The final soldier in the original rock and roll army has fallen.
First were Buddy Holly and Ritchie Valens, taken shockingly early in a plane crash in 1959, at only 27 and 17, respectively.
The next to leave, of course, was Elvis Presley, who died way too young in 1977 at 42.
Bill “Rock Around the Clock” Haley passed away in 1981 at age 55. Carl “Blue Suede Shoes” Perkins left us in 1998 at 65, and Bo Diddley made it to 79 until his death in 2008.
The other kingpins of the original rock and roll gallery lasted well into their 80s. In 2017, Chuck Berry, actually reached 90 when he died, and Fats Domino was 89. Little Richard died at 87 in 2020.
Last week, we lost Jerry Lee Lewis, the last of these true trailblazers, at 87.
They were a bold bunch, these guys, pushing an exhilarating, then-scandalous new genre of popular music when all around them was still non-threatening ballads and bubblegum. They had taken the raw excitement of rhythm-and-blues and merged it with country, folk and gospel to create an inexorable juggernaut that inspired hundreds, even thousands of musicians in the half-century that followed.
Lewis, in particular, was a sight and a sound to behold. I never had the opportunity to see him perform, but I’ve always had a profound respect for, and admiration of, the handful of monumental hit singles that established his place in the rock and roll pantheon.
You had to be something of a renegade to pick up the mantle and play rock and roll in the 1950s, but Lewis pushed the envelope even more than his compatriots. He sang and pounded the piano with reckless abandon, but he also stood defiantly against the social mores of that era, even when he knew he was rolling the dice and jeopardizing the career he was aiming for.
In 1958, after a year or two flirting with superstardom, he secretly married Myra Gale Brown, his third wife, though he hadn’t yet reached age 23. But that wasn’t the worst of it. Brown was his first cousin, the daughter of his bass-playing uncle, J.W. Brown…and she was only 13. This might’ve been legal in Louisiana, where Lewis was born and raised, but in most of the country, this was immoral and unacceptable. Radio stations banned his songs, promoters dropped him from the concert circuit, and Lewis found himself persona non grata for many years to come.
Born to Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday, Louisiana in 1935, Lewis was brought up in a dirt-poor environment in a country shack, but the family scraped together enough money for a third-hand upright piano to pass along the family’s musical genes to the next generation. Lewis and his cousin Mickey Gilley (a successful country singer-songwriter in the ’70s and ’80s) took piano lessons together, along with another cousin, Jimmy Lee Swaggart, who found fame and notoriety as an evangelist. Before he was a teenager, Lewis showed an extraordinary aptitude for the piano, merging gospel and boogie-woogie styles he had heard at church and on the radio. Indeed, these two influences created a sort of split personality in Lewis that was never truly resolved.
He was thrilled by how the boogie-woogie music made him feel, particularly when he heard it performed at his uncle Lee Calhoun’s club, Haney’s Big House, which catered to a Black clientele. His mother, however, exerted her authority over her son by enrolling him in a Texas Bible college to ensure that he would be using his musical gifts in more wholesome pursuits than show business. Of course, that didn’t last long; as legend has it, Lewis offered up a wild, caterwauling version of “My God is Real” at a church assembly one night that got him booted from the college.
Lewis was moved by sacred music, and it remained a substantial influence on him throughout his life, but he was irresistibly drawn to the rhythms and earthy emotions of what soon became known as rock and roll. He was passionate about performing in his frenetic, juiced-up manner — kicking over his piano bench, playing while standing up, using his elbows, even his heels, much like Little Richard was also doing. Said Lewis in a line later used in a Grateful Dead song, “I may be going to Hell in a bucket, but at least I’m enjoying the ride.”
His passion to make music took him to Nashville, but the record companies there wanted nothing to do with his wild-child persona and musical leanings that were too far removed from country music. By 1956, though, Lewis found himself in Memphis auditioning for Sam Phillips on his Sun Records label, where Presley, Perkins and Johnny Cash, among other luminaries, were honing their chops on acetate. He played piano on some of their early records, including Perkins’ hit “Matchbox,” and lobbied for a chance to records his songs as a solo artist.
