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Tainted Legacy

Jerry Lee Lewis Was a Rock & Roll Titan. That Doesn’t Justify What He Did Offstage

The singer lived out rock's audacity in extreme fashion, making him one of the defining performers of his era. He also did terrible things, over and over

J erry Lee Lewis was rock & roll’s original prodigal son. When he burned brightly, in the mid-to-late 1950s, he was untouchable. Then, when he fell from grace, he was untouchable in a different way, but he was dogged. He kept recording music — much of it unheard — and he drove across America, playing for those who would have him, living hard and living mean. Those who would have him saw somebody matchless.

Those who wouldn’t had good reasons not to. Lewis — who died Oct. 28 at his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi — did terrible things, repeatedly, across the decades. He married a 13-year-old, Myra Gale Brown, who later said she was “subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable.” He shot his bass player, was a serial adulterer, abused drugs and alcohol and several other of his seven wives — and that’s just a partial list of transgressions. 

Rock & roll is mean and corrupting music, said Jerry Lee, who was raised deeply religious in Louisiana (his cousin was the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart). To perform that music, he forsook many hopes, and a few beliefs, living and speaking as a man who had lost his soul. In 1957 Lewis recorded two titanic rock & roll hits, “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” At the session for the latter, Lewis told Sam Phillips — who owned and operated Memphis’ Sun Records, where Lewis was recording — that the music he was playing, “worldly music … rock & roll,” meant he was broken off from God. “I have the devil in me!” he shouted. “If I didn’t, I’d be a Christian!” (Greil Marcus transcribed the full, remarkable conversation in his 1975 book, Mystery Train: Images of America in Rock ‘n’ Roll Music.)

Lewis, though, wasn’t planning on leaving rock & roll. He took a rather different stand: “I’m dragging the audience to hell with me.” You might say that took no small amount of courage if you believed that by making “worldly music,” you were putting your soul at stake. For this sort of act, existentialists would have named Jerry Lee Lewis a rebel, though his admirers simply called him the Killer.

Lewis lived out rock & roll’s sexual and impulsive audacity in extreme fashion. For that distinction — as well as for the startling depth and display of his talent — some rock & roll chroniclers regarded him as perhaps the exemplary performer of his era: more unrepressed than Elvis Presley, more forcible than Chuck Berry, more insolent than Little Richard. And vastly more trouble-prone than all of them.

In May 1958 — at the peak of a career some thought could overtake Presley’s — he left for a 37-date tour of the U.K. When he disembarked at Heathrow Airport, a Daily Mail reporter met him on the tarmac and noticed there was a young girl in Lewis’ party. “Who are you?” the reporter asked. “I’m Myra,” answered the girl. “Jerry’s wife.” The reporter was startled. “And how old is Myra?” he asked Lewis. “Fifteen,” Lewis answered, with a cocky grin. He thought the age was mature enough to put to rest any concerns the reporter might have, but it did not. At 15, Myra was younger than Britain’s age of consent. The British press reacted with outrage. They called Lewis a “cradle robber.” 

Lewis with his 13-year-old wife, Myra Gale Brown Bettmann Archive/Getty Images

Things grew much worse when new information came back from the States: Myra was in fact 13, not 15. Lewis, who was 22 at the time, had lied about her age in order for the wedding to happen, and hadn’t yet been divorced from his second wife at the time of his and Myra’s wedding. The press also learned that Myra was Jerry Lee’s cousin.

Newspapers called for a boycott of his concerts. In England, Lewis found himself playing in clubs and theaters to smaller audiences than expected, and among those who attended, some heckled him and tossed slurs his way. One paper called for him to be deported. 

Two days after the tour started, Lewis called it off. He and Myra flew back to the United States, where he expected more sympathetic treatment. But when they landed in New York, the reception was just as bad. Jerry Lee seemed to not comprehend the gravity of his actions. “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?” he told one reporter. According to Jerry Lee Lewis: Lost and Found, by author Joe Bonomo, he later said, “I was a 21-year-old kid, and I didn’t know whether I was comin’ or goin’. We were just kids in love at the time. It didn’t matter to me. I was getting to sell more records than Elvis. He had gone into the army and I was hitting big, but there were a lot of narrow-minded people who thought I was corrupting the youth. I’d figured out my style, I done it my way, and I was very hardheaded.”

