Jerry Lee Lewis, the untamable rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose outrageous talent, energy and ego collided on such definitive records as “Great Balls of Fire”, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Breathless”, sustained a career otherwise upended by personal scandal, died at age 87. (the same age as Little Richard). He was the last survivor of the first generation of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry, Little Richard, and Fats Domino. Of all the rock rebels to emerge in the 1950s, few captured the new genre’s attraction and danger as unforgettably as the Louisiana-born piano player who called himself “The Killer.”
Tender ballads were best left to the old folks. Lewis was all about lust and gratification, with his leering tenor, violent tempos and brash glissandi, cocky sneer and crazy blond hair. He was a one-man stampede who made the fans scream and the keyboards swear, his live act so combustible that during a 1957 performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on “The Steve Allen Show,” chairs were thrown at him like buckets of water on an inferno.
“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ‘n ‘roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” a Lewis admirer once observed. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.
The son of one-time bootlegger Elmo Lewis and the cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country star Mickey Gilley, Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana. As a boy, he first learned to play guitar but found the instrument too confining and longed for an instrument that only the rich people in his town could afford — a piano. His life changed when his father pulled up in his truck one day and presented him with a dark wood, upright piano.
A roadhouse veteran by his early 20s, Lewis took off for Memphis in 1956 and showed up at the studios of Sun Records, the musical home of Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. Told by company founder Sam Phillips to go learn some rock ‘n roll, Lewis returned and soon hurried off “Whole Lotta Shakin'” in a single take.
In his private life, he raged in ways that might have ended his career today — and nearly did back then. For a brief time, in 1958, he was a contender to replace Presley as rock’s prime hitmaker after Elvis was drafted into the Army. But while Lewis toured in England, the press learned three damaging things: He was married to 13-year-old Myra Gale Brown, she was his cousin, and he was still married to his previous wife.
His tour was canceled, he was blacklisted from the radio and his earnings dropped overnight to virtually nothing.
“I probably would have rearranged my life a little bit different, but I never did hide anything from people,” Lewis told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about the marriage. “I just went on with my life as usual.”
Over the following decades, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, legal disputes and physical illness. Two of his many marriages ended in his wife’s early death. Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s and would later allege physical and mental cruelty 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 having hits. He won three Grammys and recorded with some of the industry’s greatest 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 “Mean Old Man.”
Lewis would still play the old hits on stage, but on the radio, he would sing country. Once while performing at the
Grand Ole Opryhe broke two longstanding rules — no swearing and no non-country songs. “I am a rock and rollin’, country-and-western, rhythm and blues-singin’ motherfucker,” he told the audience.
Lewis married seven times and was rarely far from trouble or death. His fourth wife, Jaren Elizabeth Gunn Pate, drowned in a swimming pool in 1982 while suing for divorce. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis had married Kerrie McCarver, then 21. She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical abuse and infidelity. He countersued, but both petitions eventually were dropped. They finally divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III. Another son by a previous marriage, Steve Allen Lewis, 3, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and son Jerry Lee Jr. died in a traffic accident at 19 in 1973. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Leigh, and is survived by his wife.
“No group, be it (the) Beatles, Dylan or Stones, have ever improved on ‘Whole Lotta Shakin” for my money,” John Lennon would tell Rolling Stone in 1970.
In 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others, he made the inaugural class of inductees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame and an later that same year joined the Country Music Hall of Fame.
The Killer not only outlasted his contemporaries but saw his life and music periodically reintroduced to younger fans, including the 1989 biopic “Great Balls of Fire,” starring Dennis Quaid,A 2010 Broadway musical, “Million Dollar Quartet,” was inspired by a recording session that featured Lewis, Elvis, Perkins and Cash.