Jerry Lee Lewis, flamboyant and controversial rock and roll pioneer, dead at 87


Jerry Lee Lewis, the hard-living, hard-playing pianist and singer whose offstage exploits usually grabbed as a lot consideration as his electrifying performances and genre-spanning recording profession, has died. He was 87.

The final survivor of a technology of groundbreaking performers that included Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard, Lewis died at house in Memphis, Tenn., consultant Zach Farnum stated in a launch.

Lewis had suffered a minor stroke in 2019 however steadily carried out stay reveals till then. More just lately, he was unable to attend his Country Music Hall of Fame induction attributable to sickness.

Lewis’s legacy was largely established on the largely raucous sides reduce over a three-year interval at Sun Records in Memphis: Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On, Great Balls of Fire, Breathless and High School Confidential.

A serendipitous session there of future music legends on Dec. 4, 1956 would additionally loom massive — with the songs recorded by the so-called Million Dollar Quartet of Lewis, Elvis Presley, Johnny Cash and Carl Perkins offered and repackaged within the ensuing many years.

Lewis’s attraction to child boomer youngsters entranced by the brand new style known as rock ‘n’ roll was boosted by manic performances on The Steve Allen Show and within the movement image High School Confidential. Lewis’s hair flipped and flopped as he pounded the keys, yipped and yodelled, kicked the piano bench apart and performed standing up and even along with his toes.

Jerry Lee Lewis performs at the twenty fifth Anniversary Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Concert at Madison Square Garden in New York City on Oct. 30, 2009. (*87*) (*87*)(Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images)

“The Killer” — Lewis’s nickname stemming from a colloquial childhood greeting — was inducted into the inaugural 1986 class of the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and acquired a Grammy lifetime achievement award.

Not a prolific songwriter, Lewis acquired credit score for placing his definitive stamp on songs that originated throughout genres — R&B, nation, gospel, he cherished all of it. 

Scandalous marriage

Lewis’s life performed out like a Southern Gothic novel manuscript rejected for being too excessive.

There had been seven marriages, a near-fatal capturing, perennial IRS troubles attributable to tax delinquency and recurring automotive crashes, together with an notorious 1976 arrest by which a pistol-packing Lewis crashed his Lincoln into the gates of outdated good friend Presley’s Graceland mansion.

“I’m simply what I’m — Jerry Lee ‘F–k Up’ Lewis,” he advised the BBC in a 1990 documentary. “If you do not like that, you possibly can kiss my ass.” 

Lewis performs the piano along with his toes in Bourges, France, on April 23, 1987.(*87*) (*87*)(Frank Perry/AFP/Getty Images)

While Lewis loved a recording profession that spanned greater than six many years, radio airplay largely stopped when it was realized in 1958 that he had married the 13-year-old daughter of his bandmate and cousin, J.W. Brown, on Dec. 12, 1957.

Myra Gale Brown’s account of their tumultuous 13-year marriage was advised in 1982’s Great Balls of Fire: The Uncensored Story of Jerry Lee Lewis, the inspiration for a significant movement image seven years later starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis and Winona Ryder as Brown. 

Mysterious dying

The couple’s three-year-old son, Steve Allen Lewis, drowned in 1963, whereas a decade later Jerry Lee Lewis, Jr., the oldest of six Lewis kids, was killed in a automobile accident at the age of 19. 

Journalist Richard Ben Cramer, in one of the crucial well-known Rolling Stone longform items, questioned in 1984 if Lewis had embodied his nickname to lethal consequence after his fifth spouse, Shawn Stephens, died the earlier yr at his Nesbit, Miss., ranch at the age of 26 years, and simply 77 days into their marriage. 

When first responders arrived, Cramer reported, Lewis greeted them with slurred speech, a bathrobe stained with dried blood and scratches on his hand. Stephens’s dying was dominated a methadone overdose, and a grand jury refused to indict Lewis, however the investigation was deemed substandard by each Cramer and Geraldo Rivera of TV information journal program 20/20

“I cherished her with all my coronary heart and soul. There’s no method that Jerry Lee Lewis might ever, and would ever, even consider taking one other individual’s life,” Lewis stated on 20/20, explaining that the blood and scratches had been from punching a wall in anguish over her dying. 

Hardscrabble rural upbringing

Jerry Lee Lewis was born at the peak of the Great Depression in Ferriday, La., on Sept. 29, 1935, one among 4 kids. When not travelling, he spent almost his whole life within the coronary heart of the Mississippi Delta.

Lewis’s father picked cotton and did a brief stint in jail for promoting liquor illegally. The household dwelling had no electrical energy or indoor plumbing, and when Lewis was a small youngster, his older brother was killed by a drunk driver. 

Respite from the exhausting life got here largely from prolonged household gatherings the place music was carried out.   

“There’s a number of piano gamers in my household and a number of singers. You’re both a preacher or a rock and roll singer,” Lewis advised CBC’s Good Rockin’ Tonite in 1989. “I selected rock and roll.” 

Chuck Berry, left, and Lewis embrace at a reception at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York on Jan. 23, 1986, once they had been each inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. (*87*) (*87*)(G. Paul Burnett/The Associated Press)

Despite the difficult circumstances, 4 members of his prolonged household achieved some extent of fame. Linda Gail Lewis, his sister, and cousin Mickey Gilley had been additionally recording artists, and one other cousin, Jimmy Swaggart, turned one of the crucial well-known American televangelists. 

Pentecostal church providers Lewis attended as a baby made a lifelong imprint. Throughout his life and all of the hellraising that may ensue, he was preoccupied with whether or not “salvation” would happen at his mortal life’s finish. 

