A representative for Jerry Lee Lewis has confirmed his death at age 87. Lewis was a pioneer of rock and roll and became one of the most divisive figures in the history of popular music. He passed away from natural causes in his DeSoto County, Mississippi, home.
According to a statement, South of Memphis in Desoto County, Mississippi, his seventh wife, Judith, was with him when he died. In his final days, he reassured her that he was not terrified of death and the hereafter.
Lewis’s spirited renditions of songs like Great Balls of Fire helped establish rock ‘n’ roll as the preeminent genre of American pop music in the ’50s. Lewis was the son of poor Louisiana plantation owners who took out a debt to buy him his first piano when he was a child.
He was expelled from an evangelical school where he was learning the instrument after playing a boogie-woogie rendition of My God is Real. He abandoned his studies and went straight into performing live, giving his first public show at the opening of a car dealership when he was just 14 years old.
He began performing at Sun Studios in Memphis, initially as a studio musician and later as a solo artist, where he established a dramatic, raucous style that resonated with the energy of the emerging rock’n’roll culture.
In 1956, he recorded with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins as the Million Dollar Quartet, which became a huge hit. Cash and Presley both happened to be in the studio at the same time that Lewis was playing piano accompaniment for Perkins, so they sat in on the session on the spot.
The following year, Lewis had his big break with the barnstorming piano-driven rock’n’roll single Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On. When he played it on The Steve Allen Show, he gained national notice for his eccentric playing technique, which included kicking over his piano stool and playing while standing up, as well as accentuating tunes with cascading runs of notes.
After that hit, he had his most considerable success with Great Balls of Fire, which peaked at No. 2 on the US charts and is widely considered a rock and roll classic.
In 1958, at the height of his success, he married his 13-year-old cousin, Myra Brown, during a tour of the United Kingdom; it would be the third of his seven marriages. The remainder of his tour was canceled after a widespread outcry in the British press.
His fame in the United States declined after being blacklisted by radio stations and event companies. The last US Top 20 hit he had was in 1987.
Lewis’s reputation as a wild guy helped earn him the moniker The Killer, which originated from his penchant for using the slang term “killer” when referring to his friends and acquaintances from Louisiana. His marriage to Brown lasted 13 years, but his subsequent marriages were scandalous for much more reasons.
Both Jaren Pate’s drowning and Shawn Stephens’s alleged domestic violence death were met with suspicion. After the decline of the rock and roll era, he successfully shifted to country music and had a string of songs on the US country charts, including a cover of the old standard Chantilly Lace.
After years of abusing prescription medications, he underwent surgery in 1984 to remove a third of his stomach due to a series of perforated ulcers; the surgery was successful, and in 1986, he was one of the first ten performers to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, joining the likes of Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, and others.
Berry was featured in another notorious episode of “Killer.” While on tour together, Lewis was not happy about Berry performing immediately after him. In the act of protest, he set fire to his piano afterward, telling Berry, “Follow that, boy.”
On the other hand, Lewis was arrested in 1976 when he drove inebriated to Elvis Presley’s Graceland mansion in Memphis while carrying a loaded weapon. Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., who played drums for his father, was killed in a vehicle accident at age 19, and Steve Allen Lewis drowned at age three.
His wife, Judith, and four children (Ronnie Guy, Phoebe Allen, Lori Lee, and Jerry Lee III) all outlived him. Lewis released a total of 40 studio albums, the most recent of which was 2014’s Rock & Roll Time.
Mean Old Man, his previous album, featured collaborations with such notable musicians as Mick Jagger, Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson, and Eric Clapton, and debuted in the top 30 in the US.
Elton John, among others, has been paying tribute on Twitter, with John tweeting, “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t have become who I am today. He smashed the piano; he was revolutionary and thrilling.
In addition, she’s a fantastic singer. I appreciate the pioneering spirit you’ve instilled in me and the rock and roll nostalgia. God bless Jerry lee Lewis peace and love to everyone in his family,” Ringo Starr tweeted. A rock ‘n’ roll pioneer and “rebel to the end,” as described by Gene Simmons.