Jerry Lee Lewis, 1935-2022: The Killer In Billboard’s Back Pages

Sixty-six years ago, Jerry Lee Lewis, who died Oct. 28 at the age of 87, shook America’s nerves and rattled its brains. The Dec. 22, 1956, issue of Billboard savored his debut single, “Crazy Arms,” as a “flavor-packed disk,” and the magazine went on to track the rise of “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” both of which scored on the country, R&B and pop charts all at once. And as Elvis Presley turned his attention to Hollywood and then to the U.S. Army, Lewis seemed poised to vie for The King’s throne until a British journalist learned that the girl accompanying him on his U.K. tour was his third wife — as well as his 13-year-old cousin.

‘Balls’ Out

Lewis raised hair as well as hell. The Oct. 28, 1957, Billboard noted that his EP The Great Ball of Fire sported “a photo of the cat with the wild hair flying in the breeze” and predicted it would “sell fast.” That fire didn’t fizzle: The May 5, 1958, issue reported that “Shakin’ ” had remained a jukebox hit for months thanks to “current teeners who still flip over the music with the big beat.”

‘An Open Letter’

In May 1958, after word had spread that he had married his 13-year-old cousin, Lewis, 22, was forced to cancel his U.K. tour. In the June 9, 1958, Billboard, the singer bought a full-page ad to pioneer a pop culture tradition: the half-apology. “I confess that my life has been stormy. I confess further that since I have become a public figure, I sincerely wanted to be worthy of the decent admiration of all the people, young and old, that admired or liked what talent (if any) I have,” he wrote. “I can’t control the press or the sensationalism that these people will go to to get a scandal started to sell papers.” One big DJ backed him up. “Jerry’s a Southern boy,” Alan Freed said, “and Tennessee boys get married quite young.”

Sun Makes ‘Light’

A week later, Billboard reviewed Lewis’ New York club debut in less than glowing terms. “Showmanship is not simply a matter of banging a piano [and] stomping around stage,” griped the June 16, 1958, issue. The following edition (June 23, 1958) reported that Sun Records head Sam Phillips was servicing DJs a “cute” promotional disc, “The Return of Jerry Lee.” “It makes light of the whole British episode,” Phillips explained, “which is the way we think the whole thing should be treated anyway.”

The Killer Beats Death

Lewis found a second life in Nashville, scoring four country No. 1s between 1968 and 1972. His hard living caught up with him, however, and in 1981, he was put in intensive care and underwent stomach surgery in Memphis. Lewis pulled through and performed at the Grand Ole Opry on Dec. 3. Almost a quarter-century after Billboard panned his New York concert, the Dec. 25, 1981, issue called his return to action in Nashville “an occasion tinged with awe.” The verdict: “He’s nothing short of mesmerizing.”

Biopic Blues

A New York preview of the Dennis Quaid-starring biopic Great Balls of Fire! was followed by a midnight jam with punk purveyors John Doe and Mick Jones backing Lewis, according to the July 8, 1989, issue. Even as an elder statesman, though, Lewis stirred up trouble: In the June 24, 1989, Billboard, his own manager, Jerry Schilling, called him out for “negative and damaging” statements about Presley to another outlet.

Joe Lynch