Jerry Lee Lewis, the early rock n’ roll star who skyrocketed to fame with a string of hits in the 1950s, has died, his publicist confirmed to CBS News. He was 87 years old.
The last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking artists including Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at home in Memphis, Tennessee, Representative Zach Farnum said in a release. His death was accidentally reported earlier in the week by celebrity news site TMZ.
“Lewis, perhaps the last true, great symbol of the birth of rock ‘n’ roll, whose marriage of blues, gospel, country, honky-tonk and raw, fast stage performances so intimidated a young Elvis Presley that it made him cry, has died,” the statement issued on Friday said. It said he died with his wife Judith in DeSoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis.
Nicknamed “The Killer,” Lewis was known for his energetic stage performances, which included movements such as playing the piano with his feet and lighting the instrument on fire.
Lewis made a huge hit in 1957 with his rendition of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On”. They followed that same year with “Great Balls of Fire”, which peaked at number 2 on the Billboard charts. The song lent its title to the 1989 biopic, starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis.
Louise was all about lust and gratification, with her leering tenor and demanding edge, violent tempo and brash glisandi, cocky derision and crazy blonde hair. She was the stampede of a man who made fans scream and swore at keyboards, her live acting so fiery that chairs were thrown during her performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on “The Steve Allen Show” in 1957 . Like a bucket of water on a hell.
But in his personal life, he raged in such a way that perhaps his career ended today – and almost came back.
For a short time, in 1958, after Elvis was drafted into the army, he was a contender to replace Presley as rock’s leading hits producer. But when Lewis visited England, the press learned three damning things: He was married to 13-year-old (presumably 12-year-old) Myra Gail Brown, she was his cousin, and he was still married to his previous wife. . , His tour was cancelled, he was blacklisted from the radio and his earnings fell to almost nothing overnight.
When asked about marriage, Lewis told the Wall Street Journal in 2014, “I might have split my life a little bit, but I never hid anything from people.” “I went on with my life as usual.”
Over the next decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes, and physical illness. Two of his many marriages ended in the premature death of his wife. Brown himself divorced her in the early 1970s and later accused her of physical and mental cruelty that nearly drove her to suicide.
“If I’d still married Jerry, I’d probably be dead by now,” she told People magazine in 1989.
Lewis re-established himself as a country artist in the 1960s, and the music industry eventually forgave him until he stopped being hits. He won three Grammys, and recorded with some of the industry’s greatest stars. In 2006, Lewis came out with “Last Man Standing”, which starred Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, Bibi King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought on Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and others for the album “Mean Old Man”.
In “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock and Roll”, first published in 1975, he recalled how he persuaded the disc jockeys to give him a second chance.
“This time I said, ‘Look, man, let’s get together and draw a line on this stuff – a peace treaty you know,'” he explained. Lewis still played old hits on stage, but he sang country on the radio.
Lewis had top 10 country hits between 1967–70, and was rarely mellow. He also wrote a dry-eyed cover of the classic ballad of abandonment, “What Made Milwaukee Famous (He’s Made a Loser Out of Me)”, “She Still Comes Around” and a dry-eyed cover of the classic ballad of abandonment, such as “She Even Woke”. performed. To say goodbye to me.” He remained popular in Europe and a 1964 album, “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg,” is widely considered one of the greatest concert performances of all time.
A 1973 performance proved more troublesome: Lewis sang for the Grand Ole Opry and broke two long-standing rules – no swearing and no non-country songs.
“I’m a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ mother——-,” he told the audience.
Lewis married seven times, and was rarely far from trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool while suing for divorce in 1982. His fifth wife, Sean Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis married Kerry McCarver, who was then 21. They filed for divorce in 1986, accusing her of physical abuse and infidelity. He contested, but both the petitions were eventually dropped. After several years of separation, they finally got divorced in 2005. 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 son Jerry Lee Jr., 19, died in a traffic accident in 1973. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Leigh, and is survived by his wife, Judith.
His financial condition was also chaotic. Lewis made millions, but he preferred his money in cash and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. When he began welcoming tourists to his longtime residence near Nesbitt, Mississippi in 1994—with a piano-sized swimming pool—he set up a 900 phone number fans would pay for recorded messages. Could call at 2.75 per minute.
The son of one-time bootlegger Elmo Lewis and a cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swagger and country star Mickey Gilly, Lewis was born in Ferida, Louisiana. As a boy, he first learned to play the guitar, but found the instrument too limited and longed for an instrument that only the wealthy in his town could afford – a piano. His life changed when his father pulled in his truck one day and presented him with a dark wood, straight set of keyboards.
“My eyes almost dropped from my head,” Lewis recalled in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” written by Rick Bragg and published in 2014.
He immediately took to the piano, and began venturing into black juke joints and absorbing everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. In an early conflict between secular and scared music, he dropped out of school at the age of 16 with plans to become a piano-playing preacher. Lewis briefly attended the Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachee, Texas, a fundamentalist Bible college, but was expelled, reportedly, for playing the “wrong” type of music.
A roadhouse veteran in his early 20s, Lewis flew to Memphis in 1956 and appeared in the studios of Sun Records, the music house of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. Asked to learn some rock ‘n roll by company founder Sam Phillips, Lewis returned and quickly fired “Whole Lotta Shakin'” in a single take.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he later said. “Sam Phillips thought it would be too risky, it couldn’t make it. If it’s risky, well, I’m sorry.”
In 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry, and others, he created the inaugural class of inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The Killer not only outlived his contemporaries, but his life and music were periodically reintroduced to younger fans, including the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire”, starring Dennis Quaid, and Ethan Coen’s 2022 The documentary “Trouble in Mind” is included. A 2010 Broadway musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” was inspired by a recording session that featured Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
He won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album, which was cited for Best Spoken Word Recording, and received a Grammy, a lifetime achievement, in 2005. The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin'” was elected to the National Library of Congress. The Recording Registry, whose board praised the “propulsive boogie piano, perfectly complemented by JM Van Eaton’s drive for energetic drumming. The recording’s listeners, such as Lewis himself, had a hard time sitting down during the performance.”
A classmate at Bible school, Pieri Green, visited Lewis years later and asked if he was still playing Satan’s music.
“Yes, I am,” replied Lewis. “But you know it’s weird, the music they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is I know I’m playing for the devil and they don’t.”
Earlier this month, Lewis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame. According to his Facebook page, he was too sick to attend the ceremony, but his longtime friend Kris Kristofferson went to Memphis to personally present the award to him.