“Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherfucker,” the music icon known as “The Killer” told the Grand Ole Opry audience on January 20th, 1973. And with that, Lewis broke Opry Rule Number Two: no cursing.
For his debut on the revered country music radio show, the rock-gone-country singer was invited to perform with two stipulations: refrain from rock songs and four-letter words. The first was broken by the then-37 year old’s set-list, which also stomped on all sorts of unwritten rules. According to Joe Bonomo’s Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found biography, the entertainer only played one of the country-leaning hits that lifted him out of a career slump, “Another Place, Another Time,” that night. He followed with a number of his rock & roll staples, including “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” ignoring his allotted time constraints — and, thus, commercial breaks — to play for 40 minutes. (The average Opry performance is two songs, for about eight maximum minutes of stage time.)
Lewis did include other country tunes in the prolonged mix, but not his own; he sang Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Once More With Feeling.” Other covers included Bill Haley’s “Rock Around the Clock” and Elvis Presley’s “Mean Woman Blues,” as Lewis brought the normally seated audience to its boot-stomping feet. Midway through the set, he brought the tempo down a notch and showed a rarely seen softer side, inviting Opry pianist Del Wood to join him on “Down Yonder” and gushing over her musicianship and hospitality.
At the time, Lewis was on his fourth marriage and had been divorced from his cousin, Myra Brown, for a little more than two years. That marriage was headline-grabbing not just for the fact that Brown was his first cousin (once removed) — she was also only 13 years old at their wedding. Once uncovered, the scandal resulted in the cancellation of his tour and his songs being yanked from almost every radio station playing his music.
Lewis’ popularity was slow to return but did, as he charted his renditions of “Good Golly Miss Molly,” “What’d I Say” and a few more rock and R&B-leaning songs. But in the late Sixties and early Seventies, the Louisiana native found most of his success on country radio. He had five chart-topping country hits: “Another Place, Another Time,” “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” “Would You Take Another Chance on Me,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” and a cover of Kristofferson’s “Me and Bobby McGee.” So the rock rebel’s invitation to perform on the squeaky-clean Opry stage wasn’t all that surprising…. But neither was his rebellion. Legend has it that when told to play only country music on the hallowed Nashville stage, the Killer replied, “What country?”