Jerry Lee Lewis
Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, he was, like Elvis Presley, brought up singing the Christian gospel music of integrated southern Pentecostal churches. He began playing the piano at a very early age in his church, and in 1950 he attended a fundamentalist bible school in Texas but was expelled for misconduct, including playing rock and roll versions of hymns in church.
Leaving religious music behind, but bringing its sound and his piano playing talents to the new music developing at the time, in 1954 he cut his first record. In 1956, Lewis joined Sam Phillips at his Sun Records studio in Memphis, Tennessee. Elvis Presley, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash also began their recording careers at Sun Studios around this same time.
Lewis' first recording at Sun studios was his own distinct version of the country ballad Crazy Arms. In 1957, his piano and the pure rock sound of Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On propelled him to international fame. Great Balls Of Fire soon followed and would become his biggest hit. Watching and listening to Jerry Lee Lewis play, Elvis said if he could play the piano like that, he'd quit singing.
Lewis' personal life was always turbulent but kept from the public until a tour of Britain in 1958 when the press learned the 23-year-old star was with his third wife, Myra Gale Brown, who was also his 13-year-old cousin. The situation caused a public uproar and the tour was cancelled after only three concerts.
The scandal followed Lewis home to America and as a result he almost vanished from the music scene. His only hit during this period was a cover of Ray Charles' "What I Say" in 1962. His popularity recovered somewhat in Europe, especially in the UK and Germany, in the mid 1960s but success eluded him in the USA. After more than a decade playing rock and roll, in 1968 Lewis began focussing exclusively on country and western music with reasonable success. Although he toured and played many sold-out concerts, he never again achieved the heights of success that he had prior to the scandal. despite a major international hit with "Chantilly Lace" in 1973.
Plagued by alcohol and drug problems, tragedy struck when his 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., was killed in a road accident in 1973. Lewis' own erratic behaviour during the latter part of the 1970s led to his being hospitalized and near death from a bleeding ulcer. Following this, his fourth wife drowned in a swimming pool under suspicious circumstances and little more than a year later, his fifth wife was found dead at his home from a methadone overdose. Addicted to drugs too, Jerry Lee Lewis checked himself into the Betty Ford Clinic.
While celebrating his 41st birthday in 1976, Lewis began playing with a .357 Magnum, which he later stated he thought was unloaded. Pointing it at his bass player, Butch Owens, he pulled the trigger. The gun was loaded and Lewis shot Owens in the chest. Owens miraculously survived. A few weeks later on November 23, Lewis was again involved in a gun related arrest at Elvis Presley's Graceland residence. Lewis had been invited to visit by Presley but a security guard was unaware of this. When questioned about why he was at the front gate, Lewis displayed a gun and told the guard he had come to kill Presley.
In 1989, a motion picture based on his early life in rock and roll titled Great Balls Of Fire and starring Dennis Quaid, brought him back into the public eye. The film was based on the book by Lewis' ex-wife Myra and starred Quaid as Lewis, with Winona Ryder, and Alec Baldwin.
The very public downfall of his cousin, television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart, resulted in more adverse publicity to an already deeply troubled family. Swaggart is also a piano player, as is another cousin, country music star Mickey Gilley. Jerry Lee's sister, Linda Gail Lewis, is also a piano player, and has recorded with Van Morrison.
Despite the personal problems, his musical talent is unquestioned. Nicknamed The Killer for his forceful voice and piano production on stage, he was described by fellow artist Roy Orbison as the best raw performer in the history of rock music. In 1986 Jerry Lee Lewis was part of the first group inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Following the September 11, 2001 attacks, radio conglomerate Clear Channel Communications sent out of a list of 150 songs that were recommended to be pulled from airplay. Lewis' Great Balls of Fire was on the list.
After several years of inactivity, Lewis plans to put out a new album in 2004.