Everything changed. His concert fee dropped from $10,000 a show to $250 a show. Sun stopped promoting him, radio stopped playing him. He tried marrying Myra a second time to make things right in the public’s eye, and he wrote an open letter in Billboard. All to no avail. Myra would join him for his U.S. tours, riding with him in the car, often arriving at venues where there had been no promotion. Nobody knew Jerry Lee Lewis was coming to town, and few would have cared to know.

In the early 1960s, he went to Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury. The label hoped, in 1964, it had a surefire hit that would put him back on top, “I’m on Fire.” Instead, the song was like a parody of Jerry Lee’s early style, a parody that wasn’t funny. It barely scratched the Top 100. Moreover, by the time Lewis tried to reestablish his rock & roll credentials in America, the Beatles were expanding all the possibilities of the music Jerry Lee and Carl Perkins and Chuck Berry and Elvis Presley and Little Richard had pioneered, creating new styles and unprecedented dimensions in which rock artists and their audiences might shake up the world. 

“The Million Dollar Quartet”: Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash at Sun Studios on December 4, 1956 Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images

Lewis didn’t quite fit in that new world, but he could still be a startlingly authoritative rock & roll performer; and he proved it on a live album recorded at the Star-Club, the venue in Hamburg, Germany, where the Beatles had played legendary shows in 1962. At one of the lowest points of his career, Jerry Lee Lewis performed some of the most astonishing music of his life. He roared, he snarled, he pounded; he and the band were a cacophony, as he tore through such songs as “Money,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Long Tall Sally,” “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Good Golly, Miss Molly.” 

That last song he sang like a madman. After a long buildup, when he gets to his final declarations of “You know what I want/You know what I got to have,” his voice turns into a taunting laugh that is prurient and menacing. You indeed know what he wants, and it isn’t money. In his 2002 review for Rolling Stone, Milo Miles wrote: “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is not an album, it’s a crime scene: Jerry Lee Lewis slaughters his rivals in a 13-song set that feels like one long convulsion.” 

The trouble was, it couldn’t be heard: It wasn’t available in the U.S. until a 1994 release by Rhino. Maybe during what Miles called the “wilderness years,” Lewis played with this much ferocity on God knows how many nights. Some of those occasions he saw the audience start to pick up again. Other times, it must have been like playing into a void.

The void was something he knew about. In 1959, he and Myra had had their first child, Steven Allen Lewis. On Easter Sunday, 1962, Jerry Lee was in Minnesota for a show. Myra took Steven to church for the first time. At home, their son was happy, eating candy chickens and jellybeans. Myra had him by her side one moment, then he wasn’t there. She ran outside, calling his name. 

A neighbor found Steven facedown in the Lewises’ swimming pool. Lewis got the call and headed home. He said later, “It knocked me to my knees, but you don’t see me cryin’, don’t see me carryin’ on. I accepted it. What can you do but accept it? And live with it. I didn’t question God.”

He was supposed to travel to England in a few days — his first trip there since the country had shamed him. “He had drunk and fought and sinned across the land, chasing and chasing, and it would be noble to say that his desire for it all was reduced to insignificance by the death of his son, but it would be a lie,” wrote Rick Bragg in his 2014 authorized biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story. “Instead, as he stood over that small grave, he knew that his drive was the only thing that could save him.” 

By the late 1960s, he’d been living a punishing life on the road, drinking and taking pills steadily, going without sleep as he did it all. It was as if now being onstage wasn’t saving him like it had; it was simply a means to stay on the road with musicians he could party with. He seemed wounded to the women he met, and sometimes they would go to bed with him because they were sympathetic to the wounded man.

Things had been turning bad in the marriage. Myra knew what he was doing, and she told him she would leave him. In turn, he accused her of being the unfaithful one. He could be unmerciful and abusive. In her 1982 book about her marriage to Lewis, Great Balls of Fire, she wrote about her husband tormenting her, saying to her, “God punished you. Didn’t He, girl? Took your son away from you.”

In 1970, Myra filed for divorce on the grounds of adultery and abuse. In Great Balls of Fire, Myra told of a night toward the end when Jerry came home and woke her, demanding sex. She refused and soon grabbed her housecoat and got in her car, but Jerry was right after her, throwing rocks as she drove away. He followed her in his car and forced her off the road. Back at home, he told Myra, “If you ever leave me, I’ll throw acid in your face,” and then kissed her. “Leave me, an’ I’ll kill ya.”

