Jerry Lee Lewis: Pioneer of Rock ‘N’ Roll Dies at 87

Nicknamed “The Killer,” and his hits included “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On” and “Great Balls of Fire.”

Lewis died of natural causes at his home in DeSoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis, his publicist Zach Farnum of 117 Group said.

Nicknamed “The Killer,” Lewis was electric performer, still performing into his late 80s.

Known for such rock standards as “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin On,” “Great Balls of Fire,” “Baby Baby Bye Bye,” “Breathless” and “High School Confidential,” he accumulated 10 gold records during his career, with his biggest, the 2006 all-star duets release Last Man Standing, selling more than a half-million units worldwide.

With his long blond hair flying around, he often stood on top of the piano, knocking over the bench and anything else that was on the stage.

A forerunner of The Who and Jimi Hendrix, Lewis set fire to his instrument, making it impossible for anyone to upstage him. “No one wanted to follow Jerry Lee,” Johnny Cash said, “not even Elvis.”

Elected to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in the inaugural class of 1986, Lewis was called “one of the best American voices ever” by his collaborator, Kris Krostofferson.

A documentary about his life, Jerry Lee Lewis: Trouble in Minddirected by Ethan Coen, bowed at Cannes Film Fest in May.

Lewis had a tumultuous life, and he suffered a media backlash when it was revealed that he had secretly made his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Gale Brown, his third wife, in December 1957. He was 22 at the time.

Born on Sept. 19, 1935, in East Louisiana to poor indigent parents Elmo and Mamie Lewis, Lewis was brought up Christian and raised on a family farm in Ferriday that “produced more famous people per square mile than any other American small town,” he once said.

Lewis taught himself to play piano by age 8 and sung gospel music in church. His two cousins, Mickey Gilley, who became a successful country singer, and Jimmy Swaggart, eventually a renowned TV evangelist, shared similar musical interests. His formative influences included listening to Grand Ole Opry’s radio broadcasts that featured the likes of Jimmie Rodgers, Hank Williams and Moon Mullican.

Lewis went on to work at the studio as a session musician, playing piano on numerous recordings by Cash, Billy Lee Riley (“Flyin’ Saucers Rock ‘n’ Roll”) and Perkins (“You Can Do No Wrong,” “Your True Love”), among others. The Million Dollar Quartet sessions at Sun, recorded by Phillips, was the result of a spontaneous jam session, featuring many gospel songs, involving Presley, Cash, Perkins and Lewis.

Lewis later was part of the legendary Presley tribute Class of ’55 album with Cash, Perkins and Roy Orbison.

Lewis’ rockabilly version of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” first recorded by Big Maybelle, hit No. 1 on the country and R&B charts and No. 3 on the pop charts in 1957. “I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” Lewis said, “but Sam Phillips thought it was too risque.”

Wrote Memphis critic Robert Gordon, “Jerry Lee began to show that in this new emerging genre called rock ‘n’ roll, not everybody was going to stand there with a guitar.”

“Great Balls of Fire,” which also premiered in 1957, brought Lewis undeniable worldwide fame and “Breathless” followed in 1958, both crashing the Top 10 on the pop charts at No. 2 and No. 7, respectively.

After his marriage to Brown was revealed, radio stations stopped playing his records, and Dick Clark canceled his appearances on American Bandstand. Venues had paid him nearly $10,000 a night before the scandal; now his asking price was a rock-bottom $250 per engagement.

His deal with Sun ended in 1963 and he went on to release other songs with Smash Records, but nothing hit the crossover peaks of those first releases, even if he did continue to do well on the Country charts. His Live at the Star Club, Hamburg album in 1964 is considered one of the most spectacular live concert discs ever released.

In 1968, Lewis recorded a Top 10 country hit, “Another Place, Another Time,” followed by the No. 1 single “To Make Love Sweeter for You,” and he had other hits including “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” “Once More With Feeling,” “There Must Be More to Love Than This” and “Me & Bobby McGee.”

He recorded “Thirty-Nine and Holding” on Elektra Records in 1981 and then signed with MCA Records.

Great Balls of Fire!

He returned to the limelight in 1989 with the movie Great Balls of Fire!, starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis and Winona Ryder as Myra Gale and based on Myra Lewis’ book. (Lewis recorded the songs for the soundtrack.)

Raw concert footage was put together in the companion DVD to his Last Man Standing album, Last Man Standing Live, which became his 10th gold disk. It featured duets with Mick Jagger, Rod Stewart and Jimmy Page, among others.

He teamed with Eric Clapton, Merle Haggard, Page and others on Mean Old Man in 2010 and three years later opened Jerry Lee Lewis’ Cafe & Honky Tonk on Beale Street in Memphis.

“This is a rock ‘n’ roll record,” he told Rolling Stone. “That’s just the way it came out.”

The rest of the album was cast with artists he inspired, including Keith Richards, Ron Wood, Neil Young, Robbie Robertson, Nils Lofgren and Shelby Lynne.

It included covers of songs by Chuck Berry, Bob Dylan, Lynyrd Skynyrd, Paul Rodgers and his old pal Cash (“Folsom Prison Blues”), one of two songs on which he played guitar.

Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, a biography written by Pulitzer Prize winner Rick Bragg, was published in 2015.

Lewis had six children by seven different wives, and his life was marred by several tragedies, starting when his older brother, Elmo Jr., was killed when Lewis was 3.

He married Dorothy Barton in 1952 when he was just 14. They divorced in ’53, one month before he wed Jane Mitchum, with whom he had two children, Jerry Lee Jr. and Ronnie Guy. (Jerry Jr. died at 19 in a car accident in 1973.)

Lewis had two children with Brown: Steve — who drowned when he was 3 in 1962 — and Phoebe.

His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pete, gave birth to their daughter, Lori Lee, before dying in a friend’s swimming pool before their divorce was final. He married Shawn Stephens in ’83, and she died three months after they were wed.


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