Where There’s Jerry, There’s a Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On

Piano Keys: iStock

“If I’m going to Hell, I’m going there to play on a piano.” - Jerry Lee Lewis

Sun Studios. Photo Credit: Commercial Appeal

Sun Studio tours give you the opportunity to see where Elvis and Johnny Cash recorded. Photo by The Commercial Appeal.

Jerry Lee Lewis certainly may have had a bad boy reputation with his erratic behavior, alcohol abuse, wild escapades, tax issues, not to mention multiple (and questionable) marriages. But, there is one thing The Killer got right – he could pound a piano and belt out rock ‘n’ roll lyrics like no other.

This blonde-haired spitfire was born in 1935 in Ferriday, Louisiana into a strict, religious family. His parents mortgaged their home to buy a piano for Jerry Lee with the intention that he would use his talent playing evangelical music. But, according to Jerry, he had the devil in him and chose a different path. To hear him play the piano, you’d never know that Jerry was self-taught. He did have one or two lessons but quickly abandoned them to develop his own style of music. Influenced by songs on the radio and local blues musicians, his talent would make him the local favorite winning multiple talent contests.

After hearing a young Elvis on the radio, he knew instantly he needed set his sails for Memphis. At the age of 21 and with only a few dollars in his pocket, he headed to Sun Studio hoping Sam Phillips would sign him on. Needless to say, the piano was rockin’ that day. Sam signed him on the spot and introduced his demo recording of “Crazy Arms” to local DJs. His career was launched. 

After he recorded “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On”, DJs refused to play it due to its “explicit” nature. It wasn’t until he sang it live on The Steve Allen Show that his career took off like a rocket. The world embraced him as the star he truly was. His recording of “Great Balls of Fire” was his biggest hit.

In addition to his solo career, he also worked as a studio musician and played the piano on recordings by Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. It was during a recording session with Carl that Elvis happened by and the “Million Dollar Quartet” was formed. Today, that chance meeting of Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis, Johnny Cash and of course, Elvis, is the subject of an award-winning Broadway play of the same title.

“If I’m going to Hell, I’m going there to play on a piano.”  - Jerry Lee Lewis

As quickly as he rose to fame, he quickly plummeted into obscurity. Jerry Lee was boycotted not only nationally, but internationally over his marriage to Myra Lewis. Despite this, he never stopped recording. Going from $10,000-a-night pay to $300-a-night couldn’t quench his drive for music. After almost ten years of being out of the rock ‘n’ roll spotlight, Jerry Lee reinvented his career and became the first to cross over into country music in the late 60s – 1970s.

Although Jerry Lee Lewis would run into further troubles that would affect his career, the world still recognizes him as a musical genius. To name a few of his many accolades, Rolling Stone Magazine ranked “All Killer, No Filler: The Anthology” number 242 out of the 500 greatest albums. His “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg” is considered by most authorities as the best live rock and roll album ever recorded. He was one of the first inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, inducted into the Hit Parade Hall of Fame in 2008, and received a star on Hollywood’s Walk of Fame in 1989.

To find out more about Jerry Lee, take a tour at Sun Studio where you can see first-hand the recording studio that started it all. While there, purchase 45s of Jerry Lee’s hits and step back in time with a malt at the soda shop. If you’re up for a slight road trip, Jerry Lee’s ranch is located in Nesbit, Mississippi – about 20 miles from Memphis. Although it is not open for public tours, it still attracts visitors from around the world.