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Jerry Lee Lewis

Jerry Lee Lewis - Nesbit

A native of Ferriday, Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis started his musical career in nearby Natchez, and in 1973 established the Lewis Ranch here in Nesbit. Lewis’ 1956 rock ’n’ roll classics “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” both topped the country charts, and a streak of dozens of country hits starting in 1968 included #1 records “To Make Love Sweeter For You,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This,” and “Would You Take Another Chance on Me.”

Jerry Lee Lewis is widely known as a pioneer of rock ’n’ roll, but country music was always at the core of his music-making. Born in Ferriday, Louisiana, on September 29, 1935, Lewis was a child prodigy on the piano, learning the instrument by ear and through obsessive practicing. He absorbed a wide range of musical influences including the gospel harmonizing of his parents, the Pentecostal fervor of Assembly of God church services, his father’s 78-rpm recordings of Mississippi’s Jimmie Rodgers, singing cowboy Gene Autry on the silver screen, Hank Williams on Louisiana Hayride radio broadcasts, blues artists he secretly watched at the Ferriday nightclub Haney’s Big House, and the sounds of boogie woogie piano that were sweeping the country during the 1940s.

Lewis first performed in public at 14 at a Ferriday car dealership, singing the blues hit “Drinkin’ Wine Spo-Dee-O-Dee,” and was soon appearing across the river in Natchez in nightclubs and over radio station WNAT. Lewis recalled that he first came to recognize his own distinctive approach at 15 while playing at a Natchez skating rink, and would later boast that in popular music there were only four true “stylists”—Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams, Al Jolson, and himself. In December of 1956 he auditioned at Memphis’ Sun Records, where producer Cowboy Jack Clement recorded his first single, “Crazy Arms” (backed with Lewis’ own “End of the Road”), which was a smash hit earlier that year for country star Ray Price. On subsequent sessions at Sun, Lewis recorded multiple songs by Hank Williams and helped define the rock ’n’ roll era through his impassioned and unbridled performance style on hits including “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” and “Breathless,” which all reached the top ten on the pop, country and R&B charts.

Lewis dropped off the charts following personal scandals in mid-1958, but he continued to perform regularly and recorded extensively for Sun through 1963, when he signed on with Smash Records, a subsidiary of Mercury. Throughout the ’60s Lewis recorded a wide range of music, including R&B, pop standards, soul, and blues, and even played Iago in the Shakespeare-inspired rock musical Catch My Soul. The country element of his repertoire came to the forefront in 1968, when his album Another Place, Another Time reached #3 in the country charts, yielding top 5 singles with the title track and “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Made a Loser Out of Me).” His hit making continued unabated through 1981, with over 40 singles and 24 albums reaching the top 40 charts. Lewis would also take part in many projects that celebrated his role as a rock ’n’ roll pioneer, including the 1986 album Class of ’55 with Sun labelmates Johnny Cash, Roy Orbison and Carl Perkins. In 2005 Lewis received a GRAMMY Lifetime Achievement Award, while his performances of “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” both received the GRAMMY Hall of Fame Award.

content © Mississippi Country Music Trail