Born on 29 September 1935, Jerry Lee Lewis was raised in the same Pentecostal religious tradition and cultural setting as Elvis Presley and was exposed to almost identical musical influences. From there on, the two young rebels grew to be as different as milkshake and moonshine.
Unlike Presley and other contemporaries, Lewis really was as outrageously extreme as his later image.
By the time he rapped on the door of Sun Records in the autumn of 1956, he had been expelled from a fundamentalist Bible college in Waxahachie, Texas, for playing a boogie-woogie version of the hymn My God Is Real; he had been twice married – once bigamously as his divorce from his first wife wasn’t finalised – and he had been resident blues ‘n’ boogie man in brothels and cut-throat dives along the Mississippi waterfront.
He was also without the slightest trace of insecurity about the invincibility of his own talent.
The bare facts of the self-styled Killer’s breakthrough are few but frenetic. After one southern regional hit, in the late summer of 1957, he smashed to international success with a lascivious rockin’ boogie, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, quickly followed by an even wilder affront to conservative morality, Great Balls Of Fire.
Also in late 1957 he quietly entered his third marriage – to his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown (pictured below). Such marriages were perfectly legal and not particularly unusual in Louisiana.
While his next hit, Breathless, was climbing the charts in May 1958, he started his first British tour and caught the full force of a kick from the high horse of British morality, ostensibly because of his ‘unacceptable’ marriage. Questions were asked in Parliament, Lewis was booed off stage, the tour was cancelled, and he returned to America with his career in ashes – effectively knocking him out of the big time for the next ten years.
In 1962, Steve Allen Lewis, his son by Myra, drowned in the family pool, and in December 1963, Lewis recorded Lincoln Limousine, a tribute to assassinated president John F Kennedy. The song contained the immortal line: “Oh Lord, it would have been better if he’d stayed at home”.
In 1968 he returned to establishment favour with the first of a string of American country hits, but demons lurked just under the surface.
In 1970, Myra left him. “It was my fault,” he would say. “She caught me cheating”.
On 13 November 1973, his 19-year-old son Jerry Lee Lewis Jr died in a car accident. In September 1976, Lewis accidentally shot bassist Butch Owens in the chest with a .357 Magnum.
Later in 1976, Lewis overturned his Rolls Royce near Collierville, Tennessee, where he lived with his fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Pate, who drowned in a friend’s pool in 1982.
In May 1977 he checked into a Memphis hospital, where his gallbladder was removed and he was treated for a collapsed right lung, pleurisy and a back injury from the accident in the Rolls.
There was also the celebrated incident in November 1976 at Elvis Presley‘s Memphis mansion, Graceland. Lewis showed up at the front gate in the middle of the night, and when the guard wouldn’t let him drive in, he reportedly began waving a pistol around. Elvis and Lewis never saw each other again.
In 1979 an Australian tour had to be cut short when a fan picked a fight with Lewis on stage and the two of them, scuffling, fell against a monitor speaker. Lewis emerged from the fracas with several fractured ribs.
He then returned home to find that the Internal Revenue Service had confiscated all his vehicles for alleged non-payment of taxes. To add insult to injury, they also had him busted for marijuana and cocaine they said they found on the premises.
In July 1981, Lewis was rushed to a Memphis hospital for emergency surgery on a stomach ruptured by many years of wild living. His condition was critical, his chances 50:50.
Upon recovery and release, he bought himself a $40,000 customised Cadillac, a $25,000 Chevrolet Corvette, a good long cigar, and a bottle of his favourite whiskey. “As long as they give me a piano, I’ll be out there”, he proclaimed. “they try to take that away, I’m gonna kick some ass”.
Lewis’s fifth wife, 25-year-old Shawn Lewis, died suddenly in October 1983 – 77 days after their marriage.
Her death was attributed to fluid in the lungs, possibly caused by an overdose of medication. A Rolling Stone magazine article and an ABC News expose virtually accused Lewis of her murder, although the sheriff’s office found no evidence of foul play. Lewis returned to performing a week later.
Exiled in Ireland (due to a $2.6 million dispute with the American tax man that saw many of Lewis’ possessions seized) and crippled by rustiness and self-doubt, Lewis bounced back in 2006 with his duets album, Last Man Standing, featuring guests including Mick Jagger, Eric Clapton and Ringo Starr. It became his biggest seller ever.
In 2008, in recessionary times and at £140 a ticket, Lewis packed out London’s legendary 100 Club. At the age of 73, Jerry Lee treated the audience to a seat-of-the-pants hour of living genius.
Lewis died at his home in Nesbit, Mississippi, on 28 October 2022, following a bout of pneumonia. He was 87.