The Stranger Than Fiction Truth About Jerry Lee Lewis


Jerry Lee Lewis’s life has been marked by loss, addictions, scandal, and some of the craziest stories in rock n’ roll history. One thing is for sure, you don't need to make up stories about him, his life has been a rollercoaster.

He's usually remembered for 'marrying' his 13-year-old cousin, there's a lot more to tell...


Starting off with his parents, Elmo and Mamie Lewis knew their kid had talent, and they were willing to bet the farm on it. By the time he was just nine years old, their little boy, Jerry Lee, had taught himself how to play piano and was belting out songs emulating the Delta musicians who played around their town in Ferriday, Louisiana in the early 1940s. They weren’t wealthy, so Elmo and Mamie decided to mortgage their farm so that they could get Jerry Lee his own piano. I reckon he paid them back at some point...

Baby Jerry with Mum and Dad

His piano playing got him kicked out of school. Religious zeal? Or blasphemy? Lewis grew up in a religious family in a Christian community, so it was a scandalous day when a young Jerry Lewis (he hadn’t added his middle name yet) took the stage in a church talent show and did a boogie-woogie version of “My God is Real.” People were so scandalized that the act got him expelled from his Christian school.


Before his school days tragedy struck when he was just three, his older brother Elmo Jr. was struck and killed by a drunk driver. Elmo was just beginning to show musical promise when it happened.

Elmo’s tragic passing was just the first of many car wrecks in Lewis’s life. Once, while visiting his parents back home in Ferriday, Lewis was ripping around the local streets at 80 miles an hour when disaster struck—a horse suddenly appeared in the road in front of him. Unable to get out of the way, Lewis simply ducked down in his seat and prepared for the worst. He hit the beast dead on, totalling the car and killing the horse.

Did this brush with the reaper convince Lewis to take it easy behind the wheel? Not even close. If anything, Lewis said, “I drove faster.”

Lewis’s parents knew that if their son was going to make it big, they needed to go see the big shot executives over in Memphis, Tennessee. To finance the 350-mile drive from Louisiana to Memphis, Lewis’s father sold 33 dozen eggs along the way. When they finally arrived, Lewis met Sun Records producer Sam Phillips, who gave him a recording chance. But his big break was a miserable failure…

His first release completely tanked and went nowhere. However, his second release, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” obviously had a bit more staying power—today, it’s considered a rock n’ roll classic.

Marriage(s)

Lewis’s romantic and family life has been fraught with controversy, scandal, divorce, and tragedy—and it started early. He married his first wife, the daughter of a preacher, when he was just 16! It was no match made in heaven, however. It lasted just over a year and a half. Who could have seen that coming? His second marriage in September 1953 took place more than 20 days before his divorce from the preacher’s daughter was final. That’s a bit of a legal no-no, and the validity of the union was always in question. It didn’t stop the couple from producing two children before divorcing four years later.

Lewis loves to walk down the aisle. In 1957, Lewis married for the 3rd time. this time to Myra Gale Brown. She was just 13 at the time—but that’s not the worst part. She was also Lewis’s first cousin once removed. He didn’t learn from his second marriage either, as this marriage also took place before his last divorce was finalized. His hastiness came back to bite him this time though, and the courts annulled the union. Don’t worry, once all the legal red tape was settled, the couple simply remarried.

His managers warned him, but Lewis ignored all pleas to leave his teen-cousin bride at home while he toured the UK in 1958. The couple hadn’t even left London’s Heathrow Airport when a reporter asked her who she was. Scandalous headlines ground the tour to a halt before it had even begun, radio stations stopped playing his songs, and friends stopped returning their calls. The news of his child bride sent his career into a tailspin. Dubbed a “cradle robber” and a “baby snatcher,” Jerry Lee Lewis was persona non grata in the entertainment world. Before the scandal, Lewis was raking in $10,000 per show. After he was doing shows in dingy bars and clubs for $250/night. It took years for Lewis to reclaim his career. Turns out, marrying your 13-year-old cousin isn’t exactly the best career move.

Wife number 3 and 13 yr-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown

A life of scandal was to be accompanied by tragedy. A year after divorcing his cousin-wife in 1970 (she claimed Lewis had physically and mentally abused her), Lewis married Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate. They had one child—but of course, history is bound to repeat itself. She sued him for divorce just four years later. Lewis and Pate’s split was a mess, and it took years to finalize.

Then, in 1982, before the divorce was complete, Pate’s lifeless body was found in a friend’s swimming pool. Police said there was no foul play, but this was another dark stain on Lewis’s troubled legacy.

Lewis, baby and wife number 4. Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate.

