Piano-pounding rock and roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis once said, "When they look back on me I want 'em to remember me, not for all my wives, although I've had a few, and certainly not for any mansions or high livin' money I made and spent. I want 'em to remember me simply for my music." His troubled personal life has made numerous headlines in the decades since his heyday, but his early hits "Whole Lotta Shakin'" and "Great Balls of Fire" continue to endear him to future generations who want to know just where rock came from.
The Louisiana-born Lewis grew up listening to The Louisiana Hayride and Grand Ol' Opry broadcasts, 78rpm recordings of country singers and bluesmen, and the gospel music of the Assembly of God Church. He also spent hours hiding behind the bar at Haney's Big House soaking up the sounds of future legends like B.B. King. Lewis began to play piano at age eight on a Stark upright that his parents, Elmo and Mamie Lewis, mortgaged their farm to buy.
In late 1956, the 21 year old Lewis took his talent to Sam Phillips at Sun Records in Memphis after reading a story about Elvis in Country Roundup magazine. Months later, "The Killer" performed on the Steve Allen show, and his first hit "Whole Lotta Shakin'" eventually held the #1 spot on the pop, country and R&B charts. Elvis and Carl Perkins accomplished this each once, but Lewis topped them when "Great Balls of Fire" repeated the feat. Lewis' twelve day engagement at the Paramount Theater in New York broke all attendance records, and his third hit "Breathless" was moving up the charts when the British press discovered that his new bride was only 13 years old and his second cousin (twice removed) and attacked him mercilessly on his morals.
Returning to the States, Lewis faced an equally hostile reaction. Finding himself blacklisted on radio and television., he hit the road for an endless string of one-night-stands. His 1961 remake of Ray Charles' "What'd I Say" along with "Battle of the Century" with Jackie Wilson kept his career from completely stalling, but it wasn't until the late 1960's when Jerry Lee began to release a string of #1 and Top Ten country singles, that his career regained momentum.
Over the next 13 years Lewis was one of country's top-selling artists and was the main attraction wherever he put on his "Greatest Show On Earth". On the personal front, his life has never been short of tragedies, often compounded by his alcohol and drug problems. In the mid-70s, Lewis signed to Elektra Records for the appropriately-titled Rockin' My Life Away. Unfortunately, his association with the company ended with much-publicized lawsuits.
In 1981, Lewis was hospitalized, allegedly close to death from a hemorrhaged ulcer. He survived that ordeal and was soon back on the road. In 1982, his fourth wife drowned in a swimming pool. The following year, his fifth wife was found dead at his home following a methadone overdose.
During his career he has released dozens of albums, the most successful being The Session in 1973, his sole US Top 40 album.
Lewis was one of the first people inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame in 1986. In 1989, a biopic of his early career, Great Balls Of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid, brought him briefly back into the public eye.In 1995, he jammed with Bruce Springsteen at the opening of the Rock And Roll Hall Of Fame building in Cleveland.