Flashback: Hear Jerry Lee Lewis Embrace Country With Raucous 'Bobby McGee'

As the Killer turns 82, we look back at his energetic reinvention of the Kris Kristofferson classic "Me and Bobby McGee"

Jerry Lee Lewis recorded his boogie-woogie version of Kris Kristofferson's "Me and Bobby McGee" in 1971.

One of rock & roll's pioneering artists, Jerry Lee Lewis, celebrates his 82nd birthday today, and as evidenced by his energetic appearance at the recent Skyville Live tribute to the legendary entertainer, he continues to define the rebellious spirit of the genre. But with that rebel stance (and the not-so-subtle nickname "the Killer") came a scandal that pumped the brakes on Lewis' career and nearly derailed it for good. In 1958, Lewis was in England on a promotional tour when news broke that the 22-year-old entertainer had recently married his third wife, Myra Gale Brown, his 13-year-old first cousin once removed. Luckily for Lewis, and his loyal fans, country music came to his rescue… eventually.

While Lewis was banished from pop and rock radio stations in the wake of the controversial marriage, which lasted 13 years, he eventually embraced country music wholeheartedly, while still, naturally, demonstrating his ability to whip audiences into frenzy with his rapid-fire boogie-woogie piano and confident swagger. By 1971, Lewis, who had been persona non grata in England immediately following the scandal, was, like fellow rockers at the time Carl Perkins and Jackie Wilson, a popular concert draw in the U.K. In the summer of that year, a British film crew was in Nashville to film the three artists for a concert special. By that time, Lewis had scored major country hits with "Another Place, Another Time," "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)" and "There Must Be More to Love Than This."

Having already cut songs by Hank Williams and Jimmie Rodgers, it followed that he would also cover one that era's most noteworthy tunesmiths, Kris Kristofferson. Lewis reached Number Two for two weeks in 1970 with "Once More With Feeling," a tune Kristofferson wrote with Shel Silverstein. 

A year and a half later, he would cover the Oxford-educated former military man again, with a hyper-boogie take on "Me and Bobby McGee," months after the late Janis Joplin's forlorn version made her only the second artist (after Otis Redding) to have a posthumous Number One pop hit. The Lewis version backed his late '71 single, "Would You Take Another Chance on Me," which topped the country chart in January 1972. A decade later, Lewis would perform the song during a live show in London, as seen in the above clip. In addition to the numerous references to the song's title character within it, Lewis name-checks himself several times, a further step, perhaps, toward making the song his own. But with the tune's frenetic tempo and pumped-up piano work throughout, it's pretty hard to mistake the Killer for Kristofferson, although Joplin's version does feature a similar slow build before erupting into an all-out blues jam.

With six Number One country hits to his credit, a case for enshrining Lewis in the Country Music Hall of Fame can certainly be made. That case is furthered strengthened by the Nashville institution's inclusion of Rock & Roll Hall of Fame members Elvis Presley, Brenda Lee and the Everly Brothers and Lewis' hitting streak that includes almost 40 Top 20 country hits. His most recent country hit of note was 1981's "Thirty Nine and Holding," a Top Five tune penned by Jerry Foster and Bill Rice, the writers of "Would You Take Another Chance on Me."