Jerry Lee Lewis died on Oct. 28, 2022. He had not charted a hit song for many years. His trademark furious movements were distant memories. His voice had grown scratchier. His visibility had receded to an audience comprised of loyal fans and an admiring number of fellow musicians. When he died, some people were a little surprised that he was still alive.
That situation is not a gross anomaly, nor is it particularly unjust, evidenced by changing tastes in music, contemporary follow-the-leader trends in the music industry, and, indeed, the spotlight-hungry accommodations of many singers.
Ironically and significantly, Jerry Lee Lewis virtually had died and been resuscitated, if not rejuvenated — or he managed his own resurrections — for years. Musically, professionally, personally, he became a walking revival show.
He almost literally burst onto the scene as a 21-year-old: His second hit record sold more than a million copies in a matter of weeks. When he famously married his 13-year-old second cousin (while a divorce from his second wife was not yet final) his falling star attracted as much attention as had his rising star. He subsequently ignited headlines throughout the decades, if not exactly reinventing himself, then requiring the public to reinvent its perception of him.
Jerry Lee Lewis was, not unnaturally, responsible for the ambivalence with which the general public always held him. Other scandals, seven marriages, lurid headlines were always as close as shadows. Polite in interviews, often singing suggestive lyrics, he predictably was unpredictable. The music industry chose to have difficulty in assigning him to one distinctive category — it was only a little over a week before his death that he was installed as a member of the Country Music Hall of Fame — which illustrated the absurdity of trying to lasso a rare peripatetic talent with labels.
He burst onto another scene in the 1950s — TV variety programs, such as Steve Allen’s — but a review of old kinescopes suggests that hosts (even more the case with Milton Berle and his guest Elvis Presley) beheld the bad boys of rock ’n’ roll and their hyperactive gyrations as virtual novelty acts.
Many of Jerry Lee’s activities tempted death, to the point of seeming to go beyond self-destructive behavior, almost suicidal. His nickname, “The Killer,” survived many virtual attempts to kill himself. Yet he persisted, outlasting other stars of his generation and earning another nickname: “The Last Man Standing.”
He surely will transcend the debates about musical categorizations. But just as his musical relevance will attract even greater respect, so does his celebrity threaten to eclipse the story behind his story. The headlines obscure the subtext of his life. For he was a Type.
He was a type of American (beyond musical contexts) that is fading from the scene, as it perforce must, given the changing tides of cultural and social forces. But those factors had seismic manifestation in culture, politics, and religion in America.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Louisiana — in 1935 in little Ferriday, Concordia Parish, across the Mississippi River from Natchez, Mississippi — and so was Huey Long. It is not recorded that any of Jerry Lee’s family ever met Long or were even invested in his political campaigns or “Every Man a King” crusades. But the politician who called himself “The Kingfish” was also a Type. He both represented and inspired a class of Southern men during the Great Depression.
Southerners for three generations after losing the Civil War were continuously conscious of that defeat and, moreover, inheritors of seemingly congenital and crushing poverty. The South, during the Great Depression, was the last region of the country to be electrified. Its rising spokesman Long asserted his rural and unsophisticated roots and cleared out the weeds of social inferiority when he addressed Southern men.
“My earliest and more or less inchoate recollections,” he wrote, “are that, in the time of my childhood, any person of brawn had some place or opportunity to hew out what was required of him in life.” That was to say that traditional and “polite” norms of success were different in his new world. Long’s followers could forge their own different paths of acceptance. And they began to do so, self-confidently, in the 1930s, even after their leader Long was assassinated.
A Southern culture — far different from the aristocratic pretensions of the antebellum cotton kingdoms — emerged. Southern literature and poetry found their counterparts in the “common” musical forms that arose from delta soil and former plantations: blues, jazz, country, gospel. It has been claimed that electrification’s late appearance in the American South was prompted by the popularity of Jimmie Rodgers and the Carter Family — people wanting to operate record players and buying radios in order to listen to the Grand Ole Opry.
Almost on cue, a crop of singers arose throughout the region. They all were unique, with utterly distinct styles, yet their common roots and similar stories were an astonishing coincidence. These singers had common musical, religious, and social roots; their influence, collectively and individually, was to be consequential. Jerry Lee Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Charlie Rich, Roy Orbison, and others: All were born in the mid-1930s; all dirt-poor boys born in the Southern swath from Arkansas to Texas and down to Mississippi and Louisiana. They all shared Pentecostal or fundamentalist faiths, and they all were attracted to, and incorporated in their music, those traditions of white and black blues, country music, gospel, and even folk, pop, and — in Jerry Lee’s case — boogie-woogie, as it suited.
Significantly, rural folk singers were performing similar songs and styles at the time. Shunned as politically oriented, few of them influenced the rising crop of Jerry Lee’s contemporaries. Oklahoma’s Woody Guthrie, for instance, was one of many enthusiastic communists.
