Jerry Lee Lewis, the rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who became one of the most famous figures in popular music, has died at the age of 87, his publicist said.
He died of natural causes at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi. “Judith, his seventh wife, was by his side when he passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis,” a statement said. “He told her, in his last days, that he welcomes the afterlife, and that he is not afraid.”
Lewis’s lively performances on songs including The Great Balls of Fire helped establish rock ‘n’ roll as the dominant American pop music of the 1950s. Born in Louisiana in 1935, the son of a poor farming family who mortgaged their home to Louis buying his first piano. While learning the instrument and studying at a gospel school, he was expelled for performing a boogie version of My God is Real that was considered irreverent.
He did not return to education, and began to play live – his first performance was at the age of 14 at the opening of a car dealership. He developed a rocky theatrical style in tune with the energy of the emerging rock ‘n’ roll scene, and began playing at Sun Studios in Memphis, first as a studio musician and then as a solo artist. Some of his early recordings were made in 1956 with Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash, and Carl Perkins, a group he later called the Million Dollar Quartet. It was an impromptu session: Cash and Presley were visiting the studio separately as Lewis was supporting Perkins on piano.
Lewis’ breakthrough came the following year, with the complete Lotta Shakin ‘Goin’ On, a piano-driven rock and roll song. When he performed it on television on The Steve Allen Show, he brought his unique style of playing to national attention: very energetic, he would kick his piano chair and play standing up, with songs highlighted with a series of cascading notes.
He followed up with those top three singles with the biggest hit, Great Balls of Fire, which reached number two on the US charts and became one of the defining songs of the rock ‘n’ roll era.
During a 1958 UK tour at the height of his fame, he was embroiled in scandal after it was revealed that he had married his 13-year-old cousin Mira Brown – this would be the third of seven marriages. There was an outcry in the British press and the rest of his tour was cancelled. American radio stations and concert promoters also blacklisted him, and his popularity faded. He never again had a top 20 hit in the US.
Lewis’ reputation as a wild man cemented his nickname, The Killer, which he earned from his habit of colloquially calling his Louisiana acquaintances “the killer.” After a 13-year marriage to Brown, his fourth and fifth marriages are even more famous. Both Jarren Butt and Shawn Stevens died under suspicious circumstances – the former by drowning, while domestic violence rumors circulated around the latter.
Despite the controversies, he successfully switched to country music after the rock ‘n’ roll scene waned and recorded a string of hit songs on the US country charts, including his version of Chantilly’s Les Standard.
In 1984, after years of drug abuse, he survived surgery to remove a third of his stomach after a series of perforated ulcers, and in 1986, he was one of the first 10 artists to be inducted into the Rock’n’Roll Hall of Fame, along with Presley and Chuck Berry and others.
Another notorious “fatal” moment concerns Perry. When the pair were on tour, Lewis objected to Perry continuing after him, setting fire to a piano after his performance with the words: “Follow it, boy.” Meanwhile, Lewis was arrested in 1976 after he appeared drunk at Presley’s Graceland home in Memphis with a loaded pistol on the dashboard of his car.
Two of Lewis’ six children died young: Steve Allen Lewis drowned in a swimming pool at the age of three, while Jerry Lee Lewis Jr. – who played drums for his father – died in a car accident at the age of 19. Four others – Ronnie Jay, Phoebe Allen, Laurie Lee and Jerry Lee III – he survives, as well as his wife Judith.
Lewis has recorded 40 studio albums, the most recent of which was Rock & Roll Time in 2014. His previous album, Mean Old Man, reached the US Top 30 when it was released in 2010, and included duets with stars such as Mick Jagger and Sheryl Crow, Willie Nelson and Eric Clapton.
Tributes have arrived on social media, including from Elton John chirp: “Without Jerry Lee Lewis, I wouldn’t be who I am today. He was groundbreaking, exciting, and had a piano crush. A brilliant singer too. Thanks for your groundbreaking inspiration and all the memories of rock ‘n’ roll.”
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