Arrogant. Brash. Loud. Jerry Lee Lewis is one of the wildest rock stars to ever take the stage. The image of Lewis madly singing "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On" and "Great Balls of Fire," standing behind his piano, often with one foot on top of it, is quintessential rock. At 84, his latest album is a resurrection of sorts, as Lewis has been through it all, more than once. Jerry Lee Lewis’s life has been marked by loss, addictions, scandal, and some of the craziest stories in rock n’ roll history. Goodness, gracious...
1. His Parents Bet the Farm on His Talent
Elmo and Mamie Lewis knew their kid had talent, and they were willing to bet the farm on it. By the time he was just nine years old, their little boy, Jerry Lee, had taught himself how to play piano and was belting out songs emulating the Delta musicians who played around their town in Ferriday, Louisiana in the early 1940s. They weren’t wealthy, so Elmo and Mamie decided to mortgage their farm so that they could get Jerry Lee his own piano.
It was a good bet. Let’s hope Jerry Lee Lewis paid his parents back!
2. His Music Got Him Kicked Out of School
Religious zeal? Or blasphemy? Lewis grew up in a religious family in a Christian community, so it was a scandalous day when a young Jerry Lewis (he hadn’t added his middle name yet) took the stage in a church talent show and did a boogie-woogie version of "My God is Real". People were so scandalized that the act got him expelled from his Christian school.
3. He Was Gone Too Soon
Tragedy struck Lewis’s life early, and often. When he was just three, his older brother Elmo Jr. was fatally struck by an intoxicated driver. Elmo was just beginning to show musical promise when it happened.
4. Snuck Into Bars to Hear Music
Barely into his teens, Lewis would sneak into a bar called Haney’s Big House in Ferriday, a juke joint popular with black field workers. Blues musicians regularly played there, and Lewis watched mesmerized.
5. Horse vs. Buick
Elmo's tragic passing was just the first of many car wrecks in Lewis's life. Once, while visiting his parents back home in Ferriday, Lewis was ripping around the local streets at 80 miles an hour when disaster struck—a horse suddenly appeared in the road in front of him. Unable to get out of the way, Lewis simply ducked down in his seat and prepared for the worst. He hit the beast head on, totaling the car and killing the horse.
Did this brush with the reaper convince Lewis to take it easy behind the wheel? Not even close. If anything, Lewis said, "I drove faster".
6. Father Sold Eggs to Get to Memphis
Lewis's parents knew that if their son was going to make it big, they needed to go see the big shot executives over in Memphis, Tennessee. To finance the 350-mile drive from Louisiana to Memphis, Lewis’s father sold 33-dozen eggs along the way. When they finally arrived, Lewis met Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, who gave him a recording chance. But his big break was a miserable failure...
His first release completely tanked and went nowhere. However, his second release, "Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On" obviously had a bit more staying power—today, it's considered a rock n' roll classic.
7. Married Seven Women, and It’s Been Messy
Lewis’s romantic and family life has been fraught with controversy, scandal, divorce, and tragedy—and it started early. He married his first wife, the daughter of a preacher, when he was just 16! It was no match made in heaven, however. It lasted just over a year and a half. Who could have seen that coming?
8. Second Marriage Started Unlawfully
When it came to love, Lewis was an impatient man. So much so, his second marriage in September 1953 took place more than 20 days before his divorce from the preacher’s daughter was final. That’s a bit of a no-no, and the validity of the union was always in question. It didn’t stop the couple from producing two children before divorcing four years later.
9. Married His 13-Year-old Cousin
As you’re probably noticing, Lewis loves to walk down the aisle. In 1957, Lewis married Myra Gale Brown. She was just 13 at the time—but that's not the worst part. She was also Lewis's first cousin once removed. He didn’t learn from his second marriage either, as this marriage also took place before his last divorce was finalized. His hastiness came back to bite him this time though, and the courts annulled the union.
Don't worry, once all the official red tape was settled, the couple simply remarried. Lewis and his cuz had two children.
10. Named His Child After a Comic
Lewis and Myra named their son Steve Allen Lewis, after Steve Allen, the television host and comedian. Despite Lewis’s songs being banned from radio stations for vulgarity, Allen invited Lewis to play "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin’ On" on his TV show, giving Lewis his big break and leading to his rise to stardom in 1957. Talk about gratitude!
