To say he played the piano would be a gross understatement.
No, Jerry Lee Lewis pounded the piano. He punished the keys with the heavy hammering movements of his hands, fingers and feet. When he was in the house, pianos took a beating and asked for more. Goodness gracious great balls of fire! I know, I know. He was a terribly flawed man — the drinking, the drugging, the womanizing, the pistol-waving aggressiveness, the craziness, and of course, the scandalous marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, Myra. But his human failings don’t nullify the fact that he was a gifted performer. On stage, Jerry Lee shone as bright as the sun — so brilliant that if you looked directly at him for too long, you might go blind. But his light went out last week when he passed away at 87. We shall never see his like again — not in our lifetimes. He was born in Louisiana in 1935 and learned to play the piano when he was around nine years old. I’ve read that he could play by ear and re-create any song he had heard, even if he had only listened to it one time. Seeing the raw talent and potential of their son, Jerry Lee’s parents mortgaged their farm to purchase a piano for him. By his early teens, he was playing gospel songs at church on Sundays with two of his soon-to-be-famous cousins: evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country music icon Mickey Gilley. Do those names ring a bell? Fame and fortune were apparently floating in the family’s gene pool. He and his cousins also frequented a local honky tonk, and it was a combination of all of those experiences that solidified Jerry Lee’s musical roots.
It’s no surprise that he wasn’t a great student — many folks of genius caliber are simply not interested in traditional education — so he dropped out of high school. His mother intervened and enrolled him in an Assembly of God Bible School. A few weeks later, Jerry Lee was expelled for inserting a racy, boogiewoogie style to the hymns he played. Perhaps he was just moved by the spirit. We’ll never know.
He cut his first demo in 1952 in New Orleans, and by his late teens, Jerry Lee was working at a nightclub and fronting a Mississippi radio show.
He got married twice in his teens, and would go on to wed seven women in his lifetime. That’s a lot of wives.
But back to his musical career. The powerhouse keyboardist rose to fame in 1958, when at 22, he introduced the world to redneck rockabilly hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire.” These singles, of course, were before my time, but I’m an old soul, and at some point in my childhood, I witnessed Jerry Lee performing on television and his magnetism drew me in. Like Elvis. Like Michael Jackson. Like Hank Williams. Like Prince. Like Johnny Cash. When you see greatness, you know it. You feel it deep inside, and it stays with you.
To hear him sing was one thing, but to watch him perform was something else. His body jerked and pulsated with the beats, and by the end of his act, he was sweaty, disheveled and his wavy hair was all over the place. He could master any musical genre — rock ‘n’ roll, country, blues, gospel or pop. Jerry Lee could do it all, and do it well.
He was also known as “the Killer,” a nickname he derived from a classmate after Jerry Lee supposedly held a teacher in a choke hold. Some of his ex-wives said that he was prone to violent rampages. He accidentally shot his bass player in the chest with a .357 Magnum handgun one time. And there was the time that a drunken, rambunctious Jerry Lee busted through the gates of Graceland while behind the wheel of his Lincoln Continental, all the while demanding to see Elvis. Some in his orbit have even speculated that the musical phenom was a high-functioning sociopath, which is quite believable since at some point in his career, he said, “I’m draggin’ the audience to hell continued from page
with me.” That’s just “pure meanness popping out,” as my mother would say.
But Jerry Lee was unapologetic for who he was as a person. His seventh wife, Judith, was by his side when he passed away last week at their home in Mississippi. She reportedly said that in Jerry Lee’s final days, that “he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid.”
Why doesn’t that surprise me?
I’ll miss Jerry Lee’s banging on the piano, raking his fingers up and down the keys, and his one-of-akind brand of “devil music.” It made me smile. Jerry Lee made me smile. Goodness gracious, he’ll be missed!