The piano-playing wild man was part of the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s inaugural class
October 28, 2022
Jerry Lee Lewis, the influential singer and pianist whose unbridled performances and scandalous life defined the personal rebellion at the heart of rock-and-roll music, died Oct. 28 at his home in Southaven, Miss. He was 87.
His death was announced by his publicist Zach Farnum, who did not give a cause.
Mr. Lewis, a Louisiana tenant farmer’s son and the cousin of televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, performed with a riveting, maniacal quality. On storming 1950s hits such as “Great Balls of Fire,”“Breathless” and “High School Confidential,” he slashed up and down the keys with his right hand, deliberately sped up tempos in mid-song and often finished songs onstage by standing on the piano.
His high-energy music was a distinctly Southern synthesis of rhythm and blues, country, gospel and boogie-woogie, and his barely contained stage frenzy thrilled and unnerved audiences. He was called “The Killer” because of his ability to completely overshadow other performers. His Rock & Roll Hall of Fame biography — he was inducted in 1986 as a member of the inaugural class — describes him as “the wild man of rock and roll, embodying its most reckless and high-spirited impulses.”
“Among the early rock performers, Jerry Lee stands out as the transcendent experience that rock-and-roll can offer,” said rock historian Albin Zak. “It was new and scary in the 1950s. But now, it’s expected, and whether it’s David Lee Roth or Mick Jagger, they’re all channeling Jerry Lee Lewis.”
Mr. Lewis recorded in 1956 for producer Sam Phillips at Sun Records, an incubator of talent that also launched the careers of Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins. The next year, Mr. Lewis drew national attention and notoriety for his performance of his hit song “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on NBC’s “The Steve Allen Show.”
Kicking the piano bench away as he sang and played — host Allen kicked it right back to him — he implored the young women in the audience to “shake it one time for me,” then pounded the keys, his heavily pomaded hair dangling over his forehead in a sweaty mop.
“I love quality, and Jerry Lee had it,” Allen later told an interviewer. “The response was incredible. We had him back and he blew everyone’s rating figures away including Ed Sullivan’s. Jerry Lee was a star from then on.”
A scandalous revelation soon cast a shadow over Mr. Lewis’s burst of success. During his 1958 tour of England, reporters discovered that the 22-year-old entertainer’s bride, Myra Gale Brown, was also his 13-year-old cousin and the daughter of his bass guitarist, J.W. Brown. Mr. Lewis had brought a grown woman to forge the signature on the marriage license.
Their marriage was his third. The English press labeled him a “cradle snatcher.” His tour of Britain was canceled, and Mr. Lewis lost further bookings and national television appearances in the United States. After the marital scandal, Mr. Lewis struggled for hits and radio airplay and gradually reestablished himself as a country performer.
He placed 26 songs in the Billboard Top 10 country charts between 1968 and 1981, including such honky-tonk weepers as “Another Place, Another Time” and “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” a rocked-up version of “Me and Bobby McGee” and a rendition of the standard “Over the Rainbow.” (Mr. Lewis was inducted into the Country Music Hall of Fame in October but did not attend the ceremony because of poor health.)
In his personal life, Mr. Lewis grew addicted to pills and alcohol and was bedeviled by tragedy. Mr. Lewis and Myra Gale Brown’s first son, Steve Allen Lewis (named for the TV host), drowned in the family swimming pool at 3. Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., a son from his second marriage who was also the drummer in Mr. Lewis’s touring band, died in a car accident in 1973.
His estranged fourth wife, Jaren Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982. The following year, Shawn Stephens Lewis, his fifth wife, died of a methadone overdose less than three months after their wedding. Mr. Lewis maintained that the methadone had been prescribed to him to ween him off addictive painkillers.
A story in Rolling Stone magazine highlighted discrepancies in Mr. Lewis’s accounts of the incident and the police investigation. The Stephens family called publicly for an investigation, but a grand jury found no evidence of wrongdoing.
In 1976, Mr. Lewis shot his bass player during a drunken target practice at his 41st birthday party. That same year, he was charged with trespassing and public drunkenness after being arrested at the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion with a loaded gun. In 1977, he totaled his Rolls-Royce while under the influence of tranquilizers. In 1979, the IRS confiscated Mr. Lewis’s fleet of cars in lieu of payment for back taxes. Two years later, he canceled a tour while being treated for stomach cancer.
Raised as a Pentecostal, Mr. Lewis often expounded on biblical scriptures, salvation and a belief that performing rock-and-roll had marked him for eternal damnation. He initially refused to record the song “Great Balls of Fire” (1957), one of his biggest hits, because he considered the title blasphemous.
“I’m a sinner, I know it,” he told writer Nick Tosches in 1979. “Soon you and me are going to have to reckon with the chilling hands of death.”
In fact, Mr. Lewis lived on to become one of rock-and-roll’s oldest active performers and received a Grammy Award for lifetime achievement in 2005.
Influenced by boogie-woogie
Jerry Lee Lewis was born in Ferriday, La., on Sept. 29, 1935. His father, Elmo, a part-time carpenter, ran a family moonshine still and farmed land owned by Mr. Lewis’s wealthier uncle and namesake, Lee Calhoun. Calhoun also owned Ferriday’s biggest business, a paper mill.
Mr. Lewis started playing piano at 8, alongside two cousins, Mickey Gilley and Jimmy Swaggart, at the Calhoun house. Swaggart would later become a singing televangelist, while Gilley would emerge as a popular country and pop performer with a style similar to Mr. Lewis’s.
