Jerry Lee Lewis useless: Original wild man of rock ‘n’ roll was 87

Jerry Lee Lewis, the unique wild man of rock ‘n’ roll whose explosive data, fiery performances and real-life scandals made him one of many style’s most fascinating and fearsome figures, died on Friday. He was 87.

Lewis’s publicist introduced the singer’s dying in a press release, following a untimely report of his demise from TMZ earlier within the week.

The reason for dying was not revealed. Lewis had been hospitalized in early 2019 after struggling a stroke, forcing him to cancel his deliberate spring and summer season concert events.

A brash backwoods maverick with a wavy blond pompadour and an smug sneer, Lewis introduced nervy authority and a private stamp to his unruly concoction of nation, gospel, and rhythm and blues.

The singer-pianist’s first two hits, “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” and “Great Balls of Fire,” had been definitive incarnations of rock ‘n’ roll’s primal attract.

John Lennon referred to “Whole Lotta Shakin’” as “the perfect rock ‘n’ roll record.” Elton John adopted Lewis’ signature maneuver of kicking the piano bench throughout the stage.

However Lewis’ affect transcended the music. He was the prototype of the hard-rocking, hard-living renegade, and his instance of audacity and independence turned part of rock’s DNA.

His music and his life additionally embraced a number of the nice dichotomies of the American expertise — notably, the interaction between Black and white America that his music embodied, and the battle between spirit and flesh that arose from his upbringing in a Pentecostal church.

Lewis is taken into account one of many key founders of rock ‘n’ roll, together with Elvis Presley, Chuck Berry and Little Richard. He was a constitution inductee within the Rock and Roll Corridor of Fame in 1986 and acquired a lifetime achievement award from the Recording Academy on the 2005 Grammys. In 2022, he was inducted into the Nation Music Corridor of Fame.

“He’s the only guy, other than Ray Charles, who sings country and rock ‘n’ roll authentically,” mentioned singer-songwriter Kris Kristofferson, a longtime good friend. “I don’t think he’s gotten the credit for how good he really is. I’m sure that he ranks right up there with Frank Sinatra and all the great American singers.”

Regardless of his musical success, Lewis was relentlessly self-destructive but seemingly indestructible. His life was strewn with tragedy (the deaths of a brother, two kids and two wives), extra (ingesting and drug use triggered two near-fatal illnesses), tax issues and sheer recklessness — he by chance shot his bassist within the chest, and he was arrested for packing a pistol and drunkenly driving his automotive into the gates of Elvis Presley’s Graceland property.

But, someway, Lewis survived, outlasting almost all his friends. Even after his rock ‘n’ roll profession was derailed when he married his 13-year-old cousin in 1957, he rebranded himself as a rustic singer in 1968 and occupied the charts for 15 extra years.

Jerry Lee Lewis, performing in his prime, sings atop a piano. His mom despatched him to review for the ministry when he was 15, however honky-tonk music in the end claimed his soul.

(UPI/Bettman Newsphotos)

Jerry Lee Lewis was born Sept. 29, 1935, in Ferriday, La., a small farming and sawmill neighborhood on the Mississippi River. His father, Elmo, was a cotton farmer and bootlegger who did time in jail. His mom, Mamie, was a deeply spiritual girl who was recognized to talk in tongues throughout church providers.

The couple’s oldest youngster, Elmo Jr., was struck and killed by a drunk driver when he was 9. Jerry Lee grew up together with his youthful sisters Linda Gail and Frankie Jean and shared a robust curiosity in music with two cousins — Jimmy Lee Swaggart and Mickey Gilley — who would later achieve fame as a televangelist and nation star, respectively.

Lewis absorbed nation music via his father’s Jimmie Rodgers data and the radio broadcasts of “The Grand Ole Opry” and “Louisiana Hayride,” the place he found the younger Hank Williams. The music on the Assemblies of God Church that his household attended and the place he ceaselessly performed ran towards the extreme and rapturous.

On the films, he beloved the cowboy songs of Gene Autry. Earlier than one screening, he heard Al Jolson’s “Down Among the Sheltering Palms” and was deeply impressed. Lewis later turned a daily, if unauthorized, customer to Haney’s Massive Home, Ferriday’s lone hotspot for touring blues and R&B acts, and he sampled extra blues on forays into the city’s Black neighborhoods.

Lewis as soon as proclaimed that there have been solely 4 true musical “stylists” — Rodgers, Jolson, Williams and, in fact, himself.

When he was 8, his dad and mom mortgaged their small home and acquired Lewis a used upright piano. He practiced consistently, growing a command of the keyboard that might serve him all through his profession.

A high-spirited, trouble-prone boy who ceaselessly skipped faculty, Lewis was referred to as “Killer” by associates, an informal nickname that might assume ominous overtones later in life.