Another time, according to Great Balls of Fire, he showed up unexpectedly at 3 a.m., at a time when he was supposed to be out of town, and he complained there was no food waiting for him on the stove. He made himself a sandwich and then found her in the bedroom, and, she claimed, thumped her on the head. When she tried to ward him off, he grabbed her hands and beat her black and blue with her own fists. He said to their seven-year-old daughter, Phoebe, who was witnessing all this, “Look, Phoebe, your mama’s gone crazy. She’s hittin’ herself in the face.” 

Another night, when she’d flushed his pills down the toilet for fear he’d kill himself, he went into a rage and bashed her to the floor. He headed out to a nightclub, then called home at 3 a.m. Myra said she pulled a pistol from a nightstand and put it to her head and told Jerry Lee what she was prepared to do. “Then, very softly, he said, ‘Put the phone close so I can hear it go off.’” 

When she finally served him with divorce papers, he begged her not to go, but she did. In 2016, Myra Lewis wrote a second book, The Spark That Survived. “After my divorce,” she told the L.A. Times in 1989, “I had to go to a psychiatrist because I thought ‘I’ve got to have lost it. You can’t go through a life like that and come out and be OK. I must be insane.’ But none of the psychiatrists would tell me I was crazy. They would say, ‘You’re fine. You’re fine.’ But I never felt fine.… You see, Myra did not survive that marriage. That little girl I used to be, she died. She just dispersed into whatever.” For years, their daughter worked for Jerry Lee. “When I visited her,” Myra told the L.A. Times this year, “I would still see him, too.… Phoebe quit working for him and I haven’t seen him since. He’s no longer part of my life. I find living is nice and calm this way.”

Still, somehow, Jerry Lee got second chances, albeit in unexpected ways. A musician who’d worked with the country singer Mickey Gilley asked Jerry Lee if he would consider driving to Nashvillle to record a song. It wasn’t easy persuading country writers to write for somebody they considered a hopped-up rock & roll piano man, but eventually Jerry had a song in front of him, “Another Place Another Time,” and he thought it spoke to him. It was about being with somebody you couldn’t keep: “I just put in my last dime/Heard you whisper we’d meet again/Another place, another time.” He sang it. He’d wait to see what came of it.

The other chance that came his way was a thoroughly unlikely one. Jack Good, who had produced the TV show Shindig!, wanted to make a rock opera of Shakespeare’s Othello, and he had only one person in mind to play Iago: Jerry Lee Lewis. “You’re the only one I know as evil as he is,” Good said. 

It was an inspired call. Iago is one of most formidable and daunting characters in all theater, a mystery, and he is a void: Life has wronged him and he wants to wrong others. Lewis would voice Iago’s lines seated at the piano, he’d mix blues cadence with Shakespeare’s doleful lyricism. Lewis accepted the offer. He went to Los Angeles, where the musical Catch My Soul would be staged at the Ahmanson Theatre.

Jerry Lee loved playing Iago. He respected his malice. The mystery of Iago is the greatest of all Shakespeare’s mysteries: Why did he scheme to turn Othello’s heart so terribly against the woman he loved that he strangles her to death? Some have thought Iago felt slighted. He wanted to be Othello’s new lieutenant but had been passed over. Others think he suspected Othello of having slept with his own wife. Or: Iago was simply a sociopath. He wanted to do harm. But because he is never fully explained, Iago is a void — a void incarnate. Jerry Lee Lewis knew how to inhabit that role.

Reviews were good, and Catch My Soul was a hit. Jack Good had plans to take it Broadway, but Lewis wouldn’t go with it. He wanted to go back to being Jerry Lee Lewis. Rick Bragg related that months later, performing on a TV show in London, “he was able to interrupt a scorching rendition of ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’’ to smite the audience with Shakespeare: ‘Divinity of hell!/When devils will the blackest sins put on/They do suggest at first with heavenly shows/As I do now.’” The crowd loved it.

Backstage at the Palladium in London, April 1972 Steve Wood/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Jerry Lee Lewis would remain a mix of good news and bad until he was too old to trouble anybody much, but that was a long time and a lot of trouble later. With “Another Place Another Time,” he returned to the upper reaches of the charts. The album of the same name proved not only among his best, but also among the best country albums of the period. He was an utterly convincing and affecting barroom singer, like Merle Haggard, and like Haggard, he wielded singular tone and timing. 

