October 28th saw the death of one of rock’n’roll’s most beloved trailblazers: Jerry Lee Lewis. Known for hits such as “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire”, the Louisianan rocker would become one of the biggest and most eccentric performers of his time. Yet there was a lot going on below the surface, with a much darker side to the pioneering pianist when examining his personal life – these are some of the stories from the troublesome personal life of Jerry Lee Lewis.
Marrying His 13-Year-Old Cousin
To start, we cover with perhaps the most infamous detail, one that killed any momentum Lewis had dead in its tracks.
By 1958, JLL had the chance to be the biggest rock’n’roll star on the planet when Elvis was conscripted into the military draft. Yet controversy erupted during a British tour for Lewis when his marriage to 13-year-old cousin Myra Gale Brown, a marriage eerily similar to that of Edgar Allen Poe’s with his 13-year-old cousin Virginia over a century earlier, and Elvis’s relationship with a 14-year-old Priscilla. The mood was best summed up by The Evening Star which ran with the headline: “Teen-Age [sic.] Marriage Arouses British Ire.”
Lewis had told some she was 15, which was more socially acceptable at the time. He was also warned about bringing her on tour but insisted, or else would refuse to do so. When it was discovered that the girl was 13, or 12 by some records, Lewis felt the full force of British hostility, which followed him back home to the US.
The effects were swift and deadly. Myra later noted that the tour was not pulled directly due to press backlash but as Jerry and his band could not be assured safety for the performers. The New York Post noted that: “The ensuing scandal led to boycotts of his music, blacklisting at venues, and appearance fees that plummeted from $10,000 a night to $250.” One newspaper called for Lewis to be deported as his records saw airplay sharply decline. Missing the point, Lewis remarked: “I plumb married the girl, didn’t I?”
This scandal was not aided by Jerry’s tone-deaf follow-up single, the unrelated “High School Confidential”.
The age and relation was still not the only issue with Jerry still not divorced from his second wife; his second marriage was when he was still not divorced from his first wife.
The effective end of his career at its prime, Lewis’s downfall was also the signal of the rock’n’roll tsunami in which the musical genre saw its popularity flounder. Elvis: was drafted into the army, Lewis: was ruined by scandal, Buddy Holly: was killed in the infamous ‘Day The Music Died’ plane crash in 1959 (as were The Big Bopper and Ritchie Valens), Chuck Berry: was convicted in 1960 of transporting a minor across state lines, Eddie Cochran: died in a car crash in 1960. By the time of a return to ‘normalcy’, the ‘British Invasion’ of the early-mid to late 1960s further made American rock’n’roll a baron and passe wasteland.
In 1970, Myra divorced from JLL, citing being “subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable,” with The Irish Independent documenting that she would allege “cruelty that nearly drove her to suicide.”
She later told The Los Angeles Times: “When I look back on it, how can you defend yourself when you’re 13 years old? I mean there’s no excuse good enough for that to be okay.”
Yet this was not Jerry’s own marital controversy…