Jerry Lee Lewis among those headed to the Country Music Hall of Fame

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One of the last surviving pioneers of rock and roll, a country legend whose reign was tragically cut short and an executive with a peerless eye for talent will join country music’s most esteemed club later this year.

Jerry Lee Lewis, Keith Whitley and Joe Galante will be inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Country Music Association announced Tuesday.

Lewis is being recognized as a “Veteran Era Artist," while Whitley is being inducted as this year’s “Modern Era Artist.” Galante’s induction is in the “non-performer” category, which rotates tri-annually with Recording/Touring Musician and Songwriter categories.

The 2022 inductions will bring the total number of Hall of Fame inductees to 149. Inductees are voted on by CMA’s Hall of Fame Panels of Electors, an anonymous body chosen by the CMA Board of Directors.

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Legendary rocker Jerry Lee Lewis

The Country Music Hall of Fame has been on Jerry Lee Lewis’ radar for a long time.

In 1969, the institution was barely two years old when the rock and roll trailblazer released a two-volume collection, “Jerry Lee Lewis Sings the Country Music Hall of Fame Hits.” On it, he lent boogie-woogie flair to hits by Hank Williams and Ray Price.

53 years later, “The Killer” is finally in their company.

“It’s been a while coming,” says Lewis, 86. “But we’re thankful for it.”

Jerry Lee Lewis, front, with Kris Kristofferson, talks with the audience before taping a special for HBO at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville Jan. 19, 1982. The special will be air on Home Box Office in April.
Jerry Lee Lewis, front, with Kris Kristofferson, talks with the audience before taping a special for HBO at the Tennessee Performing Arts Center in Nashville Jan. 19, 1982. The special will be air on Home Box Office in April.

That’s a rare understatement from a man known for going to extremes. Lewis is obviously hailed as a wildly influential architect of rock and roll, but from the moment his breakthrough single “Whole Lot Of Shakin’ Going On” rattled the airwaves in 1957, he was also an immediate country star.

As radical as they sounded at the time, “Shakin’” and its piano-pounding follow-up “Great Balls of Fire” both managed to top the country charts, and Lewis would go on to record the songs of Williams, Roger Miller and Charlie Rich in his early years.

As his career stalled in the 1960s – impacted by the press’s discovery that he had married his 13-year-old cousin – it was his full embrace of the genre that led to a long, successful second act.

“I’ve always loved country music. It’s made more sense for me than anything,” he says. “I like to get into it. I love the words to the songs, and they just seem to make a lot of sense.”

Jerry Lee Lewis performs at MusicFest May 16, 1982.
Jerry Lee Lewis performs at MusicFest May 16, 1982.

1968’s “Another Place, Another Time” was an immediate game changer. For the next 15 years, Lewis was a constant presence on the country charts, with "Would You Take Another Chance on Me” and "There Must Be More to Love Than This” among his dozens of hits.

Lewis is now the last surviving member of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class of 1986. Since then, three members of that iconic group have crossed over to country’s Hall: Elvis Presley, The Everly Brothers and Ray Charles.

Over the past five years, the conversations surrounding Lewis’ absence have grown louder: in 2017, a fan-made petition to induct him was signed by thousands, including members Kris Kristofferson and Kenny Rogers.

Asked about the long road leading to his induction, Lewis says with a laugh: “I never really got into it too much. I’m sure they had a reason for it.”

After suffering a stroke in 2019, Lewis was still able play the piano on the 2020 sessions for an upcoming album produced by T Bone Burnett. Today, he says, “I really don’t stick with the piano as much as I used to. I miss it.”

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In his most recent public appearance in Nashville, Lewis played alongside Kristofferson, Chris Stapleton, Toby Keith during a 2017 “Skyville Live” concert in his honor. He says he now moves with the aid of a walker (“It’s kind of a hindrance to me, but I think I’ll make it all right”), but is game for another night of tributes from his friends and fans in the country world.

“I’m looking forward to it.”

Joe Galante, chairman RCA Label Group, gives an interview from his Music Row office Dec. 9, 2002.
Joe Galante, chairman RCA Label Group, gives an interview from his Music Row office Dec. 9, 2002.

Music industry titan Joe Galante

When RCA Records told Joe Galante – a New Yorker working at the label home of Lou Reed and Hall & Oates – that he’d be transferring to Nashville, one question popped into his head.

“What did I do wrong?” he remembered thinking.

“I got called down and [HR] said, ‘We’d like you to go to Nashville. We think it’d be great for your career,’” Galante told The Tennessean. “I said, ‘I’m sorry? Tell me how that works.’”

Galante accepted his assignment with the label assuring him that he could come back in a few years if it didn’t work out.

Fast forward nearly five decades and he’s entering the Country Music Hall of Fame.

What started a begrudging Southern relocation for the 24-year-old Galante soon turned into a lifelong love for country music. That’ll happen when one’s formative country memories include studio time with Waylon Jennings and riding the Long Island Rail Road with Dolly Parton.

In Nashville, he felt a warm acceptance that may not be extended to some in New York City or Los Angeles.

“I think that’s the great thing about this town … people are willing to introduce you,” Galante said. “They’re willing to open up.”

Under guidance from Jerry Bradley – a 2019 Country Music Hall of Fame inductee who led RCA Nashville for much of the 1970s – and former BMI executive Frances W. Preston (among many others, he’ll gladly share), Galante began to rise in Music City. He took over RCA Nashville in 1982 – at age 32, he became at the time the youngest executive to lead a major label in Nashville – with an ear for talent and tenacious drive to grow superstar careers behind an RCA catalog.

