Of all the rock rebels who emerged in the 1950s, few captured the allure and menace of the new genre as indelibly as the Louisiana-born pianist.
MEMPHIS, Tenn. — Jerry Lee Lewis, the indomitable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego hit such definitive records as “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and sustained a career . Otherwise troubled by personal scandal, Died on Friday morning at the age of 87..
The last survivor of a generation of groundbreaking artists that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at home in Memphis, Tennessee, representative Zach Farnum said in a release.
Of all the rock rebels who emerged in the 1950s, few captured the allure and menace of the new genre as indelibly as the Louisiana-born pianist who called himself “The Killer.”
Tender lumps were left for the old ones. Lewis was all about his sensuality and gratification, with his brooding and demanding side, violent temper and brash glissandi, slowness and crazy blonde hair. He was a one-man stampede who made fans scream and swear at keyboards, his live act so fiery that in 1957 “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Gone On” was on “The Steve Allen Show.” Chairs were thrown at him during his performance. Like buckets of water on a fire.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ‘n’ roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” a Lewis fan once observed. That fan was Jerry Lee Lewis.
But in his private life, he lashed out in ways that might have ended his career today — and almost did.
For a brief time, in 1958, Elvis was a contender to replace Presley as rock’s prime hitmaker after he was drafted into the military. But when Lewis visited England, the press learned three damning things: he was married to 13-year-old (possibly as young as 12) Myra Gale Brown, his cousin, and his He was still married to his previous wife. . His tour was cancelled, he was blacklisted from radio and his earnings dropped to almost nothing overnight.
“I probably would have lived my life a little differently, but I never hid anything from people,” Lewis told The Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about the marriage. “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 multiple marriages ended in the early death of his wife. Brown himself divorced her in the early 1970s, and she later alleged 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.
Lewis reinvented himself as a country performer in the 1960s, and the music industry eventually forgave him, long after he stopped making hits. He won three Grammys, and recorded with some of the industry’s biggest stars. In 2006, Lewis came out with “Last Man Standing”, featuring Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought in Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and others for the album “Man Old Man”.
In “The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & 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 a line on this thing – a peace treaty you know,'” he explained. Lewis still sang old hits on stage, but on the radio he sang country.
Lewis had a run of top 10 country hits from 1967-70, and was hardly melodic at all. He performed boozy songs like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” the rolling-eyed confession of “She Still Comes Around” and a dry-eyed cover of a classic ballad of abandonment. , “She Even Wake” I’m Ready to Say Goodbye.” They remained popular in Europe and the 1964 album “Live at the Star Club, Hamburg” is widely regarded as one of the concert’s greatest recordings.
A 1973 performance proved more troubling: Lewis sang for the Grand Ole Opry and broke two long-standing rules — no swearing and no foreign songs.
“I’m a rock and roll, country and western, rhythm and blues singing mom,” she told the audience.
Lewis married seven times, and rarely avoided trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jarren Elizabeth Gunpett, drowned in a swimming pool while suing for divorce in 1982. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of a drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis married 21-year-old Carrie McCarver. She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical abuse and infidelity. He countersued, but both applications were ultimately dismissed. After several years of separation, they finally 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. died in a traffic accident in 1973 at age 19. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Lee, and is survived by his wife, Judith.
His finances were also in chaos. Lewis made millions, but he liked his money in cash and owed millions of dollars to the Internal Revenue Service. When he began welcoming visitors to his longtime residence near Nesbitt, Mississippi, in 1994 — complete with a piano-shaped swimming pool — he set up a 900 phone number that charged fans $2.75 per recorded message. Could call on minutes.
The son of one-time bootlegger Elmo Lewis and cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggert and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Farday, Louisiana. As a boy, he first learned to play the guitar, but found the instrument too limiting and longed for an instrument that only the wealthy in his town could afford – a piano. His life changed when his father drove up in his truck one day and presented him with a black wooden upright set of keyboards.
“My eyes almost popped 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 piano, and began sneaking into black juke joints and absorbing everything from gospel to boogie woogie. Initially conflicted between secular and fearful music, he left school at 16, with plans to become a piano-playing preacher. Lewis briefly attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, a fundamentalist Bible college, but was expelled for allegedly playing the “wrong” kind of music.
“Great Balls of Fire”, a sexual take on biblical imagery that Lewis initially refused to record, and “Whole Lotta Shakin” were his most enduring songs and performance pieces. Lewis only had a handful of other pop hits, including “High School Confidential” and “Breathless,” but they were enough to ensure his place as the architect of rock ‘n’ roll.
John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970, “No group, whether it’s the Beatles, Dylan or the Stones, for my money has never bettered ‘Whole Lotta Shaken.’
A roadhouse veteran in his early 20s, Lewis left for Memphis in 1956 and showed up at the studios of Sun Records, the musical home of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. Asked to learn some rock ‘n’ roll by company founder Sam Phillips, Lewis returned and soon “got through the whole lotta shake” in one take.
“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he said later. “Sam Phillips thought it was going to be too dangerous, it couldn’t make it. If it’s dangerous, well, I’m sorry.”
In 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others, he formed the inaugural class of inductees for the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame. The killer not only outshone his contemporaries, but saw his life and music periodically brought to younger fans, including the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” starring Dennis Quaid. Kay, and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary “Trouble in Mind”. A 2010 Broadway musical, “Million Dollar Quartet” was inspired by a recording session featuring Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.
He won a Grammy for Best Spoken Word Recording as part of an interview album in 1987, and received 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” perfectly complemented by the drive of JM Van Etten’s energetic drumming. Listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, had difficulty sitting through the performance.
A classmate at Bible school, Perry Green, recalled meeting Lewis years later and asking if he was still playing Satan’s music.
“Yes, I am,” Lewis replied. “But you know it’s weird, 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 for the devil. Playing and they don’t play.