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Music Friday: Happy Birthday, Jerry Lee Lewis!

Keith Chaffee, Librarian, Collection Development,
Music Friday logo and Jerry Lee Lewis

The career of Jerry Lee Lewis began in a burst of glory before imploding in scandal; a decade later, he made one of the biggest and most unlikely comebacks in pop music.

Lewis was born on September 29, 1935, and showed enough musical talent as a child that his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. They were a religious family—TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart is Lewis's cousin—and his mother enrolled him in a religious high school, hoping that his musical interests might be swayed away from secular music. That didn't happen, and Lewis was quickly expelled after playing a boogie-woogie version of "My God Is Real" at a school assembly.

Lewis recorded his first demo records in 1954, and signed with Sun Records in 1956, where he recorded prolifically as a solo artist and as a studio musician; he can be heard playing the piano on several of Carl Perkins' records. In December 1956, he was playing on a Perkins session when Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash happened to drop by the studio. At the end of the day, the four men began casually playing together, and the engineer left the tape running. Those recordings were first released in 1981 as The Million Dollar Quartet; in 2010, that session was re-created by actors in a Broadway musical, for which the actor playing Lewis won the Tony Award.

In 1957 and early 1958, Lewis exploded into public view with a string of rock'n'roll classics—"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On," "Great Balls of Fire," and "Breathless." He became known for his energetic stage act, during which he'd kick the piano bench aside and play standing up, pound the keyboard with his fists, sit on the keyboard, and run his hands up and down the piano in dramatic glissandos. Elton John said that Lewis was a major influence on his own piano style, and Elvis claimed that if he could play the piano as well as Lewis, he'd give up singing.

That success ended abruptly in May 1958. Lewis had just begun a tour of England, and a British journalist reported on his recent marriage to his 13-year-old cousin. The publicity was disastrous, and the tour was canceled after only three concerts. Back in the United States, Lewis was almost totally blackballed at radio; Alan Freed was the only major DJ who continued to support him (and Freed's career was about to go through its own implosion in the payola scandals). Even Sam Phillips at Sun Records put together a novelty record in which phrases from Lewis's songs were edited together as his responses in an "interview" about the scandal. Desperate for airplay, Lewis recorded an instrumental boogie version of the big band classic "In the Mood" under the pseudonym "The Hawk," but his piano style was so distinctive that nobody was fooled.

Lewis continued to have some success in Europe during the 1960s. In 1964, he recorded a live album at the Star Club in Hamburg, Germany that is considered one of the finest live concerts ever recorded. And he continued to record; his new label, Smash Records, was releasing an album a year, but they weren't very successful.

In late 1967, his contract with Smash was about to expire, and the label suggested that he record a country song. It wasn't as crazy an idea as it might have seemed. Lewis's 1950s hits had been even bigger hits on the country charts than they were on the pop charts. Even so, no one expected that "Another Place, Another Time" would be the success that it was, climbing to #4 in just a few weeks.

Lew was in Los Angeles at the time, playing Iago in Catch My Soul, a rock musical adaptation of Othello. Smash summoned him back to Nashville to record a complete album, and the comeback had begun. Lewis placed 23 songs in the top ten of the country charts between 1968 and 1981. That volume was, in part, due to Lewis's energy in the recording studio. He released thirteen albums between 1969 and 1973. He was so successful that his old label, Sun, re-packaged some of his old country recordings and released them as if they were new; one of those songs, "One Minute Past Eternity," became a hit, a decade after it was recorded.

By the end of the 1970s, Lewis's run of success on the charts had ended, but he's never stopped recording or giving concerts. He's released three albums in the 21st century. Last Man Standing and Mean Old Man were duets albums, pairing him with partners including Little Richard, Kid Rock, Merle Haggard, and Mavis Staples; and Rock and Roll Time was a solo album featuring Lewis's versions of songs by Chuck Berry, Johnny Cash, and Bob Dylan.

In 1986, Lewis was one of the first class of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. He began the unplanned jam session at the end of the ceremony, which was so popular that it was added as a routine part of later ceremonies.

Rick Bragg's biography Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story (e-book | e-audio | print) is based on hours of interviews with Lewis; J.D. Davis's Unconquered (e-book) is a group biography of cousins Jerry Lee Lewis, Jimmy Swaggart, and country singer Mickey Gilley. Much more of Lewis's music is available for streaming at Hoopla.