A whole lotta shakin’ goin’ on
By John Firminger
Taking a break from my usual ramble I would like to look at the rise and fall and rise again of the legendary Jerry Lee Lewis.
It’s almost 60 years since the infamous British tour of Jerry Lee Lewis in May, 1958, and in part one we looks back at the furore surrounding it, and how Jerry’s career managed to survive.
In the UK, Jerry scored consecutive hits in the UK with two unbridled rock’n’roll anthems; Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On making No.10 and Great Balls Of Fire hitting the No.1 spot. These were followed by more Top 20 hits with more classics-to-be, Breathless and the rampaging High School Confidential, all released on the much-revered London American label.
As a result, Louisiana-born Jerry Lee Lewis had become dubbed the No.1 performer in the burgeoning rock’n’roll field, taking the crown from Elvis.
Adored by both male and female fans, the singer/pianist had emerged as a true original with a totally inhibited and unique style, mixing barrel-house blues with a fervent hillbilly style, and of course, his ‘pumpin’ piano’. Consolidating his success in this country was the release of Jerry’s classic first album for Sun Records titled Jerry Lee Lewis, and issued here on London.
Fans in the UK got a glimpse of the ‘Louisianna wild man’ via his appearance on screen, first in Jamboree miming to Great Balls Of Fire, followed by a great opening scene in the film High School Confidential, performing the hit title song on the back of a truck. My first sighting of Jerry came via the clip of him from Jamboree and included on the BBC TV show Off The Record, hosted by rock’n’roll hating ex-bandleader Jack Payne.
Singing Great Balls Of Fire Jerry Lee looked like some wild maniac, helped by some effective lighting and probably made ol’ square-pants Payne squirm a bit!
It was, of course, Jerry’s somewhat ‘non-conformist’ life-style that became his downfall. Wrecked automobiles, booze and pills all contributed towards Jerry’s wild life-style, boosted, of course, by his success.
While some of his actions were those of a fearless young man suddenly boosted to world fame and great fortune, paradoxically, the God-fearing Jerry was tormented by his strong religious beliefs, all of which became the factors within his complex personality.
Regarding his personal life, the thing that we should remember is that when Jerry came from, Ferriday, Louisianna, the culture was vastly different from ours. He was first married at 14 to the young Dorothy Barton and while such actions would raise eyebrows in the UK, it was quite acceptable in the Southern States of America.
Just a year later Jerry had met Jane Mitcham who would become his second wife, while still married to Dorothy, and with Jane, he had a son, named Jerry Lee Lewis Jr.
At the time, he began recording for Sun Records in Memphis. Jerry Lee moved in with his cousin J W Brown to be nearer Memphis. With the Brown’s, Jerry became quite enamoured with their young daughter, Myra. The two became close and decided (albeit Jerry’s decision) to get married. While some family members frowned a little on the prospect, others accepted it, saying: ‘if that’s what they want to do’. Less we forget, while making plans to wed the young Myra, he was still legally married to Jane, although such minor details didn’t seem to bother Jerry!
Jerry took Myra out to a small Mississippi town where a lot of young people were secretly wed. The local Minister conducted a brief marriage service and the couple tied the knot, maintaining Jerry’s ‘extraordinary marital’ status. Back home, on discovering their marriage, Myra’s Dad, J W was after Jerry’s hide, literally ‘gunning’ for him but, thankfully, was appeased by Jerry’s record producer Sam Phillips.
On the strength of his recording success in the UK, a six-week nationwide tour was set up on behalf of the Rank Organisation by promoters Lew and Leslie Grade, beginning on May 24, 1958. Co-headlining the tour were The Treniers, an eight-man troupe who’d switched from rhythm and blues to rock’n’roll (“rockin’ is our business”) plus support from cabaret act The Hedley-Ward Trio. Unfortunately, as we all know, problems arose as soon as Jerry set foot on British soil. With him was an entourage of musicians, drummer Russ Smith, bass-player J W Brown and his wife Lois, and son Rusty, Jerry’s manager Oscar Davis, his sister Frankie Jean, and his new bride Myra.
