Of course, he started a fight. Reports of the death of Jerry Lee Lewis in recent days have been greatly exaggerated: “TMZ mistakenly reported an absurd anonymous tip,” its representative said on Thursday (October 27). But here it is: the last survivor of the first generation of rock and roll artists really died at the age of 87. The last of the gang to die was the most despicable and infamous of his contemporaries. Elvis Presley was the king of rock and roll, Little Richard was its king and queen. And Jerry Lee? He called himself a Murderer.
The nickname was allegedly obtained at school after he tried to strangle a teacher with his own tie. And throughout his career, he lived up to this terrifying reputation, his fiery boogie-woogie resulted in a bright, piano-sounding style with an admixture of evangelical fervor instilled in him by his devout Christian mother Mary Herron Lewis. It was the style thanks to which his mid-50s songs “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin'” On” and “Great Balls Of Fire” became hits that were released by Sun Records, the label that founded Elvis Presley. The flip side of his personality was a series of unfortunate contradictions that significantly overshadowed his legacy.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, in 1935. His father, Elmo Lewis, was a farmer and bootlegger who famously mortgaged the family home for $250 to buy his son a piano. The boy’s talent became apparent when he was kicked out of school for performing a sacrilegiously obscene version of the gospel song “God is Real.” It doesn’t matter: he and Elmo were traveling around the state in an old van, and Jerry Lee was performing in the back seat of the car, bringing his sinful sound to people.
Inspired by the honky tonk bars he visited against Mary’s wishes, the future superstar began to develop a unique frenetic and cool sound that inspired Elton John and John Lennon (the latter kissed his feet when they met in the hall). 1970’s). Confident that he could beat Elvis at his game, Jerry Lee turned to Sun Records in November 1956 and demanded an audition. “I’m a hit,” he told engineer Jack Clement. When Clement replied, “They all say that, son,” Jerry Lee insisted: “I’m not everything. I’m different.”
The resulting “Crazy Arms”, the country ballad that launched his career, proved him right, but Mary’s voice never left his thoughts. A studio cut from the recording of “Great Balls of Fire” caught him on the fact that the suspicious song is “sinful”. When Phillips assured him that his music could “save souls,” Jerry Lee yelled: “No, no, no, no! How can the Devil save souls? What are you talking about? There’s a Devil in me!”
If you know anything about Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s that he married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gail Brown in 1958. «Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” reached number one on the Billboard Pop, country and Western and R&B charts and sold a million copies in 10 days. He was to embark on a 30-day tour of the UK, from which he would receive an astronomical sum of $26,000. Instead, it was canceled—literally—upon arrival.
Reporters met Myra and 22-year-old Jerry Lee at Heathrow Airport and immediately asked how old they were. Jerry lied, and the Daily Herald still made the story a headline:
THE ROCK STAR’S WIFE IS 15 YEARS OLD
And this is his third marriage!
When the truth came out, indignation naturally swelled. “He should be deported immediately!” the London Evening Star asked, while the audience at the Tooting Granada Theater showered him with curses, calling him a “cradle robber!”. The tour was duly stopped and Jerry Lee fled back to the U.S. “BABY-SNATCHER IS LEAVING,” thundered the headline in the Herald.
If you know two things about Jerry Lee Lewis, it’s that he was also arrested in 1976 after screeching at the gates of Elvis’ mansion in Memphis, Graceland. With a belly full of booze and a gun on the dashboard, he demanded once and for all to solve the question of who is the real king of rock and roll. It is reported that Elvis was watching what was happening on a video surveillance system.
The Myra Brown scandal and Graceland’s arrest occurred almost two decades apart, proving that his first brush with notoriety did not make him the righteous man he claimed he wanted to be. In the 20 years between these incidents, Jerry was very much shaken and came back to normal.
Upon his return from the UK in 1958, the American press felt that he had brought shame on the country. His career collapsed overnight. The hits dried up, and the gigs were just as bad: he dropped from $10,000 a night to $250, hanging around tiny venues where he played for nine hours at a time. In 1962, their three-year-old son, Steve Allen, tragically died, plunging the singer into a nightmarish spiral of drug and alcohol addiction. He spent a decade in obscurity after that cancelled UK tour.
And then something strange happened. Jerry Lee reinvented himself as an extremely successful country singer, the initiator of this step was Mercury Records executive Eddie Kilroy, who may have felt that the pain and rage in the Killer’s heart were well suited for this genre. After all, his furious 1964 album “Live at the Star-Club Hamburg”, recorded when he was in the abyss, remains one of the greatest live albums ever released. And indeed, the excruciating “Another Place, Another Time” reached number four on the US Hot Country Songs Billboard chart. By 1969, biographer Nick Tosche noted in the book Hellfire: The Jerry Lewis Story that he was “the hottest country singer in the South.”
Thus began the second wind of his career, which accompanied him throughout the 70s, although he always remained with one foot in rock and roll. The 1973 album “Southern Roots: Back Home To Memphis” is an underrated gem, containing an insanely inspiring cover version of Sam & Dave’s soul song “Hold On, I’m Comin”, on which he purrs lasciviously: “Wait — Jerry’s coming! His personal life, however, remained an abomination.
Myra filed for divorce in 1970, citing adultery and abuse. In 1983, his fifth wife, Shawn Stevens, died just 10 weeks after the wedding. A Rolling Stone article claimed that Jerry Lee’s version of events did not match the details of the police investigation; the Grand Jury found no evidence of wrongdoing. In 2012, he married his seventh and last wife Judith, who, oddly enough, was previously married to Myra’s brother. In 2015, Lewis told The Guardian: “I’ve always worried if I’m going to heaven or hell… I worry about it before I go to bed… When you take your last breath, where are you going to go?”
Jerry Lee Lewis released his latest album, a collection of covers, Rock and Roll Time, in 2014. As in his career, it actually mostly consisted of country songs. “I’ve hung my head and I’m crying,” he croaked to the tune of Johnny Cash’s “Folsom Prison Blues,” but you could swear it was uttered with a grin. Who knows what will become of the Murderer after his last breath. It probably doesn’t matter—he’ll shake out those Pearly Gates anyway. Hold on, Jerry’s coming.