(September 30, 2021). More than thirty-five years ago, ten pioneers of rock-and-roll were inducted as the inaugural class in music’s celebrated Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
In a ceremony held at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on January 23, 1986, the RRHOF inducted the following ten legendary acts, alphabetically: Chuck Berry, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, the Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly, Jerry Lee Lewis, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley.
At the time, all but Cooke, Presley and Holly were still alive. Thirty-five years later, only one inaugural RRHOF member remains: Jerry Lee Lewis.
With the recent passing of Don Everly in August at the age of 84, the music world mourned the loss of yet another of the icons who helped shape rock and roll in its infancy. Don was the surviving former member of the famous Everly Brothers duo that included younger sibling Phil, who died in 2014. Since Phil’s death, we’ve also lost Chuck Berry and Fats Domino (both in 2017) and Little Richard (2020). Ray Charles (2004) and James Brown (2006) preceded Phil Everly in passing.
That leaves Lewis, the boogie-woogie, piano-playing, most rock-and-roll of rock-and-rollers who turned 86 on Wednesday (Sept. 29) and whose status as the last remaining of the original RRHOF inductees is nothing short of remarkable, especially considering that Lewis was likely the hardest-living of them all!
Lewis, whose 85th birthday last year was feted with a nice celebration in October by several admirers and famous family members (including Willie Nelson, Elton John, and cousin and country legend Mickey Gilley), embodies the idiom “you only live once” better than anyone else. Nicknamed “the Killer” as a child, the piano-chopping virtuoso experienced more in the first quarter of his days than most octogenarians do in a full lifetime. His Wikipedia page alone packs more drama than you could fit into a decade’s worth of “Young and the Restless” episodes.
Much of his story is legend, if not myth. By the age of 21, he had already been married three times (en route to seven), with two of those being unencumbered by prior divorces and one being to a 13-year-old second cousin, Myra Gale Brown.
Those marriages bore him six children, one of which—Jerry III—wasn’t biologically his, and two of which he buried before turning 40. Two of his wives died by unnatural causes (one by drowning, the other by drug overdose after an argument with Lewis) just two years apart in the 1980s.
On his 41st birthday, he accidentally shot his bass player when a bullet ricocheted off a coke bottle he was targeting. The bass player survived. Just a few months later came the famous ruckus in front of Elvis’ Graceland mansion in Memphis where the Killer was arrested for public drunkenness and gun possession (fueling rumors that he wanted to assassinate the King, rumors that were later refuted).
His run-ins with the IRS are legendary, including one episode that allegedly led to him self-exiling to Ireland for four years in the 1990s. His financial woes were likely exacerbated by the fact that he was never fairly compensated by Sam Phillips, the legendary Sun Records owner who signed him. His struggles with the bottle and pills are also well documented. Coupled with his famous career downturn that began at the ripe old age of 23, it was a rock bottom from which an average person might not have ever recovered.
But this is no normal guy; it’s the venerable Jerry Lee Lewis we’re talking about here—a man whose seventh-grade schoolin’ and whose plunge into adulthood (and a first marriage) at age 15 likely provided him with enough survival skills to put those castaways on reality TV shows to shame.
Lewis had honed his musical skills at an even earlier age. By age nine, his same-aged cousin Jimmy Swaggart (the future TV Evangelist) would “fetch him” to go sneak into a Black nightclub in Ferriday, Louisiana called Haney’s Big House. Swaggart would chicken out, but Lewis went inside to hear the Black musicians play some “lowdown blues.” The Killer was hooked from the start. When his daddy eventually got the family its first radio, Jerry immersed himself in a “gumbo of country, gospel, jazz, pop and blues.”
Later, as one of Sun Records’ most iconic products (along with other early greats like Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Elvis), Lewis had gone from headlining shows with Chuck Berry and Buddy Holly in the late 1950s while earning $10,000 per concert, to playing small clubs at $200 a pop after news of his marriage to Myra broke in 1958. After having huge hits with highly sexualized (for the 1950s) breakout tunes “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and his later trademarked title “Great Balls Of Fire,” both of which topped the R&B and country charts in 1957, Lewis was hardly able to sell records as the 1950s gave way to the ‘60s. The first British Invasion in 1964 made him a rock-and-roll relic before he was even 29 years old.
Upon realizing that he wasn’t yet through with his career and after some renewed success as a live concert performer in the mid 1960s, the Killer did what any respectable southern country boy might do after the rock-and-roll rug had been yanked out from under him: he turned to country music.
He had moderate success on the country singles chart with covers of Ray Charles tunes like “What’d I Say” and “Hit the Road Jack” in the early ‘60s before making a stronger comeback in 1967 with his first top-ten hit in nearly a decade, “Another Place, Another Time.” It was the first of eleven consecutive top-10 hits that included No. 1 country tunes like “To Make Love Sweeter For You” and “There Must Be More to Love Than This.”
