Born September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee had only one or two piano lessons, the teacher whacking him for wanting to play in his own style right from the start. Instead, Jerry taught himself from the radio and juke box, soaking up the styles of Hank Williams, Jimmy Rodgers, Al Jolson and other artists in a glorious era of American popular music. Another major influence came from sneaking into Haney's Big House, the black blues club in Ferriday, where the songs were revelatory both in subject matter and beat to a boy who had been raised in the tightly buttoned tradition of Assembly of God Christianity.
After two marriages, a brief try at Bible college (expelled for playing the piano his way), and a disastrous episode selling vacuum cleaners door to door, Jerry noticed some interesting new music on the radio, most of which seemed to be emanating from Sun Records. He and his father, Elmo Lewis, pooled their extremely limited funds and drove to Memphis where Jerry announced himself at Sun and demanded an audition in November 1956. Sun owner Sam Phillips quickly signed Jerry in hopes of replacing Elvis Presley, whose contract he had recently sold to RCA. Even without Presley, Sun had a stellar roster with Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Roy Orbison. Jerry soon eclipsed them all with two monster hit singles in 1957: "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire." His debut appearance on The Steve Allen Show on July 28 took early rock to a stunning and unsurpassed level of intensity.
The following year Jerry went on his now legendary, then catastrophic tour of England. The press discovered that he had married his 13-year-old second cousin Myra Brown and hounded him out of the country. When he returned to the States, he found his career in ruins, with most DJs refusing to play his records. Although Jerry was always able to make a living playing clubs, he did not have another major hit until 1968 with the classic country ballad "Another Place Another Time."
With the revival of interest in 50s music during the 70s, Jerry kept one foot in rock and blues (Southern Roots) and one foot in country, where he continued to have hit singles like "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)." His 1978 performance in American Hot Wax, which re-created the concerts of rock's early years, was the movie's high point. In 1989, he got his own movie biography, Great Balls of Fire, which was a greater success musically than dramatically. Even if the screenplay didn't quite work, Jerry's piano certainly did.
Although the country audience was the first to forgive and welcome back Jerry after his marriage to Myra, his continued rock & roll behavior always made him a suspect figure to the Nashville establishment. Whether broadcasting to millions or singing to a few dozen fans in a small club, Jerry was liable to mouth off at any moment, lacing into his backup musicians for a wrong note or spelling out what is mostly implied in the original "Whole Lotta Shakin'" lyric. Also fast with his hands, he has been known to bash unruly fans in the face with his mike stand and not miss a note of his piano solo. Despite a vast recording career that few artists have matched in quantity or quality, Jerry rarely got to enjoy the fruits of his labor in the form of royalties because of an endless string of lawsuits, outright theft and simple inattention to detail during the early part of his amazing career.
Jerry's other travails have been well documented over the decades. Two of his children and two of his wives died in tragic accidents. He had three monumental battles with the Internal Revenue Service. He had a war with alcohol and pills that almost killed him. And his long and rocky sixth marriage ended in an even longer and rockier divorce that was finally granted in the summer of 2005.
Now a free man, drinking grape soda instead of "what's made Milwaukee famous," Jerry is actively touring and poised to make another assault on the record charts with The Last Man Standing, his first studio album since 1995, the Jerry Lee Lewis Definitive Collection from Universal Records and the impressive new 3 CD box set from Time Life, aptly entitled Legends of American Music: Jerry Lee Lewis A Half Century of Hits.
Who would have guessed that out of all the great musicians who created rock & roll in Memphis Tennessee at Sun Records in the 1950's, The Killer, Jerry Lee Lewis would be the last man standing and still going strong. "Just point me to the piano and in fifteen minutes, I'll have 'em shakin', shoutin', shiverin' and shackin." He can still sing like nobody else. He can still play the piano like nobody else, and defying all the actuarial tables for rock & roll outlaws, Jerry Lee Lewis is alive and well and thrilling audiences around the world. -Chuck Young, 2006