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And just as he fell in love with Nashville years earlier, country music fans fell for the songs he helped bring to radio airwaves and record store shelves. The Judds, Alabama, Keith Whitley, K.T. Oslin, Clint Black, Vince Gill, Lorrie Morgan and Martina McBride topped charts and sold out shows under Galante’s leadership. After briefly relocating to New York City with wife Phran Galante in the early 1990s – where he worked as RCA Records president – he returned to Nashville as chairman in 1994, working with Kenny Chesney, Sara Evans, Lonestar and Chris Young.

Under his tenure, RCA Nashville – what’s known today as Sony Music Nashville – reigned as top-selling Music Row label in 1982, a position the company held for 11 consecutive years. Under Galante’s lead in the 1980s, the label sold an estimated 750 million units.

“Each of the artists, whether it be the Judds or K.T. or Clint or Kenny, they each have a sound,” Galante said. “There’s a consistency. We talk about this, the ‘80s and ‘90s country. Everybody goes, ‘Why does this still resonate?’ It’s the songs.”

After rounds of corporate shuffling that saw Brooks & Dunn, Miranda Lambert, Alan Jackson, Brad Paisley and more come under Galante’s leadership umbrella, the native New Yorker exited Sony Music Nashville as chairman in 2010.

Galante remains a Music Row figurehead as a longtime Country Music Association board of directors member and Leadership Nashville co-founder, among other commitments. In 2015, he earned Bob Kingsley Living Legend Award from the Opry Trust Fund and, in 2021, the Academy of Country Music honored him with the ACM Cliffie Stone Icon Award.

“For this [induction] to happen … I’m still trying to wrap my head around it,” Galante said. “I’m truly humbled and grateful. It is the pinnacle of my career and something unexpected to happen. I appreciate all the people that got me here, because it was people. It was people along the way [who] were just kind enough to answer my questions and give me the time.”

Country music couple Lorrie Morgan, left, and Keith Whitley share a moment during Nashville community celebration of what was billed as a "marriage" between Tree International and CBS Records during a star-studded "wedding" party at the Opryland Hotel Jan. 11, 1989.
Country music couple Lorrie Morgan, left, and Keith Whitley share a moment during Nashville community celebration of what was billed as a "marriage" between Tree International and CBS Records during a star-studded "wedding" party at the Opryland Hotel Jan. 11, 1989.

Iconic singer Keith Whitley

“I fell in love with the voice before I fell in love with the man. No music has ever touched me and moved my heart as Keith’s did,” says the emotional widow of Keith Whitley, Lorrie Morgan, to The Tennessean. She’s calling from a tour bus on the way to a concert in Emporia, Kansas, when discussing her second husband, Whitley’s induction into the Country Music Hall of Fame.

Keith Whitley tragically died in 1989 at the age of 34. However, he impacted and inspired country music both in the era of his popularity and directly flavored the legacies of icons like Garth Brooks, Joe Diffie, Alan Jackson, Tracy Lawrence and Tim McGraw.

Native-born Kentuckians, including Crystal Gayle, The Judds, Patty Loveless and Whitley’s friend Ricky Skaggs, all had impressive runs through the 1980s on country radio. Whitley’s emergence as a Nashville superstar after releasing his 1987 album “Don’t Close Your Eyes” can be directly correlated to the work of his fellow Kentuckians who preceded him.

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By the mid-1980s, slick pop production had been untangled from country’s folk and bluegrass sensibilities. However, the charisma in Whitley’s voice maintained a connection to the mainstream’s ears.

“Keith was a magical, monumental artist,” Morgan continues. “He changed the way people thought about country music because he was so cool.” She adds that blending Whitley’s voice with honest storytelling, timeless rock production standards and classic folk standards allowed No. 1 hits like “Don’t Close Your Eyes” and 1989’s “I’m No Stranger To The Rain” to bring a “whole new sound” to country music.

By age 15, Keith Whitley had quickly advanced from being a bluegrass and country music-loving fan (he sang Marty Robbins’ 1960 hit “Big Iron” in his talent show debut at age 4) to touring the world with another bluegrass icon, Dr. Ralph Stanley, and his group, the Clinch Mountain Boys.

By 1979, he’d left the Clinch Mountain Boys and partnered in one of many iterations of J.D. Crowe’s jazz and rock-inspired folk band, The New South. Ironically, the first of three albums he was featured on with the group was entitled “My Home Ain't in the Hall of Fame.”

Whitley left the group in 1983, setting course for Nashville. By 1984, he was signed to RCA Records by a fellow 2022 Hall of Famer, Joe Galante. In 1985, “Miami, My Amy” was Whitley’s first to break top-20 at country radio, sparking immense success.

One year later, Whitley married fellow rising country star, Lorrie Morgan. They were together at the time of his death.

“Though our time together was brief, it was an exciting fairy tale…like ‘Romeo and Juliet’ meets ‘A Star Is Born.’ We were each other’s biggest fans,” Morgan says.

Imagining how Whitley would have reacted at his induction ceremony causes Morgan, overcome with joy and grief in equal measure, to pause.

“The saddest thing is that he did not know how great he was. His fame never went to his head. So a standing ovation would've amazed him.”

This article originally appeared on Nashville Tennessean: Jerry Lee Lewis part of Country Music's Hall of Fame Class of 2022