He came into country music with respect for its verities, but he didn’t worry about respecting anybody else’s likening. His version of Ernest Tubb’s “Walking the Floor Over You” didn’t match Tubb’s definitional drawl and pace; instead it was almost as reckless as his rock & roll. From the late 1960s through the 1970s, he placed 21 songs in the Billboard Country and Western chart’s Top 10. Lewis was reborn and transmogrified as a country artist, but he also still played breakneck rock & roll — and was among the last people living from that music’s original generation to do so.

Along with sporadically brilliant music, death, violence, and illness — some of it directly his doing — became leitmotifs of Jerry Lee Lewis’ life. His son Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., from an earlier marriage, wanted to drum in his father’s band and to live like his father, but he didn’t have the mental constitution for the drug use. Jerry Lee would try to stop him, but they would get into fights. He died on Nov. 13, 1973. When towing a car with his Jeep, the hitch came loose, causing the Jeep to flip, breaking Jr.’s neck. “Seemed like I was always on my way to the graveyard,” Jerry Lee said. “At one time, it seemed like I was burying somebody every week.”

In September 1976, Lewis was celebrating his 41st birthday at his home when Butch Owens, his bass player, showed up with a friend. The friend wanted to show Jerry Lee a .357 magnum. According to Rick Bragg in Jerry Lee: His Own Story, Owens handed it over to the singer and said, “Careful. It’s got a hair trigger.” Bragg related what happened next:

“’It went off,’ says Jerry Lee…. 

“‘I-I-I-I been shot,’ screamed Owens. 

“’It appears to be that way, Butch,’ Jerry Lee said, too drunk to be overly concerned. 

“’Why?” asked Butch. 

“’Cause you appear to be sittin’ in the wrong spot,’ said Jerry Lee.” 

Lewis was charged with a misdemeanor: firing a gun within city limits. Owens survived — and successfully sued Jerry Lee for $50,000.

On Nov. 23, 1976, Lewis had another gun with him, at 3 a.m., as he was driving down Elvis Presley Boulevard in Memphis, on his way to Graceland. What happened that night could never really be separated from the myths of the two men. Elvis and Jerry Lee had once been close. They would sit up late at Graceland talking. But rumor had it that Elvis grew a bit resentful when he saw Jerry Lee began to have more hits. He grew distant. They did have one tiff. Lewis had called Presley a puppet of his manager, Colonel Tom Parker. Wrote Rick Bragg: “If Jerry Lee was so smart, Elvis reportedly responded, how come Elvis was playing the big room, and Jerry Lee was playing the lounge?”

The day before that drive down Elvis Presley Boulevard, Lewis had rolled his Rolls-Royce with his fourth wife, Jaren Pate, in the car. Neither was badly hurt in the accident, but Lewis got charged with drunk and reckless driving. The Rolls was totaled, so he went out and bought a new white Lincoln Continental.

He said that Elvis called him the next day and invited him to Graceland. That night Jerry Lee went to a club, drank champagne, and admired a brand new .38 derringer the club owner had given him. Later, he pulled the new car up to Graceland’s gates — and hit the gates head on. “The nose of that Lincoln was a mile long,” he said in Bragg’s book. He hit the gate, he went on, “Cause I’s drunk.”

He stepped from the car. “I’m here to see Elvis,” he announced. One account had him waving the derringer around. Lewis later said the pistol had simply slipped from the dashboard to the floorboard. He said he never brandished the weapon and certainly never intended to shoot Elvis.

Presley was watching it all on closed-circuit television upstairs. He told his guards to call the police. The police arrived, found the gun. By then Lewis was yelling, threatening the police. The officers asked Presley what he wanted them to do. “Lock him up,” said Elvis.

“He was a coward,” Jerry Lee told Bragg “He hurt me. That did.”

When Lewis didn’t show for his hearing the next day, a Memphis judge ordered him arrested again, but changed his mind when he learned the piano player was in the hospital with a peptic ulcer. Elvis never talked about the incident. Jerry Lee never saw Elvis again. 

The Killer at rest, 1982 Thomas S. England/Getty Images

The peptic ulcer was a sign of a bigger problem, a recurring one. In 1981, Lewis entered a Memphis hospital in enfeebled shape — the result of years of steady consumption of liquor and drugs. He was there for 93 days. In 1984, doctors diagnosed him with perforated ulcers, and cut away a third of his stomach. They told him he had a 50 percent chance of survival. He survived. Jerry Lee Lewis would not die so easily. But others would.

