The rock and roller Jerry Lee Lewis, who died of pneumonia last week at age 87, was a key figure in the emergence of rock music during the 1950s. Early hits “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire” cemented Lewis’ legacy within the genre and he enjoyed fast fame — for a while. But just as his career was peaking, Lewis married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown.
The ensuing scandal forever tainted his reputation.
Jerry Lee Lewis
Born in 1935 in Eastern Louisiana, Jerry Lee Lewis grew up in a poor family — his parents even mortgaged their farm to buy the young boy a piano, as his musical talent was clear. As a teen, Lewis began performing music publicly, dabbling in both country western and rhythm and blues.
Eventually traveling to Memphis, Lewis quickly crossed paths with contemporaries like Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins. The four of them famously jammed together at the Sun Records studio in 1956. And less than a year later, Lewis would make a solo name for himself with his first major hit: “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”, a cover of black R&B singer Big Maybelle’s original song.
Suddenly, Lewis was famous. And as fans flocked to his shows, they experienced not only Lewis’ rockabilly music but also the chaotic performance style that became so central to his character. On stage, Lewis would kick away the piano bench to pound the keys with his heels, waving his hands wildly and climbing all over the instrument. The antics earned him the nickname “the Killer” and captured, quite literally, the anarchic frenzy that characterized early rock music.
There really was a whole lot of shaking going on — no pun intended.
Lewis followed the success of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” with a string of hits: “Great Balls of Fire”, “Breathless,” and “High School Confidential.” It was a hot streak for Lewis that came to a crashing close in 1958 when he made the career mistake of marrying his Myra Lewis Williams, then called Myra Gale Brown, his first cousin once-removed. She was just 13 years old.
A Rock and Roll Scandal
Jerry Lee Lewis was married twice before shacking up with the young Myra Gale Brown. First, to Dorothy Barton, whom he wed in 1953. (At that point, Lewis, too, was a teenaged groom of just 16.) And later, to Jane Mitcham, who bore Lewis his first two children: Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. and Ronnie Guy Lewis. Lewis and Mitcham were still technically married when he first married Brown in December of 1957. As that wedding was not technically legal, and the couple was not publicly an item.
But in spring 1958, around the time that Lewis tried to legally re-marry Brown, the world found out about the affair. Lewis had arrived in London in May for a 37-date tour and Brown, while accompanying him, revealed to the British reporter Ray Berry that she was indeed Lewis’ third wife.
Lewis then fudged the timeline, claiming that Brown was 15 years old and saying they’d only been married for two months. At that time, Lewis was 22. But it didn’t take long for Berry to find out the truth — and break the salacious story. The public was outraged in response and Lewis’ England tour was canceled after just three shows.
And how did the Killer respond? By marrying Brown again in an official ceremony on June 4, 1958 — all at the height of the scandal!
But the marriage, and Lewis’ rock stardom, were doomed. He turned to singing country full-time.
Myra Lewis Williams
Myra Gale Brown was born in Mississippi in 1944 and moved with her family to Memphis as a young child. There, her father J.W. Brown sought out his up-and-comer cousin Jerry Lee Lewis and the pair started a band. J.W. was heavily involved in Lewis’ early recordings at Sun Record and in 1956, Lewis moved in with that branch of the family… and he began seeing J.R.’s young daughter.
Against her parents’ wishes, Myra ran off with the older Jerry Lee when she was 13 years old and one year later, they had a son: Steve Allen Lewis. But tragically, the boy drowned in a swimming pool when he was three years old. After his death, Myra and Lewis had a daughter together, Phoebe Allen Lewis. At the time of Phoebe’s birth, Myra was 19 and she remained with Jerry Lee for many more years, even as he became addicted to drugs. She eventually divorced him though, in 1970, citing abuse and adultery.
There were, obviously, so many aspects of the relationship that were traumatic for Myra. And last week, the day after Jerry Lee’s death, she spoke about them candidly with the Los Angeles Times. The now-78-year-old is no stranger to discussing her ex-husband — she co-wrote the Jerry Lee Lewis biography which was later adapted into the 1989 film, Great Balls of Fire!, and in 2016 published a more personal account of their life: The Spark That Survived.
Despite those previous accounts, the recent LA Times piece shocked many fans in the wake of the singer’s death. In it, she offers an ironic view of their time together: “I was the adult and Jerry was the child.” Myra went on to explain that as her husband began abusing drugs, the relationship quickly deteriorated.
Overall, she is not sparing when it comes to Jerry Lee’s decision to make her his wife all those years ago: “When I look back on it, how can you defend yourself when you’re 13 years old? I mean there’s no excuse good enough for that to be OK,” she said. However, she and her Jerry Lee remained cordial for many years due to their shared daughter. But even that friendship soured when, in 2012, Jerry Lee married Myra’s former sister-in-law — and good friend — Judith Brown.
Apparently, the Killer liked to keep it all in the family.
Still, Myra prefers to think positively of her hard life Jerry Lee. “I’ve found my strength. And there’s almost nothing that can knock me off my block at this point,” she said. And as the LA Times reporter Jessica Gelt notes, “Williams did her best to hold back tears when talking about Lewis’ death.” Myra’s own father, J.W., also recently passed.
But Myra Lewis Williams, as she is now called, is doing okay. She and her current husband, Richard Williams, are both retired and live in Atlanta. They have been together for almost 39 years.