Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022: an original rock’n’roller and the last of the gang to die

The ‘50s star was a massive influence for artists like Elton John and John Lennon, but is overshadowed by a toxic legacy

Of course he put up a fight. Reports of Jerry Lee Lewis’ death have greatly exaggerated in recent days: “TMZ reported erroneously off of a bullshit anonymous tip,” his spokesperson announced on Thursday (October 27). But now here it is: the final man standing from the first generation of rock’n’rollers really is dead at the age of 87. The last of the gang to die was the most contemptible and notorious of his contemporaries. Elvis Presley was The King of Rock’n’roll, Little Richard its King and Queen. And Jerry Lee? He called himself the Killer.

The nickname was allegedly earned at school after he’d tried to strangle a teacher with his own tie. And he spent a career living up to that fearsome reputation, his fiery boogie-woogie poured into a flamboyant, piano-pounding style laced with the evangelical fervour drummed into him by his devout Christian mother, Mary Herron Lewis. It was a style that made monster hits of his mid-‘50s tunes ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls Of Fire’, which were released by Sun Records, the label that launched Elvis Presley. The flipside of his personality was a string of lamentable controversies that vastly overshadow his legacy.

MEMPHIS, TN – DECEMBER 04: Rock and roll musicians Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash as “The Million Dollar Quartet” December 4, 1956 in Memphis, Tennessee. This was a one night jam session at Sun Studios. (Photo by Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images)

Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, in 1935. His father, Elmo Lewis, was a farmer and bootlegger who infamously mortgaged the family home for $250 to buy his son a piano. The boy’s talent had become obvious when he was kicked out of school for playing a sacrilegiously raunchy version of the gospel song ‘God Is Real’. No matter: he and Elmo travelled state in an old wagon, with Jerry Lee performing on the back of the vehicle, bringing his sinful sound to the people.

Inspired by honky-tonk bars he attended against Mary’s wishes, the superstar-in-waiting began to develop the uniquely frenetic and hard-boiled sound that inspired the likes of Elton John and John Lennon (the latter kissed his feet when they met in the 1970s). Certain he could beat Elvis at his own game, Jerry Lee rolled up to Sun Records in November 1956 and demanded an audition. “I’m a hit,” he told engineer Jack Clement. When Clement replied, “They all say that, son,” Jerry Lee insisted: “I’m not all. I’m different.”

The resulting ‘Crazy Arms’, the countrified ballad that kickstarted his career, proved him right – but Mary’s voice was never far from his mind. A studio off-cut from the recording of ‘Great Balls of Fire’ caught him fretting that the suggestive song is “sinful”. When Phillips assured him that his music could “save souls’, Jerry Lee wailed: “No, no, no, no! How can the Devil save souls? What are you talkin’ about? I got the Devil in me!”

If you know one thing about Jerry Lee Lewis, it will be that he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, in 1958. ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ had reached Number One in the pop, country and western and R&B Billboard charts and sold a million copies in 10 days. He was due to embark on a 30-date UK tour, from which he would pocket the then-astronomical sum of $26,000. Instead he was cancelled – quite literally – upon arrival.

Reporters met Myra and the 22-year-old Jerry Lee at Heathrow airport and immediately asked after her age. Jerry lied, and the Daily Herald still made the story a headline splash:

And it’s his third marriage!

When the truth crept out, the outrage, naturally, ballooned. “He should be deported at once!” demanded London’s Evening Star, while audience members at Tooting’s Granada Theatre heckled him as a “cradle-robber!”. The tour was duly pulled and Jerry Lee scuttled back to the US. “BABY-SNATCHER QUITS,” roared the headline in the Herald.

American rock musician Jerry Lee Lewis holds his second cousin and third wife Myra Brown in his lap at a press conference in the Westbury Hotel, London, May 23, 1958. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

If you know two things about Jerry Lee Lewis, it will be that he was also arrested, in 1976, after screeching up to the gates of Elvis’ Memphis mansion, Graceland. With a bellyful of booze and a pistol on the dashboard, he demanded to settle once and for all the question of who the real King of Rock’n’roll was. Elvis reportedly watched the action on CCTV.

The Myra Brown scandal and the Graceland arrest occurred almost two decades apart, proof that his first brush with notoriety had failed to make him the righteous man he claimed he longed to be. During the 20 years between these incidents, Jerry had very much hit the skids and bounced back.

Upon his return from the UK in 1958, the American press deemed him to have brought shame upon the country. His career collapsed overnight. The hits dried up and the gigs were just as bad: he fell from earning $10,000 a night to $250, slogging around tiny venues where he’d play for nine hours at a time. In 1962, his and Myra’s three-year-old son, Steve Allen, died in a tragic accident, sending the singer into a nightmarish spiral of drug and alcohol addiction. He spent a decade in obscurity after that cancelled UK tour.

And then something strange happened. Jerry Lee reinvented himself as a wildly successful country singer, a move instigated by Mercury Records executive Eddie Kilroy, who perhaps sensed that the pain and fury in the Killer’s heart would lend itself well to the genre. After all, his furious 1964 album ‘Live at the Star-Club Hamburg’, recorded while he was in the abyss, remains one of the greatest live records ever released. Sure enough, the anguished ‘Another Place, Another Time’ reached Number Four on the US Hot Country Songs Billboard chart. By 1969, biographer Nick Tosche noted in Hellfire: The Jerry Lewis Story, he was the “hottest country singer in the South”.

Thus began a career second wind that saw him through the ‘70s, though he always kept one foot in rock’n’roll. The 1973 album ‘Southern Roots: Back Home To Memphis’ is an undersung gem, containing a deliriously uplifting cover of the Sam & Dave soul song ‘Hold On, I’m Comin’’, on which he lasciviously purrs: “Hold on – Jerry’s comin’!” His personal life, though, remained an abomination.

Myra had filed for divorce in 1970, citing adultery and abuse. In 1983, his fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, died just 10 weeks into their marriage. A Rolling Stone article claimed that Jerry Lee’s version of events did not match up with those detailed in the police investigation; a grand jury found no evidence of wrongdoing. In 2012, he married his seventh and final wife, Judith, who, bizarrely, had previously been married to Myra’s brother. In 2015, Lewis told The Guardian: “I was always worried whether I was going to Heaven or Hell… I worry about it before I go to bed… When you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?”

Jerry Lee Lewis released his final album, the covers collection ‘Rock & Roll Time’, in 2014. True to the pattern of his career, it actually mostly consisted of country songs. “I hang my head and cry,” he croaked on the Johnny Cash tune ‘Folsom Prison Blues’, but you’d swear it was delivered with a smirk. Who knows what will become of The Killer after his final breath. It probably doesn’t matter – he’ll shake down those Pearly Gates either way. Hold on – Jerry’s comin’.

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