Personalities | Jerry Lee Lewis | Rockabilly | Country

If Jerry Lee Lewis had never existed, it seems unlikely that anyone would have had a sufficiently vivid imagination to have invented him. Through a 50-year career, this massively talented, yet infuriatingly self-destructive genius has scaled the heights and plumbed the depths, never for one moment compromising his music or his life. Most people mellow with age. Jerry Lee Lewis just keeps on rocking.

Contender For King

Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on 29 September 1935, he reportedly first saw a piano at the age of eight, while visiting his aunt, and amazed everyone by sitting down and instantly playing it, thereby inspiring his father to mortgage their home to buy him his own upright. Lewis has usually claimed to have been a true original, his music influenced by no other. Inevitably, though, he absorbed the sounds of post-war country music, especially Hank Williams, on the family battery-operated radio and as a youngster would accompany his cousin, the future television evangelist Jimmy Lee Swaggert, to a juke joint outside town, where they would sneak in and listen to black performers like the teenage B.B. King. By 1949 he started to perform music and to learn his craft in the local clubs and honky-tonks.

In November 1956, Lewis arrived at Sun Records in Memphis and auditioned for Jack Clement, having announced himself as someone who played piano like Chet Atkins. He made an immediate impact and his high-energy rendition of Ray Price’s hit ‘Crazy Arms’ became his first release. It was, however, his second Sun single ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ (1957), with its frenzied rock’n’roll beat and mildly suggestive lyrics, that rocketed him to instant stardom, aided by an explosive appearance on television’s Steve Allen Show. The disc became a major hit in the country, R&B and pop charts, and when first ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ (1957) and then ‘Breathless’ (1958) repeated the process, Lewis became a genuine contender for Elvis’s crown as ‘king of rock’n’roll’.

Into The Wilderness

His fourth major hit, ‘High School Confidential’ (1958), coincided with a concert tour of Britain during which it became known that Lewis, at the age of 22, had recently married for the third time and that the bride was his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown. The horrified British media applied such intense pressure that the tour was abandoned and Lewis returned home in disgrace. The scandal quickly spread to the USA and before long his records had stopped selling and his career was in ruins.

For the next decade Lewis toured constantly and cemented his reputation as perhaps the greatest live act of the rockabilly generation. He performed at venues large and small and suffered every indignity as he struggled to get his career back on track, but although audiences responded positively to his dynamic shows, it proved a long haul back to the top. During this period he left Sun and recorded for Smash Records in a variety of styles including rock’n’roll, pop, country...

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Source: The Definitive Illustrated Encyclopedia of Country Music, consultant editor Bob Allen


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