Jerry Lee Lewis seemed poised to assume the mantle of “The King of Rock ‘n’ Roll.”
But it all came apart when, landing at London’s Heathrow Airport for an upcoming UK tour, the rollicking singer-pianist acknowledged that he had a new, very young wife.
Follow-up details soon revealed that he had left out interesting details about what his prior relationship with “Myra” was (first cousins, once removed) and when they’d wed (five months before his divorce from his prior wife had been finalized).
Some defenders of the musician claimed that Lewis didn’t see what he had done as out of the ordinary, as his own sister had reportedly married at age 12. But the fact that he claimed Myra was 15 rather than her real age of 13 strongly suggests that he knew his action had run counter to larger cultural norms.
The ensuing scandal brought consequences, both short term (cries of “cradle-snatching” in half-full arenas, uncomfortable interviews with the UK police, and cancellation of the tour after only three performances) and long-term (derailing Lewis’ career stateside).
He not only never reached his expected zenith in the rock ‘n’ roll firmament, but even had trouble getting bookings for several years, with his nightly earnings dropping from $10,000 to $100.
When he did come back, Lewis reinvented himself as a country music artist—perhaps the right genre for musicians who crooned about “heartaches by the number” and the fans who loved them.
I wrote briefly on Lewis' cultural impact in a blog post eight years ago. But perhaps nothing illustrates why this original rock 'n' roll wild man was considered so unmanageable--and such a danger by the older generation--than this career-defining episode.
“Too much love drives a man insane,” he declared in “Great Balls of Fire.” He sang it like an exultation, but it could have served better as a warning to himself to tread carefully around females—particularly young ones related to him.
Maybe it wouldn’t have mattered much. As he told Rick Bragg in an interview for the 2014 biography, Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, Myra "looked like a grown woman, blossomed out and ready for plucking ... I thought about her being 13 and all, but that didn't stop her from being a full-fledged woman."
My first sustained exposure to the story of the scandal came in the form of the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire! starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis and Winona Ryder as Myra. Though he re-recorded for the movie several songs that Quaid lip-synched, Lewis reportedly loathed the finished product for its inaccuracies. (Consider this: It used as its source the autobiography of his now-ex, Myra.)
Myra Gail Lewis was not the first—and would not be the last—woman that her husband would wed. This was the third union for the 22-year-old musician, and he would go on to have four more before he died last October.
Nor was it the last time his personal life would explode. A later wife would die in their swimming pool under mysterious circumstances, and another one would die of a drug overdose less than a year later—mirroring Lewis’ own descent into addiction to prescription drugs and alcohol.
There is an element of “might have been” to Lewis after his disaster. But a similar feeling attaches to the careers of other early rock ‘n’ rollers like Chuck Berry (upended by his own sex scandal, less than two years later), Elvis (trotted out by “Colonel” Tom Parker in increasingly mediocre movies), and Buddy Holly (death in a plane crash).
To his credit, whether he was at the top or bottom, Lewis always pulled out all the stops at his shows. Indeed, his lack of inhibition was a through-line from the stage to his private life.
In the wake of the singer’s death last fall, Cameron Gunnoe offered this perceptive observation in a post on the blog “Culture Sonar”:
“While Lewis’ pathological commitment to his own explosive temperament would bring about a host of problems for the musician over time, it would also endue his stage show with an intensity and fervor by which audiences would be driven regularly to borderline hysterics.”
The impact of these live shows can be seen most readily, perhaps, in Elton John—and, indeed, the English rock ‘n’ roller tipped his hat to “Killer” with a cover of “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On” in the 2003 Sun Records tribute album, Good Rockin' Tonight.
Sir Elton simply stated the obvious at the time of Lewis’ death: “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today. He was groundbreaking and exciting, and he pulverized the piano. A brilliant singer too. Thank you for your trailblazing inspiration and all the rock ‘n’ roll memories.”
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