It was just your average hot and sticky July evening in Nesbit, Mississippi. Nesbit’s usually pretty quiet–and it especially was back then, in 1981–though it’s only about twenty miles from Memphis. But of course nobody knows what goes on behind closed doors–average small town or big city, for that matter.
Behind closed doors at 1595 Malone Road, the Killer stumbled down the long hallway of his rambling ranch style home. He clutched his stomach and slid down a wall. Searing pain engulfed his abdomen. “K.K.!” he called to his then girlfriend. The Killer was lucky she heard him. His voice was little more than a harsh raspy whisper.
Mary Kathy Jones stopped dead in her tracks when she saw him. He was white as a sheet and coughing up blood.
Jones and long time road manager J.W. Whitten carried the Killer to his El Dorado Cadillac. Whitten floor boarded it all the way Methodist Hospital in Memphis while the Killer leaned against Jones, drifting in and out of consciousness, constantly moaning and thrashing. All three of them were in the front seat. Jones had wanted to call an ambulance but there was no time. Jerry Lee Lewis, one of the founding fathers of Rock and Roll, was dying from a ruptured stomach brought on by years of knocking back fistfuls of pills with countless shots of whiskey and, yes, even shooting dope into his gut.
Nine days later singer songwriter Kris Kristofferson sat at the bedside of his long time friend and mentor. Myra Brown Lewis, the Killer’s third wife and cousin–he married her when she thirteen years old, setting off international outrage while simultaneously (and temporarily, as it turned out) destroying his career–had called him in. The Killer was on a ventilator but he was alert. His eyes were wide and blazingly intense. Kristofferson clasped Jerry Lee’s hand. “I’ve never seen someone so terrified,” the singer recalled. “That man willed himself to stay alive.”
The Killer had good reason to be afraid. He was deathly afraid of going to hell.
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in the small farming community of Ferriday, Louisiana to a good hearted, but hard-drinking, brawling father and a deeply religious–Assembly of God–mother. Inspired by the lively charismatic music of the Pentecostal church, Jerry Lee began playing the piano when he was five years old. His parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a used Stark upright.
Not much for school, Jerry Lee would rather slip away to Haney’s Big House, a juke joint frequented by African Americans where he would sit on the piano bench with famed blind bluesman Paul Whitehead.
“Paul Whitehead done a lot. His lesson was worth a billion dollars to me…He taught me. I’d sit beside him, and say, ‘Mr. Paul, can you show me exactly how you do that?’ Mr. Paul was good to me.”
Mamie Lewis didn’t like her son listening to or playing the “devil’s music” so she sent him away to the Southwest Bible Institute of Waxahatchie, Texas with hopes that he would become a preacher. His sabbatical lasted all of three months. Jerry Lee got kicked out of the school for revving up a gospel song with R&B and country blues.
Back in Ferriday Jerry Lee’s mind was made up. Music was his calling, not gospel but the electric howling mashup of styles that he was on the cusp of. This was the music that drove teenagers to riot and their parents to despair. It was his music. He was a savant. A genius. His long fingers worked magic, flying up and down the keyboard with manic ferocity. There was nothing he couldn’t play. Hear it once and he could spin it, twist it, turn it inside out and make it his own.
On the Louisiana and Mississippi backroads Jerry Lee dove headlong into juke joints and night clubs where he passed the hat for dollars, honed his skills and developed his wildman stage antics. He grew his hair long on the top so that it flopped down into his eyes when he worked himself into a frenzy. He wore sports coats and slacks–and fancy shoes. He kicked over his bench, learned to hammer the keys with the heel of his foot and even set his piano on fire.
“I’m a stylist on songs. I do them my style, my way. And make them into whatever I want them to be. And that’s talent. Raw talent. It’s God-given talent.”
That talent took him to the mecca of the burgeoning rock and roll scene–Memphis Tennessee’s Sun Records and to producer Sam Philips. Philips had a stable of talented recording artists at Sun comprised of Johnny Cash, Carl Perkins, Howlin’ Wolf, Little Milton, BB King and Elvis Presley among others.
Cowboy Jack Clement–a successful singer and prolific songwriter in Country music before his death in 2013–was a studio engineer at Sun back in the 50s. He was at the front desk when Jerry Lee strutted into the studio asking for an audition. Philips was out of the country at the time but Clement decided to hear the cocky singer and pianist anyway. He was impressed and recorded the audition.
