Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

Last time I did a ‘Remembering’ post, it was on the universally loved and cherished Olivia Newton-John, about whom nobody had a bad word to say. Jerry Lee Lewis, though…

We’ve met some wrong ‘uns in our journey through the chart-toppers of yore. Bad types with equally bad music (Rolf Harris), bad types with music that I couldn’t help but enjoy (Gary Glitter). Jerry Lee Lewis was possibly that baddest of them all. ‘The Killer’, so named because he had allegedly tried to strangle a teacher at his high school – or so he said – lived a life that would make your average, run-of-the-mill criminal blush. Drug arrests, assault arrests, two wives dead in suspicious circumstances and – the one that effectively ended his mainstream chart career before it had truly started – a marriage to his thirteen year-old cousin.

He was, in his own words, an unrepentant hillbilly. Unpleasant and aggressive towards his fans, his family, journalists, and other musicians. (When he met John Lennon, he did so after berating the Beatles and their peers as ‘shit’ from the stage. Lennon, legend has it, still kneeled down to kiss Lewis’s feet.) Why then, does he seem to have gotten away with it? Any current artist who did a quarter of the things Jerry Lee allegedly did would have been cancelled into the dust. Is it because it was all so long ago? Is it because people were more able to seperate art from artist? Or is it because he was just so good?

For, no matter how terrible a person he was, he is rock and roll royalty. One of the five deities: Chuck, Elvis, Buddy, Little Richard, and Jerry Lee. Elvis used his voice (and his body), Buddy Holly and Chuck Berry their guitars. Jerry Lee Lewis and Little Richard had their pianos, which put them at an immediate disadvantage, as pianos are not hugely conducive to rocking and rolling. Pianos are for classical music, for Beethoven and Mozart, for respectable ladies’ front rooms. You have to sit down to play them, and sitting down is the antithesis of rock ‘n’ roll.

So you have to do what Jerry Lee, and Little Richard did. Pound the keys, assault the keys, stamp on them, jump on them… Set the goddamn piano on fire if you have to. (Which Lewis allegedly did when angry at being lower down a bill than Chuck Berry. ‘Follow that, boy’, he said as he left the stage.) Which leads to Jerry Lee’s one and only British chart-topper: ‘Great Balls of Fire’.

Quite often, as with many genres, by the time rock ‘n’ roll made it to the top of the charts it had been diluted. Elvis’s first #1 was the smooth ‘All Shook Up’. Buddy Holly had one chart-topping rocker: ‘That’ll Be the Day’. Berry had to wait until the nonsense that is ‘My Ding-A-Ling’. Little Richard never had one. Which means that ‘Great Balls of Fire’ is probably the purest rock ‘n’ roll chart-topper. It’s unadulteratedly dangerous, and sexy. It has a title that is at once biblical, yet also sexual. Watch the live performance below, probably quite restrained by his standards, and listen to the shrieks form the audience every time he pauses, when he stands, and when he leers at them. The sweat on his brow, the glint in his eye. Anybody capable of that sort of performance was going to have a few skeletons in the closet. He was complicated, unpleasant, the ‘killer’, but he was rock and roll.

Jerry Lee Lewis

September 29th 1935 – October 28th 2022


17 thoughts on “Remembering Jerry Lee Lewis

  1. Sigh – or should it be ‘goodness gracious’. The man was a total bastard, but he was so rock’n’roll you had to forgive him. (Chuck Berry was no saint either). Those whom the gods love die young, so Jerry went on to outlive all his peers. I remember back in 1988 I turned on a radio lunchtime news programme to hear the announcement: ‘…and one of the great rock’n’roll pioneers has died.’ I immediately thought he must be talking about JLL, who had not been in the best of health, but instead it turned out to be Roy Orbison – ironically as his career was on a massive upswing with the Wilburys.

  2. He wouldn’t have cared about being canceled. As the above comment said…there were others. Chuck Berry was no saint, but he did rehab his image a little…Jerry Lee just didn’t care. When he married his 13 year old cousin he did feel the backlash because it put a stop to his rock and roll career but he went on and never said sorry.
    I think only Little Richard was in his league as far as raw rock and roll.

    • You’re right – he was utterly unrepentant. Which is kind of admirable, in a way. I’ve been listening to his ‘Live at the Star Club’ album this weekend – amazing live album that shows just how much he embodied rock and roll.