He gave his first efficiency at 13, on the opening of a Ford dealership. The teenager went on to play wherever potential — in church, at dances, on the radio and later at golf equipment.

When he was 15 he attended the Southwestern Bible Institute in Waxahachie, Texas, with ideas of changing into a minister. He was expelled after one yr.

{Couples} married younger in Ferriday, and Lewis took the plunge when he was 16 and his spouse, a preacher’s daughter, a yr older. It lasted eight months and overlapped his second marriage, to Jane Mitcham. Their son, Jerry Lee Jr., would die in a Jeep accident in 1973 at 19.

Lewis bought stitching machines door to door, auditioned unsuccessfully in Nashville and Louisiana, and performed as he might at regional golf equipment. When he heard Presley’s hit “That’s All Right” in 1954, he determined that he belonged at Solar Information, Elvis’ authentic label.

Sam Phillips, the visionary proprietor at Solar, was out of city when Lewis arrived unannounced on the storefront studio in Memphis, however his assistant Jack Clement took discover when the teenager proclaimed that he might play the piano the best way Chet Atkins performed the guitar.

Years later, Phillips recalled the primary time he heard Lewis’ tapes.

“I said who is this cat?” he’s quoted as saying in Lewis’ 1993 autobiography, “Killer!” “Because it was all there in abundance — as spontaneous as anything I had ever listened to. I didn’t care how raw it was. I didn’t give a damn how unpolished it was. To hear that core, that soul, that heart and that freedom floating around. That’s the way I listened to people and knew they was special.”

Lewis and Clement began out with some nation songs, and his model of Ray Value’s hit “Crazy Arms” turned a regional success.

Lewis’ second single was a music that he had performed repeatedly in his dwell act for years. He endowed the recording of Roy Corridor and Dave Williams’ “Whole Lotta Shakin’ Goin’ On” with a large dose of persona and a playful, leering eroticism.

Jerry Lee Lewis, seated at a piano, sings into a microphone.

Jerry Lee Lewis performs at a membership in Longview, Texas, in 1981.

(Los Angeles Instances archives)

“It wasn’t a dirty record to me,” Lewis mentioned in a 1981 interview with The Instances. “It wasn’t a religious song either, mind you, but I didn’t think it was dirty.”

It was an excessively erotic file to many, nevertheless, and airplay was restricted till Lewis carried out it on Steve Allen’s Sunday evening NBC selection present. It shortly reached No. 2 on the pop chart and No. 1 on the nation and R&B charts.

His subsequent single, launched in late 1957, was “Great Balls of Fire,” an everlasting touchstone of rock ‘n’ roll that infused carnality with a non secular fervor. It was one other smash, and when his subsequent single, “Breathless,” turned his third straight hit, Lewis was poised to develop into rock ‘n’ roll’s main man.

In Might 1958 he flew to England for a tour that was supposed to affirm his primacy however ended up sending him into exile. Reporters met him on the airport in London to cowl his arrival and inquired concerning the younger girl in his entourage. Lewis launched her as his 13-year-old spouse, and all hell broke unfastened.

Lewis had married Myra Gail Brown in December 1957, the end result of a romance that bloomed when he moved into the Memphis house of Myra’s father, JW Brown, who was Lewis’ cousin and bass participant.

The press got here down laborious on him, particularly when it was revealed that Myra was his second cousin and that he was nonetheless married once they wed.

Amid uproar and outrage, the tour was canceled after simply three dates. Again within the U.S., Lewis was unable to get airplay on the radio stations he had lately dominated. His subsequent file, “High School Confidential,” stalled at No. 21 on the pop chart.

Main live performance bookings additionally dried up, and Lewis started taking part in small venues that he had lengthy outgrown. He made the Prime 30 with a model of Ray Charles’ “What’d I Say,” however his days with Solar had been numbered, and in 1963 he signed with Mercury Information’ Smash label.

He recorded prolifically for years, and although he was absent from the charts, he maintained his excessive requirements. In 1968 Lewis appeared prepared for brand spanking new instructions. He performed the position of Iago in “Catch My Soul,” a musical based mostly on “Othello” that was staged on the Ahmanson Theatre in Los Angeles.

The identical yr, producer Eddie Kilroy advised that Lewis attempt a straight nation recording. The honky-tonk ballad “Another Place, Another Time” introduced him again, launching a section that produced 22 Prime 10 nation singles over 15 years, together with “What’s Made Milwaukee Famous (Has Made a Loser Out of Me),” “Middle Age Crazy” and “Thirty Nine and Holding.”

However as he loved renewed success, his private issues escalated.

