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The Killer; The Man Who Could Be King? He’s The Last Man Standing...
Born in Ferriday, Louisiana on September 29, 1935 and raised on the bible, they said he’d go to Hell for his music. He said, “If I’m goin’ to Hell… I’m goin’ playin’ the piano!”
Sam Phillips of Sun Records, the visionary who snagged lightning at least five times, called him “the most talented man I ever worked with — one of the most talented human beings to walk God’s earth.” There was never anything contrived when it came to Jerry Lee Lewis. Raw. Intense. Groundbreaking and breaking all the rules with no regrets and a supercharged mojo none-to-be-reckoned-with. He was a force of nature sent to Earth on a comet filled with piss and vinegar and from a scarce and select handful of founding fathers who can literally say they ignited the flame that is rock & roll; and changed our culture, our society and the entire world forever.
Jerry Lee Lewis, aka "Killer", growling and yelping, beating seven bells of hell out of the piano with his hands, feet and elbows; snakes of hair falling over his forehead, kicking his chair across the stage like a bucking horse and lighting the piano on fire with a bottle of Coke filled with gasoline and a match — and continuing to slam, smash and stomp, pounding the piano while it burned to the ground — he is — and will always be one of rock’s most memorable and controversial performers — long before ’controversial’ was fashionable. There will never be another "Killer".
An interesting question has been lingering for more than half a century — could Lewis have been the real King of rock & roll? There was the time Lewis drove up to Graceland, drunk on liquor and high on pills, with a gun on his dashboard, demanding that Elvis come down from the house on the hill to prove who was the real King — calling out Elvis as a hillbilly that got lucky — with only a fraction of the talent that Lewis had.
Jerry Lee was the first real wild man of Rock & Roll. Punk rock? He was "punk rock" decades before The Ramones and Sex Pistols. Pete Townsend smashing his guitars on stage after or during a performance — Lewis was wrecking pianos 20 plus years earlier — wherever he went! He would hit the keys so hard, the pianos never stood a chance. Venue owners and television hosts were furious...
In 1956 Lewis ended up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he found work as a studio musician for Sun Studios. That same year he recorded his first single, a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” which did well locally. Lewis was the go-to pianist in Memphis for session work and also recorded sessions with Carl Perkins. While working at Sun, he and Perkins jammed with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. This session where the engineer unknowingly turned on the equipment which captured the four jamming for hours was
remastered and released as an album in the US in 1990 and become a Broadway musical 54 years later in 2010 — more than half a century later — as the “Million Dollar Quartet”. The musical opened on Broadway April 11, 2010, at the Nederlander Theatre following an acclaimed Chicago run, where the musical continued to play the Apollo Theater. "Million Dollar Quartet" performed 523 shows.
In his very first television performance on the Steve Allen Show in 1957, Lewis performed “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, (which you can view on YouTube); you’ll see Lewis stand up and kick the piano chair off the stage. A few seconds later, an object slides back across the screen. As Lewis was destroying the house piano, host Steve Allen hurled the chair right back across the room in a fit of rage on live television.
He was a maniacal savant on the piano, and one of his best kept secrets was Lewis’ occasional penchant for interrupting the standard boogie-woogie left-hand progression by omitting the seventh and repeating the fifth and sixth, creating a repetitive, driving, quasi-menacing momentum only he could pull off.
Lewis came up the ranks with the architects that defined it all — he was in the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame which included Lewis, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke and Everly Brothers. Everyone on that list is now dead except one, Don Everly (and one-half of an Everly Brothers does not make an Everly Brothers).
In 1957, Lewis was raking in $10,000 per each performance, the equivalent of $90,000 today (still 60 plus years ago). Include the 3.2% increase in what performers are paid today (vs. 1957) and it’s up around $300,000. At that time, he had attained a similar level of success to Elvis who was headed into the US army leaving a lot of room for Jerry Lee to take the helm. Then it all came crashing down — all in a single moment.
The frenetic piano pounding crazy man was on his way to Britain for a six-week tour in May of ‘58 and was warned to remain in the States. A UK tour may not seem like a big deal today, as musicians criss-cross the Atlantic all the time, however in the 1950’s the culture was very different than ours. But he went anyway. And no sooner had he landed at Heathrow — an inquisitive reporter for the Daily Mail named Paul Tanfield unwittingly broke the scandal that stopped his career in its preverbal tracks when he inquired as to the identity of an especially young woman he’d spotted in his entourage. “I’m Myra, Jerry’s wife,” said Myra Gail Lewis. Tanfield followed up with a question for the "Killer" himself: “And how old is Myra?” It was at this point that Jerry Lee must have cottoned to the fact that the rest of the world might take a somewhat skeptical view of this marriage to his 13-year-old cousin once or twice removed. Even the best PR firm in the world wouldn’t be able to spin this in Lewis’ favor.
At that time aside from crazed teens, the world wanted rock and roll music to go away. “Rock and roll has got to go!” as they said. Lewis would become rock and rolls’ biggest scapegoat.
The scandal followed Lewis home to America, and as a result he almost vanished from the music scene. Lewis felt betrayed by numerous people who had been his supporters. Dick Clark dropped him from his shows. Lewis even felt that Sam Phillips had sold him out when the Sun Record patriarch released “The Return of Jerry Lee,” which he thought mocked Lewis’ problems. Only Alan Freed stayed true to him, playing his records until Freed was removed from the air because of his alleged dealings in payola.
Even though Jerry Lee Lewis was still under contract with Sun Records, he stopped recording. He had only few friends at the time whom he felt he could trust. It was only through T. L. Meade, (aka Franz Douskey) a sometime Memphis musician and friend of Sam Phillips, and Gary Sklar, that Lewis went back to record at Sun. Still, he kept playing out, whether he was paid or not. He believed he was a beacon from Heaven that channeled what he interpreted was God’s music and felt obligated to share it with the world no matter which way it came out of him.
To this very day, the Killer continues to tour. His last album “Last Man Standing” is his best selling to-date. The album features duets with some of Jerry Lee’s most famous fans and friends, such as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Eric Clapton, Kid Rock, Bruce Springsteen, Rod Stewart, B.B King, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, John Fogerty and Buddy Guy among many others. Kid Rock said about Lewis “In my opinion, Jerry Lee should be on Mt. Rushmore.” Jerry Lee Lewis has influenced generations of performers in all musical genres throughout the past six (going on seven) decades and is an unprecedented talent — a true original American icon.
In 1989, his life was (somewhat) chronicled in the biopic “Great Balls of Fire”, starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder as Myra Gale Lewis. The film was far too comedic and silly. His story would be much better fit for the big screen if it were to be produced by a Scorsese, Eastwood or even Spike Lee. The best part of the movie is the caption that precedes the closing credits, which reads, "Jerry Lee Lewis is playing his heart out somewhere in America tonight." That was 30 years ago. This is still true today. He's still playing at the ripe old age of 84!