I have been a music nut for most of my life. This may come as a shocker to some, but I have never cared much for modern music. It has always been classic country or classic rock. I don’t know if that makes me an old soul or just an oddity, but it wasn’t easy to be a teenager listening to George Jones and Merle Haggard while your friends were into Metallica or Pearl Jam.
In recent weeks or at least 2022 has been a hard year for fans of the old-timers. We had to say goodbye to Loretta Lynn, Ronnie Spector, Pig Robbins, Mickey Gilley, C.W. McCall, Dallas Frazier and even Meatloaf. Then on Friday (October 28), Jerry Lee Lewis met his maker. It’s hard to say goodbye to some of these folks because they are music icons and heroes to so many.
Over the years, I’ve had the privilege to see some true music legends in concert: George Jones, Tammy Wynette, John Conlee, The Eagles and Jerry Lee Lewis. While I was starstruck to see Jones and Wynette, enamored by the music and stories of The Eagles, I felt blessed and in awe to see Jerry Lee. Two things were special about that concert, one being the fact it was Jerry Lee Lewis’ 80th Birthday Tour, and second, it was held at the Ryman Auditorium.
Just two days before my birthday on October 4, 2014, I stepped foot into the Ryman for the very first time. After an opening set by his niece and sister, Gail, the curtain shut for some time and slowly reopened with the Killer himself sitting at the piano. Just a matter of yards from me was one, if not the greatest, rock n’ roller of all time.
The story of Jerry Lee Lewis is not one I’m going to tell today. I am not an expert on the Killer and if you want to get down to some of the nitty-gritty details about him then I suggest reading his autobiography. There’s just too much to talk about with Jerry Lee Lewis, you’ve got the music, his personal life, his relationships with his cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, or nearly being dropped from the music scene after a questionable marriage. Then there’s the alcohol and drug abuse and other gobs of tabloid fodder.
Friday’s announcement left me melancholy. I didn’t know exactly how I felt about the man and to be honest, I don’t think anyone wants my opinion, but I do know that I thought he was one hell of a musician and artist. He revolutionized music with his piano playing. The riffs and licks he used were all part of something special a little feller from Ferriday, Louisiana put together and called his own.
The original plan was for Jerry to be a man of God as his mother enrolled him in Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas. Much to the dismay of the school, Jerry Lee decided to get a little too worldly with his version of “My God is Real”. He was expelled the next day.
Years later in an interview, he recalled an interaction with the student body president that turned him in, the guy asked Jerry Lee “Are you still playing the devil’s music?” Jerry replied “Yes, I am. But you know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t.” That type of response was pure Killer and also seemed to be an ongoing internal battle between the Devil and the Lord within him.
By 1956, Jerry Lee had tried his hand at making the big time in Nashville but soon he was down on his luck in Memphis. He eventually found work as a studio musician at Sun Records. Jack Clement, a producer/engineer with Sun, signed Lewis to his first contract. It wasn’t long before folks recording took notice of Jerry Lee Lewis. Owner Sam Phillips used him on sessions with Elvis Presley and Carl Perkins.
According to Sun Record historians, his first big break came on December 4, 1956, as Elvis “dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Lewis backing him on piano. The three started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tapes running. He later telephoned Johnny Cash and brought him in to join the others. These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived, and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet.”
Then the following year, Jerry Lee Lewis began making a household name, good and bad, for himself. The release of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” propelled Jerry Lee’s career into outer orbit with other hits on the Sun label including “Great Balls of Fire” and “High School Confidential”. It seemed his career was unstoppable.
In 1958, the unthinkable happened for Jerry Lee, everyone seemingly turned their back on him including Sun Records and Sam Phillips. Lewis’s personal life boiled up with his recent marriage to his cousin Myra, who happened to be thirteen years old. Also, the divorce from his second wife was not exactly finalized at the time of their nuptials.
This led to the Killer’s fall from grace where he went from playing venues for $10,000 an appearance to scrambling from beer joint to beer joint for a couple of hundred bucks a night. Soon he wasn’t even recording anymore. By 1963, Lewis’s contract with Sun ran its course and he was on to Smash Records where his career continued to flounder.
It wasn’t until 1968 when promotions manager Eddie Kilroy asked him to try his hand at a county record. With nothing to lose, he cut the song “Another Place, Another Time” which shot up the country charts. Between 1968 and 1977, Lewis had 17 Top 10 hit singles on the Billboard country chart, including four chart-toppers.
In 1973, he was invited for the first and last time to play the Grand Ole Opry. In typical Jerry Lee Lewis fashion, he did and played what he wanted for close to an hour when he was only slotted for two songs. Then smashed a lot of ceiling tiles near center stage with his mic stand, thus never playing the Ryman again until 2014 (a forty-plus year ban).
There is a lot more to the story of Jerry Lee Lewis but I wanted to make it as close to home as possible with Sun Records and his shift to Nashville. His musical prowess put him in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame and most recently the Country Music Hall of Fame. Like him or hate him, Jerry Lee was a one-man soap opera who could play piano like no one else.