The Last Man’s Last Stand: Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

The Killer is gone but will never be forgotten 

Jerry Lee Lewis (Image: Brittanica)

There may never be a more unrepentant insurgent in the history of rock ‘n’ roll than Jerry Lee Lewis, who died Friday of natural causes at age 87.

He set the standard for early and authentic rock ‘n’ roll rebellion, in both sound and style. He acknowledged as much, and while he was unapologetic about his fumbles and transgressions, unlike most people, he took full responsibility and regaled in his rowdy reputation. Attitude and aptitude forever intercepted, creating a combination of music and mayhem that was fully fueled from beginning to end.

Sadly, Lewis’ death wipes rock ‘n’ roll of all its early and essential forebearers — a roll call that includes Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, Carl Perkins, Eddie Cochran, the Everly Brothers, Roy Orbison and all the others who daringly ventured into realms unknown, shook up the establishment and brought the monochrome trappings of a post war world into a multi-hued, multi-cultural panorama of sight and sound. While Elvis and Little Richard may have shocked the senses, no one was more riveting or rebellious than Jerry Lee. Indeed, his frenetic piano playing style — a left hand frantically pounding away at the rhythm while his right swooped across the keys, often after kicking away his piano bench, and, standing fully upright, propping his leg on keyboard for added effect — left an indelible impression on a generation of keyboard players that followed, from Elton John and Billy Joel to Keith Emerson, Rick Wakeman and other members of rock’s fabled elite. 

Surprisingly, despite his brash, devil-may-care delivery, Lewis — born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana and dubbed “The Killer” early on —  was raised in religious surroundings, a combination of pentecostal passion and fervent belief. His cousin, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, fully embraced that heritage with his own fiery fervor, but his other cousin, country singer Mickey Gilley, embraced more terrestrial trappings. Somehow, Lewis navigated his way between those two worlds, finding him making secretive sojourns to late night haunts frequented by Black blues singers and eventually to the budding realms of Sun Records, where he found an encouraging atmosphere and a similarly inspired coterie of fellow artists that included Presley, Perkins and Johnny Cash, all of whom dared defy the norm through sheer drive and defiance. 

 

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Indeed, their fleeting union, dubbed The Million Dollar Quartet, still dazzles the imagination while establishing the supergroup subtext in the process.

Of course, Jerry Lee was wholly self-sustaining, and his three early hits, “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless,” not only inscribed his incendiary style but also established a template for rock and roll in general and the piano in particular. They topped the pop, country and R&B charts simultaneously, while also underscoring the contentious reputation that would dog him throughout his career. The character he portrayed in the 1958 teen flick High School Confidential was no match for the real life persona he created off the screen as well. When, in March 1958, he was forced to cede his headline status to Chuck Berry during the opening night of deejay Alan Freed’s Big Beat Show, he poured a bottle of gasoline on his piano and set it on fire, prompting a call to the local fire department who had to make an emergency call to the venue to put it out.

 

VIDEO: Jerry Lee Lewis “High School Confidential”

There were other unfortunate choices that got in his way as well. The most infamous of those involved his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, and the cancellation of a British tour after only three date due to the outcry of outrage and consternation. What was even more amazing was the fact that it was his third marriage — he’d eventually tally seven wives — and he was never officially granted a divorce from his first. 

Indeed, his vices and misdeeds became the stuff of legend, and forever intwined in his lingering legacy.  Addiction to painkillers, drugs and alcohol further stifled his career and brought him to a standstill throughout much of the succeeding decade. He would suffer his share of calamities later on as well. Two of his wives died with in a year of one another. Two sons passed away prematurely. In 1976, he accidentally shot and wounded his bass player.

So, too, his own medical maladies — a pair of operations due to hemorrhaging from a perforated ulcer, a stay at the Betty Ford Clinic to wean him off his dependence on painkillers and a stroke in February 2019 that led to the cancellation of a world tour and months of rehabilitation — all took their toll. When, in 1992, The Internal Revenue Service slapped him with $4.1 million in back taxes and fines, he was forced into a 15-month tax exile in Ireland.  

 

 

Fortunately, Lewis was defiant enough not to let those setbacks take their toll. He managed to reinvent himself as a country crooner in the late ‘60s, reemerging with a pair of hits, “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and “Middle Age Crazy.” Meanwhile, the reverence with which he was regraded by a host of A-list artists never subsided. A 1973 double album, auspiciously dubbed The Session…Recorded in London With Great Artists, found him replaying a number of classic and then-current seminal hits in the company of an all-star list of British session players. A trio of more recent outings, Last Man Standing, Mean Old Man and Rock & Roll Time — the latter destined to be his final outing — featured an array of notable cameos, among them Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Willie Nelson, George Jones and Neil Young. 

Nevertheless, his ultimate vindication came when he was among the initial inductees in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as part of the Class of 1986. Three years later, he was embraced on the big screen when actor Dennis Quaid portrayed Lewis in the biopic Great Balls of Fire.

Great Balls Of Fire film poster (Image: Idmb)

“Jerry Lee was a Christian, an American icon and the greatest piano player in the world.” Quaid remarked when hearing of his passing. “People will be listening to ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lot of Shakin” 500 years from now. I will miss him. God bless you Jerry Lee.”

It wouldn’t be the final time Lewis’ presence was featured on film. Director Ethan Coen recently completed a documentary, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind, which premiered at Cannes Film Festival earlier this year.

So too, other accolades followed. Shortly before his death, he was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Then, when news of his passing was made public, a number of prolific admirers shared their sentiments.

 

VIDEO: Jerry Lee Lewis’s induction into the Country Music Hall Of Fame 2022

“We have so many memories of touring the world together, Sweden, Spain, U.K., pretty much the whole European Continent,” The Bellamy Brothers said. “We pray the ‘Killer’ will rest in peace now. We are pretty sure there will never be another one like him.” 

Country singer Phil Vassar added his thoughts as well. “The first time I saw Jerry Lee Lewis play and literally light his piano on fire I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do!’ He proved that not all piano players are balladeers and that’s what I love and will always remember about him. He was a huge inspiration to me and so many musicians across genres. May he rest in peace.”

“In my opinion Jerry Lee Lewis had one of the truest most recognizable voices in the business… original in every way!!!,” fellow country crooner Gene Watson noted. “I don’t think we will ever have another Jerry Lee…The Killer.”

One of the most poignant comments came — quite naturally — from his sister and fellow longtime performer, Linda Gail Lewis. “The world has lost a light that we’ve been blessed with for 87 years,” she said. “I hope, in my own humble way, I can keep my brother’s memory alive and as long as I can breathe, every breath will be a tribute to his legacy, the greatest piano player, singer and brother the world has ever known. God bless you Jerry Lee Lewis, I love you!”

Indeed, this was one killer everyone could equally admire. 

 

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Lee Zimmerman

Lee Zimmerman is a writer and columnist based in beautiful Maryville Tennessee. Over the past 20 years, his work has appeared in dozens of leading music publications. He is also the author of Americana Music: Voice, Visionaries, and Pioneers of an Honest Sound, which will be published by Texas A&M University Press early next year.

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