Jerry Lee Lewis: Should Australia Mourn The Killer?

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Jerry Lee

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For generations of music lovers Jerry Lee Lewis aka The Killer defined the fire-brand Rock and Roll musician stalking the stage who literally set fire to his instrument. He was undoubtedly an artist that changed the music industry forever despite many character flaws. Lighting up the world with performances on the piano that enthralled audiences wherever he played, a testament to his legacy is the amount of celebrities that paid tribute to his passing at the age of 87.

Elton John, Gene Simmons (Kiss), Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Roy Orbison and so many more sent out messages of condolences for the trailblazer. Don Mclean said “Jerry Lee at the beginning of a session put his gun on the piano. Silence. They do the session… The next day the musicians come to the session and all bring their guns. That was Jerry Lee.”

The man behind Great Balls of Fire with a back catalogue that stretches all the way back to the beginnings of popular music is unquestionably a musician on whose shoulders the music industry stands today. The performance was everything to him and he drove crowds wild wherever he played.

That catalogue includes Whole Lotta Shakin Going On, High School Confidential plus unbeatable versions of Mean Woman Blues and Berry’s Little Queenie. His immediately identifiable style included the magic fairy dust of the “Sun Studio Sound”, fluid vocal brio and thumping double handed piano playing yet before witnessed.

His career was not without controversy however. Famously deported from the UK for having an underage bride, his hillbilly roots were a blessing as well as a curse. As the journalist Nick Kent noted, “Havoc inevitably reigns: in-laws go mad or become accident statistics, offspring die horrible, mangled deaths, wives drown or suffer inexplicable fatal overdoses … Record people are terrorized, audiences verbally and physically attacked, promoters bankrupted, journalists threatened with broken bottles … while The Killer just keeps on rocking”.

Jerry Lee Lewis

His records became blacklisted as his personal life unravelled. It wasn’t until much later on that musicians from the younger generations started to breathe new life into his career. His hit 2006 album Last Man Standing saw him collaborating with Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Jimmy Page and Rod Stewart.

Building on the sometimes farcical nature of his behaviour, his passing was erroneously reported three days prior to the event even though there was plenty evidence to suggest the contrary. Then as his resurrection was declared to the world, his passing was once again confirmed.

Despite all the controversy, he was still a musician who stood at the dawn of Rock and Roll and lived his life without fear or great. To Australians he was a flickering image on old black and white TV screens that were just being released to market at the time. Far away, on a distant continent, the rhythms of his music reached us in relentless waves. The dances, the movement, the culture; the cacophony of sound drove all parents mad and their offspring to the point of hysteria. Breaking the social fabric was certainly high on the agenda for Lewis and he never shied away from calling out pretenders to his throne.

Now the mayhem of his existence is confined to the pages of history. His reputation was, and always will be, a polarising factor that many will not forgive or forget. But his musical legacy is unquestionable and from his dirt poor existence in Eastern Louisiana to a musical innovator of the highest order, he lit the touchpaper that launched a thousand careers.

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