Along with Chuck Berry, Little Richard, Buddy Holly, the Everly Brothers and Elvis Presley, Jerry Lee Lewis set the template for rock 'n' roll music.
Even though that template would get twisted and reconfigured into shapes and sounds unimaginable in the '50’s, the influence of these pioneers can be heard every step of the way. Lewis' piano-driven approach to the music influenced everyone from Elton John to Jon Lord and on and on.
His showmanship was a thing unto itself. He'd attack his instrument as his unkempt hair hung in his face and occasionally brushed aside to reveal the look of someone ready to move in for the kill.
Every time a rocker lets loose, there’s a little bit of Lewis at play in them -- from Pete Townshend smashing his guitar to Iggy Pop confronting the audience in unexpected and sometime violent ways. Lewis was the original unhinged rock 'n' roller. From his early tenure at Sun Records right up through his recent critically acclaimed albums, he's a true legend. Here are 10 songs that helped get him there.
"I'm on Fire"From: 1964 Single
By 1964, the music world had been turned upside down by the arrival of the Beatles, and rockers form the previous decade tried to compete any way they could. Lewis recorded this song by Feldmam, Goldstein & Gottehrer, New York City songwriters who, as the Strangeloves, logged a few hits of their own like “I Want Candy” and “Cara Lin.” "I'm on Fire" was in fact an early Strangeloves single, given the Jerry Lee Lewis treatment. It was one of his last singles to brush the pop charts.
"Livin' Lovin' Wreck"From: 1961 Single B-Side
One of many Otis Blackwell numbers tackled by Lewis, "Livin' Lovin' Wreck" is a straight-ahead rocker. It suffers a little from the cheesy backing vocals, but Lewis shines through it all.
"Lovin' Up a Storm"From: 1959 Single
This 1959 single failed to make a dent on the charts anywhere except in the U.K., where it was a Top 30 hit. Shame, because it features a full-on Lewis performance. The singles that preceded "Lovin' Up a Storm" are better known, but this one highlights Lewis at full force.
"John Henry"From: 1960 Single
Lewis gives his own spin on the folk standard in his 1960 single. It failed to chart, but seeing how the Killer was trying to find footing in the new decade, it's a creative achievement as he draws from folk, country, blues and R&B. There's even some Memphis-style horns halfway through that makes this "John Henry" ahead of its time.
"Boogie Woogie Country Man"From: 1975 Single
"Well folks you can call me country, and I've been known to be a little wild / But I am what I am, doin' the best I can," Lewis sings on this 1975 stomper. By the '70s, he'd maintained a successful career in country music, but despite its title, this is pure rock 'n' roll. "Boogie Woogie Country Man" was a modest hit on the country charts, though way more genuine than anything his peers were doing at the time.
"Breathless"From: 1958 Single
"Breathless" didn't fare as well on the charts as some of the singles that immediately preceded it, but it still managed to crack the Top 10 and become one of his classic songs. R&B songwriter Otis Blackwell penned it, and it's been covered by Tom Jones, X and many others over the years. Lewis' version is the definitive one.
"Mean Woman Blues"From: 'Live at the Star Club' (1964)
Jerry Lee Lewis Live at the Star Club is one of the greatest live rock 'n' roll albums ever made. It was released and recorded in Germany in 1964, and you can practically hear the plaster falling from the ceiling and sweat dripping down the walls. The frantic audience does part of the work here, but it's the American rock 'n' roll pioneer who brings it all home. Lewis is backed by British rockers the Nashville Teens (who had a hit with "Tobacco Road") -- the perfect partners for this almost punk-style set.
"High School Confidential"From: 1958 Single
Taking things up a notch, Lewis and his piano drive "High School Confidential" off the beaten path. The song served as the theme for a same-titled movie starring Mamie Van Doren and Russ Tamblyn. Lewis appeared in the opening credits. The single version is one of his all-time greatest, but there's also a positively unhinged live version from the Star Club in Germany recorded in 1964 that's even more frantic.
"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On"From: 1957 Single
"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" was originally recorded as a swinging blues by Big Maybelle in 1955, but Lewis reshaped it into a rock 'n' roll classic two years later. He flipped the song upside down, let his piano take center stage and made it his own. The single was an across-the-board hit, reaching No. 3 on the pop chart, and hitting the top slot on both the country and R&B charts.
"Great Balls of Fire"From: 1957 Single
"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On"'s follow-up arrived six months later and sounded like a revelation. Lewis took an Otis Blackwell and Jack Hammer composition and once again shaped it into his own style. It peaked at No. 2 on the chart, his biggest hit, and became Lewis' signature song throughout his long career.