This week in rock history, Jerry Lee Lewis told the world he’d married his teenage cousin, Simon and Garfunkel kicked themselves out of the Number One spot on the charts, Public Enemy’s Professor Griff got fired for making anti-Semitic remarks, Michael Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley and the Spice Girls were the third all-female group to hit Number One on the U.S. charts.
May 22, 1958 – Jerry Lee Lewis begins his first U.K. tour and reveals he was married to his 13-year-old cousin
What killed the Killer’s career? Only the marriage scandal of the decade.
In the spring of 1958, 22-year-old singer/pianist Jerry Lee Lewis was poised to become a worldwide celebrity. Already revered in America as a pioneer of rock music and a boisterous performer, his singles “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” dominated 1957 rock radio, earning him the nickname “the Killer” for his live ferocity and rebellious streak (yet one entrenched in a deeply Christian upbringing).
Lewis’s ascent ended abruptly in May, across the pond from his beloved Louisiana, when he arrived in London to begin his first U.K. tour. As he checked into the fashionable Westbury Hotel, he was greeted by reporters who asked who the identity of his young female companion. Lewis replied that the 13-year-old girl, Myra Gale Brown, was his wife and cousin and that he had been married twice previously. (Brown was technically Lewis’s first cousin once removed.)
The scandal rocked the international press. Lewis was besieged by the British Ministry of Labour and child welfare organizations, and 34 of his 37 U.K. dates were cancelled. Lewis returned to the United States, where he was blacklisted from radio; decried by his label, Sun Records; and made a pariah in the music community. After suffering widespread scorn for decades, Lewis eventually rebranded himself as a rockabilly artist, married several more times, was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame . . . and toured Europe in 1998, 30 years after his first aborted tour, with Chuck Berry and Little Richard.
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May 25, 1968 – Simon and Garfunkel top the Billboard charts with Bookends
When Simon and Garfunkel’s The Graduate soundtrack topped the Billboard charts, it would not be usurped easily. The album spent nearly two months in the Number One slot before it was replaced by a worthy adversary: the duo’s next record.
Mike Nichols’s Oscar-winning film about post-graduation malaise wouldn’t have been complete without the wry coos of “Mrs. Robinson,” one of Paul Simon and Art Garfunkel’s most enduring songs. (The Graduate also featured works by American composer Dave Grusin.) However, the version of “Mrs. Robinson” in the movie was markedly different from the hit single; the latter debuted on Bookends, their fourth album. The first side was the duo’s study of aging (including the heartrending “Overs” and spoken word track “Voices of Old People”), and the second side were proposed and unused tracks for The Graduate soundtrack.
Bookends ended The Graduate soundtrack’s seven-week run atop the Billboard charts. It remained at Number One for three weeks, until it was replaced by The Graduate soundtrack for another two, after which Bookends reclaimed the top tier for another four – giving Paul and Art an uninterrupted 16 weeks on top of the world.
May 22, 1989 – Public Enemy fires member Professor Griff for making anti-Semitic remarks
In an interview with Washington Times reporter David Mills, Public Enemy’s “Minister of Information” Griff made a series of broadly prejudiced remarks – among others, “Jews are responsible for the majority of the wickedness in the world.” (This, in turn, was a quote from Henry Ford’s propaganda series The International Jew, a favored tome of Hitler.) The prejudiced words echoed several of Griff’s recent anti-Semitic and homophobic quotes in the British press, but the Times piece was the first to incur major fallout: Public Enemy were heavily criticized just as It Takes a Nation of Millions to Hold Us Back was launching them to unprecedented mainstream success.
Professor Griff left the group for approximately 6 years, and member Chuck D apologized on his behalf – though Chuck later explained the remarks as an offshoot of the group’s activism in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In the decade-plus following his Times scandal, Griff has grown no less outspoken; he’s gone on record decrying the “hip-hop Illuminati” that controls pop culture and opposed President Obama during his run for the White House.
May 26, 1993 – Michael Jackson married Lisa Marie Presley
Some images shouldn’t be indelible, but for the “TRL” generation, this is one of them: Michael Jackson theatrically kissing his wife, Lisa Marie Presley, onstage at the 1994 MTV Video Music Awards, and cooing, “And to think, they said it wouldn’t last.”
Ultimately, the marriage did not, but it was eventful while it lasted. Elvis’s daughter married the “King of Pop” just 20 days after her divorce was finalized from first husband Danny Keough; she and Jackson dated four months before becoming engaged. They married in a secret ceremony in the Dominican Republic shortly before Jackson’s child molestation accusations came to public attention; Presley was allegedly the one to convince Jackson to settle out of court and go into rehabilitation afterward.
Presley and Jackson separated in the winter of 1995 and divorced quickly thereafter. In a 2010 interview, Presley discussed Jackson’s death with Oprah Winfrey and said that she had been “naïve” in the marriage, and that the couple spent four years trying to reconcile after their divorce.
May 24, 1997 – the Spice Girls went to No. 1 on the US album charts, the third all-girl group to do so
The Spice Girls were a pop confection unlike anything else in the ‘90s: peppy and melodic, with war cries of “Girl Power!” punctuating every sassy verse. Their success, however, was serious business: when their album Spice topped the U.S. album charts, they became the third all-girl group ever to do so behind the Supremes and the Go-Gos.
Spice, their late 1996 debut, was a massive hit worldwide. The first single, “Wannabe”, topped the charts in 31 countries, and the next two singles, “Say You’ll Be There” and “2 Become 1”, hit No. 1 in 53 countries. America was quick to embrace Spicemania and the record want 8 times platinum in the States; overall, the album sold 23 million copies worldwide, handily becoming the top-selling album by a girl group in music history and one of the best-selling albums of all time.
Credited often as the predecessors of the late-‘90s teen pop explosion (see: Britney, Backstreet Boys), the Spice Girls were managed by music heavyweight Simon Fuller (creator of the “Idol” franchise) in England. Members Victoria Beckham (née Adams), Geri Halliwell, Melanie Brown, Melanie Chisholm, and Emma Bunton released two albums together—Spice and 1997’s Spiceworld—as well as a successful movie tied into the latter before Halliwell left the group in 1998. Their third album, 2000’s Forever, was their last, but paved the way for the astronomical ticket sales of their 2007 reunion tour…and more than a few Union Jack baby tees still hanging in closets today.