Initially she was said to be 15 years old, but when one of the London press reporters discovered that Myra was in fact only 13 and also Jerry’s cousin, the s**t hit the fan and the rest of the press went crazy, stirring up a storm of bad press with headlines such as Clear Out This Gang and Baby Snatcher. As the furore raged, members of Parliament got in on the act, questioning the reason behind Jerry Lee and Myra’s presence in the UK. With all the controversy, you’d think that Jerry Lee Lewis was an alien from another planet, come to invade England, which was true with his music at least.
Opening at the Edmonton Regal, Jerry came on-stage bedecked out in a vivid red suit with black trim and ‘attacked’ the Steinway grand piano beginning with Lawdy Miss Clawdy. Other inclusions in his set were Down The Line, Fools Like Me, Great Balls Of Fire, You Win Again, High School Confidential and the closer Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. Afterwards, back at the Westbury Hotel, Jerry and Myra dined on steak, strawberries and cream while trying to remain aloof about the controversy he’d caused.
While Jerry’s tour was overshadowed by the scandal and the press’s incessant attack, inciting gullible fans to also turn against him with headlines like We Hate Jerry! and Go Home. While some teenagers decried Jerry Lee, others loved him and had no interest in the stories in the press and were only bothered about Jerry Lee’s music.
Regardless of the bombardment of negative press, his few actual performances of the tour are remembered as being sensational by those who saw him.
One such teenage fan was Chas Hodges who, after seeing Jerry Lee performing onstage, declared it was a milestone in his life. Other aspiring British musicians who were equally inspired by Jerry were Clive Powell (Georgie Fame), Paul McCartney, Chris Andrews, Alan Price and Cliff Bennett. Among the others who saw him, and actually met him, was emerging British rocker Cliff Richard, with manager Johnny Foster and band-members Terry Smart and Ian Samwell.
Regardless of Jerry’s actual musical talent, the press were of course only interested in his personal life and undoubtedly had a ‘field-day’, virtually destroying Jerry’s career. Fortunately, unknown to the press, Jerry’s 15-year-old sister Frankie Jean was actually pregnant while she was here, having married at 12 years old. Had the authorities known that, they would’ve probably locked the whole gang up!
Saving their own necks, Rank realised the only thing to do was cancel the rest of Jerry’s appearances and send him and his entourage back home. Believing – or more likely – hoping the trouble in the UK wouldn’t affect his career, arriving back in Memphis, Jerry told the press: “Back home they take a different view of this sort of thing. I expect a great reception when I get back.”
However, upon his return, the news had preceded him with reporters eager to find out more details.
While he may have been stupid, under the circumstances, to take his young wife to the UK, Jerry was wise enough to avoid any questions about his personal situation and contrary to press reports, recalled only how well he’d been received by the English fans.
One positive side of all the bally-hoo was, in their avariciousness, the press also took many photos of Jerry’s visit, all of which now serve as part of this well-documented piece of rock’n’roll history.
Following Jerry Lee’s banishment, The Treniers were left to continue with the dates, plus added support acts Chas McDevitt Group and London rock’n’roller Terry Wayne. Making up for Jerry Lee’s absence, The Treniers provided a most dynamic show, and with their great vitality, certainly made an impression on the audiences. Two people who were greatly impressed by their show were young guitarists Bruce Cripps and Brian ‘Hank’ Rankin who would adopt some of The Treniers’ routines later in their own act with their own band The Shadows.
Sadly, the events in England in May ’58 did have an adverse effect on Jerry’s career. Gig-wise, Jerry went from $40,000 a night to a lowly $300, but Jerry Lee Lewis is, of course, a great survivor and with pure determination kept working. This included playing large auditorium to noisy boozy back-water joints, where he often had to contend with hostile audience members.
Back at Sun studios, his record producer Sam Phillips appeared to lose interest somewhat in Jerry’s career, putting his efforts into his other acts, like Carl Perkins and Charlie Rich. Continuing to record, some of his efforts included titles like Little Queenie, Bonnie B., When I Get Paid, It Won’t Happen With Me, Teenage Letter, and even the gimmicky I’ve Been Twistin’, but which are all still revered as much as the bigger hits with the more loyal fans. That loyalty afforded Jerry some minor UK hits with High School Confidential (Jan. ’59), Lovin’ Up A Storm (May ’59) and Baby Baby Bye, Bye (June 60).
In May ’61, he made a welcome return to the UK Top 10 with a sensational revival of Ray Charles’ What’d I Say, recorded in Sun’s new studio in Nashville.
Continued next month.