Out of the deep, deep South rose this wild, talented, sensual, rambunctious fellow who went by the kindly nickname; “The Killer.” So, gather around pilgrims while I commence to tell you the tale of the wildest beast of a man that ever played in these here parts. Hidden behind a mane of wild hair, he was the most profane, audacious, cocky, and outright scandalous human being one could possibly be. Hallelujah, brothers and sisters, for this, will be a cautionary tale if there ever was one. This piano hammerin’ gent was hell-bent on playing the Devil’s music and playing it full tilt he did in every juke joint, honky tonk, and dance hall he could find. He left this earthly plane at the ripe old age of 87 years old. He set out from Ferriday, Louisana, to make his mark on the world. He was a cousin by marriage with the Pentecostal Preacher, recording artist, pianist, and televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, and the first cousin to the musician and saloon keeper Mickey Gilley, whose quaint little honky tonk down Houston, Texas way made a modest success and was the inspiration for the movie, Urban Cowboy. So, talent did run in the family. Humility never stood a chance with these folks. They were trailblazers first and foremost and weren’t likely to second guess themselves in way, shape, or form. You don’t escape Ferriday, Louisiana, without supreme self-confidence. They were of a mind to reshape our perspective of this world, and they did.
Rock ‘N’ Rollers remember Jerry Lee
“Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today. He was groundbreaking and exciting, and he pulverized the piano. A brilliant singer too. Thank you for your trailblazing inspiration and all the rock ‘n’ roll memories.”
“God bless you Jerry Lee. Your songs lit up my life!”
“Jerry Lee will live forever. We all know that.”
“Jerry Lee Lewis was a Christian, an American icon and the greatest piano player in the world. People will be listening to ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lot of Shakin’ 500 years from now. I will miss him. God bless you Jerry Lee.”
-Dennis Quaid (Actor who played the role of Jerry Lee in a Film)
“The last and wildest of the pioneers is gone. Jerry Lee did all one could possibly do with a piano. His religion tortured his soul with guilt but he did what he had to do in spite of knowing he was going to Hell for RnR. Now that’s commitment!”
-Steven Van Zandt (Actor, E Street Band Guitarist)
“Nobody had a more creative approach to the music or a more incendiary approach to performing it,” Peter Guralnick, the author of the definitive two-volume Presley biography, said in an interview for this obituary. “He had the ability to put his stamp on every kind of material he recorded.”
Country Music Immortal
“Jerry Lee Lewis’s indelible mark as a rock & roller in no way obscures his impact as one of the greatest country singers of all time. He was the ultimate stylist, taking songs to places they could never have gone without his unique voice and soul. Known as ‘The Killer,’ in reality he was a reviver, resurrecting music and emotions. The country records he made with producer Jerry Kennedy will never be replicated or surpassed, and we were honored to recently welcome him into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Among the greatest of artists, he was, as his friend Kris Kristofferson put it, ‘a table-thumpin’ smash.’” –Kyle Young, CEO Country Music Hall of Fame
A Man-Child of Destiny
Here is a timeline of sorts for the ramblings of the musical savant and vagabond named Jerry Lee Lewis.
Yes, Jerry Lee Lewis, whose pounding boogie-woogie piano and bluesy, country-influenced vocals helped define the sound of rock ’n’ roll on hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and whose incendiary performing style expressed the essence of rock rebellion, died on Friday, October 28, 2022, at his home in DeSoto County, Miss., south of Memphis. He was 87.
Jerry was a mere 21 in November 1956 when he walked into Sun Studio in Memphis and, presenting himself as a country singer who could play a mean piano, he, in typical fashion, demanded an audition.
His timing was sublime. Sun Records had sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA Records a year earlier and badly needed a new star to headline a roster that included Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, and Roy Orbison.
The rest, as they say, dear readers, is history.
Sam Phillips engineer, Jack Clements at Sun Records, remembers that distinctive Jerry Lewis sound.
“Sam (Phillips) came back over the weekend, and on Monday I played him ‘Crazy Arms’,” Clement continues. “Well, before we even got to the singing, he told me to stop the machine, he said, ‘Now, I can sell that!’ as if to say, ‘You young whippersnapper, you’ve finally done something I like!’”
“I was just blown away,” Phillips recalled in 1998. “The guy was different… The expression, the way he played that piano and how you could just feel that evangelical thing about him — man, was I looking for that, and there it was!”
So there you have the Legend of Jerry Lee. Sure, others have written about one of Rock’s true pioneers. Seek them out as well. They have much to offer. Learn more about this very flawed man whose brazen ways would be emulated by all rockers that followed. He was punk rock before Johnny Rotten was born. He was on top of his piano before Jimi was at Woodstock. Like Elvis and many others, he was born in poverty and blazed a path across the cultural firmament that still shines brightly today!
Summing Up The Rebel Spirit In Words
I’ll leave you with something that sums up the legend of one Jerry Lee Lewis.
“We are rebels at heart. We are Americans. We live in the best country in the world, but it only works if we abide by the principles outlined in its founding. It isn’t that people don’t have a right to live how they want to live, to believe what they want to believe. It is the opposite of that. But don’t order us to believe something, don’t silence our dissent, don’t police our speech, or command us to comply because that isn’t who we are.”
-Sasha Stone (writer)
Photography by Nigel Dickson (Palomino Club, North Hollywood, CA)