For the longest time, it seemed that if Jerry Lee Lewis wasn’t already dead, then obviously nothing could kill him. But what alcohol, painkillers, perforated stomach ulcers, angry parents, and general recklessness could finally do with old age. His representative confirmed to USA TODAY in a statement that the seemingly indestructible wild rock ‘n’ roll man died Friday at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, near Memphis. Louis was 87 years old.
Along with Little Richard and Fats Domino’s, Lewis established the piano as a rock and roll instrument. In 1957, his “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” two of the most infamous acts of the first generation of rock and roll, ignited the pop, country, and R&B charts simultaneously.
Lewis not only played the piano, but attacked him, striking the lower register with steady left lines on the rocks and ripping across the keyboard with a glisandos cut. He broke the keys with his foot. He kicked the piano chair from under him and continued to strike away.
Lewis performed in the 1958 teen flick “High School Confidential,” and his real life was every bit as rude as the film’s title promised. On the opening night of jockey Alan Freed’s “Big Beat Show” in March 1958, after losing the argument over whether he or Chuck Berry should close the show, Lewis poured a bottle of gasoline on the piano and set it on fire. “They had to call the fire department and everything,” Lewis recalls in Rick Bragg’s 2014 biography, “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story.”
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Two months later, news of the 22-year-old’s marriage to his 13-year-old cousin Mira Gill Brown broke during a tour of England, sparking a storm of controversy. Lewis and Brown were married last December, just days after the release of “Great Balls of Fire.” The marriage was the third for Louis, although he never officially divorced his first wife.
The British round came after the Army drafted Elvis Presley in the immediate aftermath of Lewis’ two fatal strikes. Louis was ready to snatch the throne of the king of rock and roll away from him. Instead, the tour was canceled after only three dates, and Lewis’ single “Breathless” dropped from the charts, and he didn’t have another Top 10 hit.
“I’ve done some crazy things,” he told USA TODAY in 2010 of his antics. “I messed up all the way and got what was coming at me.”
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Lewis saw a comeback in country music during the late 1960s—around the same time he starred as Iago in Shakespeare’s rock ‘n’ roll adaptation of Othello in Catch My Soul. He was a regular presence on the state charts until the end of the following decade with singles such as “What Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me)” and “Middle Age Crazy”.
He recorded sporadically after the early 1980s, releasing a Sun Records-esque album “Young Blood” in 1995. Two albums (“Last Man Standing” and “Mean Old Man”), which he paired with George Jones, followed, Willie Nelson, Bruce Springsteen, and Mick Jagger, and his latest album, “Rock & Roll Time,” 2014 featured Keith Richards and Neil Young.
Lewis was one of the original inductees into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1986, along with Chuck Berry, Elvis, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fates Dominoes, Everly Brothers, Buddy Holly and Little Richard. After Don Everly passed away in 2021, Lewis became the longest-lived member of the induction class.
In 1989, he portrayed Denis Quaid Lewis in the biographical film “The Great Balls of Fire”. At the time of Lewis’ death, director Ethan Coen had completed the documentary Jerry Lee Lewis: A Trouble with the Mind, which focused on the star’s grace and demons, and premiered at the Cannes Film Festival in 2022.
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Born on September 29, 1935 in Ferede, Louisiana, he had a deep religious upbringing. Lewis, cousin of television evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country singer Mickey Gilly, was raised on a musical diet for Assembly of God church services, Jimmy Rodgers and Gene Autry records, and secret late-night trips to black jock joints. These styles combined with the explosive power of Lewis’ music. As a teenager, he attended Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas. The school expelled him within months, for slipping into a jig lick when he was accompanying hymns. Later, Lewis recorded for Sun Records in Memphis, playing “Devil’s Music” with evangelical enthusiasm. When preachers criticized the evils of rock and roll, Lewis didn’t necessarily disagree with them.
“I’m a religious man,” he told USA TODAY. “I’ve never lost touch. I’ve drifted away and never come back. You can’t serve two gods. But I’m definitely a believer, and I’m looking forward to going to heaven. I definitely hope they need a pianist.”
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Often called “The Killer” – a nickname for a stuck high schooler – Lewis has lived a life as flammable as his career. Two of his seven wives died. A fourth, Yarin John Lewis, drowned in 1982. A fifth, Sean Michelle Stevens Lewis, died in 1983, just 77 days after their marriage. Officials cited a drug overdose as the cause of her death, despite speculation about something more sinister.
Tragedy and suffering felt on Louis’ heels throughout his life. His first son, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned after the TV host he first booked to play “Whole Lot of Shakin’ Going On” in 1962. The second son, Jerry Lee Lewis Jr., died nine years later in a car accident. In 1976, the singer accidentally shot and injured the bassist.
Lewis underwent two operations in 1981 for bleeding from a perforated ulcer. He was treated at the Betty Ford Clinic for his painkiller addiction in 1986. The Internal Revenue Service paid him $4.1 million in back taxes and fines in 1992, forcing him to live in tax exile for 15 months in Dublin.
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Lewis’ health suffered another blow in February 2019 when he suffered a stroke that required months of rehab and forced him to cancel a planned world tour. Days before his death, he missed his country Music Hall of Fame induction while battling the flu.
Throughout it all, Lewis was a ball of fire, a turbulent, explosive force that threatened to consume everything in its path, including Lewis himself. By all rights, it should have caught fire early, as did Janis Joplin, Jimi Hendrix, Jim Morrison, Kurt Cobain and others who lacked the toughness, determination, charisma or perhaps the crazy luck of Lewis.
In the end, Lewis also outperformed the rest of the Sun Records clan that took rock ‘n’ roll from Memphis to the world. Presley, Roy Orbison, Charlie Rich, Carl Perkins, Johnny Cash, founder Sam Phillips: Louis lived after them all. Now, though, the piano lid closed for the last time. Rock ‘n’ roll may be forever rebellious, but it can’t be forever young, and those who think otherwise are only fooling themselves.
But if anyone could get away with it, it would be Jerry Lee.
Contributing: Edna Gundersen, Melissa Ruggeri and Kim Willis
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