When Jerry Lee Lewis – pianist, singer and rock-and-roll pioneer – released his best-selling album of duets in 2006, he called it Last Man Standing. In this, at least, he was correct.
The title referred specifically to Lewis’s status among the alumni of the legendary Sun Studios record label in Memphis. It was there that producer Sam Phillips nurtured the careers of seminal country, rockabilly and rock-and-roll artists including Johnny Cash, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Lewis himself. But Lewis, who died at 87 years old on October 28 2022, eventually outlasted the whole cohort of rock and roll’s first wave of stars – including Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
The presence on Last Man Standing of luminaries from the worlds of blues, rock and country music – including B.B. King, Buddy Guy, Ringo Starr, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Bruce Springsteen, Merle Haggard and Willie Nelson – was testament to the wide-ranging esteem in which Lewis was held as a musician.
Indeed, it was also an indicator of his flexibility as both pianist and singer across popular genres. As well as being honoured at the inauguration of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, he was also recently inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame.
His place in the pantheon is assured by his piano style which, along with Little Richard – and as Chuck Berry had done on guitar – set the rock-and-roll template for the instrument for generations to come. Hit makers and session players like Elton John and Chas Hodges (latterly of Chas and Dave, who backed Lewis in the early 1960s) testified to his influence as a musician and as a performer.
It was the combination of these that propelled his initial rise to the top. He fused an early passion for gospel music with boogie-woogie, having been expelled from Bible school in Texas for playing a boogie version of the hymn My God is Real. Early hits in 1957 like Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On and, most significantly, Great Balls of Fire displayed a novel mixture of virtuosity and explosive showmanship. This pushed the boundaries of what had previously been seen in the mainstream.
His onstage antics also belied his technical facility and musical invention: a propulsive, repetitive left hand supporting rapid runs and glissandos on the right to provide momentum at the same time as range. This shifted the stylistic vocabulary of boogie-woogie piano into the higher-octane end of rock and roll.
Elvis brought cross-over sex appeal to a white audience. Chuck Berry delivered suaveness and wit and some harmonic sophistication imported from jazz. And Little Richard introduced a feeling of urgency. But Lewis added a sense of danger to the performative repertoire of early rock and roll.
The dark side of ‘The Killer’
Lewis’s skill as an interpreter of others’ material came to the fore in his late 1960s move into country music, which produced country chart hits like What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me) and There Must Be More to Love Than This. But the pivot from the rock and roll of his formative hits was not driven by versatility alone.
Prodigious musical talent is not the sole preserve of laudable people and Lewis’s incendiary showmanship was also a factor of his darker side as a man. His robustness may have stemmed from his hardscrabble upbringing in smalltown Louisiana, where his parents had to mortgage their farm to get him his first piano. Certainly this contributed to his longevity as an artist.
Along the way, though, his career was checked with scandal and mishap, often self-generated. His first flush of fame imploded on a 1958 UK tour when it was revealed that his companion and wife Myra was his cousin and only 13 years old (not 15, as Lewis claimed). The tour collapsed after three dates amidst empty halls and heckles of “cradle snatcher”.
His reputation was further sullied on returning to the US when it was further revealed that his divorce from his previous marriage was not yet final – the second time, even at 22 years old, he had been in a bigamous marriage. His uneven personality was also informed by a longstanding tension between his stated devotion to the church in which he had been brought up – scandal-ridden televangelist Jimmy Swaggart was another cousin – and his more atavistic inclinations.
His impulsive behaviour and wild temperament contributed to the enduring myth of the “rebel rocker” – his nickname, “The Killer”, was apt. Yet what is exciting on stage and fodder for media stories plays out differently for the people surrounding the “legend”.
Myra’s account of their marriage spoke of long periods where Lewis was absent on tour, punctuated by “every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable”. His other relationships – he was married a total of seven times – were scarcely more harmonious and he was widowed twice via drug overdose and drowning.
That he survived for so long his predilections towards alcohol, drug abuse and gunplay – he accidentally shot a bass player and was arrested outside Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion having crashed his car into the gates – were evidence of his resilience, obduracy even.
Likewise, his recovery from his 1950s career immolation was the mark of a flexible talent, if also of an industry with a forgiving tendency towards scandal in the face of sales. This was despite the fact bigamy, child marriage and tax evasion (he repeatedly fell foul of the Internal Revenue Service) were as illegal in earlier decades as they are now.
Lewis’s success and influence are hard to disentangle from his recklessness and malfeasance. His rebellion against the constrictions of post-war southern USA, and his embodiment of the tension between the “devil’s music” and the gospel and church traditions it drew on, laid down a marker for rock music performance practice. But it also revealed the fractious relationship between public persona and private behaviour that underpinned it. The last man standing, indeed, although it came at a price.
Adam Behr as received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council and the British Academy