When Philips returned he agreed to give the tape a listen. Clement turned up the volume and the speakers came alive with Jerry Lee’s improvised intro to Ray Price’s Crazy Arms. Clement remembered Philips eyes being closed–as was his custom when listening to prospective talent–suddenly opening wide. A thin smile creased the producer’s lips. Philips reached across the console and switched off the recording listening to less than thirty seconds of the audition.
“I can sale that,” he told Clements.
Sam Philips tried to warn him. He knew it was going to be a disaster. It was a no brainer. But the kid wouldn’t listen. Jerry Lee was determined to take Myra to England. Myra was Jerry Lee’s second cousin.
She was also his wife. His third wife.
In 1958, nowhere–not even in the U.S. of A.–was Rock and Roll a hotter commodity than in Great Britain. Teenagers there stood in long lines to buy, clamor for and even fight over American records with that distinctive turbulent beat. And no recording artist rocked harder, played faster or shrieked louder than Jerry Lee Lewis. Only Elvis Presley caused more pandemonium– and he got drafted in ’58.
With Elvis in the Army, Jerry Lee was at the top of the heap with his huge singles Whole Lot a Shakin’ Going On and Great Balls of Fire. His twenty-seven confirmed concert dates in England was the biggest tour of any Rock and Roll artist of the time. Naturally the first stop on the tour was London.
Paul Tanfield of London’s The Daily Mail was just one of the many reporters and fans that awaited the plane carrying Jerry Lee Lewis at Heathrow airport. As Lewis and his entourage exited the plane, Tanfield noticed the exceptionally young looking woman on Jerry Lee’s arm. “Who do we have here?” he asked.
The young woman spoke right up. “I’m Myra. Jerry’s wife.”
Intrigued, Tanfield asked the most logical follow up question. “How old are you, Myra?”
This time Jerry Lee answered. “She’s fifteen,” he blurted out.
He lied. She was thirteen.
Other reporters began to shout out questions. One asked if fifteen wasn’t a little young to be married.
Again Myra piped up. “Oh, no, not at all. Age doesn’t matter back home. You can marry at ten if you can find a husband.”
Suffice to say the tour didn’t go well. Jerry Lee performed all of three concert dates where he was heckled and booed. Bottles and rotting fruit were thrown onto the stage. “Cradle robber!” “Baby Snatcher!” “Pervert!” When he ran a sparkling silver comb through his long, wavy blond locks, a move that usually drove the girls wild and piqued the guys admiration, the crowd was repulsed. “Sissy!” “Poof!” “Nancy!”
The rest of the tour was abruptly canceled. Reporters and jeering protesters camped out at The Westbury Hotel where Jerry Lee and his entourage had reservations. The Westbury management asked them to leave.
They did. Then they left England.
“Get on the @#@#$$# phone,” a drunk-out-of-his-mind Jerry Lee hollered at Harold Lloyd who was on guard duty. “Call up there and tell Elvis I wanna visit with him. Who the hell does he think he is? Tell him the Killer’s here to see him.”
Unbeknownst to Jerry Lee, Elvis was watching on his security monitor. “He crashed his car into the gates,” Lloyd said over the phone to his boss who also happened to be his cousin. “He’s waving a gun around.”
“Call the cops,” Elvis said.
When the cops got there Jerry Lee put up a fight. He swung, kicked and yelled, calling them all sorts names. They managed to get the cuffs on him. “What do you want us to do with him?”
“Lock him up,” Elvis said.
It was three o’clock in the morning, November 23, 1976. Eight months later Elvis Presley was dead of heart failure at age forty-two.
Two months before his arrest outside of Graceland, on September 29th, Jerry Lee had been celebrating his forty-first birthday with his bassist Butch Owens. He was drinking heavily and fooling around with his .357 Magnum.
“Look down the barrel of this. I’m gonna shoot that Coca-Cola bottle over there or my name ain’t Jerry Lee Lewis,” he boasted to Owens.
Then he fired. Twice.
The bullets plowed into Butch Owens chest. In shock, the bassist stumbled into the living room where Jerry Lee’s forth wife, Jaren Gunn Pate, was watching TV. The chest wound was pumping blood all over the place. Jaren screamed at him for bleeding on the carpet. It was brand new. And white.
