Jerry Lee Lewis turns 85 today. The music legend was born on September 29, 1935. Lewis is most famous for his high energy vocals, his stage antics, and for his skills behind the piano. He subsequently earned himself the nickname “The Killer” for the effect his performances had on audiences. Outside of music, Lewis drew controversy by marrying his 13-year-old cousin.
Perhaps, Lewis’ most iconic song is “Great Balls of Fire”. Lewis recorded the song in 1957, and it was featured on the soundtrack for the film Jamboree. Within 10 days of its release, the song sold over 1 million copies and would go on to sell over 5 million. Rolling Stone listed it as the 96th greatest song of all time. At the time of recording, Lewis worried the song and the rock n’ roll lifestyle was “sinful” and “ungodly.”
“I was always worried whether I was going to heaven or hell,” Lewis told The Guardian. “I still am, I worry about it before I go to bed; it’s a very serious situation. I mean you worry, when you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?”
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana.
Lewis taught himself to sing and play piano growing up in Ferriday, Louisiana. When he was 10, his father mortgaged the family’s farm to buy Lewis his own piano. The young singer groomed himself listening to Grand Ole Opry and The Louisiana Hayride on the radio. Hank Williams was among his earliest influences.
At 14, Lewis performed publicly for a local car dealership’s grand opening. He soon gave up school and left for Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked as a studio musician for Sun Studios. In Memphis, Lewis met Carl Perkins, Elvis Presley, and Johnny Cash during their early careers. The four recorded the “Million Dollar Quartet” during a jam session. During this time, Lewis also released his first single, a cover of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms.”
In 1957, Lewis reached wide-scale fame for his hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. The song quickly became a hit in the country, pop, and R&B charts. During this time, Lewis worked on his stage defining antics such as lighting the piano on fire while playing. During that same year, Lewis released “Great Balls of Fire” to mass appeal. A year later, he recorded “Breathless,” which proved popular in the pop charts.
Controversy plagued Lewis’ career.
In 1958, Lewis received wide-spread controversy when the public discovered he married his under-aged cousin. Lewis had already married twice before. He married Myra Gale Brown in 1958. The marriage license listed Brown as 20-years-old, but she actually was only 13 at the time.
The news halted Lewis’s blossoming career. He had gone on a tour in the United Kingdom, but sponsors quickly canceled said tour after the public backlash. Back in the U.S., radio stations refused to play Lewis’ songs. He struggled to find venues to perform at. The scandal was covered in the 1989 film Great Balls of Fire!
The couple had two children together before divorcing in 1970. Lewis has married seven times total.
Jerry Lee Lewis became a country singer later in his career.
In the 1960s, Lewis found new success as a country singer. He recorded the hit “Another Place, Another Time” in 1968. Over the next two decades, he recorded several country albums including Olde Tyme Country Music and Boogie Woogie Country Man. He also revisited some of his older songs, but his problems in his private life plagued his career again.
In 1973, Memphis police arrested Lewis for driving under the influence. He also almost died from an ulcer in 1981. But Lewis continued to perform and release albums. In 2006, he released an album with a mixture of rock, blues and country classics. Kris Kristofferson collaborated with Lewis on the album and again for Lewis’ following album Mean Old Man in 2010.
In 1986, Lewis became one of the first musicians inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. In 2005, he received the Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award.