Put simply, Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the most influential artists in rock‘n’roll. Like labelmates Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash at Sun Records in Memphis, he helped shape the formative years of the genre, giving it new levels of depth with his blues-inspired boogie-woogie piano-playing. In later years, he would move on to country music, finding yet more success. The man known as ‘the Killer’ has enjoyed a career spanning nearly six decades and has influenced generations of musicians around today, Elton John being just one.
A native of Ferriday, Louisiana, where he was born in 1935, Lewis began playing the piano at an early age. While he was steered in the direction of Christian music, he was far more interested in boogie-woogie, R&B and blues. Chastised by his community as playing ‘the Devil’s music’, Lewis’ rebellious streak was visible from childhood.
He soon migrated to Mississippi, playing piano in the local bars, before he incorporated guitar into his repertoire and headed to Memphis at the tail end of 1956. It would be a move that changed his life. He cut a track for Sun, the local label that had been the launchpad for the young Elvis Presley. But Presley had just left for RCA and Sun was on the lookout for a new star. Lewis was their man. On hearing him, Sun owner Sam Philips described it as a dream come true.
But Lewis wasn’t an accomplished writer, and so started his career at Sun as a session musician for Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, adding his distinctive piano style to their work. He didn’t remain in the background for long, releasing a version of Ray Price’s recent country chart-topper ‘Crazy Arms’ as his first single for Sun (disc two). Lewis failed to match the success of the original, but his breakout track was just around the corner.
‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ (disc one), only Lewis’ second single for Sun in 1957, would be a career-defining performance.
He was billed as ‘Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano’, and it wasn’t hard to see (or hear) why. His frenetic piano-playing caused Philips to proclaim: ‘I didn’t think anybody with fingers that short could do what Jerry Lee did. He really tore into that song.’ The track rocketed to Number 3 on the Billboard Hot 100, also topping the US R&B charts and shifting a mammoth six million copies. (It made Number 8 in the UK on the London label.)
Lewis’ high-octane rock‘n’roll style was a breath of fresh air. His crazed stage persona added to live performances and interest in him was understandably high. Third Sun cut ‘Great Balls Of Fire’ (disc one) built on the success. Penned by Otis Blackwell, who had written Presley’s hit ‘All Shook Up’ a few months earlier, it sold five million copies, sending it to Number 2 in the US and topping the charts in the UK. Lewis had gone international in a matter of months.
This would prove the most successful year of Lewis’ career, which carried on into 1958 with another Billboard Top 10 hit, ‘Breathless’ (disc three) and Top 20 entry ‘High School Confidential’ (disc two).
It would appear that Lewis’ stock could not be higher. But he received press of the unwanted kind in 1958 when it was revealed that he was married to his 13-year old cousin Myra Gale Brown. For a Christian who was already thought to be playing the Devil’s music, it was almost unforgivable. But controversy was as much a part of Lewis’ image as his music, and he returned to the mainstream in the mid Sixties.
The end of the decade saw him become a mainstay in the country music charts with a string of hits including ‘She Still Comes Around (To Love What’s Left Of Me)’, ‘One Has My Name (The Other Has My Heart)’ and country chart-topper ‘To Make Love Sweeter For You’. His country success continued into the Seventies and Eighties, interspersed with fleeting returns to rock‘n’roll, including an appearance at the Toronto Rock’n’Roll Revival Concert in 1969 on a bill topped by John Lennon’s Plastic Ono Band.
Jerry Lee was inducted into the Rock‘n’Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. But it wasn’t the end. Releases such as duets album ‘Last Man Standing’ continued to chart as Lewis kept pounding the piano, picking up accolades usually reserved for those whos careers are in the past. There was also a Hollywood bio-pic starring dennis Quaid in which he paid a close interest.
Lewis is indeed the last man standing of the Sun greats, and it is his work in the formative years of rock‘n’roll that will be viewed the most influential in times to come. Here we have three discs of his earliest and most important works from the man that made a generation jive. Though his actions and music didn’t please everyone, the Killer himself said it best: ‘If I’m going to Hell, I’m going there playing the piano!’.