JERRY LEE LEWIS

“Rock & Roll’s first great wild man” died the other day.

Also known as “the Killer.”

Once a pal of Elvis, Jerry Lee Lewis, 87, finally expired on October 28th in Nesbit, Mississippi.

He had a lifetime of opportunities to meet his maker; it’s shocking that it didn’t happen sooner.

Jerry Lee Lewis knew the person he was when he wasn’t making music.

In 1977 he said,

“Look, we’ve only got one life to live.

We don’t have the promise of the next breath.

I know what I am.

I’m a rompin’, stompin’ piano-playin’ sonofabitch.

A mean sonofabitch.

But a great sonofabitch.

A good person.

Never hurt nobody unless they got in my way.

I got a mean streak…

I gotta lay it open sometimes.

It seems as though pain, anger, depression and an assortment of other maladies skewed his thinking some.

Understatement?

For all his scandals, his awful misdeeds, he somehow built up a deep reserve of goodwill, largely because he was indefatigable.

He kept playing shows from 1956–2020.

He performed in October 2022, the month he died.

He kept recording, releasing more than 40 albums from 1958 to 2014.

He kept marrying: 7 times.

One of the lucky brides was his 13-year-old cousin.

The rock & roll establishment embraced him.

He was a member of the inaugural class of inductees saluted by the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, joining Elvis, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino and James Brown.

Rolling Stone named him to its list of Immortals (later the 100 Greatest Artists) in 2005.

Surprisingly, the Country Music Hall of Fame–around since 1961–did not cotton to Lewis until October 2022, the month of his death.

Thirty-six years after the R&R HOF induction.

Lewis was too ill to attend the ceremony.

Kris Kristofferson accepted the award in his stead and presented it to Lewis at his home.

In a statement the day his induction was announced, he said, “To be recognized by country music with their highest honor is a humbling experience.

I am appreciative of all those who have recognized that Jerry Lee Lewis music is country music and to our almighty God for his never-ending redeeming grace.”

If only “the Killer,” with his pounding piano, impassioned vocals and incendiary performing style could have identified, and at least, acknowledged humility before he was between his death bed’s sheets, he may have been better off.

But that was not part of his plan.

Hardly.

Lewis was 21 in November 1956 when he strutted into Sun Studio in Memphis and, presenting himself as a country singer who could play a mean piano, demanded an audition.

His timing was impeccable.

Sun Records had sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA Records a year earlier–kind of like trading Babe Ruth–and sorely needed a new star to headline a roster that included Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison.

Jerry Lee more than filled the bill.

His first record, a juiced-up rendition of the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms,” was a regional success.

His next offering, released in April 1957, rocked the world.

“Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.”

Seismic.

Sun was pleased with the breakout hit, to say the least.

Although initially banned by many radio stations for being too suggestive, the song blew the lid off when Lewis performed it on “The Steve Allen Show,” reaching a nationwide audience.

It rose to №3 on the pop charts and sold six million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest hits of the early rock ‘n roll era.

Overnight, Lewis and Elvis were thrust into direct competition.

To Lewis it was no contest.

Apples to oranges.

“There’s a difference between a phenomenon and a stylist,” he began in a 1981 interview with the record-collector magazine, Goldmine.

“I’m a stylist, Elvis was the phenomenon, and don’t you forget it,” he finished with a rare dash of humility.

He was right.

In November 1957, Sun released “Great Balls of Fire,” a high-octane sexual anthem written by Otis Blackwell, whose other songs included the Presley mega-hits “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”

Lewis’ distinctive barrelhouse piano style–featuring his left hand insistently pounding the keys while his right was executing rippling glissandos, accompanied by a series of leering swoops–became his trademark.

Kicking the piano bench aside and attacking the keyboard standing up.

Writhing, howling, raking the keyboard with his right foot and tossing his wavy hair so vigorously, it’s a wonder it stayed attached to his scalp.

“The Devil’s music,” he called it.

His signature.

The record rose to №2 on the pop charts, selling more than five million copies in the US alone.

“Nobody had a more creative approach to the music or a more incendiary approach to performing it,” Peter Guarlnick, author of the definitive two-volume Presley biography remarked in an interview for his obituary.

“He had the ability to put his stamp on every kind of material he recorded.”

His serial roller coaster ups and downs became another stamp of his.

In spite of that, he persevered and lasted for perhaps longer than he ever could have imagined.

The quintessential rock & roller and country star’s funeral was held on November 5 in his birthplace, Ferriday, LA.

The service was officiated by his cousin, the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, and Swaggart’s son.

[Editor’s Note: This piece was written by Mr. Kaplan in November 2022.]

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store