The Unorthodox Website Blog

Jerry Lee Lewis

18 Jul

His latest CD

He’s been called many things, some nice, some not so nice. ‘The Killer’ is the most usual pseudonym, which apparently came about when he was still at school – he called people Killer (and still does), and they called him Killer, so the name stuck. The Press like to hint that he may be responsible for the deaths of two wives, and he did shoot his bass player once (accidentally) but the guy survived, though was fired from his band as he couldn’t play guitar properly!

The two wives, Jaren and Shawn, died in the 1980s. Jaren drowned in a swimming-pool, but was already separated from Jerry who was miles away. Shawn had only been married to Jerry for a few months when she was found dead in bed beside him. She died from a methadone overdose, though Jerry admits they’d had a row the night before.

Jerry’s been married 6 times altogether (his sister Linda Gail 8 times), but it was wife number 3 which caused the scandal in Britain which then crossed the Atlantic on his return from the aborted 1958 British tour. In the Deep South at that time the evangelical churches (Jerry belonged to a Pentecostal sect, the Assemblies of God) encouraged young teenagers to get married to prevent fornication or sex before marriage. So as soon as you reached puberty the church and the community urged you to get married.

Consequently many Southern singers had married at an early age. So had Jerry’s sisters. Jerry first married at the age of 15, his sister Linda Gail at 14, and older sister Frankie Jean at 12. Elvis was dating Priscilla when she was 14, but Col. Tom Parker kept this under covers. Frankie Jean has said if a girl reached her mid teens and wasn’t married or didn’t have a steady boyfriend people would start talking and asking what was wrong with that girl, where was her beau, her husband-to-be. The strong hint was any girl not married or at least engaged by 15 or 16 was definitely an outcast from decent society – a lesbian probably.

Despite his fall from grace, Jerry continued to have hits in Britain, the country which was so shocked by his marriage to his 13-year old distant cousin, Myra. After his first three Top Ten hits Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Great Balls Of Fire and Breathless, High School Confidential reached number 12 in the British charts in January 1959 (months after he’d been sent home in disgrace from his first British tour), Lovin’ Up A Storm reached the Top Thirty in May 1959, and in May 1961 he had another Top Ten British hit with What’d I Say.

In the USA he wasn’t so successful chartwise immediately after the scandal. High School Confidential stalled at number 21 in the Billboard charts around the time of the aborted UK tour, and no other records reached the Top Fifty until November 1971 when Chantilly Lace reached number 40.

However Jerry continued to tour Europe and USA, and made two astounding ‘live’ albums in the mid-1960s, ‘Greatest Live Show On Earth’ recorded in Birmingham, Alabama and ‘Live At The Star-Club Hamburg’ which is often considered to be the wildest live album ever recorded by anybody.

Jerry moved from Sun Records in late 1963 (leaving a huge catalog of excellent unreleased material, later released by Shelby Singleton the new owner of the catalog) and moved to Smash, a subsidiary of Mercury Records. They tried everything – an excellent single ‘I’m On Fire’ which should have been a big hit, but the British invasion was just starting, and everyone wanted to hear The Beatles and other British groups, not an old American rocker (well he was still in his twenties, but he seemed old hat to many.)

Smash released re-recorded versions of his old hits, and new rockers under album titles like ‘Return of Rock’ and ‘Memphis Beat’. They all failed to make any impact on the charts. A country album was released, ‘Country Songs For City Folks’ but all that did was supply Tom Jones with two hits – he recorded Green Green Grass Of Home and Detroit City (previously American Country hits for Porter Wagoner and Bobby Bare). Jones’ arrangements were very similar to those on Jerry’s album, and Tom admits that’s where he got the inspiration.

Smash tried Jerry recording soul music with an album called ‘Soul My Way’, many tracks without piano – it too bombed. Then, just as they were about to give up and not renew his contract, they had another try at Country, a genre Jerry had always recorded (Hank Williams’ ‘You Win Again’  had been on the flip of Great Balls Of Fire in the States, reached #2 in the Billboard Country charts, and earned him a Gold Record in its own right).

This time Smash got it right by including Kenny Lovelace on fiddle and a steel guitar, and Jerry had his first big Country hit for years when ‘Another Place Another Time’ hit the Top Ten, followed by ‘What Made Milwaukee Famous’.

The Country hit singles and albums continued non-stop, and Sun got in on the act as well, releasing Country singles to cash in on his new found chart success. Consequently following 4 Top Ten Smash/Mercury singles in 1968, Jerry had 5 singles in the Billboard Country Top Ten the following year, three in 1970 (and a fourth made number 11), and three more in 1971, plus another which made number 11.

Two consecutive singles, in 1971 and 1972, made not only #1 in the Country charts, but their flipsides also made #1 – the double hits Would You Take Another Chance On Me?/Me & Bobby McGhee and Chantilly Lace/Think About It Darlin’. He was now recording rock’n'roll again, and having more success in the Country charts (all his big rock’n'roll hits of the 1950s also made the Country Top Twenty).

The Country hits continued into the 1980s, when like many older Country singers he found it difficult to get a recording contract, so was without a label for years. A one-off album was released in the 1990s, ‘Young Blood’, which failed to make any impact, then in 2006 ‘Last Man Standing’ was released, a CD with many guest artists. It was promoted by Jerry appearing on all the big US chat shows, and hit 4 Billboard charts, going #1 Indie, #4 Country, #8 Rock and #26 pop, it sold over half a million copies and earned Jerry his first Gold Disk in years. (It bombed in UK, despite British guest artists like Ringo Starr, three Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and Rod Stewart because of lack of promotion).

Now he has a follow-up CD coming out in late August or early September, the 18 track ‘Mean Old Man’ also featuring many duets. But sadly Jerry lies very ill with shingles, complicated by staph infection and pneumonia. A European tour scheduled for this month has been postponed till October/November, and all U.S. dates for July, August and early September have also had to be canceled or postponed.

Jerry has had many dices with death and survived them all. He nearly died of a stomach rupture in 1981 and was given less than a 50% chance to live, and on at least one occasion when living with Kerrie his 6th wife and his son Lee in the 1990s he collapsed and was found and resuscitated.

We all hope Jerry, the last man standing of the Million Dollar Quartet (Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins and Jerry Lee Lewis) survives this latest illness. Phoebe, his daughter by Myra, who lives at the Ranch and looks after him, is caring for him and is sayng her daddy will pull thru. Let’s hope she’s right.

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