Thunder-pumping piano man Jerry Lee Lewis was probably the least celebrated member of Sun Records’ Million Dollar Quartet whose other members were none other than Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. You might even say he was the “quiet” Millionaire. Although taking into account his marriages (7), arrest records (almost as numerous as his musical records) and his addiction to moonshine, he was a very noisy Millionaire. Killer (as fast became his nickname) was not a paragon of virtue. In fact he wasn’t even a nice man. But in 1958 he was a high-flying Cajun, till it all came crashing to the ground in what was supposed to be a triumphant tour of jolly old England.
On the strength of Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On, Jerry Lee Lewis was “the next thing” and in great demand . At 22 this hillbilly high school dropout probably felt a little invincible. Feeling a little invincible is like being a little bit pregnant. You either are or you aren’t and it’s important to know the difference. Sam Phillips, fabled owner of Sun Records and architect of the Million Dollar Quartet, had arranged an English tour to take advantage of “Killer’s” popularity and Mr. Lewis decided to bring his new bride, Myra Gale Brown. So far so good.
However the Fleet Street press notices this little doe-eyed 3rd grader who seemed to tag along with Mr. Lewis everywhere and inquired, “Hey Jerry Lee, who’s the Girl Scout?” To which the supremely unworldly and previously invincible Mr. Lewis responded, “That’s no Girl Scout, that’s my wife.” When they pressed him as to how old she was he slyly added 2 years and said she was 15, when in reality she was 13 (yes really), and his 2nd cousin, and his 3rd wife to boot. This scandalous revelation waylaid his career and sent him packing back to the States where he was lucky to get $250 a show. Suddenly the $1,000,000 Quartet had been reduced to the $750,250 Quartet. The career of this boozing, wife-beating musician never recovered. If only he hadn’t been breast fed from a moonshine still.
You know you’re Matrimonial IQ is low when you’re 22 years old and you’re on your 3rd marriage. But you know you’re certifiably insane when that 3rd wife is your 13 year old cousin from Louisiana and both your 2nd and 3rd marriages happened before the 1st and 2nd wives were divorced. I don’t even know what you would call that – double bigamy? A Quadrigamist? His third wife was so young this may be the only case where on their wedding night the amorous honeymooners didn’t have to worry about getting pregnant….because little Myra hadn’t had her first period yet. Creepy? Yes, but in a bad way. Myra finally divorced the retch in 1970. All I can say is, you know it’s been a strange marriage when after 13 years you get divorced and you’re only 26. At least she had the good sense to pen a tell-all book entitled Great Balls of Fire which was made into a 1989 movie of the same name starring Dennis Quaid.
This is a mean old man and hardly worth any of the accolades he has received as rock and roll’s first “wild man.” Praise be to the uncontrollable one. Hell no. This guy may have had a hand in the deaths of 2 of his 7 wives and certainly beat the other gold diggers who had the bad sense to marry him. Why would any woman waste their time on him? Were all the prisoners taken?
Now I love rock and roll. And I like excess, but I like my profligacy measured and deliberative – Think Steve Martin in The Jerk picking up 15 different items and after selecting each one emphatically stating, “And that’s all I need.” I do not like my profligacy wanton and ignorant – Think Competitive Eating also called speed eating, where there was actually a new record set in the deep-fried asparagus category recently. And that’s probably why I don’t like Jerry Lee Lewis. All fury and no nuance. But then again I had the advantage of being breast fed from real breasts and not from a metallic moonshine still, so perhaps my bayou revulsion is a bit more understandable.
I think the whole sordid affair would’ve blown over if Jerry Lee Lewis just pretended he was Danny Kaye’s less well-behaved little brother. Instead his cousin was fire and brimstone televangelist Jimmy Swaggart. I know Jerry Lee Lewis was a god-fearing man, but it’s not enough to be god-fearing. You have to act on that fear as a motivator to straighten up and fly right. I know I’m judging. I am with sin and I cast the first stone. So sue me. It’s like when the new Pope says, “Who am I to judge?” And I think, “You’re the Pope. That’s who. I mean if you can’t judge…then whom?”
I Judgeth Thee
By the time I picked up the trail of Jerry Lee Lewis he was old news. My childhood memories of him were that of watching a surly old drunk in a bad leisure suit (is there a good one?) stiffly moving about the stage in an attempt to conjure the day when he was a lithe and dynamic performer. He had not grown as a performer. In fact, he’d actually shrunk. He was a sad parody of his former frenetic self. Even at the age 10 in 1971 I knew this. If there’s a lesson to be learned here it’s this: Kids, stay in school.
No that’s not it. It’s this: Govern yourself and tame your passions so you can enjoy them. And stay in school. But not past 35. You really should be out of school by 35 with tamed passions.
When Mr. Lewis passes he’ll be reunited with the Million Dollar Quartet and once again he’ll come up short because he still owes the IRS back taxes. Goodness gracious!