Today is the birthday of Jerry Lee Lewis (b. 1935). He is rightfully known as the wildest, most objectionable, most downright diabolical of all the first generation of rock and roll performers, exceeding even Little Richard (who was black and gay!) in official public opprobrium due to the “wickedness” of his 1957 hit songs “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire”, his violently suggestive style of performing, and the ultimate deal-breaker only a few months into his time at the top, the revelation that he had married his 13 year old first cousin, a kind of double-your-pleasure depth of degeneracy. Compared to him, Elvis Presley, who was far out enough for most proper middle-class adults, seemed a paragon of Southern gentility.
That’s the usual narrative, and any film clip of you see of Lewis in performance will do nothing to derail that reliable freight train. This performer was not just flashy, but out of control: hitting the piano keys with his fists, elbows, and feet; indiscriminately running his fingers up and down the keyboard top to bottom with a flourish as though it were foreplay with a floozy he only had fifteen minutes to spend time with; kicking the piano stool over and playing his piano standing up so he could shake his legs and dance at the same time; his wild eyes gleaming; his teeth flashing; his greasy forelock falling in front of his face like some worked-up Pentecostal Preacher (indeed his cousin was the televangelist Jimmy Swaggart).
What gets lost though is Lewis’s pivotal place in the evolution of popular music. In contrast with guitar, there are only a handful of well-known influential rock and roll piano players you can name right off the bat. Fats Domino , Jerry Lee Lewis, Elton John….But Sir Elton of course owes his showmanship to Lewis (Jerry Lee Lewis + Liberace = early Elton John) and Fats’s laid back NOLA style differs little from the boogie woogie stride piano styles that had gone before. It was Lewis who learned that manner of playing from his African American neighbors, heated it up, increased the tempo, and infused it with Louisiana redneck energy, making for that black-white hybrid that differentiates rock and roll from jump blues and the like. It’s the sound of rockabilly, of grease monkeys and drag races and juvenile delinquency…which is why The Killer’s early music continued to wield influence far into the punk era, by which time Lewis had become a fairly sedate country artist.
To find out more about vaudeville past and present, consult No Applause, Just Throw Money: The Book That Made Vaudeville Famous, available at Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and wherever nutty books are sold.
And don’t miss my new book Chain of Fools: Silent Comedy and Its Legacies from Nickelodeons to Youtube, just released by Bear Manor Media, also available from amazon.com etc etc etc