- JERRY LEE LEWIS -
Rockabilly Legends Exclusive
A brief look at the extraordinary life and talent of Jerry Lee Lewis by Legendary Musicians Jerry Naylor and Kris Kristofferson
and Jerry Lee Lewis' Sun producer, Jack Clement.
JERRY LEE LEWIS - Country and Rock and Roll Pioneer singer born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on September 29, 1935. In his youth, Lewis listened to many Al Jolson records (he still has a large collection). The subject of Jerry Lee's musical influences has been raised countless times, and continues to be because nobody can come up with a very satisfying answer - least of all the man himself, who tends to dismiss such questions by declaring he never had any. Students of the music have suggested to Jerry that he might have been influenced by artists as diverse as country boogie pianist Merrill Moore ("never heard of him, son"), or black boogie-woogie pianist Cecil Gant ("Cecil who?").
One of the few names to elicit a glimmer of recognition is Moon Mullican, the selfproclaimed King of the Hillbilly Piano Players, but Mullican probably did no more than reaffirm Lewis' conviction that the piano had a place in country music. Mullican's music was marked by restraint - never, after all, a hallmark of Lewis' style.
Lewis' cousin, Carl McVoy, was probably his most direct early influence. McVoy's mother, Lewis' mother, and Jimmy Swaggart's mother were sisters; McVoy was older than Jerry Lee and has been to New York with his father, who ran a ministry there for a few years. He learned the primitive joys of boogie-woogie in new York and returned to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, to work in construction. One summer, Jerry Lee Lewis came to stay. "He worried the hell out of me", recalled McVoy, "wanting me to show him things on the piano. I think I was instrumental in the way his style developed, because I got attention when I played. I rolled my hands and put on a damn show. When Jerry went back to Ferriday, he played everything I knew".
And then there was Haney's Big House, a black juke joint outside Ferriday. "Me and Jimmy Lee Swaggart used to slip in there, hide behind the bar, and listen to B.B. King when he wasn't but eighteen years old", Lewis recounted to Dave Booth. "That place was full of colored folks. They'd been picking cotton all day, they had a twenty-five-cent pint of wine in their back pocket, and they was gettin' with it!".
Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart were regular, though unwelcome, guests at Haney's, owned by their uncle Lee Calhoun. Lewis and Swaggart were later seen as opposite sides of a disordered personality - until it was revealed in February 1988 that Swaggart had been consorting with prostitutes and had, as he termed it, "a problem" with pornography. The public defrocking and humiliation that followed revealed how close, in fact, they were.
In truth, the influences close to home, like Carl McVoy and the roadhouse rhythm and blues bands who played at Haney's, were probably more important in the formation of Lewis' style than artists on the radio. Yet of the artists whom Jerry heard on the radio, he has always singled out Hank Williams, Jimmie Rodgers, and Al Jolson as "stylists" - by which he means that they, like him, could take any song and mold it into an expression of their own personality.
Later, as his legend and ego grew, Jerry Lee would become more comfortable in making the connection: "Al Jolson", he would declare, "is Number One. Jimmie Rodgers is Number two. Number Three is Hank Williams. And Number Four is Jerry Lee Lewis". And the one who held the greatest sway over Jerry Lee during his early years must have been Hank Williams. Everyday Saturday night during the late 1940s and early 1950s, Williams sang his bleak songs of misogyny and despair on the Louisiana Hayride and the Grand Ole Opry. He sang with the terrifying intensity of one who is staring the Angel of Death full in the face. Jerry has performed Williams' material throughout his career, and it usually elicits the best from him because he knows that he is up against some stiff competition in Williams himself.
On November 2, 1954, he cut his first acetate disc in the studio of KWKH radio in Shreveport, "I Don't Hurt Anymore"/"I Need You Now". His vocals aren't as strong, or as immediately identifiable, as they would become; the piano playing is a little mawkish and florid, as it would often tend to be on slow numbers. But the Lewis left hand was rock solid. Like Presley's first acetate, it can be invested with as much - or as little - significance as you like. It can be seen as a portent of future greatness, or merely a confirmation of the Hayride's judgment. "I believe", says Lewis, leaning toward the former, "if I heard it today, I'd declare that boy had talent".