At the age of eight, he displayed a flair for music, inspiring his dad, Elmo, and mom, Mamie, to spend greater than they’d to purchase him a standup Starck piano. He was largely self-taught, however a variety of artists fuelled his ardour, with Hank Williams and B.B. King his favourites. 

‘That boy can go’

Lewis performed neighborhood occasions starting in his teenagers and snuck into golf equipment, with neither academia nor a stint in Bible faculty holding lasting curiosity. His wide-legged model at the piano bench was reportedly attributable to a hip damage taking part in soccer. 

He heard concerning the exploits of Presley at Sun Records and made a pilgrimage within the waning months of 1956. By that point he had been by means of a collection of menial jobs and nighttime gigs, in addition to receiving a rejection from RCA Records, whose workers had been reportedly flummoxed that he did not play the guitar. 

Lifetime achievement award winner Lewis poses for photographers at the forty seventh Annual Grammy Awards at the Staples Center in Los Angeles on Feb. 13, 2005. (*87*) (*87*)(Reed Saxon/The Associated Press)

“Nothing might cease me. I used to be going to be heard and get recorded,” he advised Vintage Rock journal. “I knew, if I acquired to Sun, it could occur.” 

A reporter was available for the studio session of future legends Cash, Perkins, Presley and Lewis. 

“That boy can go,” Presley advised the scribe. “I believe he has an excellent future forward of him. He has a distinct model, and the best way he performs piano simply will get inside me.” 

In lower than two years, Great Balls of Fire, Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On and Breathless had been all top-10 hits on Billboard’s major chart. 

Aged 22 and on his third marriage, Lewis’s union with a 13-year-old was, regrettably, not with out precedent in rural communities of the Deep South at the time. His personal sisters had been married at 14 and 12, whereas he was 16 when he married for the primary time. 

Lewis and his spouse, Myra, then 15, are proven in London on May 23, 1958. The marriage induced controversy, and she later alleged it had been marked by abuse.(*87*) (*87*)(Getty Images)

At a 1959 courtroom look concerning tardy youngster assist funds to his second spouse, Lewis defined to a decide that gigs had dried up attributable to being branded a “cradle snatcher.”

He performed the membership and tavern circuit for a lot of the Nineteen Sixties, together with Café Pagoda in Montreal and Toronto’s Le Coq d’or Tavern, showing on a bill with youthful musicians like John Lennon and Eric Clapton at the Toronto Rock and Roll Revival in 1969.

During the Nineteen Seventies, he discovered the charts once more as a rustic performer, with songs akin to What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made A Loser Out of Me) and To Make Love Sweeter for You

Lewis being Lewis, bother was by no means far off. With drinks flowing in 1976, he almost killed his bass participant, Butch Owens, with a .357 — he stated he was aiming the gun at a Coke bottle. Lewis was pressured to pay damages to Owens and sentenced to probation. 

“I simply comprehend it took him a pair days to speak proper,” Lewis advised biographer Rick Bragg many years later. 

After Presley’s 1977 dying, it was realized at a subsequent trial that each he and Lewis had been avid prospects of pill-pushing Dr. George Nichopoulos. Dr. Nick, as he turned identified, testified that amphetamines had been Lewis’s specific weak point and that Lewis as soon as discharged himself from a hospital by climbing out a window. 

Around the identical time — and not for the final time — Lewis was pressured to hawk a lot of luxurious objects to fulfill tax money owed owed to Uncle Sam. 

In 1981, the wear-and-tear of alcohol and drug use led to abdomen surgical procedure and a subsequent bout of pneumonia, leaving him in severe situation for a time. 

It was at a present the next yr at the Hyatt Regency lodge in Dearborn, Mich., the place he met Stephens, a waitress. 

Richard Ben Cramer’s 1984 Rolling Stone article, The Strange and Mysterious Death of Mrs. Jerry Lee Lewis, was lurid. The author identified that Lewis’s fourth spouse, Jaren, drowned in 1982, although the article did not point out that the performer was nowhere close to the scene of that tragedy. 

Both Cramer and Geraldo Rivera alleged there had been abuse within the brief marriage to Stephens. 

“She wasn’t overwhelmed at all. There wasn’t a contact of circumstantial proof that I performed it,” Lewis advised Bragg in 2014’s Jerry Lee Lewis: His Own Story

‘Jerry Lee will not be tamed’

Lewis’s fame took successful, and a collection of erratic performances did not assist. He was a no-show at an oldies revue in Toronto’s model new SkyDome in 1989, and 4 years later, he kicked a cameraman in Spain. 

In her e book, Myra Gale Brown stated Lewis would topic her “to each sort of bodily and psychological abuse possible” throughout their marriage, and neither had been followers of 1989’s Great Balls of Fire

“I performed him actually as a nine-year-old boy who fell in love with music, which he nonetheless is,” Quaid advised Vogue in a promotional interview for the movie. 

In the final three many years of his life, Lewis nonetheless loved the push of the stage, irrespective of if it was a membership that had seen higher days or a on line casino amphitheatre. 

After a decade break from recording, 2006’s Last Man Standing ushered in three well-received albums within the twenty first century chock-full of visitor spots from the likes of B.B. King, Mick Jagger, Neil Young, Sheryl Crow and Willie Nelson.

As Hutch Hutchinson, a bandmate for greater than 4 many years at the time, advised the New York Times in 2006: “Jerry Lee will not be tamed. He would not reply to anyone, by no means has.”


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