Jerry Lee Lewis is forever immortalized as one of rock and roll’s most influential pioneers. Like Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash, Lewis’ career was both wildly successful and fraught with controversy, but one particularly outlandish scandal in his early days shocked the world and promised to end his rockstar status overnight – until it didn’t.
Lewis was born a troublemaker
Lewis was born on September 29, 1935, in Ferriday, Louisiana to a poor farming family. By the time he was nine years old, Lewis began playing the piano – a pastime he loved so much that his parents mortgaged their farm to buy him a piano. The investment would ultimately pay off. Like other rock and roll legends of his time, Lewis drew musical inspiration from the gospel music he heard at church and combined it with the rhythm and blues sound of Black musicians who passed through town.
He made his first public performance in 1949, but soon after, his mother enrolled him in an evangelical bible school so he could focus on singing religious music. His stint at the school was short-lived after Lewis performed a “boogie-woogie” rendition of the evangelical song “My God is Real” at a school assembly. Lewis was expelled the same night and made his way to Nashville to pursue his music career full-time.
In 1952 Lewis recorded his first songs in New Orleans, a cover of Lefty Frizzell’s “Don’t Stay Away (Till Love Grows Cold)” and an original piece titled “Jerry’s Boogie.” By 1956, the performer had garnered enough attention to land a contract with Sun Records. But just as his career was taking off, a shocking controversy would threaten everything Lewis had worked for.
The story that rocked Lewis’ career
In 1958 it was revealed that Lewis, 22, had married his first cousin once removed – Myra Gale Brown, who was only 13 at the time. Even more mind-boggling was the fact that Myra wasn’t even Lewis’ first wife, she was in fact his third – and his second marriage wasn’t even terminated by the time he married for the third time!
Ahead of his first British tour set for May 1958, Lewis was advised not to bring his new wife along. Lewis didn’t see why it could potentially be an issue to bring his underage bride on tour. Since Elvis Presley had recently joined the army, Lewis knew this was his moment to take his career to the next level on an international stage.
When Lewis and his entourage arrived at London’s Heathrow airport, British journalist Ray Berry asked Myra a simple question: who are you? The young girl, who hadn’t received any briefings on what to say to the press, answered Berry honestly and admitted she was Lewis’ wife. Berry was shocked to discover the teen was married to the rising star – but he went ahead and published the story, dubbing Myra “Jerry Lee Lewis’ child bride.”
Lewis later claimed that he believed Myra was 15 when they married, not 13. This was likely a way to get around the newly amended marriage laws in Mississippi which changed the minimum marriage age for women from 12 to 15 years in 1957, the same year Lewis married his young cousin.
Within a matter of days, Lewis’ UK tour was canceled. Radio stations stopped playing his music, and he was lucky to perform at cheap bars and clubs instead of the huge venues he had booked before arriving in London. It would take another decade for the scandal to blow over and allow Lewis’ career to take off in the late ’60s and ’70s.
Jerry and Myra divorced in 1970 but remained on good terms. The couple had two children together, daughter Phoebe and son Steve who died when he was only three years old. Myra, who is now 78, has maintained that she saw herself as a grown woman despite being married at such a young age.
In a 1958 interview, she told one reporter that she believed a girl as young as 10 could marry a man if she wanted. In 2014, Myra elaborated on her earlier statement and explained that she “couldn’t believe that they could not see that I was a grown woman. I was only 13, but people said I was more mature than Jerry.”
She continued, saying that her generation was “taught to hide under our desk when the bomb came, so you always had in the back of your mind that any minute, any day, life could come to an end… What I wanted was a baby in my arms, a home, a husband, a kitchen to cook in, a yard to raise roses.” Looking at Myra’s choice to marry at 13 through the lens of today’s social norms, there is one huge thing missing from her list of desires: to have a childhood.
In fact, Myra revealed that from a very young age she saw herself taking on the role of wife and mother – pleading with her parents to give her “a baby to look after.” Her parents had her younger brother soon after, with Myra taking on the role of his “second mother.”
Was Myra a victim of child marriage?
Myra and Jerry Lee’s marriage would be categorized as a child marriage, which applies to anyone married under the age of 18. Child marriage is still practiced around the world today, but we rarely stop to investigate the ongoing history of child marriage in the United States. Child brides didn’t just come from extremely religious or fundamentalist communities. Many girls as young as nine years old married much older men. Throughout the 1950s, approximately 15 to 20 percent of American brides were under the age of 18.
The practice continues today, with nearly 300,000 child marriages occurring in the United States between 2000 and 2018. Myra wasn’t the only person with connections to famous men to enter a relationship at such a young age. At the same time that Jerry Lee Lewis was facing backlash for marrying Myra, 24-year-old Elvis Presley was already in a serious relationship with 14-year-old Priscilla Beaulieu.
Country singer Loretta Lynn married her husband Oliver “Doolittle” Lynn when she was just 15, but in her autobiography Coalminer’s Daughter, she revealed she deliberately announced she was married when she was 13 years old to appear as “country” as possible.
Myra Gale Brown reflected on how differing worldviews have changed our perception of child marriage since the 1950s and ’60s: “If you say to me now, ‘there’s a 13-year-old girl over here who wants to get married,’ I would say ‘God, please do not do that, little girl. Go to college, get an education, then figure it out.’ But it was a different world, things have changed so drastically. Options, mindsets – this world has gone so fast the last 50 years that you can’t keep up with it.”
Lewis, who married seven times throughout his life, also addressed the controversy in a 2015 interview with The Guardian: “I wasn’t the kind of guy who’d take a girl and put her up on a hill, and live with her for eight years, and then marry her when I got her pregnant.”
“I was the adult and Jerry was the child”
Jerry Lee Lewis passed away on October 28, 2022, and left behind a complicated legacy. Known as “the Killer,” Lewis had a notoriously short temper. He even pulled up to Graceland one night drunk and high on pills with a gun on the dashboard of his car, demanding that Elvis Presley come down to prove who the “real” king of rock and roll was.
He was also reckless, and some say even violent, like the time he shot his bass player in the chest “accidentally” or his role in the suspicious circumstances of two of his wives’ deaths. The infamous performer even confided in The Guardian interviewer Simon Hattenston, admitting that the then 80-year-old was worried “about whether I’m going to heaven or hell.”
Just one day after Lewis’ death, Myra (whose surname is now Williams) talked with the Los Angeles Times by phone from her home in Atlanta. She bravely recounted her turbulent teenage years in which everything “gigantic” occurred. The LA Times listed a lifetime of milestones before Myra turned 20: “Married at 13; a mother at 14; losing her firstborn child when she was 17; giving birth to her second child at 19.”
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“I was called the child bride, but I was the adult and Jerry was the child,” Williams said. “But in going through it, I’ve found my strength. And there’s almost nothing that can knock me off my block at this point.”