He was one of the biggest and fastest-rising stars in the emerging American rock ‘n’ roll scene, but a trip to visit his army of British fans 60 years ago today would spell his downfall.
With hits including “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire”, Jerry Lee Lewis was known for his wild performing ‘rockabilly’ style at the piano, which brought him international fame. As part of his act, he would kick his piano stool aside, play standing up, sweeping his hands up and down the keys and even playing with the heel of his foot or climbing on top of the instrument.
What most of his fans didn’t know was that the tempestuous 22-year-old’s personal life was almost as turbulent off stage, and was about to catch up with him. When he and his touring entourage touched down at London’s Heathrow Airport on May 22nd, 1958, among the fans waiting to greet him was a single news agency reporter, who was about to get the scoop of his life.
Noticing a young looking girl among Jerry Lee Lewis’s group, reporter Ray Berry asked her who she was and was surprised to get the answer: “I’m Myra… Jerry’s wife”. Taken aback, the reporter than asked Lewis himself how old his new wife was, to which the star replied: “Fifteen”.
In most people’s eyes that made her a child bride, with a seven-year age gap between them, but even that, it soon transpired, was a lie. After a little more digging it turned out that in fact Myra was just 13, and Lewis’s first cousin once removed (the daughter of his first cousin). In some southern American states (Lewis hailed from Louisiana) marriage at such a young age was not uncommon at that time, but the revelations about the star’s marriage would raise eyebrows in most of his home nation and have the British choking on their tea!
Lewis had come to Britain for a 27-date tour – the biggest so far by any of the new American rock ‘n’ roll stars, but as new broke of his unusual marriage, it quickly came off the tracks. The first three shows drew only small audiences and many of those present greeted Lewis with boos, catcalls and demands that he “go home!”. The Rank Organisation, which owned many of the venues he was due to perform in, cancelled his shows, while the Mayfair hotel which he and his entourage had booked into politely requested that he make alternative arrangements.
Meanwhile Lewis and his teenage bride were hounded by the press, wanting more details of their marriage. It had taken place in December the previous year, which, it turned out, was five months before the divorce ending his previous marriage was legally finalised. Attempting to brush off this controversy, Lewis only succeeded in digging a deeper hole for himself.
He told reporters that his new marriage was all fine because the previous one (his second) had been null and void, because it had taken place before his divorce from his first wife! Not surprisingly, the press had a field day with the unfolding story of ‘wild man’ Jerry Lee Lewis’s remarkable love life.
His first marriage, when he was just 16, lasted for just 20 months. The couple had split but were still 23 days from being divorced when he married for the second time in September 1953, casting doubt on the legality of that marriage. Legal or not, it lasted just over four years and produced two sons. His third marriage, to 13-year-old Myra would survive the initial controversy and last 13 years, producing two more children, a son and a daughter. The couple had two wedding ceremonies after doubts that the first one was legal, since Lewis was still married to his second wife at the time.
With his planned British tour and his reputation in tatters, Lewis flew home to the States less than a week after his arrival, but if he hoped to leave the scandal behind him he was wrong. Instead it followed him home, where sponsors, promoters and industry ‘friends’ were keen to distance themselves from the tarnished star. Almost overnight he went from earning $10,000 a night playing packed concert halls to appearing at small clubs and bars for around $250 per show.
His blacklisting by the industry would last many years and although he kept recording and releasing new material, much of it original and unique, his career would never fully recover. In the late ’60s and through the ’70s he enjoyed renewed success in country music, scoring a string of top 10 hits on the American country chart, and in the ’80s and ’90s he enjoyed both a resurgence for his early material and several new hits in the gospel music style.
Away from the stage, his personal life was never dull. Now aged 82, he has been married seven times, most recently in 2012, and fathered six children, two of whom died at young ages (three and 19) in tragic accidents. While some performers fail to live up to their stage persona, that has never been an issue for rock ‘n’ roll’s first great wild man, Jerry Lee Lewis.