Jerry Lee Lewis (vocals, piano; born September 29, 1935)
Jerry Lee Lewis is the wild man of rock and roll, embodying its most reckless and high-spirited impulses. On such piano-pounding rockers from the late Fifties as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Lewis combined a ferocious, boogie-style instrumental style with rowdy, uninhibited vocals.
He migrated to Memphis from Ferriday, Louisiana, where he’d grown up learning how to play piano by ear based on the music around him: Western swing, boogie-woogie, uptempo R&B and Delta blues. Lewis’ first influence was the country-blues sound of Jimmie Rodgers, though he also absorbed the gospel and R&B of the local black community. His amalgamation of these indigenous styles, abetted by his brash temperament, made him a natural-born rock and roller – maybe the ultimate rock and roll rebel. Lewis found a home at Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, whose stable of talent also included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. After a country-flavored audition for Philips in 1956, Lewis was told that if he could come up with some rock and roll, “we could probably do something.” Lewis didn’t write much himself, but he transformed other people’s songs into unbridled rock and roll that even he called “the devil’s music.”
Lewis’ debut single was a rocking recasting of Ray Price’s country hit “Crazy Arms.” He followed it with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which sold 6 million copies and went to Number Three, and “Great Balls of Fire,” a 5 million seller that reached Number Two. Both songs were from 1957, a watershed year for Lewis. The next year yielded more hits – “Breathless” and “High School Confidential” – and a role in a movie titled after the latter song. However, his career as a rock and roller took a precipitous tumble when the press discovered that he’d married his 13-year-old cousin in December 1957. Lewis managed to weather the controversy, and he eventually embarked on a successful career as a country-music artist. Beginning in the late Sixties, he launched such Top 10 hits as “Another Place, Another Time” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).” By the early Eighties, he’d racked up a string of 30 country hits and also re-entered the rock and roll realm. In 1995, he marked his 60th year with a red-hot rock and roll album, Young Blood.
Through a life marked by controversy and personal tragedy, Lewis has remained a defiant and indefatigable figure who refuses to be contained by politesse or pigeonholes. As he declared from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, “I am a rock and rollin’, country & western, rhythm & blues singing [expletive deleted]!”