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Jerry Lee Lewis

An older white man with gray hair combed back, wearing a black shirt sings into the mic while playing the piano.
Silvio Tanaka
CC BY 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Jerry Lee Lewis at Credicard Hall, São Paulo, Brazil, in September 2009.

Jerry Lee Lewis was known as rock and roll’s first great wild man. But his contradictory life was full of success and scandal. John Kessler remembers "The Killer."

Singer, pianist and pioneering rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis died this year at 87. He brought the sound of piano front and center to blues, rockabilly and country music and helped to give rock and roll it’s essential recklessness.

Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, in 1935 near the Mississippi River, Lewis started playing piano at age eight, determined to be a successful performer. He was also unruly and was thrown out of Bible School for playing a boogie-woogie hymn. As a teenager he made numerous trips to Nashville and Memphis to audition for record companies, finally landing a deal with Sam Phillips at Sun Records. Phillips had already had hits with Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

“Crazy Arms” was a minor hit in the South in 1956, but when Jerry Lee Lewis released “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” in 1957 he rose to worldwide fame. A notable 1957 appearance on Steve Allen’s prime-time television show helped propel him to national attention and the song soon became a huge hit. In the new age of TV in the 1950s, Lewis was nothing if not visual, shaking his hair into an unruly mop, pounding and raking the piano keys and kicking the piano bench away from him. Rarely had a piano player been so visual.

Jerry Lee Lewis positioned himself as a rule breaker, a bad boy, nicknamed “The Killer” because of his overwhelming stage presence. Popular music of the 1950s was still pretty conservative. Pat Boone and Debbie Reynolds was more the flavor of the time. So when this wild man appeared on the scene he helped to define the out-of-control image essential to move pop music past its clean-cut days into the reckless rock and roll future

Later in 1957, he came out with another smash hit that was on top of pop, R&B and country charts: “Great Balls Of Fire.”

But scandal soon followed. On a 1958 trip to the UK, it was discovered that Lewis had married a 13-year old girl who was also his first cousin. For years after Lewis struggled for radio airplay and eventually returned as a country performer. His first country hit came in 1968 with “Another Place, Another Time”.

Then, in one of the biggest comebacks in music history, in the next 10 years Lewis would have 17 Top Ten country hits. And he remained in the public consciousness. In 1989, his life was the subject of the major motion picture Great Balls of Fire with Dennis Quaid as Lewis.

Jerry Lee Lewis’ life is undoubtedly full of conflict and contradiction. Raised as a Pentecostal and the cousin of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Mr. Lewis believed that performing rock and roll had marked him for eternal damnation. Yet he lived his life in true out of control rock and roll fashion, with seven marriages, arrests, drug abuse, violence and tax problems. And through all that, he would go on to be one of rock and roll’s oldest active performers and received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2005.

In 2006, he released the album “Last Man Standing,” which featured duets with such performers as Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King and Willie Nelson.

Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis who died this year at 87.

John has worked as a professional bassist for 20 years, including a 15 year stint as Musical Director of the Mountain Stage radio program. John has been at KNKX since 1999 where he hosts “All Blues”, is producer of the BirdNote radio program, and co-hosts “Record Bin Roulette”. John is also the recording engineer for KNKX “In-Studio Performances”. Not surprisingly, John's main musical interests are jazz and blues, and he is still performing around Seattle.