Of all the rock rebels who emerged in the 1950s, few captured the allure and danger of the new genre as indelibly as the Louisiana-born pianist.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Jerry Lee Lewis, an irrepressible rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego collided on definitive records like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and kept the car ‘eru otherwise shocked by a personal scandal, died Friday morning at the age of 87.
Lewis died at home in Memphis, Tennessee, the last of a generation of groundbreaking artists that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, spokesman Zach Farnum said in a release.
Of all the rock rebels who emerged in the 1950s, few captured the allure and danger of the new genre as indelibly as the Louisiana-born pianist who called himself “The Killer.”
Gentle ballads are better left to the old. Lewis was all lust and pleasure, with his mocking tenor and exacting inflections, hard tempo and cheeky glissandi, cheeky sneer and crazy blond hair. He was in a one-man stampede that had fans screaming and keyboards cursing, his live performance so fiery that chairs were thrown at him like buckets of water during his performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on The Steve Allen Show in 1957 to hell.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock and roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked the door in,” a Lewis fan once remarked. That fan was Jerry Lee Lewis.
But in his personal life he was raging in a way that could have ended his career today – and almost ended it then.
For a short time, in 1958, he was a contender to replace Presley as the main rock artist after Elvis was drafted into the army. But during Lewis’ tour of England, the press learned three damning things: he was married to 13-year-old (maybe even 12-year-old) Myra Gale Brown, she was his cousin, and he was still married to his previous wife. . His tour was canceled, he was blacklisted from radio, and his earnings dropped to virtually nothing.
“I probably would have changed my life a little bit differently, but I’ve never hidden anything from people,” Lewis told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about his marriage. “I just carried on with my life as usual.”
Over the following decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, litigation, and physical ailments. Two of his many marriages ended in the early death of his wife. Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s and later claimed physical and mental abuse that nearly drove her to suicide.
“If I was still married to Jerry, I’d probably be dead by now,” she told People magazine in 1989.
In the 1960s, Lewis established himself as a country artist, and the music industry eventually forgave him long after he stopped producing hits. He won three Grammys and recorded with some of the biggest stars in the industry. In 2006, Lewis released Last Man Standing, which featured Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, BB King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought in Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and more for the album Mean Old Man.
In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock ‘n’ Roll, first published in 1975, he recalled how he convinced disc jockeys to give him a second chance.
“This time I said, ‘Look, man, let’s get together and draw the line on this — a peace treaty, you know,'” he explained. Lewis was still playing old hits on stage, but he was singing country on the radio.
Between 1967 and 1970, Lewis had a streak of top 10 country hits, and they hardly let up. He performed tableaus like ‘What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)’, the deep confessional ‘She Still Comes Around’ and a cover of the classic abandonment ballad ‘She Even Woke’ I Need to Say Goodbye.’ He remained popular in Europe, and the 1964 album Live at the Star Club, Hamburg is considered one of his greatest live recordings.
The performance in 1973 proved more troublesome: Lewis sang for the Grand Ole Opry and broke two long-standing rules – no profanity and no country songs.
“I sing rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, rhythm and blues—–,” he told the crowd.
Lewis married seven times and was rarely far from trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jarren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 during a divorce. His fifth wife, Sean Stevens, who was 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis married Carrie McCarver, then 21 years old. She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical violence and infidelity. He countersued, but both motions were ultimately dismissed. They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III.
Another son from a previous marriage, 3-year-old Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and a son, Jerry Lee Jr., died in a car accident at age 19 in 1973. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Laurie Lee and is survived by his wife, Judith.
His finances were also chaotic. Lewis made millions, but he liked the cash and ended up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the IRS. When he began hosting tourists in 1994 at his longtime residence near Nesbitt, Mississippi, with its piano-shaped swimming pool, he installed 900 phone numbers that fans could call and receive a recorded message for $2.75 a minute.
The son of one-time bootlegger Elmo Lewis and cousin of TV preacher Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. He first learned to play the guitar as a child, but found the instrument too cramped and longed for an instrument that only the wealthy in his town could afford, the piano. His life changed when his father stopped his truck one day and gave him an upright keyboard made of dark wood.
“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 took up the piano and began sneaking into Black Juke bands and soaking up everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. Caught early on between secular and terrible music, he dropped out of school at 16 and planned to become a preacher while playing the piano. Lewis briefly attended the Southwestern Assemblies of God University Fundamentalist Bible College in Waxahachie, Texas, but was reportedly expelled for playing the “wrong” music.
“Great Balls of Fire,” a sexualized take on biblical imagery that Lewis initially refused to record, and “Whole Lotta Shakin'” were his most enduring songs and performances. Lewis only had a few other pop hits, including “High School Confidential” and “Breathless,” but they were enough to secure his place as the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.
“No group, whether it’s (the Beatles), Dylan or the Stones, has ever bettered ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ for my money,'” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.
A roadhouse veteran in his early 20s, Lewis headed to Memphis in 1956 and appeared at Sun Records, home of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. Ordered by company founder Sam Phillips to go study rock ‘n’ roll, Lewis returned and soon rushed to shoot “Whole Lotta Shakin'” in one take.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he said later. “Sam Phillips thought it would be too risky and it didn’t work out. If it’s risky, I’m sorry.’
In 1986, he was inducted into the first class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others. Not only has the killer outlived his contemporaries, but he’s also seen his life and music periodically introduced to younger fans, including the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire starring Dennis Quaid and Ethan Cohen’s documentary Trouble in Mind” of 2022. The 2010 Broadway musical Million Dollar Quartet was inspired by a recording session involving Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
He won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album that was honored as best spoken word recording, and he won a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005. The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin'” was selected for the National Library of Congress Recording Registry, whose board praised the “propulsive boogie piano, which was perfectly complemented by the driving drumming of J.M. Van Eaton. The listeners of the recording, like Lewis himself, found it difficult to stay seated during the performance.”
A Bible school classmate, Perry Green, recalled meeting Lewis years later and asking if he still played the devil’s music.
“Yes, I am,” Lewis replied. “But you know it’s amazing, the same music they kicked me out of school for is the same music they play in their churches today. The difference is, I know I’m playing for the devil and they’re not.”