Born September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La.; son of Elmo (a carpenter and contractor) and Mary Ethel (a preacher); married Dorothy Barton, c. 1951 (marriage ended); married Jane Mitcham, c. 1952 (marriage ended); married Myra Gale Brown, December, 1957 (divorced, c. 1970); married Jaren Gunn, 1971 (deceased, June 8, 1982); married Shawn Michelle Stephens (a cocktail waitress), June, 1983 (deceased, August 24, 1983); married Kerrie Lee McCarver Mann (a country singer), 1984; children: (second marriage) Jerry Lee, Jr. (deceased); (third marriage) Steve Allen (deceased), Phoebe Allen; (fourth marriage) Lori. Education: Attended Bible Institute (Wauxhatchie, Texas), c. 1953. Addresses: Home --Lewis Farms, Nesbit, MS 38651. Office --c/o In Concert International Inc., PO Box 22149, 117 16th Ave. S, Nashville, TN 37203.
Jerry Lee Lewis burst onto the emerging rock scene in 1957 with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On." A quick follow-up hit, "Great Balls of Fire," soon put him in a position to rival Elvis Presley for the title of "King of Rock and Roll." Famed for his antics at the piano, known to bang the instrument with fists, feet, head, and buttocks during concerts--he even once doused his piano with gasoline and set it on fire--Lewis drew huge audiences wherever he performed until public disapproval of his marriage to a thirteen-year-old third cousin sent his career into decline. He continued performing in small clubs for little money until 1968, when he decided to switch to country music. Hits like "What Made Milwaukee Famous" and "Middle Age Crazy" have brought Lewis back as one of country's biggest stars, though he still makes appearances in rock revue shows and likes to end his concerts with "Great Balls of Fire."
Born into a Pentecostal family in Ferriday, Louisiana, that includes cousins television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and fellow country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was formed by varied musical influences during his childhood. He and his cousins gathered around the piano to sing and play hymns while their parents were present, but would sneak off to hear the forbidden, rousing music of black rhythm and blues players in juke joints. Lewis also heard country artists such as Jimmy Rodgers and Hank Williams from his father's record collection, but he cites Al Jolson as the artist who made the biggest impression on him. He explains in an interview in Arnold Shaw's The Rockin' 50s: "When I was about twelve, I walked into a theatre.... Before the picture went on, they played a record. I never stayed for the picture. That record hit me so hard I rushed out, ran all the way home, sat down at the piano, and tried to sing 'Down Among the Sheltering Pines' exactly as Al Jolson had done it.... Although I heard the song just once, I knew every word. The way Jolson did it, each word stood out like an electrified stop sign. I've never forgotten those words--and I've never stopped admiring Al Jolson."
Lewis had two brief teenage marriages; the second, to Jane Mitcham, produced a son, Jerry Lee, Jr., who died at the age of nineteen in a car accident. While married to Mitcham, Lewis's strong Pentecostal upbringing led him to enter the Bible Institute in Wauxhatchie, Texas, in hopes of becoming a preacher. He was expelled within a year, however, when he was caught playing a hymn with an improvised rhythm and blues beat. By his own admission, Lewis has always been torn between the righteousness of Pentecostalism and the wild life--replete with women, drugs, and alcohol--of a rock and country superstar. He has difficulty reconciling one with the other, and told Jim Jerome in People: "Salvation bears down on me. I don't wanna die and go to Hell. But I don't think I'm headin' in the right direction.... I should've been a Christian, but I was too weak for the Gospel. I'm a rock 'n' roll cat. We all have to answer to God on Judgment Day."
Lewis was playing in nightclubs in Natchez, Mississippi, when he was discovered by Sam Phillips of Sun Records, the same company that launched Elvis Presley's career. His debut tune, the 1956 "Crazy Arms," was a moderate country success, but it was "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," a song Lewis wrote and happened to perform on a studio recording break, that made him a rock and roll star. He almost didn't record "Great Balls of Fire," a song sent to Sun by black artist and songwriter Otis Blackwell that garnered Lewis a gold record, because he felt it was too sinful. The collective sales of the two hit singles, however, were over eleven million copies, as reported by Mark Humphrey in Esquire.
By 1958, Lewis had had another moderate hit with "Breathless," and he went off to tour Great Britain. In England reporters noticed the young wife who accompanied him; though Lewis claimed the former Myra Gale Brown was fifteen, investigation revealed that she was not only thirteen but his third cousin, and that he had married her before his divorce from Mitcham was final. Though in the South women often married young, and marriage between distant cousins was not uncommon, the British papers cried scandal, and there was talk of deporting Lewis. He returned from England early to find many of his concert bookings in the United States cancelled as well. With the exception of one more hit, the movie theme "High School Confidential," Lewis's career plummeted.
