Jerry Lee Lewis, unbridled early rocker, dies at 87


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 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 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.

Singer Jerry Lee Lewis joined the Country Music Hall of Fame on May 17, 2022. He is most known for 1950s hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Breathless.” (Video: Country Music Association, Photo: Jason Kempin/Getty Images/Country Music Association)

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 wean 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 and wounded 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” (1957), 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 Brown.

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.”

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