Jerry Lee Lewis, who died on October 28, 2022, was one of the first true rock ‘n’ rollers. He catapulted to fame with his 1957 hit, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” and proved to the world that a piano man could play front and center on the world’s biggest stages.
He has stirred up some trouble in his days, once lighting a piano on fire on stage with a Coca-Cola bottle of gasoline to close out the show. Other rock legends have said that they never wanted to follow Jerry Lee Lewis’ performance.
Dodie and I drove by his home, the Lewis Ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi not too long ago, but on that particular day, “The Killer” was not home. He was out rockin’–but not in a rocking chair. It was where he needed to be, on a piano bench.
Lewis was born on September 29th, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana. He began playing the piano at age 9, copying the styles of preachers and black musicians that traveled through the area.
He signed with Sun Records in 1956 and quickly became a star. He was the first person inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986.
With his innovative and flamboyant piano playing style, Jerry Lee Lewis emerged as one of rock music’s early showmen in the 1950s. His musical talents became apparent early on in life. He taught himself to play piano and sang in church growing up. Lewis listened to such radio shows as the Grand Ole Opry and Louisiana Hayride. Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Al Jolson were some of his early influences.
When he was 10, Lewis’ father mortgaged the family farm to buy Jerry Lee his first piano. He gave his first public performance at the age of 14, wowing the crowd gathered for the opening of a local car dealership with his piano prowess. With little formal education, he basically gave up on school around this time to focus on his music.
Rise To The Top
Lewis eventually ended up in Memphis, Tennessee, where he found work as a studio musician for Sun Studios. In 1956, he recorded his first single, a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms,” which did well locally. Lewis also worked on some recording sessions with Carl Perkins. While working at Sun, he and Perkins jammed with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. This session by the “Million Dollar Quartet” was recorded at the time, but it was not released until much later.
In 1957, Lewis became a star with his unique piano-driven sound. “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” became a hit on the pop, country and R&B charts. By this time, Lewis had also developed some of his famous stage antics, such as playing standing up and even lighting the occasional piano on fire. He had such energy and enthusiasm in his performances that he earned the nickname “The Killer” for the way he knocked out his audiences.
Lewis was on a roll with his next single, “Great Balls of Fire,” proving to be another big hit in December 1957. The following March, Lewis struck again with “Breathless,” which made it into the Top 10 of the pop charts.
In the 1960s, Lewis returned to the music of his youth. He found a new career as a country artist, scoring a hit with 1968’s “Another Place, Another Time.” Lewis recorded several country albums over the next few years, including 1970’s Olde Tyme Country Music and 1975’s Boogie Woogie Country Man.
Lewis never left the rock world completely. In 1973, he did well on the album charts with “The Session”. He revisited some of his older songs as well as the works of Chuck Berry and John Fogerty on this popular recording.
When he was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s first class in 1986, there was a strong resurgence in his rock & roll career and music. A new generation of listeners got introduced to Lewis through the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire”, when Lewis was played by actor Dennis Quaid.
This nearly lifelong musician and singer continues to record new music and perform around the world. For 2006’s “Last Man Standing”, Lewis sang a number of rock, blues and country classics with some help from such famous admirers as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Kris Kristofferson, Willie Nelson and Buddy Guy. Collaborator Kristofferson described Lewis as “one of the few who can do rock ‘n’ roll, country or soul, and every song is authentic.” He told USA Today that Lewis is “one of the best American voices ever.”
Lewis and Kristofferson worked together again on Lewis’s next effort, 2010’s “Mean Old Man”. The all-star guests on this release included Eric Clapton, Tim McGraw, Sheryl Crow, Kid Rock and John Fogerty among others.
In April of 2013 Lewis opened Jerry Lee Lewis’ Café & Honky Tonk on historic Beale Street in Memphis, Tennessee. It is filled with one of the Killer’s pianos, a motorcycle, photos, and memorabilia, along with great food and live music.
2014 kicked off Jerry Lee’s “80th Birthday Tour” with shows across the country, from California to Tennessee to New York. The Killer is also traveling to Europe.
In October of 2014 The Killer released his first ever biography with Pulitzer Prize winning author Rick Bragg. “Jerry Lee Lewis – His Own Story” came out to critical acclaim. His new CD “Rock & Roll Time” also came out in October. He told Rolling Stone magazine “This is a rock & roll record…That’s just the way it came out”. As he looks back on six decades of music and what the future holds, Lewis says he’s grateful. “I just think it’s a blessing from God that I’m still living… and I’m still rocking.”
Lewis spends most of his time-off at The Lewis Ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi, where he is happily married to his wife Judith, since March 9th, 2012.
Judith, a fan favorite, keeps the faithful up to date on social media. Here are some recent photos.