Jerry Lee Lewis

Active - 1957 - 2003  |   Born - Sep 29, 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana, United States  |   Genres - Music

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Biography by Hal Erickson

Known to one and all as "The Killer," mercurial rock & roll pioneer Jerry Lee Lewis was a child piano prodigy. Lewis was barely out of high school when he was signed by Nashville's Sun Records. Rising rapidly to the top of the charts with such hits as "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," Lewis was for many years regarded as the chief rival to Elvis Presley. His fortunes declined spectacularly in 1958 when his marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Myra Brown earned him widespread condemnation. After 12 years of performing in seedy night clubs and saloons, he made a spectacular comeback in 1970, only to suffer another setback when one of his later wives died under mysterious circumstances. He managed to survive this and many other scandals, continuing to chart his own professional course in his own way well into the 1980s. He appeared in a handful of films, notably High School Confidential (1958), and in 1988 was impersonated by Dennis Quaid in a flamboyant biopic, Great Balls of Fire. Jerry Lee Lewis is the cousin of evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and night club entrepreneur Mickey Gilley.

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  • Took piano lessons as a child with two of his cousins, future country singer Mickey Gilley and future televangelist Jimmy Swaggart.
  • Received most of his musical education by sneaking into a black rhythm-and-blues club called Haney's Big House, owned by his uncle, Lee Calhoun.
  • Made his public debut at 14 in a Ford dealership parking lot, performing "Drinkin' Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee" with a local band.
  • Attended the Southwestern Bible Institute as a teen, but was asked to leave for performing a boogie-woogie rendition of the hymn "My God Is Real."
  • Rose to fame in 1957 with the early rock & roll hits "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire."
  • Marriage later that year to his 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown, erupted into a scandal that nearly destroyed Lewis' career.
  • Reinvented himself as a country-and-western singer in the late 1960s, starting with the hit "Another Place, Another Time."
  • Along with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly and Ray Charles, was included in the inaugural Rock and Roll Hall of Fame class in 1986.
  • Re-recorded many of his hits for the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder.