Jerry Lee Lewis – SUN Records and beyond

Gary: “One little Record Studio, at 706 Union Avenue, Memphis Tennessee, in my opinion did more for Rock and Roll than other labels like Chess, Atlantic, Specialty all put together. Many people have tried to recreate the sound from that little studio.

Even with today’s modern equipment and even trying it in the original studio, no one, I mean No One (including U2) could do it; so many have tried and failed. The reason; it was the wrong time.

The early 50’s were like no other era: “The Teenager”, theoretically was born in 1953 (someone of teenage years, with disposable income, that could have an impact on the market).

As much as I was never a Sam Phillips fan, the early Sam was unique. Sam was a good audio engineer. He was ambitious. He was poor but he knew the sound he was looking for. The musicians were hungry, full of energy and trying to create that new sound.

Sun Label - Whole Lotta Shakin'

Sun Label – Whole Lotta Shakin

As the proverbial Dick Clark once said “In the early years the Music Business was all about the Music, Today the Music Business is all about the Business“. That in a nutshell is why it could never be recreated.

For example, they used cardboard boxes for drums (listen to the early Sun recordings) one room, good Ampex equipment, monoral, Shure & RCA Microphones. Let’s face it the first Rock & Roll Record was created there, Rocket 88 by Jackie Brenston (which was really, Ike Turner and his Delta Cats).

Lets move on, for all of you people who were not around at the time “You missed a helluva Ride”. It will never happen again.

So let’s talk about the artist on the SUN label…

Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis (known as “The Killer”)

Born: September 25, 1935 in Ferriday Louisiana


2006 / Jerry Lee Lewis Concert (Last Man Standing) he was 71 (it may be one his last great concerts with all of the stars) /
1983 / London Hammersmith Odeon / When he was slim and could really rock (the entire concert)/


Lewis was born to the poor family of Elmo and Mamie Lewis in Ferriday in Concordia Parish in eastern Louisiana, and began playing piano in his youth with his two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart. His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano.

Influenced by a piano-playing older cousin Carl McVoy, the radio, and the sounds from the black juke joint across the tracks, Haney’s Big House, Lewis developed his own style, mixing rhythm and blues, boogie-woogie, gospel, and country music, as well as ideas from established “country boogie” pianists like recording artists Moon Mullican and Merrill Moore. Soon he was playing professionally.

His mother enrolled him in Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, secure in the knowledge that her son would now be exclusively singing his songs to the Lord. But Lewis daringly played a boogie woogie rendition of “My God Is Real” at a church assembly that sent him packing the same night.

Pearry Green, then president of the student body, related how during a talent show Lewis played some “worldly” music. The next morning, the Dean of the school called both Lewis and Green into his office to expel them both. Lewis said that Green shouldn’t be expelled because “he didn’t know what I was going to do.”

Years later Green asked Lewis: “Are you still playing the devil’s music?” Lewis replied “Yes, I am. But you know it’s strange, the same music that they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I am playing for the devil and they don’t.”

After that incident, Lewis stopped performing religious music. He played at clubs in and around Ferriday and Natchez, Mississippi, becoming part of the burgeoning new rock and roll sound and cutting his first demo recording in 1954.

He made a trip to Nashville around 1955 where he played clubs and attempted to drum up interest, but was turned down by the Grand Ole Opry as he had been at the Louisiana Hayride country stage and radio show in Shreveport. Recording executives in Nashville suggested he switch to playing a guitar.

Lewis traveled to Memphis, Tennessee in November 1956, to audition for Sun Records. Label owner Sam Phillips was away on a trip to Florida, but producer and engineer Jack Clement recorded Lewis’s rendition of Ray Price’s “Crazy Arms” and his own composition “End of The Road“.

During December 1956, Lewis began recording prolifically, both as a solo artist and as a session musician for such Sun artists as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. His distinctive piano playing can be heard on many tracks recorded at Sun during late 1956 and early 1957, including Carl Perkins’ “Matchbox“, “Your True Love“, “You Can Do No Wrong“, and “Put Your Cat Clothes On“, and Billy Lee Riley’s “Flyin’ Saucers Rock’n’Roll“.

Until this time, rockabilly had rarely featured piano, but it proved a highly influential addition and rockabilly artists on other labels soon also started working with pianists.

On December 4, 1956, Elvis Presley dropped in on Phillips to pay a social visit while Carl Perkins was in the studio cutting new tracks with Lewis backing him on piano. The three started an impromptu jam session, and Phillips left the tape running.

He later telephoned Johnny Cash and brought him in to join the others. These recordings, almost half of which were gospel songs, survived, and have been released on CD under the title Million Dollar Quartet.

Tracks also include Elvis Presley’s “Don’t Be Cruel” and “Paralyzed“, Chuck Berry’s “Brown Eyed Handsome Man“, Pat Boone’s “Don’t Forbid Me” and Presley doing an impersonation of Jackie Wilson (who was then with Billy Ward and the Dominoes) impersonating him on “Don’t Be Cruel“.

Lewis’s own singles (on which he was billed as “Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano”) advanced his career as a soloist during 1957, with hits such as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire“.

His biggest hit, “Great Balls Of Fire” brought him to national and international fame, despite criticism for the songs’ overtly sexual undertones which prompted some radio stations to boycott the song.

Some of his Other Big Hits…

According to several first hand sources, including Johnny Cash, Lewis himself, who was devoutly Christian, was also troubled by the sinful nature of his own material, which he firmly believed was leading himself and his audience to Hell. This aspect of Lewis’s character was depicted in Waylon Payne’s portrayal of Lewis in the 2005 film Walk the Line, based on Cash’s autobiographies.

