"Stone cold sober? I don't believe in that." That quote by Jerry Lee Lewis, born 76 years ago today, might make an appropriate epitaph for a man who's not only one of rock 'n' roll's original innovators and iconic figures but also one of its most outrageous madmen and irrepressible personalities.
Nicknamed "The Killer" for his manic antics, he helped define rock's early incendiary image, and along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Elvis Presley, he gave the budding movement one of its first totally over-the-top showmen. Long before Led Zeppelin gained fame for ravishing groupies and wrecking hotel rooms or Jimi Hendrix set his first ax ablaze or the Who demolished their stage gear and made mayhem a signature style, Jerry Lee was kicking over his keyboards, finding himself engaged in sex scandals, and making "the devil's music" his own.
Lewis' importance to rock 'n' roll's early trajectory can't be underestimated. One of the first inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, he, along with Little Richard, established piano as a primary presence in rock's musical arsenal, even though early on it was strongly suggested he switch to guitar. As part of producer Sam Phillips' Sun Records stable, he established himself as an early rock forebear and a member of the legendary Million Dollar Quartet, an impromptu outfit that also featured Elvis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash. He subsequently produced several best-selling standards, among them "Great Balls of Fire" and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," two songs that still have an indelible impact both on radio and in live performance.
Lewis' legend has also carried over onto the big screen, in films like Great Balls of Fire, featuring Dennis Quaid in the title role, and Walk the Line, in which his character played a significant secondary role to the film's hero, Johnny Cash. He himself appeared onscreen in several early rock exploitation films, including Jamboree and High School Confidential, and his playing could often be heard on numerous records by other artists.
Still, it was his third marriage that caused the greatest stink and nearly sank his career in the process. He secretly married his cousin, who was only 13 at the time, and when the story broke during a British tour, the jaunt was abruptly abbreviated. When he returned to the States, his professional life was in a shambles. Radio programmers blacklisted his records, promoters dropped him from their lucrative tours, and even Sam Phillips declared he wanted nothing to do with him.