In all, through 1981, Lewis would rack up more than two dozen top-10 country hits including five No. 1s. The No. 1s included covers of “Me and Bobby McGee” (written by Kris Kristofferson, made famous by Janis Joplin) and the Big Bopper’s “Chantilly Lace,” both in 1972.
Lewis had released many albums on the Smash/Mercury record labels between the mid 1960s and the late 1970s, to tepid success, but it was in 1981 that the Killer would score a major triumph with the European release of Million Dollar Quartet, an album of recordings from the infamous impromptu jam session between him, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash at the Sun Records studio in Memphis in December 1956.
Consisting of Christmas carols and mostly Christian and gospel music, the Million Dollar Quartet recording is considered a “seminal moment in rock-and-roll history,” given the names involved and the circumstances surrounding the event. Elvis had just made it big that year with his breakout hits on the RCA/Victor label (after earlier having left Sun Records) and Perkins had already scored with “Blue Suede Shoes,” while Cash was a budding success on the country charts. Lewis himself was on the cusp of stardom—“the next Elvis”—being just days from releasing his first single, “Crazy Arms” backed with “End of the Road.”
Million Dollar Quartet wasn’t so remarkable for its songs, many of them clocking at just over a minute each, as it was for the banter that was captured between the four rock and country legends, as well as the fact that Presley was even able to step away from RCA/Victor (and Colonel Tom Parker) to do the session. The fact that a recording of it surfaced four years after Elvis’s death in 1977 made it even more of a collector’s item.
Continuing with this newfound momentum, the surviving members of the Quartet would reunite in 1982 and again in 1985, the latter time with fellow former Sun artist Roy Orbison, recording the Class of ‘55.
Then, in 1989, came the biopic Great Balls of Fire! starring Dennis Quaid in the lead role (and Winona Ryder as Lewis’ 13-year-old wife, Myra). The film focused on the quick rise and fall of the Killer and briefly returned him to the spotlight (he famously re-recorded his songs for the soundtrack).
Otherwise the 1980s, ‘90s and 2000s were pretty rough decades for the man entering his sixth decennial in the rock-and-roll business and whose peers were slowly disappearing around him. Famously, his own demons had threatened to do the same to him. Amazingly, they didn’t!
It was in 2006 that a new set of peers—or, more accurately, protégés—would contribute to Lewis’ most important career resurrection of all. It was an album that started off as an idea for a movie soundtrack but wound up being a set of collaborations with some of the biggest names in blues and rock-and-roll.
The aptly titled album Last Man Standing included duets with legends like Little Richard, Keith Richards, Mick Jagger, Ronnie Wood, Rod Stewart, B.B. King, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, John Fogerty, Robbie Robertson, Ringo Starr, Eric Clapton, Toby Keith and Willie Nelson, among others. It contained 21 tracks that played just over an hour total and that featured Lewis returning to his early rock-and-roll roots, with a voice that sounded almost like it had a half-century earlier.
Strangely enough, Last Man Standing became Lewis’ biggest-selling album yet, selling over a million copies worldwide. It reached the top ten on three Billboard charts—Indie, country and rock—and peaked at No. 26 on the main Billboard 200 (oddly his highest peak there in 50 years of charting). He followed Last Man with the five-song EP Mean Old Man, another duets set that reached No. 30 on the Billboard 200 in 2010.
In more recent years, Lewis has dealt with the kinds of health issues that many octogenarians do. He suffered a stroke in 2019, which sidelined him for a bit.
In 2020, in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, came that 85th birthday celebration featuring many of those same musicians that he inspired. One of those was Jacob Tolliver, a young rock-and-roll pianist who had portrayed Lewis in a stage production of Million Dollar Quartet. The video below captured Tolliver’s performance for his hero, in a respectably modified version of “Rockin’ My Life Away.”
One’s mind may as well be placed in a blender trying to figure how a man whose life has been through as many ringers as the Killer’s can still be around when so many of his peers have gone on to that Rock and Roll Heaven (or Hell, take your pick).
Even more astounding is how the “Mean Old Man” presciently told us he would be the “Last Man Standing” some fifteen years ago in the form of his best-selling album of all!
Now, on the occasion of his 86th birthday, he actually is. He’s the sole survivor of the Million Dollar Quartet and, more poignantly, he’s the last living of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Oh, and about that trademark, Jerry Lee Lewis owns “Great Balls of Fire™️,” serial number 86529335. The slogan is registered for goods and services, particularly entertainment services, in the nature of live performances and specifically personal appearances by a (certain) music celebrity.
May that music celebrity continue to defy the odds and have many, many more birthdays, and remain the “Last One Standing”!
DJRob (he/him) is a freelance music blogger from somewhere on the East Coast who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter at @djrobblog.
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