Jerry Lee Lewis is known for his loud, wild, and unique personality, combined with his outstanding musical talent. He knew he wanted to be a singer from a very young age, and ended up having a long career in the industry. However, the road to success wasn’t easy. His family didn’t have much money and invested everything in helping make their son’s dreams come true. Unfortunately, after his success, he didn’t necessarily find happiness in his personal life.
Jerry Lee got married a total of seven times, and many of those relationships were scandalous. Although he was considered a bad boy, Lewis had a good heart. He just suffered so much loss and heartbreak throughout his life and didn’t have the best coping mechanisms. This is the tragic life and impressive career of the one and only Jerry Lee Lewis.
From the moment he was born, Elmo and Marnie Lewis knew they had a talented son. The believed in him so much that they were willing to bet their farm on it. At the time, their little boy Jerry Lee was only nine years old and had already taught himself how to play piano and started belting out songs.
He loved to imitate some of the musicians that played around his town in Ferriday, Louisiana, back in the 1940s. Since his family wasn’t rich, his parents decided to remortgage their farm. That way, they could get their son his own piano. It was a pretty good bet; he certainly made his parents proud.
Religious passion? Or profanity? Lewis grew up in a Christian community in a religious family. That’s why when Jerry Lewis (he didn’t add “Lee” to his name yet) went on stage to perform a boogie-woogie version of “My God is Real,” at a church talent show, it was considered a scandal. A major scandal.
This criticism was really bad, and the punishment was quite harsh. People were so angered by the scandal that it got young Jerry kicked out of his Christian school. He was a young kid having fun performing on stage; I don’t see why the school expelled him. It was a strange time to be a religious musician, I guess.
When Lewis was young, he dealt with tragedy quite often. When he was just a three-year-old toddler, his big brother Elmo Lewis Jr. was hit and killed by a drunk driver. At the time, Elmo was starting to show off his own talents. He had many struggles throughout his life, but music helped him cope.
When Lewis was barely a teenager, he would sneak into a bar in his town called Haney’s Big House. It’s not what you think, though; he didn’t go in to drink alcohol. It was a juke joint, popular among black field workers, and Lewis went there for the music. Blues musicians would play there frequently, and Lewis watched with amazement.
Sadly, his brother’s car accident wasn’t the last car wreck in Lewis’s life. In fact, it was the first of many. One day, Lewis was casually driving over to visit his parents in Ferriday; he was driving at about 80 miles per hour when a tragedy suddenly struck; out of nowhere, a horse just appeared on the street in front of him.
He didn’t have enough time to get out of the way, so he ducked down and expected the worse. He hit the animal directly, totaled the car, and sadly, killed the horse. You would think this little incident made Lewis more cautious behind the wheel. But that wasn’t the case at all. If anything, Lewis admitted, “I drove faster.”
Lewis’s parents were aware that if their child was going to make it, he needed to go over to Memphis, Tennessee, and meet with executives over there. However, that 350-mile trip wasn’t cheap. In order to finance it, his dad sold 33 dozen eggs along the way.
When they finally got there, Lewis met Sam Phillips, a producer for Sun Records. He decided to take a chance on Lewis. Unfortunately, his big break was an epic fail. His first release literally went nowhere. However, the second one, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” did so much better. It is now considered a classic in the world of rock and roll.
Lewis’s personal life is full of relationships, but his family has been plagued with controversy, scandal, divorce, and tragedy. Lewis started pretty young and got married for the first time at age 16 to the daughter of a preacher, Dorothy Barton. Unfortunately, this relationship wasn’t made for the fairy tales.
His first marriage lasted just a little longer than a year and a half. The couple couldn’t even make it to the two-year mark. Considering he was a teenager at the time of the wedding, it doesn’t come as a surprise that the pair ended it. This certainly wasn’t the last time Lewis tied the knot and walked down the aisle.
Lewis wasn’t the most patient man when it came to love. In September 1953, 20 days before his first divorce was finalized, Lewis got married for the second time. I guess he got over the preacher’s daughter pretty quickly. As you can imagine, this brought up some legal issues.
Since Lewis was still technically married when he walked down the aisle with Jane Mitchum, the legitimacy of the union was always in question. But the couple didn’t seem to mind. The couple even started a family and had two children together. Unfortunately, Lewis didn’t get the happy ending he was looking for with Jane either. They got divorced four years later.
In 1957, Lewis tied the knot with yet another woman. This time, his relationship was met with controversy and plenty of backlash. He married Myra Gale Brown, and she was only 13 years old at the time. Believe it or not, that wasn’t even the worst part…
The scandalous part of this inappropriate relationship is that they were cousins. Well, technically, she was his first cousin once removed. Lewis didn’t learn from his mistakes and once again remarried before his divorce was finalized, and the court ended up annulling the marriage. But once things were settled, the 13-year-old married him legally. Lewis went on to have two children with his cuz.
