Jerry Lee Lewis Made as Much Trouble as He Did Music

Like a ringmaster letting a lion out of its cage to terrify and thrill the kids at the circus, Steve Allen unleashed the 21-year-old Jerry Lee Lewis to a prime-time TV audience on his July 28, 1957, Sunday variety show. As Lewis ripped into his debut hit “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” the same startled excitement seized the folks at home as when Elvis Presley made his national TV debut on the Tommy and Jimmy Dorsey Stage Show 18 months earlier. The moment was that epochal.

Lewis, who died Friday at age 87, had a far briefer purchase on stardom than Elvis—not least because the rockabilly icon made as much trouble as he did music. The Killer, as he was known, was a charter member of the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall of Fame known for two song…