Remarkably, Elvis, Perkins, Cash, Jerry Lee, and the others — even a young Harold Jenkins, who became Conway Twitty — separately showed up on the doorstep of a small recording studio in Memphis in the early to mid-1950s, hoping to find someone who would listen to them. Sam Phillips had started Sun Records with the idea of introducing the new sound of black rhythm and blues to white audiences. This concept was successful, as a first step. As he sowed the wind, Sam reaped the whirlwind. The new sounds that emanated from the little studio would be known as rock ’n’ roll, rockabilly, and, appropriately, white soul.
The strongest of musical wellsprings for these singers were the Southern gospel songs of camp meetings and revivals, and, not insignificantly, the gospel behind the music. Not all of the singers would perform or record much gospel music, but during the career arcs — musical evolutions — of Elvis and Cash, gospel was an ingredient.
In the case of Jerry Lee Lewis, however, gospel music and the gospel itself were constant companions. The baddest of the bad boys of rock ’n’ roll would sing and even share, in his distinctive way, the gospel message with his audiences. It variously inspired and blessed him or haunted and condemned him. It was, alternately, a ministering muse and a dark daemon. The conflict between sin and salvation was a motive force throughout his career.
That conflict — essentially unresolved until the last months of his life — says much about the basic tenets of Pentecostalism. That Jerry Lee had lurid episodes of sex and drugs, violence, and encounters with the law was well known to the public. In fact, he never attempted to conceal these elements of a troubled life. What he confessed to his fans was not said to seek absolution, nor to boast. He frankly discussed what everyone knew or wondered about. In the words of one of his hits, his life “would make a damn good country song.”
It is often the case that sinners, and certainly reformed sinners, “live out” their conflicts and resolutions in public and, in so doing, ultimately present the strongest gospel messages to a watching world. During the heady months of his astonishing success at Sun Records, Jerry Lee nevertheless was convinced that rock ’n’ roll was the Devil’s music: that he was consigning himself to Hell. He did not quit playing such fare, as he briefly was to do, claiming spiritual conversion, several times during his career. But in a revealing tape, carelessly recorded between songs at Sun Records, Jerry Lee forcefully maintained that rock ’n’ roll was the Devil’s music.
In this conversation with Sam Phillips, who surely disagreed with the viewpoint and likely worried about a meal ticket walking out the door, the producer sought to dissuade Jerry Lee from self-condemnation. But the singer was adamant. Thus tortured, however, he proceeded to record more cuts that day that shocked half the nation with their randy and explicit lyrics.
The Lewis brood was not only representative of a changing Southern profile but, by itself, large enough virtually to populate a region on its own. Relatives named Lewis, Swaggart, Gilley, Herron, Beatty, Glasscock, and others had settled around Ferriday and generally were regarded as listless roustabouts. The men worked odd jobs, had brushes with the law, and mostly survived at the sufferance of the local version of Huey Long, their autocratic uncle Lee Calhoun. The odd jobs he dispensed were always a last resort, and so was his influence. He helped Jerry Lee’s father, Elmo, for instance, gain release from a county jail he previously had helped build.
I am engaged in writing a dual biography of Jerry Lee Lewis and his cousin, the evangelist Jimmy Swaggart. Another cousin, Mickey Gilley, will be featured. I soon realized in fascinated frustration that their family tree better resembles a tangled and thorny vine. For instance, in the generation previous to the cousins’, four Gilley sons married four Lewis sisters, and three other Gilley siblings married three Shipley siblings. Of the union between Tee Gilley and Clarence Shipley, two children married members of the Herron clan. (It is irresistible to avoid noting that la famille Gilley festooned colorful Christian names on their brood throughout the years, including, formally on birth certificates, Little Daddy Gilley, Roy Rogers Gilley, Nuggin Aubrey Gilley, Billy Gilly, Lilley Gilley, and Willie Gilley.)
The habits, transgressions, breeding (sometimes in what states other than Louisiana deemed incest) largely came to halt one day in 1936 when mother and daughter evangelists named Mother Sumrall and Leona, of Laurel, Mississippi, arrived in Ferriday and proceeded to pull weeds and arrange crude benches on the vacant lot on Eighth Street and Texas Avenue. Lee Calhoun happened by and asked what was going on, and he was startled when they announced that they were setting up church.
They didn’t own the land, they didn’t have any money, they didn’t know how long they were going to stay … but God told them to proceed to this place at this time and they would be obedient, replied Mother Sumrall as she returned to her weed-pulling. Calhoun marveled at this bit of craziness, not the least because he simply wasn’t a churchgoing man. Nevertheless, he donated money so that they could have their tent meetings.
The revival lasted for weeks. Lee Calhoun did not attend, but the many members of the menagerie that was his wife Stella’s family did. The Lord worked in mysterious ways: Most of the Lewises and Gilleys and Swaggarts got saved. Previously unchurched, they changed their ways. In turn, as none could have forecast, they changed much of American life and of the world’s music.
Irene Gilley (mother of the eventual country-music star Mickey Gilley) became the de facto spiritual leader of the clan. “Son” Swaggart became a preacher and was father to his son Jimmy Lee Swaggart, later to become a world-famous televangelist. Cousin David Beatty became a piano-playing preacher in the mold of Jimmy. Jerry Lee’s sister Linda Gail Lewis toured and recorded with Jerry Lee, and today she continues the family tradition as a performer and recording artist (her keyboard playing as astonishing as her brother’s and cousins’) with a unique following in Europe. She has recorded a duet album with Van Morrison, and her daughter Annie Marie Dolan performs with her and, independently, with her guitarist husband Danny B. Harvey. And so forth, being fruitful and multiplying.