Lewis and his cousin decided to name their son Steve Allen Lewis, after TV host and comedian Steve Allen. Basically, Lewis’s songs were banned from radio stations because of how vulgar they were considered. Still, Allen invited him to play “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on his show.
His televised performance ultimately became Lewis’s big break. His appearance on the show helped lead him to stardom in 1957. Obviously, Lewis was extremely appreciative of this opportunity. So much so that he named his child after him. He really wanted to show his gratitude to the TV host. I mean, if it wasn’t for Steve Allen, he may have never made it in the industry.
Lewis’s career was a nice mix of country and rock and roll. When he was first starting out, Lewis was a rock n’ roll artist for about a decade. But in the 1960s, he finally started to make a comeback. He traded his high energy performances in for sad ballads in a different genre.
Even though he was described as “rock n’ rolls first great wild man and one of the most influential pianists of the twentieth century,” Country music basically saved his career. Sure, he started off in a different genre, but that didn’t matter. Today, his country recordings like “Another Place, Another Time,” are considered to be his best work.
This probably won’t come as a shock, but Lewis’s second marriage (to Jane Mitchum) wasn’t exactly a healthy one. Because of his bitterness towards his ex, Lewis named a mountain lion rug after her. Wow, that’s insulting. I’d rather someone name a fish after me than a rug.
Lewis said that Jane would try to run him over with cars and even pushed him down a flight of stairs. The singer also claimed that she often threw things at him—everything from hammers, to coke bottles, to little ornaments they had around the house. Needless to say, it’s a good thing they ended their relationship before someone seriously got hurt.
Sadly, Lewis’s life of scandal came along with tragedy. Lewis’s cousin-wife claimed that she was physically and mentally abused by her husband, and they pair got divorced in 1970. One year later, Lewis got married for the fourth time to a woman named Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate.
The couple did have a child together, but history has a way of repeating itself. Just like his previous marriages, this one ended as well. After being together for four years, she sued him for divorce. It was messy, and before it was finalized, Pate’s dead body was found in a swimming pool. Police claimed there was no foul play involved by it put a dark cloud of suspicion over Lewis’s legacy.
Stage names are not rare in Hollywood. In fact, they are actually pretty common. But for Lewis, adding Lee as his middle name was significant. There was another entertainer who emerged to stardom around the same time as Jerry Lee did- Jerry Lewis. He was dubbed as “The Total filmmaker” and “The King of Comedy,” who certainly made a name for himself.
In addition to acting and film making, Jerry Lewis was also a musician. Since he was releasing songs as well, Jerry Lewis and Jerry Lee Lewis were distinguished based on one simple middle name. It came more as a necessity. If Jerry Lewis hadn’t pursued a career in show biz, Jerry Lee Lewis might have simply gone with his actual name.
The immense tragedy surrounding Lewis led him to drugs and alcohol as an escape mechanism. In 1962, his son Steven Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool when he was just three years old. In 1972, another one of his sons, Jerry Lee Jr., died in a car accident.
Jerry Lee Jr. was only 19 when he was driving, and his jeep rolled into a ditch. At the time, his mom had just passed away from cancer, and his wife Myra left him, which made this devastating tragedy even worse. He had talent and success, but none of that mattered with all his hardships. I can’t even imagine losing one child, let alone two.
As a way to cope with all this heartache, Lewis turned to alcohol. “The loss of my mother and two sons got to me,” Jerry explained. “I was drinking heavy, I needed a fifth of tequila just to sober up.” It’s hard to blame him because I have no clue (thank God) how I would deal with such a tragic circumstances.
Unfortunately, substance abuse can lead to a long dark path of self-destruction, and this was the beginning of a fifteen-year binge that practically took over his life. In 1981, it finally came to an end with a ruptured stomach. Everyone thought this close call would end his career, but Jerry Lee Lewis proved them all wrong.
Jerry Lee Lewis’s last marriage was to a woman named Judith Brown. They tied the knot in 2012, but like most of his other marriages, strange circumstances were surrounding the union. About ten years ago, Lewis fell ill. Brown was hired by Lewis’s daughter Phoebe to take care of her aging father.
She became another woman on his list of wives, but will it work out this time? Maybe seventh time’s a charm. In addition to being his caretaker, Brown was a basketball player. Interestingly, before she walked down the aisle with Lewis, she was married to the brother of Lewis’s third wife (Myra Gale Brown). What a small world.
A family dispute got messy in court, and, of course, it was over money. Lewis fired his daughter Phoebe in 2012, shortly after he married Judith Brown. He also took away her power of attorney over him and gave it to his new wife. Ironically, Phoebe was the one who hired Brown in the first place.
