I recall saying to a friend a decade or so ago that the 60s generation of musicians would begin dying of natural causes within ten or twelve years and the 50s generation would probably be gone for good by then; well, we’re more or less there now. As the survivors of the 60s generation gently morph into octogenarians, those who inspired them to pick up a guitar are pretty much gone, something that the death of Jerry Lee Lewis at the age of 87 has confirmed. The fact he passed away with wife No.7 by his side seems to suggest his lascivious reputation hadn’t been softened by advancing years. Indeed, Jerry Lee Lewis was in many respects the template for every bad boy that came after him. If Keith Moon and Ozzy Osbourne remain the role models for each aspiring rocker with an attitude, it shouldn’t be forgotten that they didn’t emerge from nowhere; Jerry Lee Lewis had prepared the ground for them and had often exceeded them; after all, this is a man who once turned up at the gates of Graceland waving a pistol and demanding an audience with Elvis. Had he been a Brit, it’s hard to imagine him being earmarked for a knighthood.
Yeah, Jerry Lee Lewis – what does that name make you think of? Chances are it’s his brief, curtailed 1958 tour of the UK in which his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin was exposed, and it’s impossible to avoid the subject when his name crops up. This shock-horror revelation may have made the 22-year-old rock ‘n’ roller a notorious example of precisely how degenerate the new wave of performers were in the eyes of the parent generation; but it also underlined the fact that Rock ‘n’ Roll itself was rooted in a culture not only alien to European audiences, but to most Americans beyond the South. Rock ‘n’ Roll couldn’t have come from Hollywood or New York; it was born in circumstances unique to its own particular corner of America, and the moment both heartlands of the entertainment industry got hold of it, the format was diluted and castrated. Elvis was neutered by the movies, though his willingness to play the showbiz game kept him in the public eye whilst his uncompromising contemporaries faded from view. The Elvis of 1960 was a different animal from the Elvis of 1956, whereas the Jerry Lee Lewis of 1960 was the same as the Jerry Lee Lewis of 1956.
Any attempts to mould Lewis into an all-round entertainer would’ve been stymied by the fact the man himself was an uncontrollable force of nature; his missus being a schoolgirl wouldn’t have helped either. The recent loss of Kentucky-born Country singer Loretta Lynn at the age of 90 reminded us she herself was wed as a pregnant 15-year-old, and the variations from State to State when it came to consent was something that appeared to add an extra layer of notoriety to the emerging rock ‘n’ rollers of the era and the female company they kept. There is, of course, the infamous anecdote of Chuck Berry being chased by the police as he desperately tried (and failed) to cross the Stateline, keen to reach a place where his underage passenger would no longer be legally recognised as such. With all of this in mind, it’s evident Jerry Lee Lewis was very much a product of his environment rather than a pioneering pop paedo; had there been a Colonel Tom Parker type smoothing his rough edges, perhaps things might have turned out differently. After all, Elvis may have courted his future bride when she was 14, but he waited till she was 21 before marrying her. Two Southern boys with the same outlook, but one adhered to society’s moral mores whilst the other remained true to his roots. Elvis was the King, whilst Jerry Lee was the Killer.
The original man who didn’t give a f*** was born in Louisiana in 1935; his piano-playing talent was evident from an early age, as was his troublesome failure to distinguish between the sacred and the profane. Despite his family’s hopes of his musical abilities being harnessed to the service of the church, Jerry Lee couldn’t help being seduced by the Devil’s best tunes and it led to his expulsion from school. Fortunately for him, the South was a receptive hotbed for his specific skills at the time and Lewis was hired as a session player at Sun studios in Memphis in 1956, playing on landmark records for the likes of Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. He was also cutting his own discs at the same time, and one of them – ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ – followed the route of many Rock ‘n’ Roll records of the mid-50s by becoming a hit outside of the South. As this new hybrid of established underground sounds happened to break through at a moment when the rise of television enabled regional scenes to go nationwide in a way that hadn’t previously been possible, Jerry Lee Lewis capitalised on national exposure by developing his flamboyantly outrageous stage act. No piano-player had attacked his instrument with such unrestrained aggression and provoked such hysterical female reaction since Franz Liszt, and Jerry Lee Lewis quickly became the personification of everything Eisenhower’s America loathed about Rock ‘n’ Roll. No self-respecting dad would’ve let Jerry Lee within a thousand miles of his daughter, so it was just as well Lewis kept it in the family.
With American pop culture globally dominant at the moment Rock ‘n’ Roll broke out of the South, it was inevitable that the sound and its stars would speedily cross the Atlantic. Bill Haley’s inaugural tour of the UK in 1957 mapped out a route for the younger (and less sanitised) rock ‘n’ rollers, and all bar Elvis followed that route in the late 50s. Jerry Lee Lewis had quickly made an impact on British record-buyers, with ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ hitting No.8 and ‘Great Balls of Fire’ going all the way to the top of the charts. Therefore, it was no surprise that Jerry Lee headed for the UK in 1958. With wife Myra beside him, Lewis was expecting to embark upon a nationwide tour; however, the tour and the man himself received unprecedented publicity as soon as the truth of Myra’s tender years was broken by the tabloid press. Lewis became a household name overnight and the outrage that followed caused the tour to be cancelled after a mere three shows; it was the first real example of Fleet Street generating a moral panic around a pop star, something it would specialise in thereafter; but hounding the bewildered ‘cradle snatcher’ out of the country started this salacious ball rolling.
News of the uproar didn’t play well back in the States and Jerry Lee Lewis’s career as a chart star never really recovered from the scandal. Lewis had already been married twice before he wed Myra, though his third marriage was characterised by accusations of physical and psychological abuse on Jerry Lee’s part and ended in 1970, with a further four wives to come. By the beginning of the 60s, Rock ‘n’ Roll had largely fizzled out in the US, with a string of wholesome teen idols replacing the disreputable rockers on the Hot 100; although the music remained a popular live attraction in Europe, America offered little to the trailblazers and Jerry Lee Lewis turned to Country in order to keep the wolves from the door. This proved to be a relatively profitable career move, though the mid-60s British Invasion reawakened interest in the acts who’d inspired the Brits and a full-scale Rock ‘n’ Roll revival at the end of the 60s was something he seized upon. Perhaps the peak of this period was the legendary Rock ‘n’ Roll Show at Wembley Stadium in 1972, with Lewis appearing alongside Little Richard, Chuck Berry, Bill Haley, Bo Diddley and Screaming Lord Sutch before an enthusiastic audience of ageing Teds and younger Hell’s Angels.
By the time of the Wembley show, the scandal of 1958 had been superseded numerous times by other scandals involving other pop stars and Jerry Lee Lewis was sufficiently rehabilitated by the late 70s to even play live on ‘Blue Peter’. But he never quite lost his capacity for bad behaviour and stories of this are legion. However, it is his electrifying presence as a dynamic live performer at his 50s peak that should be regarded as the real legacy of Jerry Lee Lewis, showing crooners the door and turning the stage into a platform for later live acts to both smash and burn their guitars as well as stoking the odd moral panic along the way.
© The Editor