Jerry Lee Lewis
Jerry Lee Lewis is notable as one of the first truly wild and unrestrained personalities to influence rock and roll music in the 1950s. His first truly popular single was “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” released in 1957. He followed it with songs such as “High School Confidential,” “Breathless,” and one of his most famous songs, “Great Balls of Fire.” He also performed a number of notable covers, such as “Me and Bobby McGee” by Kris Kristofferson, “Sixteen Candles” by the Crests, “Jackson” by Billy Edd Wheeler, “Chantilly Lace” by J.P. Richardson, and “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry” by Hank Williams.
Lewis taught himself how to play the piano, adopting a boogie-woogie style with a fast and aggressive pace. He played hard, hitting the keys with notable force and driving every rhythm with unrestrained ferocity, even jumping on the piano. He maintained the beat with his left hand, but he was particularly notable for always avoiding the seventh in every chord progression. Instead, he repeating the fifth and sixth. It was technically a simple change, but no other big names were doing it at the time. Even other influential pianists like Ray Charles and Little Richard had never thought to utilize a chord progression like that of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Many have claimed that this aspect of his style was influenced by gospel music. Jerry Lee’s cousin was an evangelist named Jimmy Swaggart, and the two were both highly influenced by the church. Jerry, however, had also been influenced by a roadhouse the two visited together when they were young. Some have doubted the authenticity of the story, but Jerry and Jimmy certainly had a complicated relationship as a result of Jerry’s lifestyle. Less questionable influences include Jerry’s other cousin, Carl McVoy, to whom Lewis has attributed his love for the piano.
Between his fast pace and his less-than-conventional lifestyle, some have said that Jerry Lee Lewis opened rock and roll to later subgenres such as punk rock. His tempo and his sheer volume were powerful for their time, and he had a nearly anarchistic sense of reckless abandon on the stage. He also had no problem peddling his sex appeal to the young women in the audience. He was everything that leaps to the mind of the average listener when they hear the words “rock star,” and he was one of the first men in the industry to ever adopt that particular persona.
After his marriage to Myra Gale Brown, Jerry Lee Lewis disappeared from the mainstream music scene for quite some time. However, he still continued to record music throughout the 1960s and 1970s. With less pressure to maintain the style for which he was known, he began to experiment more with country and gospel music. He is still active to this day, his most recent album having been released in 2006. The album is a series of cover songs performed with other big names such as Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Bruce Springsteen, Eric Clapton, Don Henley, Kid Rock, Jimmy Page, Little Richard, and many more. While it does not contain any of the hits for which he is known, it demonstrates his continued ability to play the piano unlike anyone who came before him.
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