"Stone cold sober? I don't believe in that." That quote by Jerry Lee Lewis, born 76 years ago today, might make an appropriate epitaph for a man who's not only one of rock 'n' roll's original innovators and iconic figures but also one of its most outrageous madmen and irrepressible personalities.
Nicknamed "The Killer" for his manic antics, he helped define rock's early incendiary image, and along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, he gave the budding movement one of its first totally over-the-top showmen. Long before Led Zeppelin gained fame for ravishing groupies and wrecking hotel rooms or Jimi Hendrix set his first ax ablaze or the Who demolished their stage gear and made mayhem a signature style, Jerry Lee was kicking over his keyboards, finding himself engaged in sex scandals, and making "the devil's music" his own.
Lewis' importance to rock 'n' roll's early trajectory can't be underestimated. One of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he, along with Little Richard, established piano as a primary presence in rock's musical arsenal, even though early on it was strongly suggested he switch to guitar. As part of producer Sam Phillips' Sun Records stable, he established himself as an early rock forebear and a member of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, an impromptu outfit that also featured Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. He subsequently produced several best-selling standards, among them "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," two songs that still have an indelible impact both on radio and in live performance.
Even though he's well into his eighth decade, Lewis boasts an active touring schedule. In fact, it's been 62 years since his first public concert -- a performance of "Drinking Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" at a car dealership in his hometown of Ferriday, Louisiana -- and he still maintains a highly visible public profile, even garnering an opening slot at the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame 25th Anniversary Concert at Madison Square Garden in 2009. His latest albums, Mean Old Man and Last Man Standing, boasted such big-name guest stars as Mick Jagger, Keith Richards, John Fogerty, and Jimmy Page and not only regenerated his career -- although it's doubtful his career has ever needed regenerating -- but also rank among his best-selling efforts ever.
Lewis' legend has also carried over onto the big screen, in films like Great Balls of Fire, featuring Dennis Quaid in the title role, and Walk the Line, in which his character played a significant secondary role to the film's hero, Johnny Cash. He himself appeared onscreen in several early rock exploitation films, including Jamboree and High School Confidential, and his playing could often be heard on numerous records by other artists.
Still, it's his tempestuous personal life that's contributed to Jerry Lee's gruff demeanor. His string of controversy began early on, after his mother enrolled him in Bible school and he was called out by the principal for playing a pumped-up version of a popular gospel song. Although he's been widely credited -- and criticized -- for championing the aforementioned "devil's music," Lewis denied that was his intent. And since one of his cousins was Pentecostal preacher Jimmy Swaggart, he was obviously sensitive to the fact that it wouldn't be wise to get on God's bad side.
Even so, trouble seemed to haunt him. He's been married seven times, the first time when he was only 14 and his spouse was 17. His second marriage took place three weeks prior to his divorce from his first wife. Wives four and five died under tragic circumstances, the result of a drowning and an accidental overdose, respectively.
Still, it was his third marriage that caused the greatest stink and nearly sank his career in the process. He secretly married his cousin, who was only 13 at the time, and when the story broke during a British tour, the jaunt was abruptly abbreviated. When he returned to the States, his professional life was in a shambles. Radio programmers blacklisted his records, promoters dropped him from their lucrative tours, and even Sam Phillips declared he wanted nothing to do with him.
Yet despite being shunned by management and media, he persevered, kept releasing records, and eventually shifted his stance toward country music, which found him enjoying a new burst of popularity in the '60s.
So too, Lewis' reputation as a showman is still legendary. His penchant for playing piano standing up began with him kicking aside his piano bench and often even mounting the instrument and playing it from atop the keyboard. It was said that he once set his piano on fire after being billed below Chuck Berry. "I never set fire to a piano," he insisted in an Esquire article. "I'd like to have got away with it, though. I pushed a couple of them in the river. They wasn't any good."