Jerry Lee Lewis, whose charisma, wild stage antics and personal life made him one of the most popular and controversial of the early rock ‘n’ rollers, has died.
His publicist announced the news with a statement that began, “Somewhere in the world, in a mean little honky-tonk or big music hall or church basement rec room, someone is playing a Jerry Lee Lewis song.”
According to the statement, Lewis “suffered through the last years of his life from various illnesses and injuries that, his physicians have often said, should have taken him decades ago; he had abused his body so thoroughly as a young man he was given little chance of lasting through middle age, let alone old age.”
“He is ready to leave,” his wife Judith said, just before his death.
The man who would become known as “The Killer” was born on Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La. He began playing the piano at 9 and was turned on to the sounds of rhythm and blues by sneaking into his uncle’s nightclub. His mother responded by sending him to the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, but he left after he got into trouble for playing a boogie-woogie version of “My God Is Real.”
Lewis wasn’t the only one who felt that way, and their mixture of the secular and the profane, white and African American, birthed rock n’ roll in the mid-’50s. By the end of 1956, Lewis had found his way to Memphis and Sun Records, the same label that launched Elvis Presley to fame. Lewis’ first single, “Crazy Arms,” didn’t make a dent, but the next two – “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Going On” and “Great Balls of Fire” – exploded: Both topped the country and R&B charts while getting inside the Top 5 on the Hot 100.
As a performer, Lewis made the national outrage surrounding Presley shaking his hips seem tame by comparison. Lewis was the embodiment of conservatives’ belief that this new sound was the “devil’s music.” He pounded the piano keys and played with such fervor that he couldn’t stay seated, kicking over the piano bench as he stood.
Another Top 10 hit, “Breathless,” followed in early 1958, as did an appearance in a movie called High School Confidential, where he performed the title track from a flatbed truck during the opening credits. Everything soon came crashing down, however, when news broke during a tour of Great Britain that Lewis’ new wife Myra Gale Brown was not only his first cousin once removed, but also only 13 years old.
He instantly became a pariah. Lewis continued to record and tour but only one of the singles he released over the next 13 years hit the Top 40, a 1961 cover of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say.” By the end of the ’60s, Lewis was able to rebound by playing up his country roots. Between 1968 and 1981, he was a reliable hitmaker, with about 40 songs reaching the Top 40 of the country chart.
Jerry Lee Lewis was inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame in 1986 as part of its first class. Three years later, a movie that focused on his early days and marriage to Brown called Great Balls of Fire was made starring Dennis Quaid as Lewis, Winona Ryder as Brown and Alec Baldwin as televangelist Jimmy Swaggart, Lewis’ cousin.
A trio of late-period albums – 2006’s Last Man Standing, 2010’s Mean Old Man and 2014’s Rock & Roll Time – turned into all-star affairs with guest appearances by fellow early rock ‘n’ roll pioneer Little Richard, various country stars and members of the Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Crazy Horse, the Beatles and Eagles. Lewis was said to be working on another album in 2020 while dealing with the impacts of a “minor stroke.”
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