Jerry Lee Lewis, notorious American rock’n’roll star, dies aged 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who became one of popular music’s most infamous figures, has died aged 87, his publicist has said.

He died of natural causes at his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi. “Judith, his seventh wife, was by his side when he died at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis,” a statement read. “He told her, in his last days, that he welcomed the afterlife and was not afraid.”

Lewis’ energetic performances on songs such as Great Balls of Fire helped establish rock ‘n’ roll as the mainstream American pop music of the 1950s. He was born in Louisiana in 1935, the son of a farming family poor who mortgaged their home to buy Lewis his first piano. While learning the instrument and studying at an evangelical school, he was expelled for performing a boogie-woogie version of My God is Real that was deemed irreverent.

He did not go back to school and started performing live – his first performance at the age of 14 was at the opening of a car dealership. He developed a theatrical, boisterous style that rang with the energy of the burgeoning rock ‘n’ roll scene and began performing at Sun Studios in Memphis, first as a session musician and later as an artist. solo. Some of his earliest recordings were made in 1956 with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins, a group later dubbed the Million Dollar Quartet. It was an impromptu session: Cash and Presley were separately visiting the studio where Lewis accompanied Perkins on the piano.

Lewis’ breakthrough came the following year, with Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, a piano rock ‘n’ roll single. When he performed it on television on The Steve Allen Show, he brought national attention to his unique playing style: extremely energetic, he would flip his piano stool and play standing up, with songs accented by series cascading notes.

He followed that Top 3 song with his biggest hit, Great Balls of Fire, which reached No. 2 on the US charts and became one of the definitive songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era.

While touring Britain in 1958 at the height of his fame, he was embroiled in a scandal after it was revealed he had married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown – it would be the third of his seven weddings. There was outrage in the British press and the remainder of her tour was cancelled. American radio stations and concert promoters also blacklisted him, and his popularity faded. He never had a US Top 20 hit again.

Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown in May 1958.
Jerry Lee Lewis and Myra Brown in May 1958. Photograph: Hulton Archive/Getty Images

Lewis’ reputation as a wild man cemented his nickname, The Killer, earned by his habit of describing acquaintances with Louisiana slang for “killer”. After a 13-year marriage to Brown, her fourth and fifth marriages were even more notorious. Jaren Pate and Shawn Stephens both died in suspicious circumstances – the former by drowning, while rumors of domestic abuse swirled around the latter.

Despite the controversies, he successfully transitioned into country music after the rock ‘n’ roll scene dwindled and scored a string of US country chart hits, including his version of the standard Chantilly Lace.

In 1984, after years of using prescription drugs, he survived an operation to remove a third of his stomach after a series of perforated ulcers, and in 1986 he was one of the first 10 artists inducted. in the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, alongside Presley, Chuck Berry and others.

Another infamous “Killer” moment involved Berry. When the pair were on tour, Lewis objected to Berry chasing him and so set his piano on fire after his performance with the words, “Follow that, boy.” Meanwhile, Lewis was arrested in 1976 after he got drunk at Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis with a loaded gun on the dashboard of his car.

Two of Lewis’s six children died young: Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool aged three, while Jerry Lee Lewis Jr – who had played drums for his father – died in an accident car at the age of 19. Four others – Ronnie Guy, Phoebe Allen, Lori Lee and Jerry Lee III – survive him, as does his wife Judith.

Lewis has recorded 40 studio albums, the most recent being Rock & Roll Time in 2014. His previous album, Mean Old Man, reached the US Top 30 when it was released in 2010 and featured duets with stars such as Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton.

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