Jerry Lee Lewis helped set the template for rock 'n' roll, along with Chuck Berry, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and Elvis Presley, among others.
Even though that template would get reconfigured into shapes and sounds that were unimaginable back in the '50s, the impact of these pioneers can be heard every step of the way. For instance, Lewis' piano-driven approach to the music influenced everyone from Elton John to Jon Lord.
Then there was Lewis' showmanship: He was the original unhinged rock 'n' roller. Lewis would attack his instrument as his unkempt hair hung in his face, then occasionally brush it aside to reveal the look of someone ready to move in for the kill. In keeping, there’s a little bit of Lewis at play every time a rocker lets loose – whether it's Pete Townshend smashing his guitar or Iggy Pop confronting the audience in unexpected and sometimes violent ways.
Jerry Lee Lewis would become a true legend, building on his early tenure at Sun Records right up through his final guest-packed albums. Here are 10 songs that helped get him there.
"I'm on Fire"From: 1964 Single
The music world was turned upside down by the arrival of the Beatles, and rockers from the previous decade tried to compete any way they could. Lewis decided to record this song by Feldmam, Goldstein & Gottehrer, the New York City songwriters who logged a few hits of their own as the Strangeloves with "I Want Candy" and "Cara Lin." "I'm on Fire" was an early Strangeloves song, simply given the Jerry Lee Lewis treatment. It became 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 except in the U.K., where it was a Top 30 hit. Shame, because "Lovin' Up a Storm" features a full-on Lewis performance. The singles that preceded it are better known, but this one highlights the Killer at full force.
"John Henry"From: 1960 Single
Lewis gives his own spin on a folk standard. "John Henry" failed to chart, but it nevertheless became a creative achievement as Lewis attempted to find his footing in a new decade. He draws from folk, country, blues and R&B; there's even some Memphis-style horns halfway through. His version of "John Henry" was way 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 stomper. By the '70s, he'd long-since established a successful career in country music, but despite its title this is pure rock 'n' roll. "Boogie Woogie Country Man" was only a modest hit on the country charts, probably because it was far more genuine than anything his peers were doing at the time.
"Breathless"From: 1958 Single
This single didn't fare as well as some of the others that immediately preceded it, but "Breathless" still managed to crack the Top 10 while becoming one of Jerry Lee Lewis' classic songs. R&B songwriter Otis Blackwell penned it, and "Breathless" has since been covered by Tom Jones, X and many others over the years. Lewis' version, however, remains definitive.
"Mean Woman Blues"From: 'Live at the Star Club' (1964)
One of the greatest live rock 'n' roll albums ever made, Live at the Star Club was recorded in Germany in 1964, and you can practically hear the plaster falling from the ceiling. The frantic audience does part of the work here, but one of America's rock 'n' roll pioneers brings it all home. Lewis is backed by the Nashville Teens, who had a hit with "Tobacco Road." They're 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 which starred Mamie Van Doren and Russ Tamblyn and featured Lewis in the opening credits. This original take remains was one of Lewis' all-time greatest, but it was seriously challenged by the unhinged live version from Lewis' 1964 appearance at Star Club.
"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On"From: 1957 Single
"Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" was originally recorded in 1955 as a swinging blues by Big Maybelle, 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
Lewis' follow up to "Whole Lot of Shakin' Going On" 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.