Then on June, 8th, 1982 Jaren Gunn Pate was found at the bottom of her friend’s pool, mysteriously drown only weeks before divorce proceedings were to be finalized. It was an especially contentious divorce. Jaren and her attorneys were intent on taking Jerry Lee to the cleaners.
Your Plaintiff would further show that the Defendant has an extremely violent temper, especially when he becomes intoxicated on alcohol and/or drugs, and he has choked your Plaintiff on numerous occasions, has beaten her up, knocked her down the stairs, and threatened her very life.
Your Plaintiff would further show that approximately one (1) month ago when your Plaintiff called the Defendant for financial assistance for herself and the parties’ minor child, Defendant went into a rage and stated that she should not worry about any support because “you are not going to be around very long anyway, and if you don’t get off my back and leave me alone, you will end up in the bottom of the lake at the farm with chains on you.”
The following year, almost to the day of Jaren’s death, Jerry Lee married again. This time to a twenty-five year old beauty from Dearborn Michigan named Shawn Michelle Stephens. Shawn was a feisty young woman who wasn’t afraid to speak her mind to Jerry Lee or anyone else. Her friends and family described her as kind and loyal. The marriage lasted seventy-seven days.
On August 24, 1983 paramedics were called to 1595 Malone Road, not entirely unusual; they knew the address well. In one of the home’s bedrooms they found Shawn Michelle unresponsive under heavy blankets. There was blood in the web of her hand and bruises on her forearm. She was dead.
Lottie Jackson, Jerry Lee’s housekeeper of many years, knocked on Jerry Lee’s bedroom door. When he came into the room where Shawn lay, the paramedics noticed there were flecks of blood on his robe and deep scratches across his hand.
Shawn Michelle Stephens death was ruled a suicide by methadone overdose.
Jerry Lee began seeing Shawn Michele Stephens on the side in February of 1981. He was still married to Jaren Gunn Pate, but they had lived apart for years. He complained to Shawn about Jaren constantly. He told her he wanted to marry her as soon as he got Jaren out of the way.
Jerry Lee flew Shawn down to Nesbit Mississippi. Before long Shawn’s sister Shelly, their brother Thomas and friend Dave Lipke joined her at the Malone Road address.
Jerry Lee was consuming copious amounts of cocaine and amphetamines. At one point he stayed up for twelve days straight. Naturally he was paranoid. He thought Shelly had brought Dave down for Shawn to mess around with. And incredibly he still had the urge. Big time. He wanted Shawn and Shelly to participate in a threesome with him.
Shawn refused. She and her friends high tailed it out of Mississippi.
Though Shawn never thought too much of Jerry Lee, she was rather fond of his money. A few months went by and she called him. She told Shelly that the phone call didn’t go so well. Jerry Lee was pissed. He sounded like he was sick. That he was complaining about his stomach. A few weeks later he was in Memphis Methodist hospital with a ruptured stomach and a less than fifty percent chance of survival.
But Jerry Lee did survive. He promised the Lord that this time he would do better. That this time he really meant it.
It has been said that Jerry Lee Lewis earned his nickname the Killer with his onstage bravado and knock ’em dead piano style. It has also been said that “killer” is a term of camaraderie that boys from Northern Louisiana used back in the days of Jerry Lee’s youth. That he got the nickname from calling his friends and acquaintances “killer”.
In October, 2014 GQ reporter Chris Heath asked then seventy-eight year-old Jerry Lee if he thought the name suited him.
“I don’t know. Really don’t know. I couldn’t answer that. I’m scared to say yes and I’m scared to say no,” he said.
Shelly Stephens recalled Jerry Lee’s version of where the nickname came from. He and her sister were newly married and already having trouble. Jerry Lee didn’t like Shawn’s family hanging around. He wanted Shawn all to himself.
“You scared of me?” he once asked Shelly. “You should be. Why do you think they call me the Killer?”
Two months later Shawn Michelle Stephens was dead. She was the Killer’s fifth wife.
The Best Jerry Lee Lewis Albums
***** Live at the Star Club, Hamburg (with the Nashville Teens), Phillips (1964)
***** All Killer, No Filler, Rhino (1993)
***** Another Place Another Time, Smash (1968)
***** Jerry Lee Lewis’ Original Golden Hits Vol. 1 & 2, Sun (1969)
***** Jerry Lee Lewis’ Original Golden Hits Vol. 3, Sun (1971)
***** Jerry Lewis’ Ole Tyme Country Music, Sun (1970)
***** Killer Country, Elektra (1980)