Lewis's marriage to Myra Gale lasted for thirteen years, seeing him through years in small clubs and his return as a popular country performer. They had two children, daughter Phoebe and son Steve Allen--named for the comedian who granted Lewis a television appearance early in his career--but the boy drowned in a swimming pool accident at the age of three. Lewis has seen a lot of personal tragedy; after Myra Gale divorced him, he married his fourth wife, Jaren Gunn, in 1971. After Lewis himself nearly died from a stomach ailment in 1981, Gunn, then estranged from him and seeking divorce, was found drowned in a swimming pool in June, 1982. In June, 1983, Lewis married Shawn Stephens; approximately two and a half months later she was found dead in their home of a drug overdose. Though Lewis, long nicknamed "The Killer," has been exonerated of any wrongdoing in the deaths of Gunn and Stephens, some reporters, including Richard Ben Cramer in Rolling Stone, have noted that Gunn's death was a "mysterious accident," and pointed out suspicious circumstances surrounding Stephens's. People magazine cited "inconsistent reports about the condition of Shawn's body when it was found," and in another People article Jane Sanderson added that Stephen's family asked the FBI to investigate her death. Lewis married his sixth wife, Kerrie McCarver Mann, in 1984.
Despite all of the upsets in his personal life, Lewis keeps performing. Jim Jerome described one of his dinner theater shows in a 1978 People article: "The voice is plaintive. It cuts like a laser of grief through the haze. [Lewis] is enveloped by his own feelings; he seems to perform only for himself." He commented on Lewis's finale, "Great Balls of Fire": "It's the moment the diners had hoped for, the confirmation that primordial rock 'n' roll lives--in them, like Lewis, ageless and vital." In his 1982 Esquire article, Mark Humphrey concluded: "If you think a redneck can't sing the blues, just listen to [Lewis] belt out 'Big-Legged Woman' or 'Sick and Tired.' If you think he's always a snide bastard without a redeeming trace of sincerity, listen to his moving rendition of the gospel standard 'Will the Circle Be Unbroken.' And if you think anything about the man can be neatly pigeonholed, think again."
by Elizabeth Thomas
Jerry Lee Lewis's Career
Solo vocalist and pianist, 1956--(rock performer, 1956-68; country performer, 1968--). Has appeared in several motion pictures, including High School Confidential, American Hot Wax, and Disc Jockey Jamboree, and as Iago in a rock version of Shakespeare's Othello, 1968, at the Los Angeles Music Center.
Jerry Lee Lewis's Awards
Inducted into Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, 1986.
- Major single releases
- "Crazy Arms," Sun, 1956.
- "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Sun, 1957.
- "Great Balls of Fire," Sun, 1957.
- "You Win Again," Sun, 1958.
- "Breathless," Sun, 1958.
- "High School Confidential," Sun, 1958.
- "I'll Make It All Up to You," Sun, 1958.
- "Break-Up," Sun, 1958.
- "I'll Sail My Ship Alone," Sun, 1959.
- "What'd I Say," Sun, 1961.
- "Sweet Little Sixteen," Sun, 1962.
- Golden Hits Smash, 1964.
- Greatest Live Show On Earth Smash, 1964.
- Country Songs for City Folks Smash, 1965.
- Return of Rock Smash, 1967.
- By Request Smash, 1967.
- Another Place, Another Time Smash, 1968.
- She Still Comes Around Smash, 1969.
- Country Hits Smash, 1969.
- She Even Woke Me Up to Say Goodbye Smash, 1970.
- Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Smash, 1970.
- Original Golden Hits Sun, 1970.
- Original Golden Hits Volume 2 Sun, 1970.
- There Must Be More to Love Mercury, 1971.
- In Loving Memories Mercury, 1971.
- Original Golden Hits Volume 3 Sun, 1972.
- The Killer Rocks On Mercury, 1972.
- Would You Take Another Chance Mercury, 1972.
- Who's Gonna Play This Old Piano Mercury, 1973.
- Sometimes A Memory Ain't Enough Mercury, 1973.
- London Session Mercury, 1973.
- Touching Home Mercury, 1973.
- Southern Roots Mercury, 1974.
- Boogie Woogie Country Man Mercury, 1975.
- Country Class Mercury, 1976.
- Country Memories Mercury, 1977.
- Best of Jerry Lee Lewis Volume 2 Mercury, 1978.
- Keeps On Rockin' Mercury, 1978.
- Jerry Lee Lewis Elektra, 1979.
- When Two Worlds Collide Elektra, 1980.
- Killer Country Elektra, 1980.
- Live at the Star Club Hamburg Mercury, 1983.
July 2003: It is reported that Lewis and his sixth wife, Kerrie McCarver Lewis, are suing each other for divorce. Lewis filed a petition on April 16, 2003, in DeSoto County Chancery Court and his wife sued in May. The couple married in 1984; they have one son, Jerry Lee Lewis III. Source: CNN.com, www.cnn.com, July 18, 2003.
- Cain, Robert, Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On: Jerry Lee Lewis, Dial Press, 1981. Shaw, Arnold, The Rockin' 50s, Hawthorn, 1974.
- Tosches, Nick, Hellfire: The Jerry Lee Lewis Story, Dell, 1982.
- Esquire, June, 1982.
- People, April 24, 1978; September 12, 1983; May 14, 1984; October 27, 1986.
- Rolling Stone, March 1, 1984; November 21, 1985.
- Time, March 14, 1983.