In 1955 Jerry Lee Lewis went to Nashville and made the rounds of the record companies, most of which advised him to learn the guitar. One person who gave him a job was Roy hall, a pianist and raconteur who owned a Nashville after-hours drinking spot, the Musicians' Hideaway. After escaping a raid, Lewis went back to Ferriday and took up a steady gig across the river at a Natchez club called the wagon Wheel. Among the souvenirs he brought from Nashville was a song that Roy Hall had sung (and, by Hall's account, cowritten) called "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On".
Jerry Lee Lewis grew fond of Elvis Presley's early recordings, and at some point in 1956, after reading an particle about Elvis Presley in Country Song Roundup, he decided that his music might fall upon more receptive ears in Memphis. In 1956 Jerry and his father, Elmo Lewis, sold thirteen dozen eggs and drove north to Memphis using the money they'd raised to book themselves into a hotel.
Then, Jerry Lee become the label's most recorded artist. His first release was "Crazy Arms"/"End Of The Road" (SUN 259) in November 14, 1956. Lewis' biggest hit record was "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (SUN 267). On the label he was billed as Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano. Nicknamed "The Killer", he was the only guest to appear on "American Bandstand" who sang live rather than lip-synch to his record. Jerry made his national debut on "The Steve Allen Show", later naming one of his sons Steve Allen (the boy drowned in the family pool in 1962).
Lewis' career in rock and roll was ruined when in 1958 he married his thirteen-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown. (As if wasn't bad enough, Lewis was two weeks short of his final divorce decree from his previous, and second, wife, Jane. He had married his first wife, Dorothy, when he was only fourteen years old).
In 1960 he cut an instrumental on the Phillips International label, "In The Mood"/"I Get The Blues When It Rains" (Phillips 3559), under the name Hawk. Lewis was one of the participants in the famed Million Dollar Quartet session on December 4, 1956, in which Elvis Presley relinquished playing the piano so Lewis could play. In a session at Sun on February 14, 1958, Lewis tried his hand at performing a number of Elvis Presley hits, "Good Rockin' Tonight", "Jailhouse Rock", "Hound Dog", and "Don't Be Cruel", perhaps just to see how he would have done the songs. He left Sun Records on September 29, 1963, to record for Mercury’s subsidiary label Smash, then run by Shelby Singleton.
In November 1976 Jerry Lee Lewis was arrested for shooting a gun outside the gates of Graceland in the early morning hours, when he was refused permission to see Elvis Presley. Lewis was a patient of Dr. George Nichopoulos, from whom he could obtain prescriptions for vast amounts of legal pills. Lewis has been successful in both the rock and country fields. In 1958 country artist Mickey Gilley recorded an unreleased version of "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" at Sun Records. Gilley, who was once the co-owner of Gilley's, the largest nightclub in the world, is Lewis' first cousin, and both Lewis and Gilley are cousins of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Jerry Lee Lewis' father, Elmo Lewis, like Vernon Presley, had spent time in prison - in Lewis' case for making moonshine. In 1962 Elmo Lewis recorded eight unreleased songs for Sun Records.
Elvis Presley recorded several Lewis hits, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" (SUN 267) and "What'd I Say" (SUN 356). In concert, Elvis Presley performed Lewis' "Breathless" (SUN 288) and "It'll Be Me" (SUN 267). In the 1988 TV miniseries "Elvis and Me" Elvis (Dale Midkiff) was shown singing "Great Balls Of Fire". Both Elvis Presley and Jerry Lee Lewis recorded "High Heel Sneakers" and "Tomorrow Night", among other songs.
Jerry Lee Lewis mention Elvis Presley in two songs, "Lewis Boogie" (SUN 301) in 1958 and "It Won't Happen With Me" (SUN 364) in 1961. Jerry Lee Lewis still toured around the world.
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