Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis

Synopsis of Pop Music

“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain…”

Goodness gracious, the tumult of this man’s life... Jerry Lee Lewis was a notorious hell-raiser on and off the stage, and the shock factor of his frolics can only be matched by the hair-raisingly long list of tragedies he’s endured. Somehow, Lewis is still standing... maybe piano-playing brings good luck. Maybe, when he wasn’t lighting the things on fire, he derived some kind of protective power from them. Given how much he’s survived, it’s not that farfetched a theory.

As a boy, Jerry shared piano lessons with his two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. The former became a country musician, the latter a TV evangelist…further proof that there was some kind of piano mojo out there in Louisiana. Lewis and his family were very poor, but parents Elmo and Mamie knew their son had the talent of a prodigy. Mamie hoped that the young man’s talent would be used inside the church, so she enrolled him in a fundamentalist Texas bible college. Lewis was promptly kicked out—as the story goes, for a rockin’ rendition of “My God Is Real.” He had married a preacher’s daughter when he was sixteen, and then the following year he married again (bigamously, mind you) when one of his girlfriend’s brothers insisted on matrimony—shotgun wedding style, authentic shotguns and all. He eventually divorced the preacher’s daughter, and his shotgun bride gave birth to a son.

Lewis was determined to sign with Sun Records just like Elvis did, so he and his father sold eggs for traveling money to make an audition. Jerry made his way to Memphis in 1956, at the age of twenty-one, and though founder Sam Phillips was away on vacation, Sam’s right-hand man Jack Clement gave Lewis a listen. Clement liked what he heard, and he backed Lewis with Roland Janes on guitar and J.M. Van Eaton on drums—the very players that would support Lewis through his seven years at Sun.

Lewis’ first single was a cover of the Ralph Mooney-written (and previously Ray Price-performed) “Crazy Arms.” But it was the second single, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” that brought him his audacious breakthrough. Banned from radio for its sexual innuendo, the song sold a fair number of copies in the South, but sales went through the five-million-record roof when Lewis sang it on The Steve Allen Show. Shortly after that first single was released, incidentally, Lewis joined Elvis and Carl Perkins for a gleefully spontaneous recording session that was would come to be called the Million Dollar Quartet. 'Quartet' because Johnny Cash was supposed to have jammed with the boys also, but begged off because his wife wanted to go shopping.

Lewis, nicknamed 'the Killer,' toured incessantly and perfected his rowdy stage antics—kicking back piano stools and pounding, not tickling, those poor ivories. And when he arrived in England to tour in 1958, the press pounced on him. Jerry had secretly married Myra, wife number three and his, oh, thirteen-year-old cousin and daughter of his bass player, Jay. And now the secret was out. After just three shows, Lewis and his barely-a-teenager bride left the U.K. and returned to the States. Things weren’t much easier for him back home, though. Religious officials condemned him, many of his fans averted their affection, and for nearly a decade, save a Ray Charles cover called “What’d I Say,” Lewis’ career sputtered.

But as he usually did, Lewis brushed himself off in the late 60’s. He signed with Smash Records, where he and his producer Jerry Kennedy threw themselves into country—always the genre most likely to forgive a person his trespasses. His c&w hits, of which he had more than thirty by the time the 80’s rolled around, included “Another Place, Another Time,” “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me),” “There Must Be More to Love Than This” and “Chantilly Lace.” And never one to be coy, Lewis deemed his stage show 'The Greatest Show on Earth.'

While the show went on, there was tragedy galore on the personal front. Jerry divorced Myra in 1970, he battled drug and alcohol addiction and he endured the deaths of two sons and two wives (his fourth and fifth). He accidentally shot his bass player in the chest one boozy night—and though the victim survived, he went on to sue Lewis.

Lewis was also arrested for waving a gun around outside of Elvis’ Graceland home. He put the guns down in the mid-80’s, but that didn’t exactly mean the end of his legal woes. Lewis surrendered himself to authorities on tax evasion charges, but was later acquitted. Often, to the press and to fans, he explained that the hardships fell upon him because he had chosen rock and roll music—the music the devil likes best—as his path, instead of something more upright like a good choir or glee club.

Whatever the calamity, Lewis never stopped making music. The most successful album of his career was The Session in 1973, recorded in London and featuring Peter Frampton, Alvin Lee, Klaus Voormann and Rory Gallagher revamping his oldies. He was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, and a movie based on his life, Great Balls of Fire, was released in 1989. It starred Dennis Quaid, to whom Lewis gave piano lessons and with whom he shared vocal duties.

Lewis released Young Blood in 1995, because “retirement” isn’t in his lexicon, and he still played live throughout the rest of the decade. They say the stars that burn the hottest flame out the quickest, but after more than four decades of rock and roll, Jerry Lee Lewis remains one great ball of fire.

Artist Release History

1957 – Jerry Lee Lewis
1965 – County Singers for City Folks
1965 – The Return of Rock
1965 – Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
1967 – Soul My Way
1967 – Breathless
1968 – In Demand
1968 – Unlimited
1968 – Got You on My Mind
1969 – All Country
1969 – She Still Comes Around
1969 – Another Place, Another Time
1969 – I’m on Fire
1970 – She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye
1970 – Together
1971 – Touching Home
1971 – Roots
1972 – Southern Roots Radio Special
1972 – Who’s Gonna Play This Old Piano
1972 – Rockin
1972 – The Killer Rocks On
1972 – Would You Take Another Chance on Me
1973 – I-40 Country
1973 – London Session
1974 – Southern Roots
1974 – Fan Club Choice
1974 – Sunstroke
1974 – Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On
1975 – Boogie Woogie Country Man
1975 – Odd Man In
1975 – I’m a Rocker
1976 – Country Class
1977 – Country Memories
1978 – Jerry Lee Lewis Keeps’ On Rockin’
1978 – In Loving Memories
1978 – Trio
1979 – Jerry Lee Lewis
1979 – Country Style
1980 – When Two Worlds Collide
1980 – Live at the Star Club
1984 – I Am What I Am
1984 – 18 Original Sun Greatest Hits
1985 – Milestones
1989 – Rocket ‘88
1991 – Rockin’ My Life Away
1995 – Young Blood
1995 – Concert
1995 – Live (Prime Cuts)
1996 – Rocket
1996 – Whole Lotta Shakin Goin’ On (Allegiance)
1997 – At the Palomino
1999 – Live at Gilley’s
1999 – Live In Italy
2000 – Live!
2000 – In Private
2000 – Keep Your Hands Off of It
2000 – Don’t Drop It
2000 – The Killer’s Private Stash
2000 – Live at the Vapors Club

Pop Sub Categories


Essential Music Albums

18 Original Sun Greatest Hits (Rhino)

Band Members

Jerry Lee Lewis   vocals, piano

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