On this day in 1935, rock-madman Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, La. From his
first rollicking piano hit, "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On," in 1957, Lewis has taken the
music world by storm with his energetic performances and larger-than-life personality.
Though Lewis' parents were poor, they bought him a piano, which he taught himself to
play in two weeks. He learned to love black music, gospel and country and combined the
three into his own style and sound.
After he was kicked out of a Bible college, to which
he had been sent by his mother, Lewis headed for Memphis, Tenn., where he went
straight to the famous Sun Records studios. Though label-head Sam Phillips was away,
his assistant introduced Lewis to guitarist Roland Janes and drummer J.M. Van Eaton,
who went on to accompany Lewis for years. The trio recorded a version of Ray Price's
"Crazy Arms," which convinced Sun to have Lewis continue to record for the label. In the
meantime, Lewis did session work with Carl Perkins and jammed once with Perkins and
Lewis then hit the road, where he thrived by channeling his manic energy into his piano
playing. He became famous for standing up in midsong and kicking away his piano
stool. Phillips was impressed and backed Lewis' career strongly from this point. In 1957,
Lewis' "Whole Lotta Shakin' Going On" hit #1 on the R&B and country charts and went
#2 pop. Lewis' career was red hot and he kept it that way by showing off his wild-man
enthusiasm on numerous television appearances.
"Great Balls of Fire" was Lewis' next big hit, also in 1957. The song, which featured only
piano and drums, led to Lewis' appearance in the rock movie "Jamboree." After his next
hit single, "Breathless," it was apparent that Lewis' behavior would be troublesome to his
Lewis caused a huge controversy in December 1957, when he married for the third time
-- to his 13-year-old third cousin. He had to cancel a British tour because of the negative
reaction there, and when he returned to the States, radio stations banned his songs.
Lewis also found his booking price lowered drastically but continued touring small clubs
and dives for years -- showing his incredible determination to perform.
In the mid-'60s, the furor over Lewis' marriage began to fade. He had country-flavored
hits, such as "There Must Be More to Love Than This," into the '70s and continued his
live shows, often breaking into the wild rock 'n' roll of his early years.
But Lewis also continued to battle his demons, including his fondness for alcohol and
drugs. He had several more failed marriages and suffered through the deaths of his
parents and two children.
Just when his energy seemed gone, the late '80s Lewis film-biography, "Great Balls of
Fire," rejuvenated him. Lewis sang his songs for the soundtrack and sounded as great as
he did when he began his career. The decade also saw Lewis' induction into the Rock
and Roll Hall of Fame and the release of a number of collections of his work, including
the 1994 anthology, All Killer, No Filler!
Earlier this year, "Hellfire," Nick Tosches' highly acclaimed 1982 Lewis biography, was
republished by Grove Press. It includes a forward by Addicted To Noise columnist
Other birthdays: Tommy Boyce, 59; Jean-Luc Ponty, 56; Mark Farner (Grand Funk
Railroad), 50; Mike Pinera (Blues Image, Iron Butterfly), 50; Suzzy Roche (Roches), 42;
Mick Harvey (Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, Birthday Party), 40; Les Claypool (Primus),
35; Matt and Luke Goss (Bros), 30; and Brad Smith (Blind Melon), 30.