JERRY LEE LEWIS

Born 29 September 1935, Ferriday, Louisiana

Singer / pianist. Nicknamed “The Killer”.

Disregarding the vinyl releases, I have 59 CDs by Jerry Lee Lewis in my collection, 44 of which are part of four box-sets (mentioned at the bottom). No other artist comes close. I’ve been a member of the Dutch Jerry Lee Lewis Fanclub (run by Wim de Boer) for 50 years. So I guess you can call me a real fan.

Born in the small town of Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis started playing piano at the age of nine and was so fond of the instrument that he often played it ten hours a day. He has always mentioned Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams as his main inspirations, but his cousin Carl McVoy was the greatest influence on his piano playing style.

Jerry made his first recordings in 1952 in New Orleans. They were intended for private use only and first commercially released in 2006. A little later he attended a fundamentalist bible school in Waxahachie, Texas, but was expelled when he performed a thumping version of “My God Is Real” on the school piano.

In October 1956 he and his father, Elmo Lewis, sold thirteen dozen eggs to raise money for a trip to Memphis. Jerry loved Elvis Presley’s early recordings and decided that Sam Phillips was the man he ought to go and see. Sam wasn’t there when Lewis arrived at the Sun studio, but Jack Clement, intrigued by Jerry’s claim that he “played piano like Chet Atkins", gave him an audition. Clement was impressed, but advised Jerry to forget about country and come up with some rock and roll material. The first Sun session took place on November 14, 1956, again in the absence of Sam Phillips. Clement had invited guitarist Roland Janes and young drummer Jimmy Van Eaton to back up Jerry and this turned out to be a golden combination. The resulting single, “Crazy Arms”/“End of the Road”, wasn’t a hit, but sold respectably. Sam Phillips realized that he had found an extraordinarily gifted performer and taped everything Jerry did in the studio. Lewis was able to make almost any song a vehicle for self-expression. If Phillips thought a song had merit and wanted to hear it another way, Lewis could change the time signature, the tempo, the key, his phrasing - even the lyrics - at the drop of a hat. Sam also used Lewis as a session pianist for about two months. A Carl Perkins session on December 4, 1956 developed into the famous “Million Dollar Quartet” jam session when Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash dropped by at the Sun studio.

Jerry’s second single was released in March 1957. Initially, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” sold poorly. Phillips had more faith in the other side, “It’ll Be Me”, sensing that “Shakin’” was too suggestive. (It was banned by many radio stations.) But after Jerry's appearance on Steve Allen’s TV show (July 28, 1957), “Whole Lotta Shakin’” jumped up the charts, peaking at # 3 in September. The follow-up, “Great Balls of Fire” (also featured in the movie “Jamboree”), did even better, reaching # 2 (# 1 in the UK). It is on these two records that Jerry’s reputation is primarily based and until today he closes his live performances with those two songs. (Well, almost always.)

Next came “Breathless”, which also went Top 10, and with Elvis Presley away in the Army, it seemed that nothing could stop Jerry from becoming the number one rock and roll artist. Then, on May 23, 1958, he arrived in England for a tour, with his sister Frankie Jean and his wife, Myra Gale Brown. When the British press found out that Myra was only 13 and his second cousin, and that this was Lewis’s third (and bigamous) marriage, there followed a howl of outrage and the tour was cancelled after only three shows. Jerry and his entourage flew back to the States where he assumed all would be okay - in the South it was quite common to marry young. He was wrong. Lewis went back from $10,000 to $250 a night. The effect of the scandal on Lewis’s record sales was devastating. But Sam Phillips kept the faith and continued to record Jerry prolifically. In the spring of 1961 Lewis returned to the charts with a strong version of Ray Charles’s “What’d I Say”, which peaked at # 30. From that point on, Lewis recorded mostly R&B material and his excellent revival of Chuck Berry’s “Sweet Little Sixteen” became his last chart entry on Sun (1962).

From September 1963 until September 1978, Jerry Lee Lewis was contracted to Mercury, by far the longest affiliation of his recording career. At first his records were released on the Smash subsidiary ; after the demise of Smash in 1970 he was moved to the parent label. In the words of Colin Escott : “It took five excruciatingly fruitless years for Jerry Lee to reclaim his piece of the promised land”. By the time Jerry’s best single from the early Smash period, “I’m On Fire”, hit the market in March 1964, the Beatles had forever altered the rules of the popular music game. “I’m On Fire” spent exactly one week on the Billboard Hot 100, at # 98. But Jerry (a born entertainer) was a still a conquering hero in Europe, where his live shows went down extremely well. In 1964 he recorded two of the greatest live albums in the history of American popular music, “Live At the Star-Club” (recorded in Hamburg, Germany) and “The Greatest Live Show On Earth” (recorded in Birmingham, Alabama).