On June 8, 1982, the marriage to Jaren Pate came to an end. The couple were due in court that same month to end the union. They’d had a daughter, Lori Lee Lewis, in 1972, but Lewis had grown distant from both mother and child. On that day in June, Jaren was sunbathing at a friend’s house. When the woman who owned the house could no longer see her, she sent her son to look for her. He found her floating in a pool, dead. 

“The coroner ruled that her death was an accident,” writes Bragg. “Jerry Lee would never accept her child as his, and no one would ever launch any legal proceeding to prove his parentage. Some people of long memory in Memphis still call it a case of abandonment, the one thing they cannot forgive. But friends of Jerry Lee would say that the marriage had existed mostly on paper.” 

In the Eighties, the Jerry Lee Lewis legend suffered another serious discredit — though it didn’t resonate with much public awareness. It was detailed in a March 1984 Rolling Stone article, “The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis.” Written by Pulitzer Prize winner Richard Ben Cramer, it was a painstaking account of Lewis’ two-and-a-half-month marriage to his fourth wife, Shawn Michelle Stephens, who died at 25 on Aug. 24, 1983, and the mystifying events surrounding her death: the bruises and blood on her body, the scratch-like wounds on Lewis’ forearm, the permeation of fresh, small bloodstains around Lewis’ Mississippi home, and the superficial police investigations and coroner’s reports that followed. 

“There was trouble from the start of Shawn’s marriage to the rock & roll legend,” wrote Cramer. “’You scared of me?’ he once asked her sister. ‘You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer?’ Two months later, Shawn was dead.”

Though it was eventually concluded that Shawn had died of an overdose of methadone, and that there was “no indication at all of foul play,” Cramer uncovered much overlooked (and withheld) evidence, including clear indications that there had been some sort of fight at the Lewis house the night of the young woman’s death. Cramer didn’t accuse the performer of murder, but he argued persuasively that the matter merited a more careful inquiry. (Lewis denied any involvement in Shawn’s death.) 

Jerry Lee clearly had long enjoyed his reputation as some kind of archetypal modern outlaw, living out tragedy, violence, and dissolution as the fruits of his self-willed fall from grace. That was a fairly romantic conception, but it raised another, equally troubling question: Did Lewis’ fans and chroniclers really care much about whether he married a 13-year-old, whether he brutalized his wives, or, in fact, whether he played a part in Shawn Stephens’ death? Or did that possibility somehow further his antihero standing? To some degree, Lewis — and those who venerated him — were able to spin his worst qualities into a kind of dark legend. Into a brand, even: the Killer. 

For all his scandals, for all his awful misdeeds, he nevertheless built up a reserve of goodwill, in part because he was indefatigable. He kept playing shows, from 1956 to 2020. He kept recording, releasing more than 40 albums from 1958 to 2014. He kept marrying: In 1984, the year after Shawn Stephens’ death, he wed Kerrie McCarver; the couple divorced in 2005. His final marriage was to Judith Lewis (née Brown, the former wife of the brother of Myra Gale Brown), on March 9, 2012. Judith was at his bedside when he died.

The rock & roll establishment, always willing to look the other way, embraced him. He was in the first class inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, in 1986, along with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers, Little Richard, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, and James Brown. Rolling Stone named him to its list of Immortals (later the 100 Greatest Artists) in 2005. 

Surprisingly, the Country Music Hall of Fame — which has been around since 1961— took a long time to induct him: He wasn’t admitted until October 2022, the month of his death. He also had to live with a terrible 1989 film about his early fame and scandal, Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid in a cartoonish performance, based on Myra’s book. Maybe that was unintentional retribution on her part.

Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t just complicated; he was fucked up. Some artists can only be the person they dreamed of being in those moments when they are onstage or before a camera or singing a song or writing a page. They might go back to their fucked-up-ness after those moments, and though they perhaps transcend themselves by what they create for us, they also might not overcome the pain or anger or depression that gave them something to overcome in the first place. 

Jerry Lee Lewis knew the person he was when he wasn’t making music — but it didn’t save him, or those around him, from his worst impulses. In 1977 he said, “Look, we’ve only got one life to live. We don’t have the promise of the next breath. I know what I am. I’m a rompin, stompin, piano-playin’ sonofabitch. A mean sonofabitch. But a great sonofabitch. A good person. Never hurt nobody unless they got in my way. I got a mean streak.… I gotta lay it open sometimes.” 

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