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Farewell to Jerry Lee Lewis: Rock ‘n roll bad boys don't come bigger

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Jerry Lee Lewis strutting his stuff (Image by Bradford Timeline | flickr)

There are many things that can be said about Jerry Lee Lewis, a seminal rock ‘n roller and complex personality who died at 87. There is one fact that is beyond doubt. He was a badass.

Nicknamed “The Killer”, for reasons that will become apparent, Lewis was born on 29 September 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana.

Recognising that he was a musical prodigy from a very early age, his parents famously mortgaged their home to buy him a piano.

Lewis was heavily influenced by the funky sounds he heard from Haney’s Big House – an African-American juke joint on the wrong side of the tracks – and was expelled from an evangelical Christian school for playing a boogie-woogie version of 'God Is Real'.

After getting kicked out of school, Lewis began performing at local clubs and in 1952 he started recording covers and his own compositions at J&M Studios in New Orleans.

In 1956, Lewis went to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips’ legendary Sun Records. Phillips was absent at the time but Lewis managed to blow away producer and engineer Jack Clement with a cover of Ray Price’s 'Crazy Arms'.

Pretty soon, Lewis was earning a steady living with Sun Records as a session musician and his distinctive piano playing can be heard on recordings by musical greats such as Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins.

One memorable day, Elvis Presley dropped by the studio to pay a social call to Sam Phillips and happened to hear Perkins and Lewis performing. Johnny Cash was also there, watching the action and soon the four men started an impromptu jam session. Phillips left the tape running and much later, the session was released as a CD called The Complete Million Dollar Quartet — arguably, one of the great collectors’ items of this particular era.

Billed as Jerry Lee Lewis and His Pumping PianoLewis established his own solo career in 1957 with a rockabilly ball-tearer called 'Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On', a Big Maybelle cover.

The following year, Lewis stormed the charts with 'Great Balls of Fire', which became his signature tune. Written by Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer, the song sold one million copies in its first ten days of release in the United States. It topped the country charts in the United States, was second on the Billboard singles charts and was number one in the UK, where Lewis has always had a solid fan base.

Like Little Richard, one of his contemporaries, Lewis was raised in a fundamentalist household and was often torn about whether to follow his devout Christian faith or continue performing the “devil’s music”.

The latter won out and some of the more conservative American radio stations boycotted Lewis because of the lewd nature of his music. His live performances became wilder and wilder with Lewis pounding the piano keys with his heel, kicking his piano bench over, jumping on top of the piano and raking his hands across the keys.

Exclaimed Lewis to Time, in his rich Louisiana drawl:

“I’m a rompin’, stompin’, piano-playing son of a bitch. A mean son of a bitch. But a great son of a bitch.”

In 1958, Lewis was apparently incensed when he got second billing to Chuck Berry at a concert in Brooklyn, New York. Legend has it – it may be nothing more than a "good story" – that Lewis set fire to his piano at the end of his support act, stalked off the stage, glared at Berry, snarling: “I want to see you follow that, Chuck.”

Around this time, unsavoury stories about Lewis and his personal life started to emerge. He was a notoriously difficult interviewee. One journalist made the mistake of asking which session musicians had played on particular albums.

Lewis snapped:

“I played on ‘em: what the hell else d’you need to know?”

During his 1973 debut at the staid Grand Ole Opry, Lewis described himself as:

"... a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherfucker."

He was never invited back.

Michael Gray, a writer with The Guardian, neatly encapsulated other less-than-favourable aspects about Lewis and his complex personality.

'Lewis embodied pinched obduracy, brooding malevolent ignorance, violent unreliability and borderline madness. He abused women, played with guns and shot men. He drove the highways of the south blind drunk with his loaded pistol on the dashboard.'

It was his treatment of women that hammered the nails into the coffin of his career. Lewis was married an astonishing seven times – nearly always unhappily – and fathered six children. His marriages included a bigamous union with his underage cousin, Myra Gale Brown. Lewis, who was 22 at the time, claimed that Brown was 15 — but she was actually only 13.

A news agency reporter called Ray Berry broke the story in May 1958 after confronting Lewis at Heathrow Airport in London, where he had flown for a UK tour. The tour was cancelled after only three concerts due to the uproar that the story caused. Actually, as far as Lewis was concerned, it probably wouldn’t be too great an exaggeration to say that it killed his career stone dead.

Although Lewis never regained his previous popularity, he continued to produce some excellent music. The closest he came to another hit was a cover of the Ray Charles classic 'What’d I Say', released in 1961.

Interestingly, EPs by Lewis such as 'Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes', 'I’ve Been Twistin', 'Money'  and 'Hello Josephine' became turntable hits during the disco era.

The later years were not kind to Lewis, who faced troubles with the law, troubles with the Internal Revenue Service and marital difficulties.

In 2019, he suffered a stroke in Memphis and had to cancel various personal appearances. Although he eventually recovered from his stroke, Lewis was still in poor health and eventually succumbed to a bad bout of pneumonia. TMZ and other media outlets, unfortunately, reported his death prematurely.

In his tribute to Lewis, Elton John said

'Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today. He was groundbreaking and exciting and he pulverised the piano.'

Neil McCormick of The Telegraph described Lewis as

'... the most dangerous man in rock ‘n roll.'

McCormick continued:

'He was a gun-toting, fire-starting ball of trouble. He was also the most authentic rocker who ever lived.'

Biographer Rick Bragg said:

'I don’t think Jerry Lee Lewis had to exaggerate his life one bit to make it interesting. He really did make Elvis cry. He really did turn over more Cadillacs than most people purchased in the state of Mississippi.'

However, Michael Gray of The Guardian perhaps said it best:

'… in the vivid contrast between the meanness of the man and the grandeur of the artist, the common denominators were his phenomenal energy and admirable, all-conquering self-belief.'

Jenny LeComte is a Canberra-based journalist and freelance writer.

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