After hearing his son plunk out “Jingle Bells,” Elmo Lewis saw his promise and mortgaged the family house to purchase a secondhand piano.
As a youngster, Jerry Lee Lewis hid behind the bar at Haney’s, an African-American juke joint, listening intently to blues and boogie-woogie. Other early musical influences included vaudevillian Al Jolson and country singers Jimmie Rodgers and Hank Williams — a trio of performers he referred to as the “three great song stylists.” Mr. Lewis later called himself the fourth.
Mr. Lewis briefly enrolled at Southwestern Bible Institute, a Pentecostal school near Dallas, but landed in trouble for playing a slow, staid hymn in a boogie-woogie style.
He took his first music job at 18, alternating on drums and piano at a honky-tonk in Natchez, Miss. Mr. Lewis and his father sold eggs to finance trips to Nashville and Memphis to audition for record companies. On their third trip to Memphis, he secured an audition at Sun Records.
Phillips recalled to writer Peter Guralnick, “They put that tape on, and I said, ‘Where … did this man come from?’ I mean he played that piano with abandon. Between the stuff he played and didn’t play, I could hear the spiritual thing, too. I told [engineer] Jack [Clement][to] just get him in here as fast as you can.”
Although Mr. Lewis’s first Sun single, a cover of the Ray Price country hit “Crazy Arms,” didn’t sell, he did tour Canada in support of Sun artists Perkins and Cash. Perkins advised the inexperienced pianist to “turn around so they can see you, make a fuss.”
His second single, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” (1956), previously a modest hit for blues singer Big Maybelle in a slower rendition, made the pianist a star.
His marriages to Dorothy Barton, Jane Mitchum, Myra Gale Brown and Kerrie McCarver ended in divorce. In 2012, he married Judith Brown. In addition to his wife, survivors include four children, Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Phoebe Lewis and Lori Lancaster; a sister, Linda Gail Lewis, who is also a singer and pianist; and many grandchildren.
Tosches chronicled Mr. Lewis’s tumultuous life in the 1982 novelistic biography “Hellfire.” A Hollywood film, “Great Balls of Fire” (1989), recounted his Sun Records years with Dennis Quaid as Mr. Lewis and Winona Ryder as Myra Gale.
In later years, a 1956 jam session at Sun among Mr. Lewis, Presley, Cash and Perkins took on a life of its own. The Memphis Press-Scimitar proclaimed the four “A Million Dollar Quartet” and published a picture of the four that has since become much reproduced.
A recording of the session, though never intended for commercial release, was finally released in 1981 and later became the subject of a Broadway tribute show, “Million Dollar Quartet,” in 2010. Three of the principals — Cash, Perkins and Mr. Lewis — also recorded with fellow Sun artist Roy Orbison as “The Class of ’55” in 1986. A record of interviews with the participants, “Interviews With the Class of ’55,” won the Grammy Award for spoken word recording the following year.
Mr. Lewis continued to perform in recent years, although doctors limited his time onstage. In 2006, he released the album “Last Man Standing,” which featured duets with such performers as Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, B.B. King and Willie Nelson. Another album of duets, “Mean Old Man,” followed in 2010. Author and journalist Rick Bragg wrote an “as told to” biography, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” in 2014.
Mr. Lewis was not known for his public expressions of humility.
“There’s very few great talents left,” he once said. “I’m not saying I’m one of ’em. I’m saying I’m the only one.”
Jerry Lee Lewis, a Rock ’n’ Roll Original, Dies at 87 ~ nYT
With his pounding piano, his impassioned vocals and his incendiary performing style, Mr. Lewis lived up to his nickname, the Killer.
Oct. 28, 2022
Jerry Lee Lewis, the hard-driving rockabilly artist whose pounding boogie-woogie piano and bluesy, country-influenced vocals helped define the sound of rock ’n’ roll on hits like “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” and whose incendiary performing style expressed the essence of rock rebellion, died on Friday at his home in DeSoto County, Miss., south of Memphis. He was 87.
His death was announced by his publicist, Zach Farnum. No cause was given, but Mr. Lewis had been in poor health for some time.
Mr. Lewis was 21 in November 1956 when he walked into Sun Studio in Memphis and, presenting himself as a country singer who could play a mean piano, demanded an audition.
His timing was impeccable. Sun Records had sold Elvis Presley’s contract to RCA Records a year earlier and badly needed a new star to headline a roster that included Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash and Roy Orbison
Mr. Lewis more than filled the bill. His first record, a juiced-up rendition of the Ray Price hit “Crazy Arms,” was a regional success. With “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On,” released in April 1957, he gave Sun the breakout hit it was looking for.
Although initially banned by many radio stations for being too suggestive, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” reached a nationwide audience after Mr. Lewis performed it on “The Steve Allen Show.” It rose to No. 3 on the pop charts and sold some six million copies worldwide, making it one of the biggest hits of the early rock ’n’ roll era.
Overnight, Mr. Lewis entered into direct competition with Presley. As Mr. Lewis saw it, there was no contest.
“There’s a difference between a phenomenon and a stylist,” he told the record-collector magazine Goldmine in 1981. “I’m a stylist, Elvis was the phenomenon, and don’t you forget it.”
In November 1957, Sun released “Great Balls of Fire,” a high-octane sexual anthem written by Otis Blackwell, whose other songs included the Presley hits “All Shook Up” and “Don’t Be Cruel.”