Inductee: Jerry Lee Lewis (vocals, piano; born September 29, 1935)
Jerry Lee Lewis is the wild man of rock and roll, embodying its most reckless and high-spirited impulses. On such piano-pounding rockers from the late Fifties as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” Lewis combined a ferocious, boogie instrumental style with rowdy, uninhibited vocals.
Lewis was born on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana. He began playing piano when he was eight years old. He learned how to play piano by ear based on the music around him: Western swing, boogie-woogie, uptempo R&B and Delta blues. Lewis’ first influence was the country-blues sound of Jimmie Rodgers, though he also absorbed the gospel and R&B of the local black community. When he was 14, he made his public debut, playing with a local country & western band at a car dealer’s parking lot. In 1956, he went to Memphis to audition for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records label, whose stable of talent also included Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison. After a country-flavored audition for Philips in 1956, Lewis was told that if he could come up with some rock and roll, “we could probably do something.” Lewis didn’t write much himself, but he transformed other people’s songs into unbridled rock and roll that even he called “the devil’s music.”
Lewis’ debut single was a rocking recasting of Ray Price’s country hit “Crazy Arms.” He followed it with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” which sold 6 million copies and went to Number Three, and “Great Balls of Fire,” a 5-million seller that reached Number Two. Both songs were from 1957, a watershed year for Lewis, and both songs also made it to the Top Five on the pop, country and R&B charts. The next year yielded more hits – “Breathless” and “High School Confidential” – and a role in a movie titled after the latter song. However, his career as a rock and roller took a precipitous tumble when the press discovered that he’d married his 13-year-old cousin in December 1957. Lewis managed to score a hit in 1961 with “What’d I Say,” and he stayed on the road, touring, but the hits stopped coming.
In 1963, Lewis left Sun and signed with Smash/Mercury. He decided to stop making rock and roll records, and he eventually embarked on a successful career as a country-music artist. Beginning in the late Sixties, he launched such Top 10 hits as “Another Place, Another Time” and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).” By the early Eighties, he’d racked up a string of 30 country hits. He had also he re-entered the rock and roll realm in 1973, releasing the album The Session, which featured Alvin Lee, Peter Frampton, Klaus Voormann and Rory Gallagher. In 1978, he signed with Elektra Records, and had an FM radio hit with “Rockin’ My Life Away.” Three years later, he played a show in Germany with Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, both former Sun Records artists. That concert was released on the album Survivors in 1982.
In 1989, Lewis was the subject of a major-motion picture, Great Balls of Fire!, which featured Dennis Quaid as Lewis. Then, in 1995, he marked his 60th year with a red-hot rock and roll album, Young Blood. Three years later, he toured Europe with Chuck Berry and Little Richard, and in 2006, he released another album, appropriately titled Last Man Standing. The following year, Lewis was the subject of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and Museum’s American Music Masters program, and in 2009, he appeared at Madison Square Garden in the Hall of Fame’s 25th anniversary concert.
Through a life marked by controversy and personal tragedy, Lewis has remained a defiant and indefatigable figure who refuses to be contained by politesse or pigeonholes. As he declared from the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, “I am a rock and rollin’, country & western, rhythm & blues singing [expletive deleted]!”