Lewis would often kick the piano bench out of the way to play standing, rake his hands up and down the keyboard for dramatic accent, sit down on the keyboard and even stand on top of the instrument.

His first TV appearance, in which he demonstrated some of these moves, was on The Steve Allen Show on July 28, 1957, where he played the song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On“.

He is also reputed to have set a piano on fire at the end of a live performance, in protest at being billed below Chuck Berry.

His dynamic performance style can be seen in films such as High School Confidential (he sang the title song from the back of a flatbed truck), and Jamboree.

He has been called “rock & roll’s first great wild man” and also “rock & roll’s first great eclectic. Classical composer Michael Nyman has also cited Lewis’s style as the progenitor of his own aesthetic.

Now I believe if the next part had not happened he would have been a lot more popular, but we lived in a very puritanical society in the 50’s and Jerry made some bad decisions. In fairness it was quite common in Louisiana at that time to have young marriages, Jerry had a lot of them. He was and still is very head strong and he has hurt his career with some of those decisions. And this ended his career!

Breathless/ 1958 Dick Clark Saturday Night Show

Lewis’ turbulent personal life was hidden from the public until a May 1958 British tour where Ray Berry, a news agency reporter at London Airport (the only journalist present), learned about Lewis’s third wife, Myra Gale Brown. She was Lewis’s first cousin once removed and only 13 years old. (Brown, Lewis, and his management all insisted she was 15.) Lewis was nearly 23 years old. The publicity caused an uproar and the tour was canceled after only three concerts.

The scandal followed Lewis home to America, and as a result, he was blacklisted from radio and almost vanished from the music scene.

Lewis felt betrayed by numerous people who had been his supporters. Dick Clark dropped him from his shows. Lewis even felt that Sam Phillips had sold him out when the Sun Record patriarch released “The Return of Jerry Lee,” a bogus “interview” cut together by Jack Clement from excerpts of Lewis’s songs, which made light of his marital and publicity problems.

Only Alan Freed stayed true to Jerry Lee Lewis, playing his records until Freed was removed from the air because of payola allegations.

Even though Jerry Lee Lewis was still under contract with Sun Records, he stopped recording.

He had gone from $10,000 a night concerts to $250 a night spots in beer joints and small clubs. He had few friends at the time whom he felt he could trust. It was only through Kay Martin, the president of Lewis’s fan club, T. L. Meade, (aka Franz Douskey) a sometime Memphis musician and friend of Sam Phillips, and Gary Sklar, that Lewis went back to record at Sun Records.

By this time, Phillips had built a new state-of-the-art studio at 639 Madison Avenue in Memphis, thus abandoning the old Union Avenue studio where he had recorded B. B. King, Howlin’ Wolf, Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins, Lewis, Johnny Cash and others.

It was at the new Madison Avenue studio that Lewis recorded his only major hit during this period, which was a rendition of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say” in 1961.

In Europe other updated versions of “Sweet Little Sixteen” (September 1962 UK) and “Good Golly Miss Molly” (March 1963) entered the Hit Parade. On popular EPs, “Hang Up My Rock and Roll Shoes“, “I’ve Been Twistin‘”, “Money” and “Hello Josephine” also became turntable hits, especially in nascent discothèques.

Another recording of Lewis playing an instrumental boogie arrangement of the Glenn Miller Orchestra favorite “In the Mood,” was issued by Sun under the pseudonym of “The Hawk,” but disc jockeys quickly figured out the distinctive piano style, and this gambit failed.

Lewis’s Sun recording contract ended in 1963 and he joined Smash Records, where he made a number of rock recordings that did not further his career.

Breathless / 1965 Shindig /

I am including more than just the so called “hits” of Jerry Lee. There were some other great records made at Sun that were not released for years later. Jerry Lee could really Rock; just listen to those old recordings. When listening, you will also hear the box drum.

Some of his Shows While On Tours (HIS GUITAR PLAYER FOR OVER 40 YEARS HAS BEEN kEN lOVELACE, from Alabama)

Early 1980s / Great Balls of Fire / From Austin Texas (Austin City Limits) 

1989 / Johnny B. Goode / Jerry Lee Lewis & Friends – recorded at London’s Hammersmith Apollo Theatre
1989 / Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On / Rome Italy with Dave Edmunds
1989 / High School Confidential / Melbourne Australia

In 2005, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” was selected for permanent preservation in the National Recording Registry at the Library of Congress.



8 responses to “Jerry Lee Lewis – SUN Records and beyond

  1. Pingback: Sun Records – Jerry Lee Lewis | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

  2. Pingback: The Killer! – Gary | Russ & Gary's "The Best Years of Music"

  3. Jerry Lee Lewis are a great Rock’n’Roller and in my Collection of fifties
    Rock & Roll have I all his records of SUN Records

  4. That is great Russ … The Killer~! I’ve got to come back to this. There’s lots of recordings here and if you love rock ‘n roll you’ve got to listen to what’s here and read this story. Jerry Lee Lewis was one of the greats.

  5. Ian MacDougall

    Not that it detracts from your point, but Oxford says the word first appeared as ‘teen-ager’ in Popular Science Monthly in 1941.


    Gary you are right about the 3 Greatest Rock N’ Roll singer still on this planet. I have played all of there songs for over 56 years and glad to still be able to continue this weekly. I have numerous friends on OLDIES STATIONS who do the weekly shows and who I help at Monthly Dances.
    Not to change the subject but Pittsburgh, Pa. still bring in groups yearly like THE DUBS, THE HARPYONES and THE ELDORAOES. They still have some of the Original singer from the 50’s. Maybe some day you can cover some of these Great groups who I get to see on stage.


    HUGH “BABE” O’Donnell

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