Rock and roll originator with a true country soul heart.
Jerry Lee Lewis’s death on 28th October at home in Nesbit, Mississippi, from pneumonia, marks the end of an era, as he was the last living member of Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet and now the last living link with that iconic time in music has gone. The legacy that Jerry Lee Lewis has left is complex given the fact that he pioneered the wild rock’n’roll lifestyle and this part of his life was full of controversy, but he was also one of the great stylists of modern music who materially changed the sound of music and people’s perception of it. Elvis Presley may have the title “The King of Rock and Roll”, but there are plenty of people who would argue that Jerry Lee Lewis was more deserving of the title, though his own nickname of “The Killer” is more than apt. Though Lewis will be forever be associated with the early days of rock and roll, his own music showed he was equally adept at blues, rockabilly, country, and boogie-woogie, and his live album that was recorded during a commercial lull in his career in Hamburg in 1964 with the Nashville Teens, ‘Live At The Star Club, Hamburg’, can lay claim to being one of the original punk rock records, and one of the greatest ever live albums. Though his commercial standing varied throughout his career, he always managed to refresh his standing for subsequent generations.
Born to a poor farming family in Ferriday, East Louisiana, on September 29th, 1935, he played piano with his cousins, future country star Mickey Gilley and future evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. His mother also arranged for the young Jerry Lee to attend a bible college in Texas, adding another piece to his psychological makeup. He managed to get a slot on The Louisiana Hayride, but he was turned down for the Grand Ole Opry, leading him to try his luck at Sun Records in Memphis. While there, Jerry Lee Lewis played piano on various sessions, and cut his own iconic tracks including ‘A Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and ‘Great Balls Of Fire’. It was on his 1958 tour of the UK that his first piece of notoriety was established when the press got hold of the fact that the 22 year- old Jerry Lee had married his 13 year- old cousin which instigated a public backlash that meant by the early ‘60s “The Killers” career was in the doldrums. Resilience was to prove to be a key characteristic of his career, and in 1968 he released ‘Another Place, Another Time’ which established a successful straight country career. Lewis’s country records were sparse compared to the lush Nashville Sound of the time and featured his piano playing, but the surprise was how soulful his vocals could be. The rock and roll revival of the early ‘70s reunited Lewis with a rock audience through his 1972 album, ‘The Session….Recorded In London With Special Guests’, record in England with Albert Lee’s band Heads Hands & Feet, with guests including Rory Gallagher and Peter Frampton. A three album deal with Elektra Records brought. critical acclaim but not a commercial resurgence. Recognition of his contribution to music was made in 1986 when he was one of the inaugural acts included in the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame, while a movie biopic, starring Dennis McQuaid, ‘Great Balls of Fire!’ was released in 1989. As with most things Jerry Lee, not everything in the garden was rosy in the ‘80s as he filed for bankruptcy in 1988. “The Killer” enjoyed a late-career resurgence with a series of duet albums starting with 2006’s ‘Last Man Standing’ where he was joined by leading rock and country stars on a series of duets, which garnered a degree of critical acclaim.
While Jerry Lee Lewis may have embodied the rebelliousness of rock and roll, and lived a life full of notoriety, which at times posed real risks to his own health and safety, not to mention the impact it had on others, it is the music that he recorded and played that will be his lasting legacy. Like Elvis, probably his only realistic rival, he didn’t particularly write songs, but his ability on the piano, despite his abuse of his instrument, soulful vocals, and an ability to play genuinely across multiple genres while always playing in his own inimitable style, means his musical worth is much greater than that implied by his undoubted notoriety.