Boozing

The whirlwind of tragedy that surrounded Lewis drove him to booze and drugs. In 1962, his son Steven Allen Lewis was just three-years-old when he drowned in a swimming pool. In 1972, his 19-year-old son, Jerry Lee Jr. passed away when the Jeep he was driving rolled in a ditch. The devastating loss also happened around the same time his mother passed away from cancer and his wife Myra left him.

“The loss of my mother and two sons got to me,” Jerry says. “I was drinking heavy. I needed a fifth of tequila just to sober up.” It was the start of a 15-year binge that nearly claimed his life. It all ended with a ruptured stomach in 1981. With this close-call, it appeared to everyone that his career was done. But someone forgot to tell Jerry Lee Lewis that.

Beardy Jerry

During his wild days of partying and boozing, Lewis decided it would be a good idea to see how long he could go without sleep. The answer was 12 days and 12 nights. As he told GQ Magazine, “I overshot my runway. It’s not a good thing to do. I never did that again.” Most of us don’t have to actually try it to realize that, but I guess Jerry Lee Lewis was cut from a different cloth.


Accidental Shooting

In 1976, Lewis’s 41st birthday party came to a loud and bloody end. Playing with a loaded .357 Magnum in his bedroom, Lewis was trying to shoot and hit a Coke bottle. The bullet ricocheted and hit bassist Butch Owens in the chest. Owens was badly injured, but he managed to recover, and Lewis’s “Killer” nickname remained just that.


The Million Dollar Quartet

It’s one of the most iconic and published photographs in rock; Jerry Lee Lewis, Carl Perkins, and Johnny Cash standing behind a piano-playing Elvis Presley at Sun Studios in 1956. All were just kids at the early stages of their careers (except Elvis). It was also pure coincidence that all were visiting Sun Studios in Memphis at the same time (Lewis was there to play piano on a Perkins recording session).

The moment the “Million Dollar Quartet” came together is now considered one of the seminal events in rock history. Each of those men would go on to international fame and fortune, but today, Lewis is the sole living member.

Tax Issues

Fans may have loved him, but the IRS had a different view of Jerry Lee Lewis. The Internal Revenue Service saw Lewis as a delinquent taxpayer. His overdue tax bill amounted to almost $2 million in 1988, part of the reason he filed for bankruptcy. That wasn’t the first incident either. In 1979 and 1985, the IRS swooped in and seized property such as motorcycles, jewellery, cars, and a tractor. Agents even showed up at his concerts and confiscated his fees.

As part of its prosecution case against Lewis on tax evasion, the IRS claimed that Lewis spent lavishly on friends and family to hide his income from the taxman. One girlfriend testified Lewis had her purchase a $25,000 Cadillac Eldorado in cash, then bought her a $15,000 Mustang shortly after. But don’t worry, ol’ Jerry Lee ended up alright. His net worth today is estimated at $15 million.


Murder Allegations

It’s a dark shadow that hangs over the story of Lewis’ life. Wife number five was Shawn Stevens, and this marriage was cut short after just 77 days when her lifeless body was found in a bedroom of their home in 1983. Her demise was shrouded in mystery and has never been fully explained. Some say it was a methadone overdose—but some have suggested a more disturbing cause.

A journalist wrote a scathing piece that insinuated Lewis was responsible, but police never followed up.

Crashing Into Graceland

The King had invited The Killer to come visit his home in Graceland, just south of Memphis. Unlike the day at Sun Studios, this meeting was doomed from the start. What happened instead resulted in two wrecked cars and Lewis hauled in by the police…twice. The first incident occurred in the early morning hours of November 22, 1976.

Lewis and his wife paid a visit, driving a Rolls Royce Silver Shadow. The guard at the Graceland gates told Lewis that Elvis was sleeping, so Lewis politely left. Later that morning in Memphis, Lewis flipped his Rolls Royce while taking a turn too quickly. Lewis was charged with driving while intoxicated, driving without a license, and reckless driving. But what happened the following night was even worse… Drunk after a night of downing champagne at a Memphis bar, Lewis decided to drive his brand new Lincoln Continental to once again try and visit his long-time musical friend at Graceland. Keeping him company was a bottle of champagne and a loaded gun on the dash. Lewis didn’t quite make it into Elvis’s storied property. Instead, he slammed his Lincoln into Graceland’s front gates. And that was just the start…

According to the Graceland security guard, Lewis took his bottle of champagne and threw it out the window, or at least, he tried to. There was only problem: the window was closed. Unsurprisingly, both the bottle and window shattered. Then Lewis picked his piece off the dash, got out of his Lincoln, and started waving the weapon in the air. Elvis watched the whole thing on his security system and told his guards to call police, who arrived to find the banged-up car and a drunk and disorderly rock legend with a loaded gun.

Elvis was not amused by his contemporary’s antics. He told police to “lock him up.” Lewis, who claimed he had no intention to harm Elvis, said afterward he was hurt that his friend would send him to jail like that.