His marriage to Myra was strained by the 1962 drowning dying of their 3-year-old son, Steve Allen Lewis, and led to divorce in 1970. Her memoir, “Great Balls of Fire,” was made right into a 1989 film starring Dennis Quaid and Winona Ryder because the well-known couple.

Lewis married Jaren Gunn in 1971, and two years after their 1980 divorce, she drowned in a swimming pool accident.

Folks have been attempting for 30 years to point out that I’m the fallacious form of particular person. However justice will meet up with them.

— Jerry Lee Lewis, 1984

In 1975 Lewis was arrested for taking pictures up his Nashville workplace, and the next yr there was extra gun hassle when he by chance shot his bassist Norman “Butch” Owens with a ricocheting bullet that he had geared toward a bottle.

Two months later got here the weird Graceland incident, during which an intoxicated Lewis pulled up and slammed into Elvis’ gate together with his new Lincoln, whereas in possession of a revolver.

Lewis later mentioned that Presley had referred to as and requested him to come back over, and that the gun had been given to him as a present by a membership proprietor earlier that evening.

Lewis’ fifth spouse, Shawn Stephens, died within the bed room of their Nesbit, Miss., ranch lower than three months after their June 1983 marriage. Formally, her dying was blamed on an unintentional overdose of methadone, however suspicions dogged Lewis. Rolling Stone journal and ABC’s “20/20” each raised questions concerning the circumstances and the investigation, however Lewis steadfastly maintained his innocence.

“They’re trying to slaughter me,” he advised The Instances in 1984. “But I’m used to it. People have been trying for 30 years to show that I’m the wrong kind of person. But justice will catch up with them. My conscience is clear.”

The Inside Income Service periodically confiscated his possessions due to a mounting tax debt. He was acquitted of revenue tax evasion in 1984, and in 1992 moved to Dublin, Eire, after being hit with a $1.4-million tax lien. He in the end settled and returned to the U.S., but additionally filed for chapter — twice.

The wear and tear and tear of his quick dwelling and prodigious consumption of alcohol, amphetamines and sedatives caught up with him in 1981, when he underwent surgical procedure for a abdomen perforation, adopted by an operation for a subsequent an infection.

Shortly afterward, Lewis was swigging from a whiskey bottle throughout an interview with The Instances, and he returned to the important record in 1985 with bleeding ulcers.

Lewis mentioned he lastly give up ingesting within the mid-Nineties, and kicked painkillers a decade after that.

His life turned extra low-key, alternating between live performance dates and down time at his ranch close to Memphis, the place he loved watching tv, particularly “Gunsmoke” reruns. Phoebe Lewis, his daughter with Myra, tended to his profession, and his sixth marriage, to 21-year-old Kerrie McCarver Mann, produced a son, Jerry Lee Lewis III, in 1987. They divorced in 2005.

Jerry Lee Lewis, in a gold suit, gestures while seated at the piano on stage.

At age 82, Jerry Lee Lewis performs on the Theatre on the Ace Resort in Los Angeles on Nov. 24, 2017.

(Hal Wells / Los Angeles Instances)

In 2012 Lewis married his seventh spouse, Judith Ann Coghlan Brown. She was the ex-wife of his cousin Rusty Brown, the youthful brother of Myra, Lewis’ third spouse.

Lewis’ profession tailed off after his nation chart run ended. Within the ‘80s and ‘90s he recorded for a variety of labels without much success. Los Angeles movie producer and real estate heir Steve Bing financed “Last Man Standing,” a 2006 release that paired Lewis with such rock stars as Bruce Springsteen, Mick Jagger, John Fogerty, Keith Richards and Jimmy Page. It was Lewis’ second outing together with his rock disciples, following his London-recorded “Sessions” album from 1973.

In 2017, Lewis performed earlier than hundreds at “Stagecoach” in Coachella Valley and, in a much more intimate setting, on the Theatre on the Ace Resort in Los Angeles. Wearing a gold go well with, he spun via his classics, gingerly tipped over his piano bench after the finale and grabbed a gold cane earlier than shuffling off stage.

Whereas rock was a music and tradition he had formed profoundly, Lewis usually spoke about turning to the ministry and singing solely gospel songs — perpetually torn between the sacred and the profane.

“You can’t straddle the fence,” he mentioned in a 1981 interview with The Instances. “The way I believe it is you’ve got to be on one side or the other. You can’t serve two gods. Satan is pretty strong, though…. You’ve got to rock or you’ve got to preach. You can’t do them both.”

Lewis is survived by his spouse, Judith Coghlan Lewis, his kids Jerry Lee Lewis III, Ronnie Lewis, Pheobe Lewis and Lori Lancaster, sister Linda Gail Lewis, cousin Jimmy Swaggart and lots of grandchildren, nieces and nephews.

Cromelin is a former Instances music critic.