Jerry Lee Lewis, the untamable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego collided on such definitive records as Great Balls of Fire and Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and who sustained a career otherwise upended by personal scandal, died on Friday at 87.
The last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at his home in Memphis, Tennessee, his representative Zach Farnum said.
Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, few captured the new genre’s attraction and danger as unforgettably as the Louisiana-born piano player who called himself “The Killer”.
Tender ballads were best left to the old folks. Lewis was a one-man stampede who made fans scream and keyboards swear, 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 an inferno.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ’n ’roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” a Lewis admirer once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.
It is with great sadness we’ve learned about the passing of Jerry Lee Lewis, who was just inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame this month. We extend our heartfelt condolences to his family and loved ones during this difficult time. pic.twitter.com/Kzeb7XUR7d
— CMA Country Music (@CountryMusic) October 28, 2022
But in his private life, he raged in ways that might have ended his career today — and nearly did back then.
For a brief time in 1958, he was a contender to replace Elvis as rock’s prime hit maker after Presley was drafted into the US army. But while Lewis toured in England, the press learned three damaging things: He was married to 13-year-old (possibly even 12-year-old) Myra Gale 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 dropped overnight to virtually nothing.
“I probably would have rearranged my life a little bit different, but I never did hide anything from people,” Lewis told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about the marriage. “I just went on with my life as usual.”
Over the following decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes and physical illness. Two of his many marriages ended in his wife’s early death. Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s and would later allege physical and mental cruelty 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.
Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer in the 1960s, and the music industry eventually forgave him, long after he stopped having hits. He won three Grammys and recorded with some of the industry’s greatest stars.
In 2006, Lewis came out with 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 had persuaded 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 would still play the old hits on stage but on the radio he would sing country.
Lewis had a run of top 10 country hits between 1967 and 1970 and hardly mellowed at all. He 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 swearing and no non-country songs.
“I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherf**ker,” 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 in 1982 while suing 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 countersued, but both petitions eventually were dropped. They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III.
Another son by a previous marriage, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962 at the age of three, and son Jerry Lee Jr died in a traffic accident at 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 made millions, but he liked his money in cash and ended up owing hundreds of thousands of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. When he began welcoming tourists in 1994 to his longtime residence near Nesbit, Mississippi — complete with a piano-shaped swimming pool — he set up a phone number fans could call for a recorded message at $2.75 a minute.
The son of one-time bootlegger Elmo Lewis and the cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. As a boy, he first learned to play guitar but found the instrument too confining and longed for an instrument that only the rich people in his town could afford — a piano. His life changed when his father pulled up in his truck one day and presented him with a dark-wood, upright set of 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 took to the piano immediately and began sneaking off to Black juke joints and absorbing everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. He was conflicted early on between secular and sacred music. He quit school at 16 with plans of becoming a piano-playing 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 take on Biblical imagery that Lewis initially refused to record, and Whole Lotta Shakin’ were his most enduring songs and performance pieces. Lewis had only a handful of other pop hits, including High School Confidential and Breathless, but they were enough to ensure his place as a rock ‘n’ roll architect.
“No group, be it [the] Beatles, Dylan or Stones, have ever improved on Whole Lotta Shakin’ for my money,” John Lennon would tell Rolling Stone in 1970.
A roadhouse veteran by his early 20s, Lewis took off for Memphis in 1956 and showed up at the studios of Sun Records, the musical home of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Told by company founder Sam Phillips to go learn some rock ‘n’ roll, Lewis returned and soon hurried off Whole Lotta Shakin’ in a single take.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he later said. “Sam Phillips thought it was gonna be too risque, it couldn’t make it. If that’s risque, well, I’m sorry.”
In 1986, along with Elvis and Berry, he made the inaugural class of inductees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. “The Killer” not only outlasted his contemporaries but saw his life and music periodically reintroduced to younger fans, including in the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire, starring Dennis Quaid, and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary Trouble in Mind. A 2010 Broadway musical, Million Dollar Quartet, was inspired by a recording session that featured Lewis, Elvis, Perkins and Cash.
He won a Grammy in 1987 as part of an interview album that was cited for best spoken word recording, and he received a lifetime achievement Grammy in 2005. The following year, Whole Lotta Shakin’ was selected for the Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry. Its board praised the “propulsive boogie piano that was perfectly complemented by the drive of JM Van Eaton’s energetic drumming. The listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, had a hard time remaining seated during the performance.”