Jerry Lee "The Killer" Lewis is 80 years old today. In addition to his outstanding skills as a singer and stage performer, Jerry Lee practically invented the school of Rock and Roll piano playing from a stew of blues, boogie woogie, country, western swing, Tin Pan Alley, and gospel influences. He doesn't sound like anyone else (other than his piano playing cousins Jimmy Swaggart and Mickey Gilley) because his style is all his own.
The movie Great Balls of Fire claimed that Jerry Lee had a "black left hand and a white right hand," but that's oversimplifying things. Jerry Lee took all of the aspects of the music he loved and played in his youth and unified them into something new. The fact that he sounds so original probably has as much do with the relative isolation of growing up in Louisiana in the 30s and 40s as anything else without formally trained teachers or more than a handful of local musicians to tell him that he was doing things “wrong.” By the time he stepped into Sun Studios in 1956 at the age of 21, his style was fully formed and showed no signs of bending upon exposure to the wider world of professional music.
You could put someone in a room for 20 years with a piano and all of the same music that Jerry Lee heard growing up, and you would probably still never end up with someone who plays exactly the way that he does. But, you might end up something equally interesting. Jerry Lee Lewis is a perfect example of what can happen when someone freely throws their influences together without concern for stylistic purity. By focusing on the things he liked and dropping whatever the didn't (for example, he rarely plays more than 3 chords in a tune, and tops out at 5-6 max) he ended up with something entirely unique. Students can replicate this process using similar methods: make a list or think about the aspects that you like most from your favorite players or styles of music (no matter how off the wall, cheesy, or un-hip) and think of interesting ways to combine them, the stranger the better. You'll eventually make connections that will make sense only to your particular taste, and over time these will form the elements of your individual style.
Let's wrap up with the man himself. This is Jerry Lee on the Steve Allen show in 1957, playing the scandalous “Whole Lotta Shakin' Goin On” as his national television debut. Note his legendary left hand providing a gospel-boogie foundation and doubling as “bass player” for the band. Also note Steve Allen (from off camera) getting so excited that he throws his chair across the stage at 1:40. :)