Lewis developed his style early, mixing boogie-woogie, rock, gospel and rhythm and blues. As a youth he was expelled from university for playing 'worldly' music. He moved to Nashville in 1955 - only to be told his music was not country enough. He wound up at Sun Records, where he worked as a session man for, among others, Carl Perkins. It was during a recording session with Perkins, that they were joined in the studio for an impromptu jam by Elvis Presley and Johnny Cash. The resulting tapes - made by the engineer as a 'souvenir'- were released as the Million Dollar Quartet.
In 1957 he shook the world with "Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin' On" and "Great Balls of Fire" and looked set to have a stellar career, however his private life became public and everything changed. While touring in Europe, news circulated of Lewis' marriage to his thirteen year old cousin (once removed), the resulting backlash caused the cancellation of the tour and an almost complete halt to Lewis career in the States. He was reduced to playing small clubs for small money, while his records struggled to get airplay. Even the subterfuge of an instrumental record, released under the name The Hawk, was rumbled, and in 1963 his contract with Sun ended. New releases for another label barely troubled the charts. Forced to look further afield, Lewis returned to Europe, where he recorded Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, the album is regarded amongst the best live rock n' roll recordings made, and stands as a testimony to his performing verve.
Despite the problems surrounding his private life, complicated by drink and drugs, Lewis carved a successful career in country music, with a steady stream of top thirty country albums. However, he probably never got the opportunity to fulfill his potential and achieve the status of his peers, such as Elvis. Lewis' contribution to music was recognized in 1986, when he was inducted into the Rock n Roll Hall of Fame, he is also a member of the Rockabilly Hall of Fame, and in the top thirty of Rolling Stone Magazine's Greatest Artist of All Time list. A biopic of Lewis' life was released in 1989.
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