October 29, 2022

Jerry Lee Lewis — Rock’s First “Killer”

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The man known for his energic, wild stage show, Jerry Lee Lewis, has succumbed to his failing health at age 87. He left behind a legend of other Rock stars who followed in his footsteps.

The influence Lewis had was far reaching. Talk to any classic Rock Performer and they will almost always include the name of Jerry Lee Lewis among those who influenced them the most.

Randy Bachman is just one of those who benefited from seeing Lewis perform. Very early in Jerry Lee’s career, he was a part of a tour of Sun artists that included Johnny Cash. That tour went to Canada. Randy was in the audience and noticed right away the interplay between piano and guitar. That interplay was not the norm in early Rock. The band that Randy was playing with at the time that would become known as The Guess Who, did the same thing. Seeing how the interplay worked, gave him the encouragement that he needed as a guitarist. That made him sure that what his band was doing would work.

The frenzied boogie style of piano playing that Jerry Lee was known for was something he picked up from listening outside bars in his native Louisiana. He not only taught himself how to play but developed his style that was truly spectacular to witness.

Initially thought to be a country star, his first recordings with Sun Records were not Rock, but Country. His cover of “Crazy Arms” sold over 300,000 copies in the South. That wasn’t enough to make him a superstar.

At the same time another Sun star, Elvis Presley, was getting attention with his famous wiggle. That may have the genesis for his live performances becoming so animated. Everything changed in a flash.

Steve Allen had a major network TV show. It wasn’t drawing the numbers that Ed Sullivan had, so Allen was looking for something to get attention when he heard the “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ on” by Jerry Lee Lewis. Steve, who played piano himself, decided to take a chance and what no one else on prime TV would do. He booked Jerry Lee for a guest appearance.

Even before this big break, Jerry, had been thinking about doing something to liven up his act. Just sitting at the piano didn’t cut it. When he went on the Steve Allen Show, he wanted to start sitting down, and then get up and do some shakin’. When he went to get up, the piano seat got in the way, so he just kicked it straight back and flying across the stage. Allen, himself got in the act and pushed it right back across the stage. Meanwhile Jerry Lee was shakin’ and poundin’ the piano with is hair flying everywhere like a crazy man. The audience loved it. It was at that very moment that Jerry Lee Lewis became the first madman rocker.

The video of that performance is still watched by thousands. If there had been an internet at the time it would have gone to number one on the most watched. It has been said that his “Killer” performance earned him the nickname of ‘the Killer’. His family maintains that he got the name because he used to greet everyone by saying something like “Howya doin’ killer?”

The origin doesn’t matter. It certainly was a fitting name. The wild style led to a series of huge hits. People were talking in terms of him being as big as Elvis.

Then the “killer” almost totally killed his career. He married his 13-year-old cousin once removed named Myra Gale Brown. It became a huge scandal. The news broke just as Lewis and his bride were in England for a tour. His fans there were shocked. The press wouldn’t leave the couple alone, so they ended the tour and fled back home. His career came to screeching halt.

For a few years it certainly looked like that career was over for good. In 1968 Jerry went back to the beginning and became a country star. The move proved to be very successful. Jerry scored 30 top ten country hits. Between his Rock and Country hits, he earned a dozen gold records and four Grammy Awards. He has been inducted into both the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and the Country Hall of Fame.

There was even a movie of his life story made. “Great Ball of Fire” starring Dennis Quaid was released in 1989. There are also several documentaries on “the Killer” that are interesting.

As Jerry Lee always said, he was happiest on stage. He was born to be there. He wanted to be remembered as a Rock star and for his show on stage and not for his often-turbulent personal life.

Just how much influence did Jerry Lee have? Consider this. His 2006 LAST MAN STANDING album was a huge seller. Those who were more than happy to join Jerry Lee in recording his album include: Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Jimmy Page, Neil Young, Ringo Starr, Rod Stewart. Eric Clapton, Don Henley, Little Richard, John Fogerty, Robbie Robertson, B B King, Buddy Guy, Kris Kristofferson, and many others. Alas, they are all now in mourning as the last man standing is being put to rest.

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