Jerry Lee Lewis, the indomitable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose talent, energy and outrageous ego collided on such definitive records as ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’ and supported a career otherwise upended by a personal scandal, died Friday morning at 87.
The last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking artists that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at his home in Mississippi, south of Memphis, Tenn., Rep. Zach Farnum said in a statement. The news came two days after TMZ published an erroneous report of his death, which was later retracted.
Of all the rock rebels who emerged in the 1950s, few captured the lure and danger of the new genre more unforgettable than the Louisiana-born pianist who went by the name “The Killer.”
The tender ballads were best left to the old. Lewis was all about lust and gratification, with his sleazy tenor and demanding asides, violent tempos and brash glissandi, cocky sneer and crazy blond hair. He was a lonely man who had fans screaming and keyboards swearing, his live act so combustible that during a 1957 performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on “The Steve Allen Show,” chairs were thrown at him. like buckets of water on a brazier.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ‘n’ roll until Jerry Lee Lewis kicked down the door,” a Lewis admirer once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.
But in his private life, he raged in a way that could have ended his career today – and almost did then.
For a brief period, in 1958, he was a candidate to replace Presley as top rock hits producer after Elvis was drafted into the army. But while Lewis was filming in England, the press learned three damaging things: he was married to Myra Gale Brown, 13 (maybe even 12), she was his cousin, and he was still married to his former wife. . His tour was canceled, he was blacklisted from the radio, and his earnings dropped overnight to virtually nothing.
“I probably would have rearranged my life a little differently, but I never hid anything from people,” Lewis told The Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about marriage. “I just carried on with my life as usual.”
Over the next few decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol addiction, legal disputes, and physical illness. Two of his many marriages ended in the untimely death of his wife. Brown herself was divorced in the early 1970s and later alleges physical and mental cruelty that nearly drove her to suicide.
“If I was still married to Jerry, I probably would be dead by now,” she told People magazine in 1989.
Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer in the 1960s, and the music industry finally forgave him, long after he had stopped having hits. He’s won three Grammys and recorded with some of the biggest stars in the industry. In 2006 Lewis released “Last Man Standing”, featuring Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, BB King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought in Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and others for the album “Mean Old Man”.
In “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll”, first published in 1975, he recalled how he convinced disc jockeys to give him a second chance.
“This time I said, ‘Listen, man, let’s get together and get this thing over with – a peace treaty, you know,'” he explained. Lewis would still play the old hits on stage, but on the radio he would sing country.
Lewis had a string of top 10 country hits between 1967 and 1970, and barely mellowed at all. He performed drinking songs such as “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)”, the traveling eye confessions of “She Still Comes Around” and a dry-eyed cover of a classic ballad from the abandonment, “She Even Woke”. Me to say goodbye. It had remained popular in Europe, and a 1964 album, “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg”, is widely regarded as one of the greatest concert records.
A 1973 performance proved more troublesome: Lewis sang for the Grand Ole Opry and broke two long-standing rules — no swear words and no non-country songs.
“I’m a mother who sings rock and roll, country and western, rhythm and blues —–,” he told the audience.
Lewis was married seven times and was rarely far from trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 while filing for divorce. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis had married Kerrie McCarver, then 21. She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical abuse and infidelity. He counterattacked, but both petitions were eventually dropped. They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III.
Another son from a previous marriage, Steve Allen Lewis, 3, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and his son Jerry Lee Jr. died in a traffic accident at age 19 in 1973. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Leigh, and is survived by his wife Judith.
His finances were also chaotic. Lewis won millions, but he loved his cash and ended up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. When he started welcoming tourists in 1994 at his longtime residence near Nesbit, Mississippi — complete with a piano-shaped pool — he set up a 900 phone number that fans could call for a recorded message at $2.75 per minute.
The son of former bootlegger Elmo Lewis and cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. As a child, he first learned to play the guitar, but found the instrument too confined and longed for an instrument only the wealthy in his town could afford – a piano. His life changed when his father stopped in his truck one day and gave him a set of dark wooden upright keyboards.
“My eyes almost fell out of my head,” Lewis recalled in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” written by Rick Bragg and published in 2014.
He immediately got on the piano and started sneaking into black juke joints and soaking up everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. Conflicted at an early age between secular and frightened music, he left school at 16, intending to become a pianist preacher. Lewis briefly attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, a fundamentalist Bible college, but was expelled, reportedly, for playing the “wrong” kind of music.
“Great Balls of Fire”, a sexualized version of biblical imagery that Lewis initially refused to record, and “Whole Lotta Shakin'” were his most enduring songs and performances. Lewis only had a handful of other pop hits, including “High School Confidential” and “Breathless,” but they were enough to secure his place as a rock ‘n’ roll architect.
“No band, be it (the) Beatles, Dylan or the Stones, has ever bettered ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ for my money,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.
A veteran of truck stops in his early 20s, Lewis took off for Memphis in 1956 and checked into the studios of Sun Records, the musical home of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. Told by company founder Sam Phillips to go learn rock ‘n roll, Lewis returned and quickly landed “Whole Lotta Shakin'” in one take.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he later said. “Sam Phillips thought it was going to be too risky, couldn’t do it. If it’s risky, well, I’m sorry.
In 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others, he made the first class of inductees into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and joined the Country Hall of Fame that year. The Killer has not only outlasted his contemporaries, but has seen his life and music periodically reintroduced to young fans, including the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” starring Dennis Quaid, and the 2022 documentary by Ethan Coen. “Trouble in Mind”. A 2010 Broadway score, “Million Dollar Quartet”, was inspired by a recording session featuring Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
He won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album that was nominated for Best Spoken Word Recording, and he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement in 2005. The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin'” has been selected for the National Library of Congress. Recording Registry, whose board praised “the propulsive boogie piano that was perfectly complemented by the dynamism of JM Van Eaton’s energetic drums. Listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, found it difficult to remain seated during the performance.
A Bible school classmate, Pearry Green, remembers meeting Lewis years later and asking him if he was still playing devil’s music.
“Yes, I am,” Lewis replied. “But you know, it’s strange, the same music they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is that I know I’m playing for the devil and they don’t.
This story has been updated to clarify where Lewis’ home is.
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