“Great Balls of Fire”
from the album The Sun Studio Sessions
“Boogie Woogie Piano”
off the album Last Man Standing
“Certainly few other artists came to the party with more ego and talent than Jerry Lee Lewis and lived to tell the tale.”
— music critic Cub Koda
Louisiana-born and bred, singer/pianist Jerry Lewis helped invent rock ‘n’ roll five decades ago with a remarkably confident, somewhat reckless approach. Fans can argue whether he’s the true king, but no one can dispute the fact that he’s of the highest rock ‘n’ roll royalty. Like the so-called “king of rock,” Elvis Presley, Lewis grew up in the rural South, listening to gospel, country, blues, and fiery Pentecostal sermons. A wild man at the piano, his savage performances personified the early spirit of rock ‘n’ roll and its mixture of styles.
Since his earliest days at Sun Recording Studio in Memphis, Lewis’ life and career have been no less than tumultuous. Musically, he helped invent toe boogie-woogie piano style, driving songs with a heavy left hand. Commercially, he enjoyed a string of smash hits in 1957 and ’58 before sliding out of favor in the late ’50s and ’60s. Personally, he danced with a host of demons — booze, pills, illness, family tragedies, and a variety of self-destructive behavior. Spiritually, he’s survived the wild ride with his mind and soul intact, still ready to rip it up on stage.
Lewis was born in 1935 and raised in the rural town of Ferriday. Considered a “natural born piano player” by his mother, he took piano lessons alongside his two cousins, country artist Mickey Gilley and evangelist preacher Jimmy Lee Swaggart.
He and his latest ensemble arrive in Charleston this week behind a handful of new releases, including the new studio album Last Man Standing — an ambitious collaboration between Lewis and 21 guest rockers of material that his guests either wrote or made famous. Much of it pulls from the same boogie and vigor as those very first Sun sessions.
In 1957, Lewis made his first splash on the US scene from a succession of brilliantly naughty, high-energy singles — “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Breathless.” With their bluesy swing beats, untamed piano solos, and Lewis’s shouty singing style, all three became international smashes.
“You shake my nerves and you rattle my brain … too much love drives a man insane!” he hollered on “Great Balls of Fire.” Forty years later, the tune would lend its title to a Hollywood biopic starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder.
Lewis may have been at the point of becoming one of rock’s hottest attractions in May 1958, but by October, he was a virtual outcast. In late May, he and his band had a 37-date tour of the UK and Europe that kicked off in north London at the Regal Cinema. Lewis, a 22-year-old hellraisier, was already a controversial tornado of a performer.
This tour was Britian’s first taste of the Killer. On the eve of the tour, reporters met Lewis and his petite, youthful wife, Myra Gale Brown (the daughter of his bass-playing uncle, J.W. Brown), at the London airport. “How old is your wife, Jerry?” asked one reporter. “Fifteen, sir,” Lewis replied. Actually, she was barely 13 years old (and only 12 when they exchanged vows). A media frenzy broke the news to shocked fans on both sides of the Atlantic. The tour barely made it through the first few days. Lewis was met by a barrage of boos and insults from the audience. He stomped away and returned home.
Unfortunately for Lewis, the scandal followed him. Sun released a new single titled “High School Confidential,” but it tumbled rapidly off the charts. Lewis would never reach the U.S. Top 20 again.
Knocked down but not defeated, he carried on. In the late-’60s and most of the ’70s, he recorded a number of rock, country, and gospel sides for the Mercury label. There were a few successful singles, but the Killer seemed increasingly burnt-out and unreliable. During the late-’70s and early ’80s, he saw several marriages fall apart, the deaths of his parents, and the loss of his oldest son in a road accident. He constantly battled the tax man and the bottle.
Luckily, things started turning around in 1986 with his induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and the production of the movie Great Balls of Fire, for which Lewis was called in to sing the songs for the soundtrack. A series of box sets and compilations celebrating his legacy followed — as did a surge of new interest in his vast catalog of studio and live albums. Fans and critics dug deeper into Lewis’s work as an artist, rather than as a notorious scoundrel or some sort.
A new box set titled Jerry Lee Lewis: A Half Century of Hits recently hit stores as well. The three-disc collection features the official release of “New Orleans Boogie” — a self-recorded demo Lewis made as a teen — along with every major country hit, previously unreleased live recordings, additional rare performances, and a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Don’t Stay Away.”
The newly-released Last Man Standing pairs Lewis with the likes of Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Fogerty, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page, and Kid Rock, among other stars on a solid collection of stripped-down rock ‘n’ roll, melancholy country ballads, vintage blues, and folk songs. It’s a worthwhile effort that demonstrates the wild and softer sides of a genuine rock legend.