11. Country Music Saved Him
A little bit country, a little bit rock and roll. Lewis' career as a rock n' roll artist stagnated for a decade. It wasn’t until the late 1960s that he started making a comeback, but he had to trade his high energy boogie-woogies in for sad ballads. Today, Lewis’s country music recordings, such as "Another Place, Another Time" are considered some of his best work.
12. Named a Rug After an Ex-wife
There’s no love lost between Lewis and his second wife, Jane Mitchum. Lewis has named a mountain lion rug "Jane" after her. Lewis says Mitchum would try to mow him down with vehicles, tossed him down a flight of stairs, and threw everything from hammers and Coke bottles to Santa Claus figurines at him.
13. Collects Chihuahuas
"I’ve gone to the dogs," Lewis jokes, referring to his pack of dogs. He has several Chihuahua and chow dogs. His favorite is Topaz, with whom he is often pictured. His other dogs are Topaz Jr., Babette, Prince and Zelda. They often howl along when Lewis sings!
14. Fourth Wife Drowned in a Swimming Pool
A life of scandal was to be accompanied by tragedy. A year after divorcing his cousin-wife in 1970 (she claimed Lewis had physically and mentally abused her), Lewis married Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate. They had one child—but of course, history is bound to repeat itself. She sued him for divorce just four years later. Lewis and Pate's split was a mess, and it took years to finalize.
Then, in 1982, before the divorce was complete, Pate's lifeless body was found in a friend’s swimming pool. The authorities said there was no foul play, but this was another dark stain on Lewis's troubled legacy.
15. This Jerry Lewis had no Telethon
The use of his middle name, Lee, was an important distinction from another entertainer who became a star at the same time Jerry Lee did. In the late 1950s, before he was famous for comedy, Jerry Lewis (of muscular dystrophy telethon fame) was releasing popular songs, too.
16. He's Lost Two Children in Horrible Accidents
The whirlwind of tragedy that surrounded Lewis drove him to booze and illicit substances. In 1962, his son Steven Allen Lewis was just three-years-old when he drowned in a swimming pool. In 1972, his 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Jr. passed on when the Jeep he was driving rolled in a ditch. The devastating loss also happened around the same time his mother passed on from cancer and his wife Myra left him.
17. Lewis Almost Drank Himself to The Grave
"The loss of my mother and two sons got to me," Jerry says. "I was drinking heavy. I needed a fifth of [Cuervo] just to sober up". It was the start of a 15-year binge that nearly claimed his life. It all ended with a ruptured stomach in 1981. With this close-call, it appeared to everyone that his career was done. But someone forgot to tell Jerry Lee Lewis that.
18. Lewis Married His Caregiver
Will this one be his last? Lewis's latest marriage is to Judith Brown. The two were married in 2012. Lewis’s daughter Phoebe had hired Brown to take care of her aging father when he was ill around ten years ago. Lewis and Brown fell in love. Brown is a basketball player, and she used to be married to the brother of Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown. Small world.
19 . Lewis Fired, Then Sued His Daughter
A family spat over money turned ugly in the courts. Shortly after his marriage to Judith Brown in 2012, Lewis fired his daughter Phoebe as his manager and took away her power of attorney, giving it to his new wife. Several years later, Lewis sued his daughter and her husband, saying they owed him money. The pair countersued and things degenerated into ugly Facebook comments and defamation suits. A judge threw out most of the complaints.
20 . Didn’t Sleep for 12 Days Straight
During his wild days of partying and boozing, Lewis decided it would be a good idea to see how long he could go without sleep. The answer was 12 days and 12 nights. As he told GQ Magazine, "I overshot my runway. It’s not a good thing to do. I never did that again". Most of us don't have to actually try it to realize that, but I guess Jerry Lee Lewis was cut from different cloth.
21. Nicknamed, "The Killer"
So how did Jerry Lee Lewis get nicknamed "The Killer"? Some say it’s because his music had audiences going crazy. Others say it's because of wild piano-playing, and a wilder lifestyle. Still others say the origin is something much darker (two departed wives aren't the best look). In the end, the overriding story is that it was just a friendly term he and his childhood friends used to call each other and the name has followed Lewis for his entire life.
