The Killer has vacated the arena!
On 10/28/22, Jerry Lee Lewis, age 87, died. His death was reported three days after he was falsely reported to have died. Since he was on the doorstep for several years, his death was not a surprise. His living that long was a great surprise. Considering the environment he grew up in, his life style, and the many tragedies suffered, both by accident and self-inflicted, the odds favored he probably wasn’t going to see 30. And yet he outlived every original inductee of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame; and had a life span greater than the departed members of the Country Western Hall of Fame in which he was recently inducted into as a performer and influencer.
The Environment: Ferriday, Louisiana. A dot on the map near the Mississippi border, just up the road from Baton Rouge. Aa town of mostly blacks and steeped in the Blues, highlighted at Haney’s Big House, a famous ‘house of the Blues’.
The small minority of whites in and around the town were poor farmers eking out a living, mostly blood relatives, sharing both a short living span and a Pentecostal religion that featured fire and brimstone preachers and hymns.
His Early Life Style:
Music. Church music and the Blues. This escape from the hard-pan reality of his home was shared with him by two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. Those three were destined to put Ferriday on the big map with a boast of more famous people per square foot than any other place in the USA.
Influenced by an older cousin, Carl McVoy, a big time piano player, the three adopted the piano as their get-out-of-Ferriday weapon.
Jerry’s parents mortgaged their farm to purchase a piano of his own so he didn’t have to beg to use Mickey’s or Jimmy’s. Then his parents sent him to a Bible Institute in Texas where he would play only religious music.
He got kicked out when he decided to add some back-home boogie-woogy at a church assembly. A strong indicator of his future life style. He pounded each day just as hard as he pounded the keys on a piano.
His dad then put a piano in his pick up and traveled from town to town so Jerry could entertain from the mobile stage. His mother told him to ’Kill them dead’. And thus his nickname, The Killer, was born.,
His older brother died in an auto accident. His three year old son, living with Jerry’s ex, drowned in a swimming pool. Another young son died in a car accident shortly after. His 4th wife drowned in a swimming pool just before the divorce settlement was final. His 5th wife ODed just 77 days into the tumultuous wedding. His gun ‘accidentally’ went off and shot his bass singer’. The gate at Graceland was closed when he tried to drive in to visit Elvis.
His black-listing by the hypocrites in the pop music industry at the time when it was found out the 13 year old once removed cousin was not just on tour with him for kicks, she was his wife. Dick Clark, the tsar of determining whether an artist and or a single would be a hit or a miss, along with the payola- radio DJs judged Jerry Lee to be an unfit star even though he was a pioneer in the fledgling rock and roll industry.
Self Inflicted ‘tragedies’.
Perhaps an occasional TBird or some bubbly but like a true son of the south, white lightning in poor times, Jack Daniels when he could afford it. His alcoholism was augmented with tokes of Blue’s grass, sniffs of snow, and above all, pills of many colors. His life might not have been as hectic if he had faced up to all his addiction not just the pills. He did go to the Betty Ford Clinic to overcome the pills that had caused a major removal of part of his stomach.
Every time he had a problem with a gun, both he and the gun were loaded.
In spite of these addictions, he outlived so many of his friends and compadres in the business with similar problems, like Elvis and Johnny, Waylon, Little Richard, etc..
Seven wives! Wife #1 was a sometimes- thing competing with other women who often charged for their services. Wife #2 did not charge, but her brothers and their shotguns made Jerry pay a price by forcing him to marrying her, even though he was still married to #1.
Wife #3 was, Myra. the 13 year old 2nd cousin that he ogled when she was 12. Later he used the argument that he never was married to her because he was not divorced from #2 when he married #3. The ‘marriage’ last 13 years with, according to Mayra a total of only 14 nights nights they spent together.
Bigamy wasn’t a factor in ending the marriages to #4 and #5. Death was. Wife #4 moved out within a month but the divorce didn’t come until ten years later, shortly before the divorce became final Another accidental drowning in a swimming pool.
Jerry married Wife #5 less than a year later. This lasted 77 days. OD was the stated cause of death but the bruises on her body was enough for Rolling Stone Magazine to demand a Grand Jury investigation. Lewis was cleared. A year later he married Wife #6, Kerrie.
For 14 years she nursed him through his addictions and their aftermath…his roller coaster career which now included his revision of traditional country and western music. They were separated but remained married for another 17 years.
His 7th marriage, 2012 to his death, was to Judith Brown, former wife of his 3rd wife’s brother. From all reports it was free of things that marked his other marriages…things like adultery, physical and emotional abuse, not living together. Etc. Of course it took place in the twilight of his life when he was too old to do most of those things.
Other women besides his wives…well it seemed like he never passed up his opportunities, free or paid for.
A pioneer in introducing Rock and Roll to the world. A pioneer in introducing Country/Western to a greater group of listeners with his boogie-woogie style.
His musical feats are too numerous to list in this blog…just as the performers he influenced are.
Every note he sang or beat out on a piano was pure Jerry Lee Lewis. Hymns – He would take a well known one like My God is Real, put a Jerry Lee touch to it, even if it got him in trouble. Rock and Roll – Move over Little Richard, this cracker is pounding the path to bring R&B into the world of R&R, no matter if Dick Clark finds me offensive or not. As much as he respected the talent of Hank Williams and Tex Ritter, he thought there was room to update the genre, be it a new song like What Made Milwaukee Famous, or an old standard like Mexicali Rose, or a recent hit like Crazy Arms, his first recording, and swing it, no matter if Eddy Arnold’s Nashville wants me in the Grand Old Opry or not.
There is music and there is music by Jerry Lee Lewis.
Always a big fan of his, I only had the opportunity to see him perform just one time
In 62, my pre-stagehand life, Lewis was slated to appear in a nightclub close to where my wife and I were going broke in a cafe we and the bank owned. Joe, the club owner promised us good seats for the show. It was canceled due to the drowning of Jerry’s little boy.
The next opportunity came when he appeared in a club where the Mall of America is now. The club was found to be a money laundering operation after about two years. The owners let it be known that if I, or any other stagehand union official, entered it, even via a paid ticket, we could expect to be used as batting practice. Needless to say, I passed up on seeing Jerry Lee perform there.
Finally, towards the end of my stagehanding days and Jerry’s touring days. I got to work his show at Orchestra Hall. It was promoted by an out of town promoter who had a Jerry Lee show in Iowa the previous night.
Seeing the difficulty Jerry Lee had in walking around backstage, it seemed unlikely he could perform onstage. He was escorted, helped, on with a stunning girl on each arm. He sat down on the piano bench… and reverted to the Jerry Lee Lewis of old. His voice was strong and he used all parts of his anatomy to pound on the keys of the piano. He played for close to an hour and one half, without leaving the stage. And then went to the front lobby to meet and greet.
We were almost done breaking down the sound and lights when the promoter came backstage to thank us and wanted to find out the number and size for our tee shirt tip. He never came back with the shirts;
He had been met and greeting by a cop and a warrant for his arrest. It seems the night before this snake oil slickster had not only skipped out without giving the hans the promised tee shirts, he also skipped out with the portion of the gate owed to the venue. We never heard if gave Jerry Lee his money or not.
So if by chance, Mr. Promoter, if you are out of jail and still alive, and you read my blog, you still owe me a tee shirt.
So to close, RIP Killer.
There will never be another like you.
And now I will listen to my favorite Jerry Lee Lewis cut, Mexicali Rose.
PS: Stay tuned for an upcoming post on Mickey and Jimmy, the other 2 famous cousins.