Lewis traces it all back to the very beginning of his musical career, when he decided to eschew the guitar and keep playing piano. “I was trying to get a record out and get my start in the business and they really didn’t any part of rock n’ roll …”
At the time, Lewis was told to grab a guitar, but he just wanted to play the keys. That led him to Sam Phillips of Sun Records, who paired Jerry Lee with big names in rock like Elvis Presley, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. The four created rock’s first supergroup, the Million Dollar Quartet.
Lewis found even more fame as a solo act, with kinetic performances of hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On.” All the while, Jerry Lee was on the rock track, even though his presence and his twang were pure country. But country music in those days did not abide controversy. And it was public relations that doomed Jerry Lee’s flirtatious relationship with country and western audiences. Country had its outlaw in Hank Williams. They didn’t need another. So, when Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, country fans and producers treated him as a pariah.
Ironic, maybe, that Lewis was making these comments during an event in his honor, when the stars on the bill who gathered to pay homage to Jerry Lee included several all-time country music greats, including Lee Ann Womack, George Strait, Kris Kristofferson and newcomer, Chris Stapleton.
How’s that work? Well, if there’s one thing country loves more than hating on those who break ranks, it’s a good comeback story. And by the late 60s, Jerry Lee was churning out country hits again, and the fans were ready and willing to forgive.
But, apparently, not the Hall. It’s been more than half a century since Lewis affronted the sensibilities of 1950s music fans. A lot of water under the bridge, and Jerry Lee still isn’t in. He doesn’t know why. “I don’t know why I am not in it … I mean, they got it stirred up and talking about it. I don’t know why they don’t put me in it. I don’t understand that.”
For more on that question, Lewis may want to have a chat with Pete Rose. Sometimes, being “not in” is more of a tradition than a decision. The fans have shifted and the current stars have shifted. Maybe Hall voters will too. Then again, maybe not.