A few years later, Lewis claimed that his daughter owed him money and proceeded to sue Phoebe and her husband. The couple countersued, and things got bad really fast with ugly social media comments as well as defamation suits. Yikes. So much family drama over something as superficial as money. The judge eventually threw out most of the complaints.
During his partying and booze escapade, Lewis thought it would be fun to see how long he could go without sleeping. He ended up staying up for 12 days and 12 nights in a row. I don’t even want to think about how cranky that would make me. If I don’t get eight hours a night, I can barely function.
Lewis seems to have learned his lesson. He expressed to GO Magazine, “I overshot my runway. It’s not a good thing to do. I never did that again.” I guess it was the drugs and alcohol that possessed him to try this, but it can be extremely dangerous. Sleep deprivation can lead to anxiety, hallucination, and, sometimes, more severe conditions such as heart failure.
Jerry Lee Lewis was dubbed as “The Killer,” but where exactly did his nickname come from? There are actually a few different possibilities. Some say it’s because his musical abilities “knocked the audiences dead.” Other fans think it has more to do with his piano playing and wild lifestyle.
However, some people speculate there’s a much darker explanation for the name. Having two dead wives didn’t look so good for the singer. It should be noted that there was no evidence of foul play, but that didn’t stop people from suspecting. At the end of the day, Lewis said the name came from his childhood. His friends used to call each other that growing up, and it stuck.
In 1976, Lewis wanted to bring his 41st birthday in with a party. Sadly, the celebration ended with blood. For some reason, he thought it would be fun to try shooting a coke bottle in his bedroom using a loaded .357 Magnum. Hmm… I wonder how this could go wrong. Obviously, he didn’t have the greatest ideas.
As you can imagine, this didn’t turn out well. The bullet ricocheted and hit bassist Norman Owens right in the chest. Owens was severely injured, but thankfully, he recovered. Lewis’s “Killer” nickname remained. If he’s going to play with a loaded gun, he could at least make sure nobody else is in danger.
Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash were in one of the most iconic photographs in rock n’ roll; they are standing behind Elvis Presley playing piano at Sun Studios in 1956. They were all kids at the time and at the very beginning of their careers (except Elvis, who was already famous).
The encounter was also really random. It was pure coincidence that they all visited Memphis and went to Sun Studios at the same time. The fact that they all came together later became a pivotal event in rock history. Each of these artists went on to receive international fame and success. Currently, Lewis is the only living member of the “Million-Dollar Quartet.”
It’s not rare for Lewis to speak about God and the afterlife. He explains that he is really scared about what awaits him in eternity. He was really clear about it during a 2015 interview with The Guardian: “I was always worried whether I was going to heaven… I still am. I worry about it before I go to bed; it’s a very serious situation. I mean, you worry, when you breathe your last breath, where are you going to go?”
It’s not something I think about daily. However, his religious upbringing must have contributed to his fear. If you’re that worried, repent for your sins, Jerry Lee!
Jerry Lee Lewis was beloved by many fans, but the Internal Revenue Service had a different opinion of the singer. The IRS didn’t see Lewis as a star but as a delinquent taxpayer. In 1988, his overdue tax bill added up to nearly $2 million, and it was part of the reason he had to file for bankruptcy. This wasn’t his first rodeo, though.
The IRS had already swept in and seized some of his property, including cars, jewelry, motorcycles, and a tractor, back in 1979 and in 1985. IRS agents even showed up at his concerts and collected his fees. This is why it’s important to pay your taxes!
During the prosecution case against Lewis for tax evasion, the IRS alleged that the singer spent extravagantly on his friends and family in order to hide his income from the taxman. One girl testified that Lewis told her to buy a $25,000 Cadillac Eldorado using his cash.
She went on to say that shortly after, he bought her a $15,000 Mustang. I can’t believe she squealed on him after he bought her a car! He definitely should have spent that money on somebody a little more trustworthy. You don’t have to worry, though, because Jerry Lee is doing just fine. Today, his estimated net worth is $15 million.
This rock n’ roll tale is surrounded by myth. Great Balls of Fire is a 1989 movie depicting Jerry Lee Lewis’s life, starring Dennis Quaid (as Lewis). In one of the most memorable scenes of the movie, Lewis pours gas over his piano right before he lit it on fire, as he is playing “Great Balls of Fire” in front of a chaotic audience at the Brooklyn Paramount Theatre. So, did this actually happen?
It’s hard to say. Lewis both verified and denied the story. Legend has it that Lewis was frustrated that Chuck Berry was that night’s headliner, so he did what anyone would do… started a fire. Apparently, he wanted to send out a message that he was the top dog.
Great Balls of Fire was the story of the early days of Lewis’s career, based on his ex-wife Myra Gale Lewis’s book. Dennis Quaid plays a wild, hasty, selfish, and reckless Jerry Lee in the movie. You may recognize some other famous names who starred in the film: Winona Ryder and Alec Baldwin.
