Jerry Lee Lewis: Marrying 13-year old cousin to facing abuse allegations, a look at pianist's controversial life
Described as 'rock & roll's first great wild man' and one of the most influential pianists of the twentieth century', Lewis is just as widely known for his marriages -- many contentious and some rather dubious
Jerry Lee Lewis commemorates his 85th birthday on September 29. Highly regarded as one of the most influential pianists of the twentieth century, Lewis has had a long and illustrious career, one that has taken him from being "rock & roll's first great wild man" in the '50s and '60s to an established chart-topping country musician in the '70s, and includes several awards and accolades. Yet, Lewis' relationships, including his highly-controversial and career-derailing marriage to his 13-year-old cousin, are a smear on a career that helped shape rock and roll.
Lewis made his debut with his 1958 self-titled album, which included the hit song 'High School Confidential'. Lewis quickly sealed his position as one of the pioneers of rock and roll, despite the album curiously omitting some of the artiste's best hits at the time. Since his debut, Lewis went on to release several critically acclaimed and commercially successful albums. Lewis' 2006 album, 'Last Man Standing', remains his best-selling to date with over half a million copies being sold, while 2010's 'Mean Old Man' is one of Lewis' most successful releases. Speaking of Lewis's career, music critic Robert Christgau once stated, "His drive, his timing, his offhand vocal power, his unmistakable boogie-plus piano, and his absolute confidence in the face of the void make Jerry Lee the quintessential rock and roller." But his career nearly ended when, in 1957, Lewis married Myra Gale Brown and was forced to cancel tours and subsequently lost most of the goodwill his music had earned him up to that point.
The first of Lewis' seven marriages occurred when Lewis himself was a minor and, aged 16, married Dorothy Barton, the daughter of a preacher, in 1952. The pair divorced twenty months later. Before the divorce was finalized, Lewis married Jane Mitchum. The pair went on to have two children before their divorce four years later. And once again, before the divorce was final, Lewis married again. Only this time, the marriage would be one that drew the ire and disgust of many, seeing as it was with 13-year-old Brown, Lewis' first cousin once removed. Because of its dubious nature, owing to Lewis not being fully divorced from Mitchum just yet, the pair remarried a year later in 1958. Brown would eventually file for divorce in 1970 citing adultery and abuse as reasons, with her charge adding that she had been "subject to every type of physical and mental abuse imaginable." The pair had two children while they were together, the first when Brown was just 15 years old.
The union was controversial for a variety of reasons, ranging from Brown's age and relationship with Lewis to Lewis still being married when they were wed. But the details of this relationship didn't come out until a reporter named Ray Berry, who happened to be the only reporter present at London's Heathrow Airport in May 1958, learned of the pair's wedding. The fallout from this news led to Lewis losing popularity fast. Public outcry resulted in Lewis' British tour being canceled after only three concerts. Despite being a pioneer of rock and roll, he was more or less ousted from the ranks and shunned by the industry and public alike. Save for a few exceptions, including a cover of Ray Charles's 'What'd I Say', the once successful and chart-topping artiste saw very minimal success in the '60s. That is until he transitioned into country music in the late '60s and suddenly emerged as one of the most successful country artistes of the '70s. And in 1971, he married Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate alongside releasing chart-topping country hits like 'To Make Love Sweeter for You', 'There Must Be More to Love Than This', 'Would You Take Another Chance on Me', and 'Me and Bobby McGee', fathering one more child along the way. Pate would later drown in 1982 in a friend's swimming pool, just weeks before her divorce from Lewis was finalized. While the two were still together and after Pate's death, Mary Kathy 'K.K.' Jones lived with Lewis from 1980 to 1983.
Lewis' marital streak continued with his fifth marriage to Shawn Stephens, which lasted seventy-seven days in 1983, ending with her death. It was alleged at the time that Stephens endured abuse at Lewis' hands, with many including journalist Richard Ben Cramer speculating that Lewis was responsible for her death, though these allegations have remained unverified. Lewis, who had earned the moniker 'The Killer' in his early years in the music industry, despite unconfirmed reports, was now being regarded as 'The Killer' for a very different reason. He went on to marry Kerrie McCarver next in 1984, this time staying with his wife for twenty-one years, ending in 2005. The two had one child together. And finally, Lewis, after moving to Ireland amid tax issues and finally returning to the US in 1997, married his seventh wife Judith Brown in 2012. The marriage was followed by Lewis severing business ties with his daughter from his marriage to Brown, Phoebe Lewis-Lotfin, who was his manager at the time. In 2017, Lewis sued his daughter and her husband, claiming they owed him money and defamed him on social media, and the pair counter-sued Lewis over their disintegrated business relationship.
The '50s saw the rise of pioneering artistes like Lewis, who helped usher in the age of rock and roll and changed the landscape of music forever. Of these, many notably engaged in controversial relationships, including Elvis Presley dating a fourteen-year-old Priscilla Presley in 1959. Most of these relationships, despite being controversial, rarely ended careers. And in hindsight, we scoff at a reality where dating children was so normalized. Yet in Lewis' case, he faced actual consequences for his choice, though he did manage to counter it with a country comeback a decade later. Turned out, ten years and a good tune were all it took for Lewis to overcome the backlash he received for marrying his 13-year-old cousin while still married to his second wife.