None of the gifted cousins, all pianists, ever took lessons or read music well. Jerry Lee first performed his music in church and enrolled in what is now Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, until he was invited to leave because he would not (or could not, he told me) stop “juking” traditional gospel songs like “My God Is Real.” Pastor Charles Wigley was a fellow student, playing sax in a little gospel band, and he told me that Jerry occasionally snuck out at night to listen to music at clubs in Dallas’ Deep Ellum neighborhoods. The duality, that conflict, again asserted itself.
The “Saturday night/Sunday morning” that is so much the focus of Pentecostal preaching was a hallmark of Jerry Lee’s rollercoaster career. The marriage to 13-year-old Myra derailed his trajectory. Radio stations boycotted his records, and he traded $10,000 venues for $250 gigs at roadhouses. But he played on and sang on. In 1966, he portrayed Iago in a rock version of Shakespeare’s Othello titled Catch My Soul. Two years later, he decided to focus, though not exclusively, on country music, the heritage of which had always informed his style. When Myra filed for divorce, his world was rocked, and he vowed to serve the Lord. He immediately recorded a gospel album.
Over the succeeding decades, there were innumerable successes, awards, and failures, including more divorces; two of his wives died and two of his sons died; and he was arrested in a gun-wielding incident outside Graceland. He also was the subject of a major Hollywood biopic and boxed-set retrospectives, inducted into the Inaugural Class of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, and finally, as noted, earned a plaque in Nashville’s counterpart. The suits of the country-music establishment always resisted Jerry Lee, allegedly for his misdeeds and scandals and antics on stage — as if such things were unknown in Nashville. Meanwhile, legendary singers from all varieties of the music industry paid homage to Jerry Lee Lewis — often in pilgrimage-like visits to his ranch in Nesbit, Mississippi: John Lennon, Mick Jagger, Kid Rock. He performed with Count Basie and Ray Charles. The giants of his country-music fraternity — George Jones, Merle Haggard, Willie Nelson, Marty Stuart — always loved him, only more and more.
In his last years, Jerry Lee played at rock ’n’ roll revival shows and recorded several albums, including jams with stars from all genres, every performance suspected as, perhaps, part of a farewell tour of his life. But he kept rocking on, finally winding down at the age of 87. His death was somewhat anticipated and even the subject of false rumors before it befell him. He suffered a stroke three years ago and occasionally appeared on Facebook videos of visiting fans. Although not at the piano, his earnest messages were living proof of the reminder that he embodied the essence of that emerging, proud, rule-breaker-and-rule-maker type of Southern man, of his singular time and place.
It is to be noted, in his passing, that he was not merely an avatar nor only a notable representative of that time and place. The South’s culture has changed, and the nation’s probably more so; another Jerry Lee Lewis cannot appear again. There will be retrospectives as his talents are more revered. There might be impersonators à la Elvis, God help us. But he was always more than a list of hit songs, and the forces that created him mostly are gone now, too.
Ornery till the end, he finally threw it all back at the devil. In his last months, he “made it right with the Lord.” Mickey Gilley, who died early in 2022, had done the same. Jerry Lee’s many family members gone before can be imagined in a heavenly chorus, singing songs of praise. We are tempted to imagine with what rhythm. With his cousin Jimmy Swaggart, and despite the right-side debilitation of his body, he betook himself to a recording studio this year and recorded a duet album of gospel songs, appropriately titled The Boys From Ferriday.
It is an album, rivaling the quality of many dozens of previous projects, that looks backward — not, of course, to his Wild Man days. Even for the sake of gospel lyrics, the performance antics, the abundance of glissandos, the abuse of the keyboard, and the climbing atop the piano, even reportedly setting fire to one during a concert, are only way stations on the Look Back.
The playlist of his last album was not contemporary Christian music, nor the “praise and worship” styles of modern churches, nor the pop sounds of Christian radio. The performer who fought his spiritual battles in public frequently had interrupted his drinking and cheating and lost-love songs on stage to sing old-fashioned, revival, camp-meeting sermons-in-song. More than his fellow musical pioneers, he took many detours through the years. Near the end of the road, he seemed on the straight and narrow path.
Whether Jerry Lee Lewis finally returned to or, in effect, never left Ferriday is a question for cultural posterity to ponder. “Roots music” took on a new meaning in the last months of his life, when he was happily married to Judith Coghlan, his seventh wife, and recording the last of scores of albums, the gospel session with Jimmy. Surprisingly, for all his prominence, his last No. 1 record in country charts was in 1971; his last top 10 single was in 1981. Yet there always was, and undoubtedly will be going forward, a whole lot of shaking going on.
Rick Marschall is the author of 75 books, including four books on country music and a biography of Johann Sebastian Bach. He recently completed his third book on Theodore Roosevelt and is now writing a biography of Jerry Lee Lewis and Jimmy Swaggart for Post Hill Press.