22. Shot His Bass Player
In 1976, Lewis’s 41st birthday party came to a loud and bloody end. Playing with a loaded .357 Magnum in his bedroom, Lewis was trying to shoot and hit a Coke bottle. The slug ricocheted and hit bassist Butch Owens in the chest. Owens was badly injured, but he managed to recover, and Lewis’s "Killer" nickname remained just that.
23. Last Man Standing in the "Million-Dollar Quartet"
It's one of the most iconic and published photographs in rock; Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash standing behind a piano-playing Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in 1956. All were just kids at the early stages of their careers (except Elvis). It was also pure coincidence that all were visiting Sun Studios in Memphis at the same time (Lewis was there to play piano on a Perkins recording session).
The moment the "Million Dollar Quartet" came together is now considered one of the seminal events in rock history. Each of those men would go on to international fame and fortune, but today, Lewis is the sole living member.
24. Worries He’s Going to the Bad Place
Lewis has often talked about God and the afterlife. His fear of what awaits him in eternity was never more evident than in 2015, when he told The Guardian, "I was always worried whether I was going to heaven...I still am. I worry about it before I go to bed; it’s a very serious situation. I mean you worry, when you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?"
25. Run-Ins With the IRS
Fans may have loved him, but the IRS had a different view of Jerry Lee Lewis. The Internal Revenue Service saw Lewis as a delinquent taxpayer. His overdue tax bill amounted to almost $2 million in 1988, part of the reason he filed for bankruptcy. That wasn’t the first incident either. In 1979 and 1985, the IRS swooped in and seized property such as motorcycles, jewelry, cars, and a tractor. Agents even showed up at his concerts and confiscated his fees.
26. Spent Lavishly on Cars, Jewelry
As part of its prosecution case against Lewis on tax evasion, the IRS claimed that Lewis spent lavishly on friends and family to hide his income from the taxman. One girlfriend testified Lewis had her purchase a $25,000 Cadillac Eldorado in cash, then bought her a $15,000 Mustang shortly after. But don't worry, ol' Jerry Lee ended up alright. His net worth today is estimated at $15 million.
27. Lit His Piano on Fire
Myth surrounds this rock n’ roll tale. In one of the most memorable scenes from Great Balls of Fire, the 1989 film depicting Lewis’s life, Dennis Quaid (playing Lewis), douses his piano with gas and lit it on fire while playing "Great Balls of Fire" in front of a chaotic crowd at the Paramount Theatre in Brooklyn. But did it happen? Well, that's hard to say...
Lewis himself has both denied and confirmed the story. Apparently Lewis was miffed that Chuck Berry was the night’s headliner, and set his piano on fire to send Berry and organizers a message: Lewis was top dog.
28. He Hates Great Balls of Fire
Great Balls of Fire was an account for Lewis’s early career, based on the book by Lewis’s ex-wife Myra Gale Lewis. Dennis Quaid plays a wild, brash, selfish, and reckless Lewis. Winona Ryder and Alec Baldwin also star in the film. For his part, Lewis was disgusted by the film. He claimed, "I never acted like that in my life," and summed up his thoughts with, "That movie was bad news".
29. He Jammed With Cousin Jimmy Swaggart
Yes, Jimmy Swaggart, the television evangelist who tearfully admitted to hiring escorts in the late 1980s. The two are cousins and grew up in the same town in Louisiana. Swaggart also plays piano and the two would jam when they were kids.
30. Backstage Fist Fight With Janis Joplin
Brash and loud, Janis Joplin was no innocent flower of the 1960s music scene, so there was bound to be a whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on when these two met. In 1969 Janis had a thing for Lewis’s bass player and after seeing a show in Texas, Joplin went backstage to Lewis’s dressing room, with her little sister Laura in tow. Lewis was hostile to the visitors, and the scene did not end well.
The rocker told Laura, "You wouldn’t be bad looking if you weren’t trying to look like your sister". Janis punched Lewis—but it didn’t end there. Lewis hit Joplin back, saying "If you’re going to act like a man, I’m going to treat you like one!"
