Though he had only three Top Ten hits in the first phase of his career, many believe Jerry Lee Lewis was as talented a rock & roller as his Sun labelmate Elvis Presley. Nicknamed "The Killer," he became almost as famous for his-edged persona as for his music. As a result Lewis fell off the map after delivering some of early rock's most famous songs. But his life had a second act — he resurfaced as a hitmaking country artist — and he's still widely regarded as a rock legend.
Born September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana, Lewis' first musical influences were eclectic. His parents, who were poor, listened to swing and Al Jolson records. But Lewis' earliest big influence was country star Jimmie Rodgers. In his teens Lewis absorbed both the softer country style of Gene Autry and the more rocking music of local black groups, along with the gospel hymns of the local Assembly of God church. He first played his aunt's piano at eight and made his public debut in 1949 at 14, sitting in with a local country and western band in a Ford dealership parking lot. When he was 15 Lewis went to a fundamentalist Bible school in Waxahachie, Texas, from which he was soon expelled. He has often agreed with his own fundamentalist critics, saying that rock & roll is the Devil's music.
In 1956 Lewis headed for Memphis (financed by his father) to audition for Sam Phillips' Sun Records. Phillips' assistant, Jack Clement, was impressed with Lewis' piano style but suggested he play more rock & roll, in a style similar to Elvis Presley's. (Presley had recently switched from Sun to RCA.) Lewis' debut single, "Crazy Arms" (previously a country hit for Ray Price), did well regionally, but it was the follow-up, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" (Number Three, 1957), that finally broke through. The song first sold 100,000 copies in the South; after Lewis' appearance on Steve Allen's TV show, it sold more than 6 million copies nationally. "Great Balls of Fire" (Number Two, 1957) sold more than 5 million copies and was followed by more than a half million in sales for "Breathless" (Number Seven, 1958) and "High School Confidential" (Number 21, 1958), the title theme of a movie in which Lewis also appeared. Both "Whole Lotta Shakin'" and "Great Balls" were in the pop, country, and R&B Top Five simultaneously, "Shakin'" at Number Three pop and Number One country and R&B, and "Great Balls" at Number Two pop, Number Three R&B, and Number One country. Lewis' high school nickname was "the Killer," and it stuck with him as he established a reputation as a tough, rowdy performer with a flamboyant piano style that incoporated careening glissandos, pounding chords, and bench-toppling acrobatics.
Lewis' career slammed to a stop, though, after he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, in December 1957. (She was his third wife; at age 16 he had wed a 17-year-old, and soon after that ended, he got caught in a shotgun marriage.) The marriage to Brown lasted 13 years, but at the time Lewis was condemned by the church in the U.S. and hounded by the British press on a 1958 overseas tour.
His career ran dry for nearly a decade. Lewis had a modest 1961 hit with "What'd I Say," but in 1963 he left Sun for Smash/Mercury. He toured relentlessly, playing clubs, billing his act as "the greatest show on earth." On the way, he developed a drinking problem. In 1968 he played Iago in a rock-musical version of Shakespeare's Othello called Catch My Soul.
Eventually, Lewis and his producer, Jerry Kennedy, decided to abandon rock & roll for country music. In 1968 he came back with "Another Place, Another Time" (Number Four country); it was the first of many Top Ten country hits followed by "What's Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me)" (Number Two country). Between then and the early-Eighties, Lewis had more than 30 big country hits, including "To Make Love Sweeter For You" (Number One country, 1968), "There Must Be More to Love Than This" (Number One country, 1971), "Would You Take Another Chance on Me" (Number One country, 1971), "Chantilly Lace" (Number One country, 1972), "Middle Age Crazy" (Number Four country, 1977), and "Thirty-Nine and Holding" (Number Four country, 1981). Subsequent singles were minor country hits, none charting higher than Number 43.
In 1973 Lewis released The Season, a return-to-rock album recorded in London with a host of top British musicians, including Peter Frampton, Alvin Lee, Klaus Voormann, and Rory Gallagher, redoing oldies. It resulted in some pop chart success with "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" (Number 41 pop, Number 20 country), an R&B song he'd performed at his public debut in 1949. In 1978 Lewis signed with Elektra and enjoyed some radio airplay with "Rockin' My Life Away." He also continued to tour, performing all the styles of his career: rock, country, gospel, blues, and more. In 1981 Lewis played a German concert with fellow Sun alumni Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The show was released as an album called Survivors in 1982. On June 30, 1981, Lewis was hospitalized in Memphis with hemorrhaging from a perforated stomach ulcer. After two operations he was given a 50-50 chance of survival; four months later he was back on tour. He appeared on the 1982 Grammy Awards telecast with his cousin Mickey Gilley (another cousin is infamous TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart).
Lewis' personal life has been marked by tragedy and controversy. In 1962 his son Steve Allen (named after the talk-show host) drowned at age three. Another son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., who played drums in his father's band, was killed in an automobile accident in 1973. (Lewis' brother had died when hit by a car when Jerry was two.) In September 1976 Lewis accidentally shot his bassist in the chest. In 1982 his estranged fourth wife, Jaren Gunn Lewis, drowned in a pool under mysterious circumstances shortly before their divorce settlement. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens Lewis, was found dead in their home 77 days after their wedding. Although investigative pieces on that incident, including one in Rolling Stone, exposed discrepancies in Lewis' and various law-enforcement officials' accounts and flaws in the investigation, no charges were ever brought against Lewis. Jerry Lee Lewis remarried again, taking his sixth wife. She later gave birth to Jerry Lee Lewis III, Lewis' only surviving son (he also had a daughter with Myra).
More recently, Lewis was plagued by serious health problems and battles with the IRS. He was treated at the Betty Ford Clinic for addiction to painkillers. In 1989, Lewis came to widespread public attention for perhaps the last time thanks to the biographical film Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid as the Killer. Lewis was among the first 10 inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986. In 1995 he released Young Blood. He gigs sporadically still; in 1999 he performed in Baltimore at the Smithsonian Institution's bash celebrating the 300th anniversary of the piano. In 2006 he released Last Man Standing, a new studio album, and A Half Century of Hits, a career-summary box set. Lewis performed a medley of "Great Balls of Fire" and "Good Golly Miss Molly" with Little Richard and John Fogerty at the 2008 Grammy Awards. The following year — a full six decades after his first public performance at that Ford dealership — he opened the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame's 25th Anniversary concert at Madison Square Garden with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On."
Portions of this biography appeared in The Rolling Stone Encyclopedia of Rock & Roll (Simon & Schuster, 2001). Mark Kemp contributed to this article.