Phillips was impressed by Lewis’s range and abilities and finally gave him his chance in early 1957 with an R&B tune first recorded by Big Maybelle called “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” Lewis gave it a no-holds-barred R&R treatment at a faster tempo, and Phillips promoted the hell out of it, and within a month, it was the #1 song on country and R&B charts and #2 on the pop charts (held back by the saccharine Debbie Reynolds hit “Tammy”). Overnight, Lewis was the hot new sensation, the heir apparent to Presley’s throne.
He maintained that reputation with two more sensational hits, the sexually charged “Great Balls of Fire” and the more desperate “Breathless.” He added another layer of fame by singing the title song for, and making an appearance in, the frothy rock and roll movie “High School Confidential.” This instant, runaway success brought about an unbridled ego and fierce competitiveness that earned Lewis the nickname “Killer.” Ironically, it didn’t exactly serve him well going forward.
Arriving in London for a tour in 1958, he brazenly brought along Brown, his new child-bride, and the British press gleefully exposed this “sinful union” to the world. The tour was canceled after only three shows, and his career went into a tailspin. His bookings went from $10,000 a night to $250 at any honky-tonk that would have him.
For most of the ’60s, as rock music exploded both in popularity and the diversity of sub-genres from country rock to psychedelia, Lewis struggled, no longer in the limelight but doggedly keeping his head down as he turned in riveting live shows across the US and bin Europe, waiting for a chance to reclaim some measure of fame on the charts again.
That came in 1968 when he persuaded Smash Records to sign him as a country artist, covering popular country tunes that helped him find a new audience from a new generation of country music fans. His cover of the Jerry Chestnut song “Another Place, Another Time” reached the Top Five on country charts, the first of an impressive dozen Top Ten country hits in three years, including the #1 “To Make Love Sweeter For You.” In concert, Lewis continued to sprinkle rock and roll into the set list whenever he felt like it, which was almost every night, and the paying public seemed fine with it as long as his records remained pure country. It was a balance that both the artist and his audience could live with, and it worked throughout the 1970s.
Sadly, though, his personal life was pretty much a mess. His marriage to Brown ended after 13 years, and two subsequent marriages also ended in divorce. He lost both of his parents and his oldest son, the IRS was after him continually for back taxes owed, and he wrestled mightily with alcohol and pills that resulted in lengthy hospital stays.
But Lewis’s career had yet another resurgence when Hollywood chose to release “Great Balls of Fire,” a feature film about his life starring Dennis Quaid. Lewis was recruited to sing the songs for the soundtrack, reminding everyone who the real “Killer” was. Concurrent with that movie was his induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the inaugural group of inductees. He was responsible for kicking off an unplanned jam session at evening’s end, a tradition that has continued every year since.
A final return to prominence came with a pair of albums in 2006 and 2010 where Lewis was paired with various stars like Mick Jagger, Jimmy Page, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, John Fogerty and Rod Stewart. These albums reached the Top 30 on the pop album charts, Lewis’s first appearance there since the 1950s.
Lewis was a rock and roll piano player of unparalleled skill and influence (Elton John and Billy Joel both publicly mourned his passing last week), and his recorded performances of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” are etched permanently into the annals of rock and roll history. But in my view, he’s another sad story of “what could’ve been” had he not imploded his career at precisely the wrong time.
Here’s a playlist of great moments from Lewis’s career, handpicked by me after a lengthy session of listening to nearly everything he recorded. As you might expect, it’s weighted heavily with the classic stuff from the 1950s.
I always learn something new from your music history profiles. Keep those hits coming Bruce!
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Excellent playlist and commentary. I would add that there is one pioneer still remaining, but she’s often overshadowed: Wanda Jackson just made another album last year, and I swear she sounds just the same as she did in the 1950s.
I was lucky enough to see Jerry Lee Lewis perform twice. He is, and always will be, unforgettable.