50 Years Ago: Jerry Lee Lewis Debuts at the Opry, & Burns It Down

This story has been updated.

Many memorable and historical moments have graced the stage of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville, Tennessee during its storied 97-year history, from stunning debuts and duets, to epic moments and memorable anniversaries, and just about everything in between.

The Opry has also had its fair share of controversy transpire on the stage as well, from Bob Wills having the audacity to bring a drum set along from Texas (the horror!), to Johnny Cash kicking out the footlights, to The Byrds getting chirped off stage, and Bill Monroe being served divorce papers.

But nothing has ever happened on the Grand Ole Opry stage, good or bad, that tops the moment that the recently-minted Country Music Hall of Famer and the even more recently dearly departed Jerry Lee Lewis enacted when he made his Grand Ole Opry debut 50 years ago, on January 20th, 1973. Jerry Lee Lewis walked out on the Ryman Auditorium stage, and metaphorically speaking, burned it down.

You can probably appreciate that in 1973, The Grand Ole Opry was quite the prim and proper place, no matter what the rest of popular culture may have been up to (or down with) at that time. The Opry was still very much the domain of Roy Acuff, Minnie Pearl, and Bill Monroe. It was good clean family entertainment, no different than it is today.

Normally, a rocker wouldn’t even be invited on the Grand Ole Opry stage, especially after the program’s checkered past with rock performers. It wasn’t just The Byrds that were deemed problematic by the crowd. When Elvis Presley made his debut on October 2nd, 1954 singing Bill Monroe’s “Blue Moon of Kentucky,” he bombed so bad, Opry manager Jim Denny reportedly told Elvis to go back to his day job as a truck driver. Elvis Presley never returned to the Opry.

But when Jerry Lee Lewis took the Opry stage, he did so as a country star after switching genres in an attempt to revitalize his career after the whole “marrying your 13-year-old cousin” thing had him falling out with the rock world. By 1973, Jerry Lee Lewis was 37 years old and two years removed from his divorce from sweet Myra Brown, and trying to get his career back in order.

Jerry Lee Lewis hit the ground running in country, and saw early success. But of course, you were nothing in country music in the 60s and 70s if you’d never played the Grand Ole Opry. And so Jerry Lee Lewis was booked, but under two very specific stipulations: no cussing, and no rock and roll. Jerry Lee Lewis was only allowed to play country. Legend states that when The Killer heard this stipulation, his reply was “What country?”

Jerry Lee Lewis would break both of these rules and many more before he was done. At one point, Jerry Lee Lewis stuck his face into the microphone and proclaimed unabashedly, “Let me tell ya something about Jerry Lee Lewis, ladies and gentlemen: I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherf—-!”

It might have been a smarter move on the Opry’s part to not try and tell Jerry Lee Lewis what not to do at all.

Then came the music. Jerry Lee did play the country song “Another Place, Another Time,” which was the song that had seen Jerry Lee re-enter the charts in 1968 after a good decade without a major hit. But after that, it was a heavy dose of rock and roll. Lewis launched into his signature hits “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On,” breaking stipulation #2 from Opry management.

But Jerry Lee not only ran afoul of the Opry’s initial prerequisites, Lewis also ran over on time. At the Grand Ole Opry in 1973, it was customary for a musician to play two songs, or three at the most, just like today. But Jerry Lee Lewis wouldn’t comply. His fourth and fifth songs were Merle Haggard’s “Workin’ Man Blues” and Kris Kristofferson’s “Once More With Feeling,” and it didn’t stop there.

It was back into the rock material with “Rock Around the Clock” from Bill Haley and the Comets, and Elvis Presley’s “Mean Woman Blues.” What was supposed to be a 10 minute set stretched to 40, and due to the overrun, the Opry even had to blow through commercial breaks. The management was fuming. Nothing like this had ever happened in the history of the institution.

However, unlike The Byrds and Elvis, everyone in the crowd seemed to love Jerry Lee Lewis, and came to their feet multiple times during the set. Jerry Lee even ingratiated himself to the Grand Ole Opry auxiliary band when he invited Opry pianist Del Wood to join him on “Down Yonder” and complimented her musicianship and hospitality. To many in attendance, they didn’t care about the established rules, and most in the audience probably didn’t even knew them. Jerry Lee Lewis was putting on a show.

Jerry Lee Lewis knew he would never be invited back, and he probably knew the performance would live in infamy. Country music is and was about respecting and upholding traditions and rules. Rock and roll and Jerry Lee Lewis were about breaking them.

In the aftermath, Grand Ole Opry regulars and boosters couldn’t believe what had happened, and were appalled at Jerry Lee’s flaunting of the rules. But nobody has ever forgotten the time when Jerry Lee Lewis took the stage at the Grand Ole Opry. 50 years later, it still lives on in fame, and infamy.

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