Lewis hated Great Balls of Fire and was disgusted by the film. He said, “I never acted like that in my life.” I mean, I would be disappointed too if I was depicted as a selfish wild child. He wasn’t really portrayed in the greatest light. Lewis summed up his thoughts, saying, “The movie was bad news.”
Jimmy Swaggart is cousins with Jerry Lee Lewis. Yes, the same Swaggart, who back in the 1980s, tearfully admitted to hiring sex workers. The cousins grew up in the same town when they lived in Louisiana. Since Swaggart also played piano, the two of them used to jam together as young kids.
Lewis jokes, “I’ve gone to the dogs,” while talking about his own pack of dogs. He’s had a few chihuahuas and chows. His favorite one is named Topaz; the rest of them are Topaz Jr., Babette, Prince, and Zelda. His pets even howl along when they hear Lewis sing.
When it came to the 1960s music scene, Janis Joplin was no innocent flower. So when she met the wild Jerry Lee Lewis, something was bound to happen. Janis actually had a crush on Lewis’s bass player. After watching a performance in Texas, Janis and her little sister Laura went backstage to Lewis’s dressing room.
Let’s just say their encounter didn’t go so well. He told Laura, “You wouldn’t be bad looking if you weren’t trying to look like your sister,” and Janis punched Lewis. I would do the exact same thing, but it didn’t end there. Lewis thought it was okay to hit Janis back, telling her, “If you’re going to act like a man, I’m going to treat you like one!”
In the 1970s, Lewis bought a ranch near Memphis, and it became harshly known as “Disgrace Land.” The negative connotation was because this is where Lewis would throw his crazy parties full of sin and corruption. Dozens of celebrities would go over there for various events to party and have a good time.
Everyone would hang out around his swimming pool, which was shaped like a grand piano while listening to Lewis play all night long. Today, the property is no longer a party scene but a museum instead. Lewis doesn’t live there anymore, but he does go and visit every once in a while. It brings back some good old memories.
The man who took over the stage with excitement and energy also had his vulnerabilities. Eddie Kilroy was a Nashville producer who helped Lewis’s stalled career make a comeback in the late 1960s. He knew him pretty well and revealed that Jerry Lee Lewis has confidence issues like the rest of us. He explained:
“He is very insecure. The only thing he is secure with is his music. He can play Bach, Beethoven. It is God-given. But he runs from everything else. He is terrified of being alone.” One of his managers also mentioned, “It’s especially rough for Jerry at Christmas, Easter, and Thanksgiving – the times for family.” I can understand that. I think most of us get lonely during the holiday seasons.
Jerry Lee Lewis has thousands of accolades. He has been honored with Grammy awards, a spot in the Rock n’ Roll Hall of Fame, but even that wasn’t enough. There is one thing missing from his trophy shelf. Well, Jerry Lee recently had an interview with Rolling Stone magazine, where he admitted what he wants.
His dream is to be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. Well, who can blame him? If we are being honest, he deserves it. He has had over 20 Top 10 country hits! Plus, four of those were number ones. As a huge country music fan, I’m personally surprised he isn’t on there already.
As it turns out, there might be a reason why Lewis never got inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. On January 20, 1973, Lewis appeared at country music’s temple, The Grand Ole Opry, and gave a show that went down in history as his best and as his worst. He was live in the theatre and over the radio, where Lewis played way longer than he was supposed to (you get eight minutes, and he played for 40).
That wasn’t even the part that angered people. First of all, he played more rock n’ roll music than country, but also, he dropped the f-word on stage. After that, Lewis and Nashville didn’t really get along.
Jerry Lee Lewis cut some music in 1971 for the astronauts on Apollo 14 mission — the third NASA mission to land humans on the moon. One of these astronaut’s names was Stuart Roosa, who personally wrote a thank-you note to the musician, and Lewis still proudly hangs it on his wall.
The letter read: “Dead Mr. Lewis, our most heartfelt thank you for the tremendous tape you cut for me to take on Apollo 14. I can’t really describe how much it meant to me to have all your music on board when we were 240,000 miles from home, and the Earth had shrunk into a tiny ball.” Jerry Lee Lewis’s music is out of this world!
John Lennon from the Beatles once stated that Jerry Lee Lewis was one of his biggest influences. In the early 70s, Lennon finally got to meet his hero backstage at Lewis’s concert in Los Angeles. Interestingly, the fanboy encounter got a little awkward. Lennon literally bowed down to Lewis, got on his knees and kissed the singer’s feet. That’s quite the greeting.
Lewis later revealed to The Guardian newspaper, “Yes, I was a bit embarrassed.” That wasn’t even the most awkward part. Lewis later revealed that the feelings weren’t really mutual. Lewis later mentioned that he wasn’t even a Beatles fan. Hopefully, he didn’t tell Lennon that to his face.