Perhaps the wildest of Rock and Roll's early pioneers, Jerry Lee Lewis embodied an unruly mass of contradictions that manifested themselves on such hits as "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," "Great Balls of Fire" "Breathless," and "High School Confidential." Shouting his lusty lyrics and pounding his piano like a man possessed, Lewis — affectionately known, then and now, as the Killer — balanced the sacred and the profane like nothing that had ever been in heard in American popular music, establishing himself as a walking embodiment of American parents' darkest fears about this strange new music.
When he showed up unannounced at Sun Records' Memphis headquarters in late 1956, Jerry Lee Lewis was an unknown whose performing experience was limited largely to low-rent nightclubs near the struggling Ferriday, Louisiana, cotton farm where he'd grown up. There, his fiery personality had been shaped by the competing forces of music and religion, while he absorbed an array of white and black musical styles. His lack of professional experience didn't shake the brash young piano-pounder's conviction that he was exactly what Sun's owner Sam Phillips needed.
As it turned out, Lewis was correct. At the time, Sun was still hot from having launched the career of Elvis Presley. But Phillips had sold Presley's contract to RCA Records, and was still looking for a new flagship star for his label. Over his seven years at Sun, Lewis created a massively influential body of work that established him as one of Rock and Roll's most original and compelling performers. With a talent as immense as his ego and a personal life as reckless as his performances, Lewis was simultaneously menacing and seductive, projecting a cocky charisma that made his danger-charged persona all the more appealing.
But the world-class wildman was a far more complex and sophisticated character than his early image would suggest. His volcanic performing style tended to overshadow his prodigious piano technique. Lewis was also a subtle and distinctive vocal stylist, singing bittersweet Country ballads, raw Blues workouts, Tin Pan Alley Pop ditties and fervent Gospel numbers with the same level of conviction that he brought to his Rock and Roll tunes.
In May 1958, Lewis' meteoric rise was derailed almost as quickly as it began, when it was revealed that the 21-year-old performer had quietly married his 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown the previous December, and that his divorce to his previous wife had not been finalized at the time. The resulting scandal made Lewis an instant pariah; radio stations stopped playing his records, and his performance fees nosedived. He would make many more fine records for Sun until his contract with the label expired in August 1963. But he remained almost entirely absent from the charts during that period.
But the tenacious Lewis hung on through a decade of lean times, and staged a decisive comeback in the late '60s as a more mature, yet still fiercely individualistic, Country balladeer. He would be a regular presence on the Country charts for the next decade, and experienced another career resurgence in the 70s, when a renewed wave of interest in 50s Rock and Roll brought him a new level of popularity and respect.
Improbably enough, considering his well-documented personal exploits, Lewis is one of a handful of artists from Rock's first generation to survive into, and remain musically active in, the 2000s, still producing worthy new music and performing with an intensity that belies his age.