Rock and roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis died on October 28th from a bout of pneumonia. He was 87 years old. In a career spanning from his start in 1949 up until his death, Lewis is remembered for such hits as ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls of Fire’. He was also among the first class of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
Lewis began his career by playing in country-western bands and getting kicked out of church for playing boogie-woogie versions of gospel songs. From there, he made a few recordings in New Orleans before signing with Sun Records in 1956 as a session musician. He played for the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins before recording a few of his own songs as well as covers. Lewis was part of the Class of ’55, a group that also included Cash and Perkins, as well as Elvis Presley and Roy Orbison, who were all signed to Sun Records by Sam Phillips. Cash, Perkins, Presley, and Lewis were also known as the Million Dollar Quartet, a name given to the four men after an impromptu session in December 1956.
Lewis may have been among the foundational pioneers of rockabilly, but he was just as much of a country star as a rock star. Before moving to Memphis, Lewis first recorded a version of country star Lefty Frizzell’s ‘Don’t Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold)’. He also stopped in Nashville to audition for the Grand Ole Opry, but was rejected from the show because he was already playing on the Louisiana Hayride. Interestingly enough, the Louisiana Hayride was the same show where Hank Williams and Elvis Presley got their start before playing the Opry and reaching even higher successes.
After his public image took a hit in 1958 due to revelations about his third marriage, it took him a decade to return to the charts with his cover of ‘Another Place, Another Time’. From 1968 to 1977, Lewis would have 17 Top 10 hits on the Billboard country charts, four of which went number one. Music critics loved the minimal production, contrary to the popular Nashville sound, and likened his vocals to that of George Jones and Merle Haggard. He was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October 2022.
Lewis did finally play the Opry in 1973, 18 years after he had first visited the Music City. Colin Escott wrote of Lewis,
“He didn’t fit in with the family values crowd [of Nashville]. Lewis family values weren’t necessarily worse, but they were different.”
Those Lewis family values were certainly at odds with the wholesome aesthetic of country music. In 1958, it was discovered that the 22-year-old Lewis was married to his 13-year-old first-cousin-once-removed Myra Gale Brown. When a London journalist revealed this, Lewis claimed that his wife was actually 15, which did not remedy the situation and shows were canceled. By trying to conceal his relationship and even lie about her age means that he knew it was wrong and would negatively impact his career. Which it did. When Brown filed for divorce in 1970 after 12 years of marriage and two children, she stated that she suffered “every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable” at the hands of Lewis.
Image “Jerry Lee Lewis” by Peter Kelaher is licensed under CC BY 2.0.