31. Swimming Pool is Shaped Like a Piano
Lewis bought his ranch near Memphis in the 1970s. + was also known disparagingly as "Disgrace Land," as it was the scene of many of Lewis’s wild parties full of debauchery. Dozens of celebrities and hangers-on would gather around his swimming pool shaped like a grand piano and listen to Lewis play into the wee hours of the night. Today it’s a museum, but Lewis still visits from time to time.
32. Lewis is Very Insecure
The man who was so exuberant on the stage had his vulnerabilities. This is from Eddie Kilroy, a Nashville producer who jump-started Lewis’s stalled career in the late 1960s: "He is very insecure. The only thing he is secure with is his music. He can play Bach, Beethoven. It is God-given. But he runs from everything else. He is terrified of being alone".
One of his road managers also quipped, "It’s especially rough for Jerry at Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving—the times for family".
33. Number One on Lewis’s Bucket List
He has thousands of accolades, a place in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, and Grammy awards, but there is still one thing missing from the trophy mantle. In one of his more recent interviews with Rolling Stone magazine, Lewis confided he longs to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. You can’t blame him. He has had more than 20 Top 10 country hits and four of those went to No. 1.
34. Why That May Never Happen
It's a show that will go down in history as one of Lewis’s best, and one of his worst—and it may be why he will never get his wish to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. January 20, 1973 was Lewis's first and only appearance at country music’s temple, The Grand Ole Opry. Live in the theatre and over radio, Lewis played well over his allotted time and through all the radio commercial breaks (artists typically get 8 minutes, Lewis played for 40). But that wasn't what really upset people.
Not only did Lewis play more rock n’ roll than country, but he apparently dropped the f-word on stage. Lewis and Nashville never did get along.
35. His Music Played in Space
Lewis cut some music especially for the astronauts aboard Apollo 14, the third NASA mission to land humans on the moon in 1971. One of the astronauts, Stuart Roosa, wrote Lewis a personal thank you letter, which Lewis still proudly displays on his wall. "Dear Mr. Lewis, Our most heartfelt thank you for the tremendous tape you cut for me to take on Apollo 14. I can’t really describe how much it meant to me to have your music on board when we were 240,000 miles from home and the Earth had shrunk to a tiny ball".
We always said, Lewis's music was out of this world!
36. John Lennon Embarrassed Him
John Lennon said that Lewis was one of his all-time greatest influences. Lennon finally got to meet his hero backstage at a Lewis show in Los Angeles in the early 70s—and apparently his fanboying got a little awkward. Lennon bowed down to the Killer, got on his knees, and kissed Lewis’s feet. Lewis later told The Guardian newspaper, "Yes, I was a bit embarrassed".
Even more awkward, the feeling wasn’t exactly mutual. Lewis remarked later that he was never a fan of The Beatles.
37. Shot His Own Office Door
This is one way to burn through some anger management issues. Lewis had an office in Memphis, and one day in 1975, Lewis took a loaded .45 automatic and shot 25 holes through the door. Neighbors complained about the racket and called the authorities, who found the bullet holes. Little else is known about what actually happened.
38. Dangerous Relaxation Techniques
Warning! Be very careful if you ever have to open Jerry Lee Lewis’s bedroom door. To relax or bide time, Lewis would throw knives at his bedroom door and make them stick. He would throw knives at anything, really. His kitchen cupboards had to be painted a many times over to fill the holes. Somebody get this man a fidget spinner!
39. One of the Hall of Fame’s First
Lewis keeps good company in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in Cleveland. The hall was created in 1983, and Jerry Lee Lewis was named in the hall’s inaugural class of inductees. It’s a testament to his pioneering ways that he was named with the likes of Elvis Presley, Little Richard, James Brown, and Chuck Berry. Fellow country music artist Hank Williams, Jr. was on hand to induct him that day.
40. His Favorite TV Show
Every day in the evening, Lewis watches the television series Gunsmoke. He has all the episodes on DVD, and has memorized each one, which is quite a feat considering the series ran for 20 seasons with 635 episodes.
41. Called Rock "The Devil’s Music"
There has always been a religious element to Lewis’s persona, influenced by the music of traveling preachers, his cousin the evangelical preacher, and growing up in a religious community. His latest album showcases old gospel tunes from his youth. In fact, he called his own music "the devil’s music" and argued over the provocative lyrics of "Great Balls of Fire" with record producer Sam Phillips.
