Jerry Lee Lewis
Artist Biographies: The Jerry Lewis Story
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Jerry Lee Lewis, also known as “The Killer”, was born on September 29th, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana. When he began learning the piano at the age of 9, his parents mortgaged their farm in order to support him. Jerry Lee Lewis mainly taught himself and learned to sing at church. His biggest influences were country singers such as Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams. Lewis was enrolled in the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, to ensure that he would only sing evangelical songs. However, Jerry Lee Lewis started to branch out and played more “worldly” music. He later chose to focus on his music rather than an education, and became an early pioneer of rock and roll, starting his career playing in clubs around his home town of Ferriday.
Sun Records and the Early Career of Jerry Lee Lewis:
Lewis moved to Memphis, Tennessee in November 1956 and auditioned for Sun Records there. He then started recording as both a solo artist and also as a session musician for other artists including Johnny Cash and, in 1956, with Elvis Presley in an impromptu jam session. Also in 1956, Lewis also recorded his own cover of Ray Prices “Crazy Arms”. At the time 300,000 copies were sold in the South.
In 1957 Lewis’ own solo career took off thanks to songs like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” which brought him international renown. In March of 1958, Lewis’ track “Breathless” made the Top 10 of the pop charts. However, Jerry Lee Lewis was becoming more and more uncomfortable with the ‘sinful’ nature and subjects of his music.
Lewis’ Infamous Marriage:
Jerry Lee Lewis had already been married twice before the scandal regarding his third wife, Myra Gale Brown hit the papers. During a British Tour, a news agency reporter released information that Myra was only 13 and was related to Lewis (cousin once removed). At the time, Jerry Lee Lewis was 22. The shock and horror at the scandal was so great that Lewis’ tour was quickly cancelled after only three concerts. After it was brought to light, the prices for his concerts went from $10,000 per night to just a meagre $250.
This scandal returned with Lewis to the U.S. and he found that he was having more difficult time organizing live concerts and was actually blacklisted from the radio. After “High School Confidential”, released in 1958 in the film of the same name, Lewis almost disappeared completely from the music scene. Despite all these setbacks, however, he was determined to make a comeback.
In 1963, Jerry Lee Lewis left Sun Records and joined Smash records. After a series of not-so-successful songs, Lewis scored a major breakthrough with his concert album Live at the Star Club in 1964, which is still considered one of the best live rock and roll albums ever. Lewis then returned to his country music and scored a hit with “Another Place, Another Time” in 1968, which went to No. 4 in the charts and stayed there for 17 weeks. He continued to produce country albums into the mid 1970s.
However, he did not completely leave the world of rock behind him. In 1973 his album The Session received recognition. It was his highest charting pop albums since his 1964 Golden Hits of Jerry Lee Lewis and it hit No. 37. On the country albums chart it hit No. 4. However, during this time, Lewis was struggling in his private life. In 1973, he was arrested for drunk-driving in Memphis, in 1981 he almost died from a bleeding ulcer and in 1976, he was arrested for allegedly intending to shoot Elvis Presley in Graceland. He was later charged with carrying a pistol and for being drunk in public.
Jerry Lee Lewis has continued to produce new music and to perform. In 2005, he was given a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Recording Academy and in 2006 he released Last Man Standing which hit No. 1 in the indie charts and is his biggest selling album of all time. Lewis has continued to actively perform, his latest performance taking place in 2014.
Jerry Lee Lewis is now considered to be one of the most influential pianists in the history of the rock and roll genre. His style is often called ‘Boogie Woogie’, but gospel music was one of the biggest inspirations for his music early in his career. He played a pivotal role in bringing the piano into rock and roll, which had been previously largely ignored in preference for the guitar. Lewis was an incredible showman and would often play with various parts of his body besides his hands (for instance, his feet and elbows) to achieve the sound he wanted and to show off his impressive skill.
Lewis has been married seven times, and his third marriage (to his much younger 13 year-old relative) almost threatened his musical career. Lewis’s marriages to date have been:
- First marriage: Dorothy Barton from 1952 to 1953. The couple were married only 20 months. Jerry Lee Lewis was 14 years old when he was first married and Dorothy was 17.
- Second marriage: Jane Mitchum from 1953 to 1957. The couple had two children: Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., born 1954 but who died in 1973 at the age of 19 when he overturned his Jeep, and Ronnie Guy Lewis, born 1956.
- Third marriage: Myra Gale Brown, Lewis’ 13 year-old cousin. They married in 1957 and the marriage lasted 13 years. The couple had two children: Steven Allen Lewis, born 1959 but who died in 1962 by drowning in a swimming pool accident when he was just three years old. Their second child, Phoebe Allen Lewis, was born in 1963.
- Fourth marriage: Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate from 1971 to 1982. The couple had one daughter, Lori Lee Lewis, born 1972. Jaren drowned in 1982, just a few weeks before the couple’s divorce proceedings were completed. This has sparked further controversy in Lewis’ personal life.
- Fifth marriage: Shawn Stephens in 1983. This marriage lasted just 77 days and, like Lewis’ marriage to Jaren, ended in Shawn’s death. Speculations about Lewis’ involvement in her death have continued to haunt Lewis throughout his musical career.
- Sixth marriage: Kerrie McCarver from 1984 to 2004. The couple had one child together in 1987, Jerry Lee Lewis III.
- Seventh marriage: Judith Brown in 2012.