Continental with the loaded pistol on the dash and a bottle of champagne under his arm, tore off for Graceland. Just before three o'clock in the morning, Lewis accidentally smashed into the famous Graceland gates because "the nose of that Lincoln was a mile long."[this quote needs a citation]
Presley's astonished cousin Harold Lloyd was manning the gate and watched Lewis attempt to hurl the champagne bottle through the car window, not realizing it was rolled up, smashing both. Bragg reports that Lewis denies ever intending to do Presley harm, that the two were friends, but "Elvis, watching on the closed-circuit television, told guards to call the police. The Memphis police found the gun in the car and put Lewis, protesting, hollering, threatening them, away in handcuffs." Lewis said, "The cops asked Elvis, 'What do you want us to do? And Elvis told 'em, 'Lock him up.' That hurt my feelings. To be scared of me - knowin' me the way he did - was ridiculous." Lewis was charged with carrying a pistol and public drunkenness. Released on a $250 bond, his defiant mugshot was wired around the world. Presley himself died at Graceland eight months later.
As a teenager, Lewis studied at the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, before being thrown out for daring to play a boogie-woogie version of "My God Is Real", and that early incident foreshadowed his lifelong conflict over his faith in God and his love of playing "the devil's music." Lewis had a recorded argument with Sam Phillips during the recording session for "Great Balls of Fire", a song he initially refused to record because he considered it blasphemous ("How can...How can the devil save souls? What are you talkin' about?" he asks Phillips during one heated exchange). During the famous Million Dollar Quartet jam involving Lewis, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash, they performed several gospel songs. Lewis's biographer Rick Bragg explains that part of the reason the recording only features Lewis and Elvis singing is because "only Elvis and Jerry Lee [were] raised in the Assembly of God", and "'Johnny and Carl didn't really know the words ... they was Baptists', [Lewis] said, and therefore deprived." He often talked to his cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, about the condition of his soul. Evangelist Swaggart and Lewis would pray together, but Lewis found it hard to alter his lifestyle. Evangelist Swaggart still often speaks with love of his cousin in his sermons, of their childhood together, and their continuing relationship. He will ask for prayers for Lewis if he is suffering illness.
In the 1990 documentary The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, Lewis explains to the interviewer, "The Bible don't even speak of religion. No word of religion is even in the Bible.Sanctification! Are you sanctified? Have you been saved? See, I was a good preacher, I know my Bible... I find myself falling short of the glory of God."
Gospel music was a staple of his performing repertoire. After a string of hit country albums, he decided to record a proper gospel album for the first time in 1970.
Lewis is widely hailed as one of the most influential pianists in the history of rock and roll. In an often quoted tribute, Elvis Presley once said that if he could play the piano like Lewis he would quit singing. Lewis's pivotal role in popularizing the piano in rock and roll is indisputable. Up until his arrival, the music had been primarily associated with guitars, but his early Sun recordings and television appearances pushed the instrument to the forefront. Lewis was also an incendiary showman who often played with his fists, elbows, feet, and backside, sometimes climbing on top of the piano during gigs and even apocryphally setting it on fire. Like Chuck Berry's guitar playing, Lewis's piano style has become synonymous with rock and roll, having influenced generations of piano players. In a 2013 interview with Leah Harper, Elton John recalls that up until "Great Balls of Fire," "the piano playing that I had heard had been more sedate. My dad collected George Shearing records, but this was the first time I heard someone beat the shit out of a piano. When I saw Little Richard at the Harrow Granada, he played it standing up, but Jerry Lee Lewis actually jumped on the piano! This was astonishing to me, that people could do that. Those records had such a huge effect on me, and they were just so great. I learned to play like that." Lewis is primarily known for his "boogie woogie" style, which is characterized by a regular left hand bass figure and dancing beat, but his command of the instrument and highly individualistic style set him apart. Appearing on Memphis Sounds with George Klein in 2011, Lewis credited his older piano-playing cousin Carl McVoy as being a crucial influence, stating, "He was a great piano player, a great singer, and a nice looking man, carried himself real well. I miss Carl very much." Lewis also cited Moon Mullican as a source of inspiration. Although almost entirely self-taught, Lewis conceded to biographer Rich Bragg in 2014 that Paul Whitehead, a blind pianist from Meadville, Mississippi, was another key influence on him in his earliest days playing clubs, confiding, "Paul Whitehead done a lot. His lesson was worth a billion dollars to me...He taught me. I'd sit beside him, and say, 'Mr. Paul, can you show me exactly how you do that?' Mr. Paul was good to me."
Although Lewis's piano playing is commonly labelled boogie woogie, gospel music was another major influence in the formation of his technique. In Joe Bonomo's 2009 book Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, Memphis producer and musician Jim Dickinson calls Lewis's occasional penchant for interrupting the standard boogie woogie left-hand progression by omitting the seventh and repeating the fifth and sixth, creating a repetitive, driving, quasi-menacing momentum, "revolutionary, almost inexplicable. Maybe Ella Mae Morse, maybe Moon Mullican had done it, but not in a way that became the propelling force of the song. Rock and roll piano up to that point had been defined by Rosco Gordon, Ike Turner, and to an extent, Ray Charles. None of them were doing that. Even Little Richard, as primitive as he plays, wasn't doing that shuffle...There was something in Jerry Lee that didn't want to play that seventh, and that's the church. Certainly in white spiritual music you avoid sevenths."
Further information: Jerry Lee Lewis discography
Lewis wrote or co-wrote the following songs: "End of the Road" (1956), "Lewis Boogie" (1956), "Pumpin' Piano Rock" (1957), "High School Confidential" (1958), "Memory of You" (1958), "Baby Baby Bye Bye" (1960), although Discogs credits Jerry Lee Lewis and Huey "Piano" Smith as the songwriters, the song was copyrighted in 1960 as by Lewis Smith, "Lewis Workout" (1960), "He Took It Like a Man" (1963, from the 1967 album Soul My Way), "Baby, Hold Me Close" (1965) from the 1965 album The Return of Rock, "What a Heck of a Mess" (1966), "Lincoln Limousine" (1966), "Alvin" (1970), "Rockin' Jerry Lee" (1980, the B side of "Honky Tonk Stuff", from the album When Two Worlds Collide), "Pilot Baby" (1983), and "Crown Victoria Custom '51" (1995), released as a Sire 45 single B side.
His drive, his timing, his offhand vocal power, his unmistakable boogie-plus piano, and his absolute confidence in the face of the void make Jerry Lee the quintessential rock and roller. He's a country artist out of geography and simple pique at rock's scared-shitless powers-that-be--it was the inadequacy of country's moralism, after all, that drove him to rockabilly.
Pure religion and undefiled before God and the Father is this, To visit the fatherless and widows in their affliction, and to keep himself unspotted from the world.