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Jerry Lee Lewis, Louisiana singer best known for “Great Balls of Fire,” dies aged 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the irrepressible rock ‘n’ roll pioneer whose incredible talent, energy and ego collided on such seminal albums as ‘Great Balls of Fire’ and ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On’, continuing a career that otherwise had been turned upside down by personal scandals He died on Friday morning at the age of 87.

Lewis, the last survivor of a generation of pioneering artists that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, died at home in Memphis, Tennessee, Representative Zach Farnum said in a news release.

Of all the rock rebels who emerged in the 1950s, few captured the allure and danger of the new genre as memorably as the Louisiana-born pianist who dubbed himself “The Killer.”

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Gentle ballads are best left to the old folks. Lewis was all about pleasure and satisfaction, with his salacious tenor voice and demanding asides, pounding tempi and cheeky glissandi, cocky grin and crazy blonde hair. A one-man onslaught that got fans screaming and keyboards swearing, his live act was so flammable that in 1957, during a performance of “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” on The Steve Allen Show ‘ was pelted with chairs like buckets of water in an inferno.

“There was rockabilly. There was Elvis. But there was no pure rock ‘n’ roll before Jerry Lee Lewis kicked in the door,” one Lewis admirer once remarked. That admirer was Jerry Lee Lewis.

But in his personal life, he raged in ways that could have ended his career today — and almost did then.

For a short time, in 1958, he was a contender to replace Presley as Rock’s prime hit maker after Elvis was drafted into the army. But while Lewis was touring in England, the press learned three damaging things: he was married to 13-year-old (possibly even 12-year-old) Myra Gale Brown, she was his cousin, and he was still married to his former wife. His tour was cancelled, he was blacklisted from radio and his earnings plummeted to virtually nothing overnight.

“I probably would have run my life a little differently, but I’ve never hidden anything from people,” Lewis told the Wall Street Journal in 2014 when asked about the marriage. “I just got on with my life as usual.”

In the decades that followed, Lewis struggled with drug and alcohol abuse, lawsuits, and physical illness. Two of his many marriages ended in the early death of his wife. Brown herself divorced him in the early 1970s and later claimed to have committed physical and mental atrocities that almost drove her to suicide.

“If I were 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 was out of hits. He won three Grammys and recorded with some of the biggest stars in the business. In 2006, Lewis released Last Man Standing, starring Mick Jagger, Bruce Springsteen, BB King and George Jones. In 2010, Lewis brought in Jagger, Keith Richards, Sheryl Crow, Tim McGraw and others for the Mean Old Man album.

In The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, first published in 1975, he recalled convincing disc jockeys to give him a second chance.

“This time I was like, ‘Look man, let’s get together and draw a line on this stuff — a peace treaty, you know,’” he explained. Lewis still played the old hits on stage, but on the radio he sang country.

Lewis had a string of top 10 country hits between 1967 and 1970 and rarely calmed down. He performed booze songs like “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” the roving eye confessions of “She Still Comes Around,” and a dry-eyed cover of a classic abandonment ballad, “She Even Woke.” I’m ready to say goodbye.” He remained popular in Europe and a 1964 album, Live at the Star Club, Hamburg, is widely regarded as one of the greatest concert recordings.

An appearance in 1973 proved more problematic: Lewis was singing for the Grand Ole Opry, breaking two longstanding rules — no swearing and no non-country songs.

“I’m a rock ‘n’ roll, country and western, rhythm and blues singing mom—–” 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 filing for divorce. His fifth wife, Shawn Stephens, 23 years his junior, died of an apparent drug overdose in 1983. Within a year, Lewis married Kerrie McCarver, who was 21 at the time. She filed for divorce in 1986, accusing him of physical abuse and infidelity. He disagreed, but both petitions were eventually dropped. They eventually divorced in 2005 after several years of separation. The couple had one child, Jerry Lee III.

Another son from a previous marriage, Steve Allen Lewis, 3, drowned in a swimming pool in 1962, and son Jerry Lee Jr. died in a traffic accident in 1973, aged 19. Lewis also had two daughters, Phoebe and Lori Leigh, and his is survived by his wife Judith.

His finances were also chaotic. Lewis made millions, but he liked his money in cash and eventually owed the Internal Revenue Service hundreds of thousands of dollars. When he began welcoming tourists to his longtime home near Nesbit, Mississippi—complete with a piano-shaped swimming pool—in 1994, he set up a 900 phone number that allowed fans to post a recorded message for $2.75 a minute could call.

Lewis was born in Ferriday, Louisiana, the son of former bootlegger Elmo Lewis and cousin of TV evangelist Jimmy Swaggart and country music star Mickey Gilley. He first learned to play the guitar as a boy, but found the instrument too cramped and longed for an instrument that only the wealthy in his town could afford—a piano. His life changed when his father pulled up in his truck one day and gave him a dark wood upright keyboard as a present.

“My eyes almost popped out,” Lewis recalled in Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story, written by Rick Bragg and published in 2014.

He immediately took to the piano and began sneaking into black juke joints, absorbing everything from gospel to boogie-woogie. Torn between secular and frightened music at an early age, he dropped out of school at 16 with plans to become a piano preacher. Lewis briefly attended Southwestern Assemblies of God University in Waxahachie, Texas, a fundamentalist Bible school, but was reportedly expelled for playing the “wrong” kind of music.

“Great Balls of Fire,” a sexualized take on biblical imagery that Lewis initially chose not to include, and “Whole Lotta Shakin’” were his most enduring songs and performance pieces. Lewis only had a handful of other pop hits, including “High School Confidential” and “Breathless,” but they were enough to secure his place as a rock ‘n’ roll architect.

“No group, be it (the) Beatles, Dylan or Stones, has ever improved ‘Whole Lotta Shakin’ for my money,” John Lennon told Rolling Stone in 1970.

A roadhouse veteran in his early 20s, Lewis flew to Memphis in 1956 and showed up at the studios of Sun Records, the musical home of Elvis, Perkins and Cash. Prompted by company founder Sam Phillips to learn some rock ‘n’ roll, Lewis returned and soon sped off in a single take of “Whole Lotta Shakin’”.

“I knew it was a hit when I cut it,” he later said. “Sam Phillips thought it was too risky, couldn’t do it. If that’s risky, I’m sorry.”

In 1986, along with Elvis, Chuck Berry and others, he made the first class of inductees for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Not only did the killer outlast his contemporaries, but his life and music have been regularly reintroduced to younger fans, including the 1989 biopic Great Balls of Fire starring Dennis Quaid and Ethan Coen’s 2022 documentary Trouble in Mind. 2010’s music, Million Dollar Quartet, was inspired by a recording session with Lewis, Elvis, Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash.

He won a Grammy in 1987 for being part of an interview album nominated for Best Spoken Word Recording and in 2005 he received a Grammy for Lifetime Achievement. The following year, “Whole Lotta Shakin’” was selected for the National Library of Congress Recording Registry, whose board praised the “driving boogie piano” that was “perfectly complemented by the drive of JM Van Eaton’s energetic drumming.” The listeners to the recording, like Lewis himself, had a hard time staying seated during the performance.”

A classmate at Bible school, Peary Green, recalled meeting Lewis years later and asking if he still played the devil’s music.

“Yes, I am,” Lewis replied. “But you know, it’s weird, the same music they kicked me out of school for is the same kind of music they play in their churches today. The difference is I know I’m playing for the devil and they aren’t.”

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