If Elvis Presley made adults of the 1950s nervous, they were downright terrified by Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano-pounding wild man known both as “The Killer” and “The Ferriday Fireball” for his incendiary stage performances — and personality.
Lewis grew up in the Deep South absorbing the same influences that shaped many of his contemporaries: primarily country music, blues and gospel. But he also had an ear from childhood for a broad spectrum of American popular music that’s allowed him to put his indelible stamp on pre-rock classics such as “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” in addition to his genre-defining hits “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless.”
Whereas Elvis always wanted to please, Lewis yearned to make sure the whole world knew that he wouldn’t be upstaged by anyone. Lewis famously said there have been only four truly original stylists in popular music: Al Jolson, Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams … and Jerry Lee Lewis. No wonder he was among the original 10 artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Famed Sun Records owner and producer Sam Phillips — the man who discovered not only Presley, but Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison, Carl Perkins and many others, once called Lewis “on balance, probably the most talented human being I ever had the opportunity to work with." With his electrifying live performances and interpretive abilities that allowed him to make virtually any song sound as though it had been written just for him, Lewis appeared to be next in line to take over the reins of rock ‘n’ roll in 1958 when Presley joined the U.S. Army.
But even such an outsized talent couldn’t weather the firestorm of controversy that erupted when he married his teenage cousin. Although it was hardly unusual in the rural south at the time, the news quickly sent his career down in flames. Yet Lewis didn’t surrender. In the 1960s he turned his attention to the country music he’d always loved and carved out a new chapter as one of Nashville’s most consistent hit-makers of the late 1960s and 1970s.
Lewis weathered major losses in the deaths of two of his children and two of his six wives, while divorcing the other four spouses. Yet he has continued to find solace and inspiration in his music, getting another career boost late in life with a series of all-star collaborations that found him recording with such admirers as the Rolling Stones, Bruce Springsteen, Willie Nelson, John Fogerty, B.B. King, Eric Clapton and Jimmy Page.
Well into his 70s, as noted in the title of one of his old albums, “The Killer Rocks On.”