42. Snubbed a President
Lewis was feeling a bit antisocial during a tour of Eastern Europe in October, 2014. After a show in Prague, he refused to meet with Czech President, Vaclav Klaus. A few days later he was doing a show in Sofia, Bulgaria, and refused to do an interview with a national television network.
43. Billionaire Fan to the Rescue
Lewis may owe his latest comeback to billionaire —maybe his biggest, and definitely his wealthiest fan. Billionaire philanthropist Steve Bing heard about Lewis’s struggle with depression and pain meds in the early 2000s and came to the rescue, getting Lewis the best medical help available, sorted out his finances, and sent him to a dentist to get his teeth fixed.
44. A Stroke Couldn’t Stop "The Killer"
It was an amazing thing to see when Lewis was recording his latest album in early 2020. A serious stroke in February, 2019, at age 84, left his right hand paralyzed. Determined to record an album of gospel tunes, Lewis thought he would just sing, and said he couldn’t play piano. However, when he sat down at a piano in the studio, his right hand started playing. As he told Rolling Stone magazine, "I couldn’t believe it, I couldn’t believe it. I never experienced anything like that".
Rock on Jerry Lee. Rock on.
45. Marriage Scandal Ended Tour
His managers warned him, but Lewis ignored all pleas to leave his teen-cousin bride at home while he toured the UK in 1958. The couple hadn’t even left London’s Heathrow Airport when a reporter asked her who she was. Scandalous headlines ground the tour to a halt before it had even begun, radio stations stopped playing his songs, and friends stopped returning their calls.
It took years for Lewis to reclaim his career. Turns out, marrying your 13-year-old cousin isn't exactly the best career move.
46. Scandal Sent Him From Riches to Rags
The news of his child bride sent his career in a tailspin. Dubbed a "cradle robber" and a "baby snatcher," Jerry Lee Lewis was persona non grata in the entertainment world. Before the scandal, Lewis was raking in $10,000 per show. After he was doing shows in dingy bars and clubs for $250/night. But while he was down, Jerry Lee Lewis was not out...
47. Allegations of Murder
It's a dark shadow that hangs over the story of Lewis’ life. Wife number five was Shawn Stevens, and this marriage was cut short after just 77 days when her lifeless body was found in a bedroom of their home in 1983. Her demise was shrouded in mystery and has never been fully explained. Some say it was a fatal dose of methadone—but some have suggested a more disturbing cause.
A journalist wrote a scathing piece that insinuated Lewis was responsible, but the authorities never followed up.
48. Flipped a Rolls Royce
Twenty years later, The King had invited The Killer to come visit his home in Graceland, just south of Memphis. Unlike the day at Sun Studios, this meeting was doomed from the start. What happened instead resulted in two wrecked cars and Lewis hauled in by the authorities…twice. The first incident occurred in the early morning hours of November 22, 1976.
Lewis and his wife paid a visit, driving a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. The guard at the Graceland gates told Lewis that Elvis was sleeping, so Lewis politely left. Later that morning in Memphis, Lewis flipped his Rolls Royce while taking a turn too quickly. Lewis was charged with driving while intoxicated, driving without a license, and reckless driving. But what happened the following night was even worse...
49. Crashed Elvis’s Graceland…Literally
Intoxicated after a night of downing champagne at a Memphis bar, Lewis decided to drive his brand new Lincoln Continental to once again try and visit his long-time musical friend at Graceland. Keeping him company was a bottle of champagne and a loaded pistol on the dash. Lewis didn’t quite make it into Elvis’s storied property. Instead, he slammed his Lincoln into Graceland’s front gates. And that was just the start…
50. Elvis Locked Lewis Up
According to the Graceland security guard, Lewis took his bottle of champagne and threw it out the window, or at least, he tried to. There was only problem: the window was closed. Unsurprisingly, both the bottle and window shattered. Then Lewis picked his piece off the dash, got out of his Lincoln, and started waving the weapon in the air. Elvis watched the whole thing on his security system and told his guards to call the authorities, who arrived to find the banged-up car and an intoxicated, disorderly rock legend with a loaded pistol.
Elvis was not amused by his contemporary's antics. He told officers to "lock him up". Lewis, who claimed he had no intention to harm Elvis, said afterward he was hurt that his friend would send him turn him in like that.
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