Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the big stars of the early rock ’n’ roll years, “married” the daughter of his cousin on this day – a union that was to cause a storm of outrage.
Only 22, Lewis had already been married twice and was yet to divorce his second wife. His new “bride,” Myra Gale Brown, claimed on the “marriage” certificate that she was 20, but it emerged that she was actually just 13.
The news broke a few weeks later as Lewis, who had notched up a worldwide No.1 hit with “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” arrived in London and was about to begin a tour of the UK. His latest single, “Great Balls Of Fire”, had just topped the charts.
But newspaper reports of his 13-year-old “bride” and his tangled marital affairs caused such an outcry that the tour was cancelled and he returned to the US in disgrace.
Born in 1935, Lewis learned to play the piano as a child and eventually found a job as a studio musician at Sun Studios in Memphis, Tennessee, where he worked on some recording sessions with country music legend Carl Perkins.
The day came when Lewis and Perkins jammed with Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, the results of the session being released much later as the work of the "Million Dollar Quartet.”
Having become a star in his own right, Lewis developed a unique wild stage style, playing standing up and even, occasionally, setting fire to his piano.
But his career quickly nosedived after the scandal of his private life emerged. Radio stations refused to play his records and his earnings from live appearances, when he could find one, dropped from a reported $10,000 a night to just $250.
Lewis turned away from rock ’n’ roll in the early 1960s and returned to the music of his youth, finding a new career as a country artist. He would go on to earn several gold records in the genre as well as collecting a number of Grammy awards.
In 1989, his remarkable life story was made into a film called Great Balls Of Fire, with Dennis Quaid portraying the singer.
After watching it, Elton John said in an interview: “Up until ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ "the piano-playing that I had heard had been more sedate. My dad collected George Shearing records, but this was the first time I heard someone beat the sh*t out of a piano.
“Little Richard played it standing up, but Jerry Lee Lewis actually jumped on the piano! This was astonishing to me, that people could do that.
“Those records had such a huge effect on me, and they were just so great. I learned to play like that."
Jerry Lee Lewis’s unusual private life continues. In 2012, he took Judith Brown for his seventh wife. She was once married to one of his cousins.
Published: October 24, 2016