What a loss when Jerry Lee Lewis died on October 29.
When I was a kid in the 1950s my Dad always had his radio tuned to WJUN, our local station, and they played the popular music of the day. I loved rock’n’ roll from an early age.
Especially “Great Balls of Fire”. It was so lively with that driving boogie woogie/rock beat, and Jerry Lee’s distinctive voice, well… Goodness Gracious!, that song made me want to dance and sing along.
To call him a Rock ‘n Roll pioneer is diminishing. He was so much more.
Over the years Variety and Billboard magazines have said about Jerry Lee Lewis…
He’s a powerhouse keyboardist.
He’s a mercurial vocalist.
He’s a rampaging, unpredictable showman.
He can master virtually any song, be it rock’n’ roll, country R&B, gospel, boogie woogie, or pop.
All I know is when I hear Jerry Lee Lewis belt out a tune I am energized and for those minutes nothing enters my head other than the music, the voice, and the beat.
Jerry Lee’s first big hit came in 1957 with the release of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” which was a boogie woogie influenced rock tune that topped the big three – Rock, Country, and R&B charts. “Great Balls of Fire” followed as his second chart-topping release.
Then in 1958 he went on TV to perform on The Steve Allen Show. The song he introduced to a nationwide audience was “Breathless”. He was on top of the rock world until the news broke about his marriage to his 13 year-old cousin. Radio stations dropped him; wouldn’t give his music any air time.
But in 1986 he was an inaugural inductee into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland, Ohio. I’ve been there … a fabulous museum that should be on everyone’s must-see list. If you go, plan to spend a couple of days because there is so much to take in. I’m ready to go back and if nothing more, spend time in the super-huge gift shop buying up every Jerry Lee Lewis CD.
Journalist Nick Tosches said that Jerry Lee Lewis is a creature of mythic essence, the heart of redneck rock‘n’ roll, and the last American wild man. He embodied southern swagger with a combination of arrogance, hedonism, and indulgences.
He was a self-taught musician. Started playing piano at the age of nine. He hung out at local honky tonk bars and absorbed the attitude he kept with him when fame came his way. He cut his first demos in New Orleans when he was just 16.
He was playing clubs before he was of legal drinking age and was getting a reputation and following throughout the south from Louisiana to Tennessee.
He was a contemporary of Elvis. Like Elvis, he was recorded by Memphis’ Sun Records, although they signed Elvis before Jerry Lee.
One day in 1956 Lewis was at Sun Record’s studio in Memphis. Sun had just sold Elvis’s contract and their star at that time was Carl Perkins who was also in the studio that day. Elvis dropped by that day, as did Johnny Cash, and the four musicians jammed in an impromptu session that became known as the “Million Dollar Quartet” session.
Want to hear it? Google it on YouTube! It inspired a musical also called Million Dollar Quartet, that dramatizes the event. The musical premiered across the country then opened on Broadway in 2010. It was nominated for three Tony Awards. The Jerry Lee character was played by Levi Kreis and critics say he nailed the character! Kreis won the Tony for Best Featured Actor. That original cast recording was released in 2010.
There’s also a Million Dollar Quartet tribute band that plays the music from that session. The music played at that Million Dollar session includes “Blue Suede Shoes”, “Folsum Prison Blues”, “Hound Dog”, “Great Balls of Fire”, “Whole Lotta Shakin Goin On”, “Fever”, “That’s Allright”, and Elvis’s gospel hits “Down By the Riverside” and “Peace in the Valley”.
This year director Ethan Coen released a documentary called “Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Mind” that spotlights his wild career. It’s just over an hour long and perhaps is the best eulogy that could be paid to a man who lived hard and never apologized for it.
Critics have said of the documentary that it is “thoroughly enjoyable, and “it does something very few films can: it makes you grin with pleasure.” Which is what “Great Balls of Fire”did for me as a kid. Total pleasure.
He could really play and sing a tune! He still leaves me breathless!
“Jerry Lee Lewis was a big influence on me. He’s the best rock‘n’ roll pianist ever.”Elton John
If you enjoyed this blog and know someone else who would enjoy it, please share it.
LOVED this one! You had me at the WJUN reference…reminded me of “Don’s Den” – perfect recall of the musical intro Don Lorenz always used just like it was yesterday. I always liked Jerry Lee Lewis too. Listening to his music is great, but watching him perform is what lights me up. I’ll stop whatever I’m doing if there’s a link to a video of him performing pops up. The “you have to watch this dude” rock and roll performers from that era I lump together are (in alphabetical order) Chuck Berry, Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard. Thanks for the memories!
So glad for YouTube and being able to watch him perform whenever I want. Totally agree with your rock and roll performers list. They are the Trifecta!