As a teenager, Lewis was thrown out of the school he was attending, Southwest Bible Institute in Texas, for playing boogie-woogie on a school piano.
In late 1956, Lewis was signed to Sam Philips’ Sun Records, the Memphis record label that became legendary and where his labelmates included Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. At first, he was a journeyman side player to artists like Carl Perkins — but that proximity meant that he was also played in a legendary single session in December 1956 at Sun Studios. Playing alongside Presley, Cash and Perkins, Lewis was part the one-night foursome that became known as the “Million-Dollar Quartet,” which inspired a Tony-nominated musical of the same name that opened on Broadway in 2010.
When Lewis was 25, he struck gold with a career-defining hit: “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On.” It was a song first recorded in 1955 by a black artist, Big Maybelle, for Okeh Records (a side that was produced, notably, by a promising young man Quincy Jones). But it was Lewis’ rockabilly version, released in 1957, that became a hit on the pop charts — and put a piano at the center of rock ‘n’ roll.
In 2000, the late producer Jack Clement described that Sun Studios session to NPR: “All I did was turn the machine on, and we cut ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going’ On’ in one take.” Lewis would later say that he knew he had a hit if it came out in one take.
The tape was rolling during a whiskey-infused exchange between Lewis and Sam Phillips, who believed Lewis could do good with rock ‘n’ roll.
“You can save souls!” said Philips.
“How can the devil save souls?” Lewis replied. “What are you talking about? I've got the devil in me. If I didn't have, I'd be a Christian.”
That was the session when his biggest hit was also captured on tape: “Great Balls Of Fire.”
Lewis started going out on the road alongside Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry — and before long, “The Killer” was the closing act. His performances were sexually charged; he’d suggestively work the microphone as he stood up and pounded the keys.
The adulation came to a screeching halt when the 22-year-old Lewis went to England in June 1958 on tour, and British reporters asked about the pretty young girl at his side. It was Lewis’ new wife, Myra — who was just 13 years old. As the press went digging, they realized even more: not only was “Mrs. Lewis” still a child, she was his cousin. And this was already Lewis’ third marriage — one which took place while the artist was still legally married to his second wife.
Lewis made it through a just a few tour dates before succumbing to the press and public’s censure, and retreated back to the U.S. That doesn’t mean that he was ever publicly regretful. His marriage to Myra lasted a decade, and in Rick Bragg’s best-selling 2014 biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Lewis says, “She looked like a grown woman, blossomed out and ready for plucking ... I thought about her being 13 and all, but that didn't stop her from being a full-fledged woman.” Meanwhile, Lewis’ own sister had reportedly married at age 12, giving credence to the idea that this was a cultural norm.
In later years, the former Myra Lewis alleged that her former spouse abused her, but more recently, appears to have created an affable relationship with her ex-husband, and has called their marriage “ten incredible, wonderful years.” (Over the years, Lewis married a total of seven times.)
She told WHYY’s Fresh Air in 1989 that her husband was a walking contradiction — a wild man on stage, boozing and womanizing, who wouldn’t allow a drop of alcohol in his own home. “Jerry sat in judgment of himself continuously,” she said, “because he could never get away from the raising and the teaching that he had. That first off, he wasn't supposed to be playing that kind of music. He was supposed to be living the life that he lived.”
After that fateful trip to England in 1958, Lewis’ career fell apart. Pretty much overnight, Lewis went from commanding fees of thousands of dollars per show to playing in bars and doing occasional tours to Europe, where he could only afford to perform with pickup players, not his own band.
“For ten years, Jerry's records were held off the air,” Myra told Fresh Air. “He could not get a decent concert date. There were certain radio stations that would not touch him at all.”
Even so, as The Guardian noted in 2015, “If anything, failure made him even more unrestrained,” and his marathon-all-night shows became the stuff of legend. Still under contract to Sun, Lewis released a few more charting songs, including a cover of Ray Charles’ “What'd I Say” in 1961, and “Good Golly Miss Molly” in 1963. Working under the pseudonym “The Hawk” to evade his Sun contract, Lewis also released a boogie-woogie version of “In The Mood,” the Glenn Miller Orchestra’s big-band staple — but there was no mistaking Lewis’ instantly recognizable sound.
By the 1960s, Lewis’ contract with Sun had come to its close, and he was foundering professionally. He signed with a label called Smash with hopes to reignite his career. It didn’t work, but one great artifact from this era became legend: his 1964 album Live At The Star-Club Hamburg, recorded by the Dutch label Philips as part of a series of live recordings from the German venue, and about which Rolling Stone Magazine later raved, “It's not an album, it’s a crime scene ... with no survivors but The Killer.”
Even so, Lewis was desperate to get back into the public eye in the U.S. — which, between his child-cousin-bride reputation and the British Invasion upending the American pop scene, seemed more and more unlikely. He landed upon an idea that hearkened to his roots: to record as a country artist, beginning with the 1968 album Another Place, Another Time. The gambit worked. Within a little more than a decade, Lewis released 23 songs that became Top 10 hits on the Billboard country chart.
He would later play at the Grand Ole Opry, famously declaring from the stage that he was a “rock and rollin’ country-and-western, rhythm-and-blues singing [expletive].” He earned the nickname “The Killer” — not for his music or wild life, but because that’s what he called everybody else when he couldn’t remember their names. So that’s what they called him.
Lewis’ personal life continued to be addled, studded with trauma, and laced with massive amounts of prescription drugs and alcohol. His fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, drowned in 1982, shortly before their divorce was finalized; Rolling Stone published a long, damning account of Gunn's demise. Lewis’ next wife, Shawn Stephens, died of an overdose less than three months after their marriage, which took place barely a year after Gunn’s death. Though a grand jury cleared him of culpability in Gunn’s death, the 2015 Guardian profile observed, “What seems clear is that, back then, he was so incapacitated by his addiction to prescription drugs, he became an unreliable witness to his own history.”) Two of Lewis’ children died as well: In 1962, his son Steve Allen drowned in a swimming pool at age three, and in 1973, his eldest son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., died in a car accident. He ran afoul of the IRS and the DEA. There was also an incident in 1976 in which a drunken Lewis slammed his car into the gates of Graceland, demanding to see Elvis, with a gun on the dashboard.
“Most of us are amateur sinners, at best, when compared to Jerry Lee,” says author Rick Bragg. “But then there are times when he is evangelical.” Bragg says that in his old age, Lewis tried to set things right and was able to find redemption. He gave Hank Williams credit for getting the white working man off his knees long enough to enjoy some music.
“But it was Jerry Lee that put ’em to dancing,” Bragg continues. “And I thought that was the prettiest thing he said. And how can that be a sin?”
Or as Lewis himself put it to NPR in 2010: “I been up and down the road and done some hard living — and some hard rocking and some hard rolling.”
Lewis was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 — one of the first artists to be so immortalized. He was also given a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 2005, despite never winning a Grammy for his recorded music. (He won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word or Non-Musical Recording in 1986, for a recording of interviews gleaned from The Class of ‘55, an album that brought him together with Cash, Perkins and Roy Orbison.) A 1989 biopic, Great Balls Of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid as the young Killer. But by that era, Lewis’ performance career had already largely petered off again.
Nevertheless, Lewis’ career entered a third act during the last two decades of his life. Beginning in the mid-2000s, Lewis found renewed interest in his music via a string of duet albums, featuring performances with an unlikely constellation of collaborators that included Mick Jagger, Tom Jones, Bruce Springsteen, Kid Rock and Gillian Welch.