      • That album…was reccomended to me by another blogger…it’s an amazing live rock album and has to be up there with one of the best…it’s electric.
        I can tell the tide is turning a little bit in PC attitudes. You were very honest in your writeup…you didn’t go out of your way to tear him apart…he did that himself at times…you just told the truth. In other words you weren’t mean and it was a great writeup.
        The point I’m getting to is I’ve seen a few twitter comments by some who never mentioned his music or anything…just ripped him….and for the most part they are being ignored…that wouldn’t have happened 5 years ago.

      • Here’s what I think… What makes an artist great, be it a musician, an actor, a painter, a writer, is usually their artistic temperament. They are not normal people.

        Add to the fact that their careers often explode at a young age, and they often (not always) go from less well-off backgrounds to unbelievable wealth. It all makes for a very combustible mix, even before you add in the drugs and the booze and the sex that come along with fame. Being a rock star makes you a terrible person, basically. And if it doesn’t, then there’s a chance your music isn’t very good… So, if you like rock music, you’re going to have to listen to some terrible people, and make peace with the things they’ve done. And if you restrict yourself to listening only to the ‘good’ people, you’ll be left listening to Cliff Richard and Coldplay. Though even Cliff has his rumours…

        But… you can’t just write off mentions and discussions of their behaviour as ‘cancel culture’, or whatever, and blindly adore these stars (like those crazy Michael Jackson supporters who deny what he did in the face of pretty damning testimony). People are complicated… Anyway, that’s my long winded opinion on it all!

      • Not long winded at all! No you shouldn’t adore anyone…it’s the art not the artist that makes people click. That is why people like the Kardashians are worthless to me…they give no art back to the world at all.

        You also have to look at an artist from all sides. You can’t just mention the bad stuff because all of us has bad stuff that the public will never know because no one gives a damn about our lives.
        What I was getting at…you mentioned the bad stuff about Jerry Lee Lewis BUT you included a well rounded look. The twitter post did not…as long as it’s fair I’m ok with it. The original post on Twitter was celebrating his music….not holding up the guy for man of the year.

        I joke about it but I don’t like Ted Nugent or Madonna…professionally or personally but if they teamed up (I would pay to see that!!!!) and made a great power pop song I would listen…even though I don’t like those two artists.

        I mean I love The Beatles but I’m not going to take LSD and move to India…but I’ll always think A Day In The Life is one if not the best track ever.

        Well now I’m long winded lol

      • I take back that all artists are ‘bad’ – that was a bit strong. But dubious behaviour goes with the territory. And that’s not to say artists should be excused from obeying the law, and shouldn’t be held accountable… But people seem to take pleasure in policing who is and who isn’t acceptable, and it’s very binary. And a lot of it can be blamed on social media, where short, sharp opinions rule over nuanced discussion. And yet, here we are, on a form of social media… God it’s complicated. Long story short: Jerry Lee Lewis was an amazing musician, and I enjoy his music, but I wouldn’t have had him house-sit when on holiday…

      • Oh where is your sense of adventure? I’ll send Keith Moon over to house sit lol.
        I totally agree and please know I’m not condoning Lewis’s behaviour… but like I said you laid it all out for people to see…good and bad and that is the right thing to do…to me anyway.

  3. I never was a big JLL fan. A large portion of my music tastes came from my parents. My dad was rock -n- roll & my mom was soul/Motown. My dad had no JLL in the house. Elvis, Berry, Holly…yes. Ricky Nelson, Gene Pitney (more of a crooner), yes… I don’t recall any Little Richard, either.

    I remember the outrage over marrying his cousin. That made me dislike him even more.

    He was a pioneer but, somebody needed to punch him in the mouth. His song “Great Balls of Fire”…just reminds me of Top Gun.

    • Sounds like your dad wasn’t a fan of the piano…? : )

      I’m sure JLL took a few punches, and just dished them straight back out! Marrying your 13 year old cousin is pretty grim, but I believe it was perfectly legal in his state at the time…

  4. I have to say I’m very conflicted about Jerry Lee Lewis. From strictly a performance perspective, there’s no question he was an outstanding artist. His crazy energy and the way he was playing his piano was raw rock & roll. But it’s really hard to ignore all the scandals that surrounded him. Even if not everything written about him may have been accurate, where there’s so much smoke, there has to be a fire…

  5. JLL was the Stanley Gibbons of rock’n’roll. Apologies for going off-topic, but Gibbons originally trained as a chemist in the family pharmacy before becoming the world’s most famous dealer in postage stamps. Four of his wives died young of apparently natural causes, and there were death certificates produced for only two. Was he a serial killer who got away with it more than once?

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