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Jerry Lee Lewis

Though he had only three Top 10 hits in the first, purely rock & roll phase of his career, many critics believe Jerry Lee Lewis was as talented a '50s rocker as Sun labelmate Elvis Presley. Some also believe that Jerry lee Lewis could have made it just as big commercially if his piano-slamming musical style was not so relentlessly wild, his persona not so threateningly hard-edged. Lewis' first musical influences were eclectic. His parents, who were poor, spun swing and Al Jolson records. But his earliest big influence was country star Jimmie Rodgers. In his early teens he absorbed both the softer country style of Gene Autry and the more rocking music of local black clubs, along with the gospel hymns of the local Assembly of God church. Lewis first played his aunt’s piano at age eight and made his public debut in 1949 at age 14, sitting in with a local C&W band in a Ford dealership parking lot. When he was 15 Lewis went to a fundamentalist Bible school in Waxahachie, Texas, from which he was soon expelled. He has often said that rock & roll is the Devil’s music. In 1956 Lewis headed for Memphis (financed by his father) to audition for Sam Phillips’ Sun Records. Phillips’ assistant, Jack Clement, was impressed with Lewis’ piano style but suggested he play more rock & roll, in a style similar to Elvis Presley’s. (Presley had recently switched from Sun to RCA.) Lewis’ debut single, “Crazy Arms” (previously a country hit for Ray Price), did well regionally, but it was the followup, 1957’s “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” (#3), that finally broke through. The song first sold 100,000 copies in the South; after Lewis’ appearance on Steve Allen’s TV show, it sold over 6 million copies nationally. “Great Balls of Fire” (#2, 1957) sold more than 5 million copies and was followed by more than a half million in sales for “Breathless” (#7, 1958) and “High School Confidential” (#21, 1958), the title theme song of a movie in which Lewis also appeared. Both “Whole Lotta Shakin’” and “Great Balls” were in the pop, country, and R&B Top 5 simultaneously, “Shakin’” at #3 pop, and #1 R&B and C&W, and “Great Balls” at #2 pop, #3 R&B, and #1 C&W. Lewis’ high school nickname was the “Killer,” and it stuck with him as he established a reputation as a tough, rowdy performer with a flamboyant piano style that used careening glissandos, pounding chords, and bench-toppling acrobatics.

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