By January 1968, Jerry’s new producers, Jerry Kennedy and Eddie Kilroy, decided that contemporary country was the only way Jerry Lee could return to a prominence befitting his talent. It would become one of the most astonishing comeback stories in pop music. Starting with “Another Place, Another Time”, he scored one country hit after another over the next decade, including four number ones (“To Make Love Sweeter For You”, “There Must Be More To Love Than This”, “Would You Take Another Chance On Me” and, in 1972, “Chantilly Lace”, which also returned him to the pop Top 50). Meanwhile, he also kept the rock and roll flag flying at his live performances around the world.

In his personal life, there was much tragedy. In 1962, his 3-year old son Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool incident and the same would happen with his fourth wife in 1982. In November 1973, his 19-year old son Jerry Lee Jnr. was killed in a road accident. His fifth wife was found dead at his home following a methadone overdose. Lewis himself was hospitalised in 1981 and allegedly close to death from a haemorrhaged ulcer. In 1993 he fled to Ireland with his family to avoid (renewed) trouble with the IRS. (He would return in 1997.)

In 1979-80 Lewis made three good albums for Elektra. After 1984 he has recorded only sporadically, most recently the “duets”album “Mean Old Man”(2010), which peaked at # 30 on the album charts. In 2012 Judith Brown became his seventh wife. Now aged 81, he is still performing, but with ever-diminishing frequency. The Killer rocks on! In 1986 Lewis was among the first group of inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.

Jerry Lee Lewis’s recordings for Sun (1956-1963) represent the artistic high points of his career. It was not until the 1970s and 1980s that the full picture of what he recorded at Sun became clear. The rejected masters and outtakes, released after Shelby Singleton purchased the Sun catalog in 1969, revealed a wonderfully consistent body of work.

Official website : http://jerryleelewis.com
A much more informative site is : http://www.jerryleelewis.org

Recommended biographies :
Nick Tosches, Hellfire : The Jerry Lee Lewis Story. New York : Dell, 1982. 276 pages.
Rick Bragg, Jerry Lee Lewis : His Own Story. New York : HarperCollins, 2014.. 500 p.

Another good book :
Jimmy Guterman, Rockin’ My Life Away : Listening To Jerry Lewis. Nashville, TN :
Rutledge Hill Press, 1991. 223 pages. Also available online :
http://tinyurl.com/h2hrw2q

Discography : http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.nl/2014/11/jerry-lee-lewis-part-1.html
http://countrydiscoghraphy2.blogspot.nl/2014/11/jerry-lee-lewis-part-2.html

CDs :
As usual, Bear Family has compiled the most comprehensive collections :
- Classic Jerry Lee Lewis (Bear Family BCD 15420, 1989). 8 CDs of Sun recordings.
- The Locust Years … And the Return To the Promised Land (Bear Family BCD 15783, 1994). 8 CDs. Smash recordings, 1963-1969.
- Mercury Smashes … And Rockin’ Sessions (Bear Family BCD 15784, 2000). 10 CDs. Mercury recordings, 1970-1978.
Above three all annotated by Colin Escott.
- Jerry Lee Lewis At Sun Records : The Collected Works. “What the hell else do you need?” (Bear Family BCD 17254, 2015). Complete Sun recordings (all surviving takes). 18 CDs. Accompanying books by Andrew McRae and Pierre Pennone.

Acknowledgements : Colin Escott & Martin Hawkins, Rick Bragg, Peter Guralnick and many others.

YouTube :
- Crazy Arms : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4mWkI2kF9RI
- Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On (Steve Allen show) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Fw7SBF-35Es
- Great Balls of Fire (Jamboree version) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7IjgZGhHrYY
- You Win Again : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KduwM7QFG3I
- Breathless (live) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nwYZ83l22cA
- In the Mood (The Hawk) : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=TOkNBMbXASw
- What’d I Say : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=owCiPI4xBn4
- Cold Cold Heart : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7B_1GnxTyg4
- I’m On Fire : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zarQE_Btlio
- Boogie Woogie Country Man : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=lhwt1MLdO-I
- Rockin’ My Life Away : https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vhMlZo2nppg

Dik, September 2016

 
These pages were saved from "This Is My Story" for reference usage only. Please note that these pages were not originally published or written by BlackCat Rockabilly Europe. For comments or information please contact Dik de Heer at dik.de.heer@ziggo.nl

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