The Killer: Jerry Lee Lewis

How Rock's First Wild Man Got His Nickname

Jerry Lee Lewis performs
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Jerry Lee Lewis (born September 29, 1935) was famously nicknamed "The Killer" for his dynamic piano style and "wild boy" attitude; he later became known as one of the pioneers of rockabilly music. What's bizarre is that Lewis actually earned the nickname because of his habit of calling acquaintances "killer," a common phrase for North Louisiana residents in the postwar era.

Wild From the Start

Lewis was born in the small northeastern city of Ferriday, Lousiana — home of Haney's Big House lounge, one of the staple stops for Delta Blues musicians on tour — to a poor family of two. His father mortgaged the family farm when Lewis was a young boy to buy him a piano, which he played with later-famous cousins Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart while growing up.

In his mid-teens, Lewis' mother sent him to the Southwest Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, where he was encouraged to only sing evangelical tunes. Ever the wild child, Jerry Lee Lewis performed a boogie-woogie rendition of "My God Is Real" at a church assembly and was immediately barred from the school.

Rock's First "Wild Man"

In 1956 and 1957, Lewis broke into the music scene by partnering with famous rockabilly artists — among them Johnny Cash — in Memphis, Tennessee and releasing tracks as a pianist for Sun Records. His unique style of piano forever altered the genre, which had previously rarely featured pianists in its records.  Even then, colleagues noted and often poked fun at Lewis' habit of calling people "killer."

Artists flocked to work with Lewis over the following years, including Elvis Presley, Chuck Barry and Pat Boone whose 1956 jam session with Lewis was later released as a CD titled "Million Dollar Quartet" and featured several gospel songs as well as the stars' own tracks, with Lewis on the piano.

He released a number of solo records under the name "Jerry Lee Lewis and his Pumping Piano," including his most famous hit, "Great Balls of Fire," and "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On," which was inducted into the Library of Congress' National Recording Registry in 2005. The material of his music was often regarded as sinful, which Lewis reportedly struggled with because of his Christian upbringing.

His life came crashing down when the controversy surrounding his third marriage broke the news while he was on tours overseas. Allegedly, his third wife was his first cousin once removed and 13 at the time of marriage (with Lewis being 22). Although the label denied the claim, the tour was canceled after three stops and Lewis returned to America where he was already blacklisted from the radio waves.

He managed a country resurgence in the 1970s and went on to tour again, but his legacy lives on as one of rock's first "wild men," later earning his nickname partially because of it.