Jerry Lee Lewis: Marriage # 7

Monday, 02 April 2012 05:19 AM Written by 

Jerry Lee Lewis, "The Killer" just got married--to his caregiver--the former wife of his cousin. This was marriage # 7.  His first marriage, of course, to an actual cousin, nearly trashed his career.  Small world. The new wife is the former sister in law of the cousin he married. Not even daughter Phoebe, who lives with her dad on his estate south of Memphis, knew about this latest marriage.  Seeing news photos of him today, at 76, past his prime, it's worth recalling him back when he made history--and scandal as big a deal then as Lindsay Lohan or Charlie Sheen today.

One of Sun Records' original rockabillies,  with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" flying up the charts in 1957, he did three TV appearances on NBC's Sunday night Steve Allen Show. Allen didn't like early (or later) rock and roll though to his credit, Allen, a modestly talented Erroll Garner-style jazz pianist, gave real jazz musicians much-needed TV exposure. His smart-ass comments about "Shakin's" lyrics reflect his disdain for rock songs.  Steve himself wrote thousands of songs, none remotely as memorable as "Whole Lotta Shakin'."

Nor did Steve seem aware, or willing to admit Jerry Lee's style was a hypercharged version of old-school boogie woogie piano.  Any doubts?  This is the first known demo recording of Jerry Lee playing, done in a New Orleans studio in 1952.  It's called "New Orleans Boogie."

And from around the same time, his vocal recording of Lefty Frizzell's hit ballad "Don't Stay Away," anticipating his later hit country ballads.

This is his first Allen appearance in 1957, reprising "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," which he sang on the first appearance. The electric bassist is Jerry's cousin J.W. Brown.

"Great Balls of Fire" from an appearance on Dick Clark's American Bandstand.  Unlike a lot of performances on that show, he's doing it live. I never forgot sitting in a restaurant in Sharon PA in 1957, staring at a TV screen as this played out while I ate dinner with my parents. I was six years old at the time.

Jerry torpedoed his career when it came out he'd married J.W.'s 13 year old daughter (and his second cousin) Myra Gale Brown in 1957 (Jerry's third marriage, believe it or not). The whole thing hit the fan during a tour of England that year. This was his half-assed attempt at spin when he got back home.  For years his career was in a downward spiral that took him from top stages to dives.  Early rockers were in various stages of trouble at that point. Elvis was in the Army and Chuck Berry was headed to Federal prison on charges of taking an underage woman over state lines.

What returned Jerry to success, however, was a suggestion from his then-label, Smash Records, that he focus on recording country ballads. He'd recorded "Don't Stay Away" back in 1952 and similar material like "You Win Again" at Sun, so it was no stretch. This 1968 number brought him back: the barroom weeper "Another Place, Another Time."  This performance is from a very early episode of Hee-Haw. Backing Jerry is the show's co-host Buck Owens' band: the Buckaroos.

From 1968 to 1981, he had 23 Top Ten country singles, four making it to # 1. It's worth noting that in the 80's his cousin Mickey Gilley became a top country star doing ballad material similar to Jerry's.  The early concerns about stressing country over rock quickly vanished. His 1972 re-do of the  Big Bopper's 50's rock classic "Chantilly Lace" spent three weeks at # 1. This performance is from a 1973 episode of NBC's Midnight Special.

Jerry's reputation for booze and pill abuse on a par with the wildest rockers of the 1970's was well known by then. Nick Tosches wrote about it, hilariously and at length in his Jerry Lee biography Hellfire!  Often he did shows when hammered, occasionally even TV appearances like this one, when he was four or five sheets to the wind.  At least.

While he still performs today, Jerry Lee Lewis's best days are clearly behind him.  Those many decades of bad habits have taken their toll on everything, so what you see and hear now is a shadow of what the man once was.  One thing's for sure. With Elvis, Carl Perkins, Roy Orbison and Johnny Cash gone, he's indeed the last of the great Sun artists still alive and working, something that remains hard to believe (as it does with his friend Keith Richards).  That's amazing. The fact he married again?  Not so surprising.

Might as well wind up with a personal favorite of mine: "Sweet Georgia Brown." He recorded it in 1970, and WEEP in Pittsburgh (then the top country station) used to play it all the time.  I was listening to this when my fellow Pitt students were absorbing Led Zeppelin and James Taylor. Jerry kept it in his stage show from then on, including this 1983 version from London.


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