Jerry Lee Lewis was a star who lived life dangerously close to the edge

<span>Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/REX/Shutterstock</span>
Photograph: Dezo Hoffman/REX/Shutterstock

Jerry Lee Lewis was waiting in the lobby of the William Morris Agency, New York, one day in 1958. The receptionist was very attractive and, as he loved to, he began to tell her of life on the road, of how he nearly pushed Paul Anka off the roof of a hotel, all kinds of wildness. After a while, he paused. “What if I told you that none of that was true?” he asked her.

She looked crestfallen. “Please don’t tell me that. That’s the Jerry Lee Lewis I know. The one people love.”

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Jerry Lee Lewis always hoped that his music was what he would be remembered for. Given that he spent his life so close to the edge that he was usually dangling over it, it was always going to be tricky to separate the myths and legends of a man nicknamed “the Killer” from bare Top 40 statistics. He considered himself a “stylist” – not just a musician but a complete package, fully-formed from his very first record. “You are either hot or cold,” he would say. “If you are lukewarm, the lord will spew you forth from his mouth.” He would spend much of his life wrestling with his southern upbringing and his conscience, torn between his piano and the pulpit; he had outlived two wives and two children by the time he was 60. His life story would provide rich enough material for two extremely strong biographies.

Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis’s family was very poor. When he first showed a keen interest in his uncle’s piano at the age of eight, his father Elmo had to mortgage the family’s shack to buy Jerry Lee an upright Starck. The first song he mastered was Silent Night, in a boogie-woogie style. Musically, he was color blind; aged 14 he would sneak into a night club in the Black part of Ferriday called Haney’s Big House, then hide behind the bar, and hear people like BB King, Muddy Waters and his favorite, Ray Charles. Like so many other southern boys, he was blown away by Elvis Presley, and spotted an opportunity. In late 1956, Elmo Lewis sold 33 dozen eggs and financed a trip to Memphis where Jerry Lee would successfully audition for Sam Philips and Sun Records.

Jerry Lee Lewis in 1968
Jerry Lee Lewis in 1968 Photograph: Pictorial Press Ltd/Alamy

The blend of R&B and country on his early Sun singles was just as powerful, and as definitively southern, as Elvis Presley’s. His piano sounded like it was going to break through the floorboards on his second single, the super-sexual Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, and the result was an international hit. He followed it with an even bigger hit, and a UK No 1, Great Balls of Fire in early 1958. In spite of all the peaks and troughs that came later, Lewis remained mostly famous for the life he briefly led in 1957 and 1958 when he got to hang out on an MGM set with Elizabeth Taylor (“I ain’t never seen a woman that beautiful in my life”) and leave Liberace speechless (he couldn’t believe anyone, not even Jerry Lee Lewis, could play piano that fast, that well, and sing at the same time. Liberace thought there had to be another piano hidden in the wings).

Of course, it didn’t last. After his British tour was abandoned in 1958, after the tabloids revealed he had married his underage cousin Myra, and after he told the American press that this didn’t really matter, that “thousands stood and cheered” in London, that there was nothing to apologize for, Lewis was effectively boycotted by TV, radio, and concert promoters. The quality of his records hardly wavered – 1959’s Lovin’ Up a Storm was as breathless as the title suggested – but they now failed to even make the Billboard Hot 100 in the US. Britain, maybe feeling a little guilty, continued to buy his singles, and a version of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say saw him back in the Top 10 in 1961.

Lewis carried on producing singles for Sam Philips’s Sun, and London kept releasing them in the UK, right up to 1965. He was the last of the big names – Elvis, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash – to leave Sun, and when he did the label effectively ceased to exist. Some were great, some adding an attempt at modernity (I’ve Been Twistin’, 1962), some just seemed to wish it could be 1958 all over again (What’d I Say, Sweet Little Sixteen and Good Golly Miss Molly).

Lewis was only 29 when the Beatles stormed America, but must have seemed, and probably felt, much older. Worse yet, Little Richard, Chuck Berry and Carl Perkins would soon start to receive fat cheques thanks to the Merseybeat revivals of their gilded catalogues. Lewis had never really been a songwriter, and the paucity of his catalogue must have struck him as his contemporaries finally got their financial dues. To reignite his career he returned to Britain, scene of his downfall and tore it up in Glasgow, Manchester, and Newcastle (at the Club a Go Go, immortalized by the Animals, who supported him that night). He also played West Ham, West Bromwich, Harrow, Hereford and Swadlincote.

The kind of mayhem he may have inflicted on Swadlincote was captured in a Granada TV studio in April 1964 where he was filmed for an extraordinary one-off show called Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Thoroughly involved, Lewis looks possessed as he hammers through his current single, I’m on Fire. The cameras are fighting to catch a glimpse of him as the audience are climbing scaffolding, swarming the stage, and bash the side of his piano with their fists. They throw their hands up in the air like it’s a southern revival meeting when Lewis plays the piano with his foot. They are inches away from him, their faces a picture of total abandon, unconfined joy. The director of Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Phillip Casson, later went on to shoot episodes of Casualty, the Bill and East Enders, which seems, I’d say, like a bit of a waste. A week later, backed by Weybridge band the Nashville Teens, he cut the 37-minute Live at the Star Club Hamburg album, raucous, thrilling and unbelievably fast: “Get it right, boy!” growls Lewis at one point to a presumably terrified Teen. It remains the greatest live rock’n’roll album, bar none.

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Back home, people still packed out his live shows – at one, in Arkansas, the young Bill Clinton queued to get the Killer’s autograph – but record sales kept sinking. It’s a safe bet that Tom Jones bought Lewis’s 1966 album Country Songs for City Folks, though, as he had huge hits with two tracks from it – Green Green Grass of Home and Detroit City – within a year. The mid sixties were lost years for Jerry Lee Lewis, dotted with odd gems like Shotgun Man, It’s a Hangup Baby and I Believe in You, all of which touched on the country/rock/soul hybrid Charlie Rich mastered on his 1965 hit Mohair Sam. The difference was that Mohair Sam was a Top 30 hit for Rich, but nothing would sell for Jerry Lee Lewis.

Country was still seen as largely conservative music in the mid sixties, but attitudes would soon change as psychedelia waned. Lewis’s contract with the Smash label was about to expire in 1968, so cutting a new Nashville song called Another Place Another Time was a last throw of the dice; written by Jerry Chesnut, who would go on to write Faron Young’s It’s Four in the Morning, it quickly picked up airplay and would become the first of 11 consecutive Top 10 hits on the country chart. Finally, after 10 years, America had forgiven Jerry Lee Lewis.

This was straight-ahead country for southern folks, with hardbitten lyrics sung for adults, from an adult perspective. Now signed to Mercury, a string of hugely successful country albums followed. As a barstool balladeer, Jerry Lee Lewis could sell out the International in Las Vegas in 1970, not that he treated it that differently to a show in Shreveport or Swadlincote. The heroism of his early days was reborn in stoical, heartbreaking songs like She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye. He quickly built a new set of songs which belonged to him, the first time he could say that in a decade. The terrific What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me) would be covered by Rod Stewart in 1973, and was also the song used by Nik Cohn and illustrator Guy Peellaert to depict Lewis in their 1973 book Rock Dreams. Jerry Lee is pictured alone on the street, a half-empty bottle in his hand, his tie all askew and his hair falling over his sweaty face.

Of course, Nashville couldn’t contain him. The Rock Dreams image was a little too accurate. Lewis’s boozing, pill-popping and womanizing caught up with him when Myra filed for divorce in 1970. He sobered up for a few months, recorded a religious album called In Loving Memories and kept his marriage together for a while, but the death of his mother triggered a lost weekend in April 1971 which ended in a drink-driving arrest. The clearly autobiographical and heartfelt Would You Take Another Chance On Me gave him another country No 1 hit at the end of 1971, but his infamous marriage was over after 14 years.

None of these country hits meant much in Europe where his legend was still based entirely on his late 50s hits. Lewis had two parallel careers. In 1972 he headlined the London Rock’n’Roll Show at Wembley Stadium; a remake of the Big Bopper’s Chantilly Lace even gave him a minor UK hit that year. In 1973 he recorded The Session, a double album with Albert Lee, Alvin Lee, and Rory Gallagher that worked for both rock and country markets, but the same year his son Jerry Lee Jr died when his jeep overturned, and Lewis hit a new low, depressed and drinking more than ever. The country hits began to falter (one exception was the appropriately titled Middle Age Crazy, a No 4 in 76) and worse was to come when the taxman raided his home in 1979. Interviewed by Michael Aspel, he described the IRS as “silly” for seizing his pianos, his clothes, even his young son’s toys. But what really upset him was that they seized the Starck piano his parents had bought him when he was eight years old, its ivories now worn through.

He toured Australia in 1979 and appeared, absolutely plastered, on TV with chat show host Don Lane. “I don’t like to be called the Killer” he said, looking a little sad, “even though I am the Killer.” Barely coherent, he was still capable of turning in a barnstorming Great Balls of Fire. “I’m not a wild person,” he told Lane, “I’m a very gentle man. People talk, do a lot of crying, do a lot of dying, but Jerry Lee Lewis is still here.”

His significant recordings were now behind him, but for the rest of his life he could always pull a crowd, always share a stage with Johnny Cash or Bruce Springsteen or Keith Richards. When Dennis Quaid played him as a wild-eyed loon in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire, Lewis said “I just thought it was bad. It just wasn’t right, it wasn’t Jerry Lee Lewis.” Basically, it wasn’t about the music. The soundtrack album, as if to prove Lewis right, sold a million copies, and became his all-time best seller. Though there would be more near-death situations, more run-ins with the IRS, more issues with the state of his liver and his finances, he would always remain a stylist. “When they look back on me, I want them to remember me not for all my wives, although I’ve had a few, and certainly not for any mansions, or high-living money I made and spent. I want them to remember me simply for my music.”