Jerry Lee Lewis, rock ‘n’ roll pioneer who sang ‘Great Balls of Fire,’ dies at 87
Jerry Lee Lewis, the piano-pounding, foot-stomping singer who electrified early rock ‘n’ roll with hits like “Great Balls of Fire” and “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” before marital scandal derailed his career, has died, according to a statement from his representative, Zach Farnum. He was 87.
Lewis passed away at his home in Desoto County, Mississippi, south of Memphis, the statement said. Farnum told CNN that Lewis died of “natural causes” when reached by phone.
His seventh wife, Judith, was by his side when he died and Lewis “told her, in his final days, that he welcomed the hereafter, and that he was not afraid,” the statement added.
Along with Chuck Berry, Elvis Presley and others, Lewis was one of the leading figures of the 1950s rock era and a master showman – nicknamed “The Killer” – whose raw, uninhibited performances drove young fans into spasmodic fits.
“I was born to be on a stage. I couldn’t wait to be on it. I dreamed about it. And I’ve been on one all my life,” Lewis said in “Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story,” a 2014 biography by Rick Bragg. “That’s where I’m the happiest.”
But offstage, the singer’s personal life was turbulent. Lewis was near the peak of his popularity in 1958 when the public learned that he had married Myra Gale Brown, his first cousin. She was 13 at the time; Lewis was 22.
News of the marriage leaked in London, where Lewis had flown to play some concerts. Lewis told the press that Myra was 15, but the truth soon came out and caused an outcry, as newspapers blared such headlines as “Fans Aghast at Child Bride.” Audiences heckled Lewis, and the tour was canceled after three shows.
Lewis continued to record and tour over the next decade, but his rockabilly music didn’t sell in the Beatles era and he couldn’t regain the popularity of his early years – until he made an unlikely comeback as a country singer.
Lewis was born in 1935 into a poor farming family in Ferriday, Louisiana. One of his cousins, Jimmy Swaggart, would go on to become a popular TV evangelist. Lewis’ website says he began playing the piano at age 9, aping the styles of preachers and Black musicians who passed through the region.
After dropping out of school to focus on playing music, Lewis traveled in 1956 to Sun Studios in Memphis, where he quickly gained work as a session player for such budding stars as Carl Perkins and Johnny Cash. He also recorded with Elvis Presley.
A December 1956 recording session with Lewis, Presley, Perkins and Cash – nicknamed the “Million Dollar Quartet” – became a seminal moment in rock history.
By the following year, thanks to Top 5 hits like “Great Balls of Fire,” Lewis was internationally famous, even though his incendiary style and suggestive lyrics led some radio stations to boycott his songs.
Then came the marriage scandal, and Lewis’ aura was never quite the same.
After a decade of dwindling sales, he reinvented himself in the late 1960s as a country artist and revived his career, scoring a series of Top 10 country hits well into the Seventies.
In 1989 “Great Balls of Fire!”, a biopic starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis, brought new attention to Lewis’ life and music. Lewis even recorded new versions of his hits for the soundtrack.
But his personal life remained messy. He was married seven times and filed for bankruptcy in 1988, claiming he owed the IRS more than $2 million.
He also battled alcoholism, drug addiction and other health problems for years. In one infamous 1976 episode, he was arrested at Graceland in the wee hours of the morning after drunkenly crashing his car into the mansion’s gates – with a loaded gun – while trying to visit Presley.
“I ain’t no goody goody, and I ain’t no phony,” Lewis said in Bragg’s biography. “I never pretended to be anything, and anything I ever did, I did it wide-open as a case knife. I’ve lived my life to the fullest and I had a good time doin’ it.”
In October, Lewis was inducted into Country Music Hall of Fame but was unable to attend the ceremony because he was ill with the flu, according to a statement posted to his social media.
Lewis was raised in a strict, religious household and sometimes struggled to reconcile his faith in God with his love of rock ‘n’ roll, which conservative listeners in the 1950s condemned as “the devil’s music.”
He didn’t write many songs but was brilliant at reinterpreting others’ compositions with his infectious, boogie-woogie rhythms, which helped bring rockabilly music into the mainstream.
But his most enduring legacy may have been his unhinged piano-playing style, which influenced Elton John and many other musicians. During concerts Lewis banged the keys with his fists and elbows, kicked over his piano stool, climbed atop his instrument and once even set it on fire.
In this way, he showed that rock ‘n’ roll wasn’t just about the guitar.
In 1986, he joined a constellation of seminal figures – Berry, Presley, James Brown, Ray Charles, Sam Cooke, Fats Domino, Buddy Holly, Little Richard and the Everly Brothers – as the first group of artists inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
Lewis lived most of his life on a ranch in northern Mississippi with a piano-shaped swimming pool. He never quite outran the scandal of marrying his young cousin. But to his fans, his infectious music and his fiery live shows made up for his personal transgressions.
“I want to be remembered as a rock-n-roll idol, in a suit and tie or blue jeans and a ragged shirt, it don’t matter, as long as the people get that show. The show, that’s what counts. It covers up everything,” he told Bragg.
“Any bad thoughts anyone ever had about you goes away. ‘Is that the one that married that girl? Well, forget about it, let me hear that song.’”
Lewis is survived by his wife, Judith Coghlan Lewis, his children Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, cousin Swaggart and many grandchildren, nieces and nephews, according to his representative’s statement.
Information on services will be announced in the coming days, the statement added.
In lieu of flowers, the Lewis family requested donations be made in the singer’s honor to the Arthritis Foundation or MusiCares.